MAKING LULU CRY

May 29, 2017

One day I realized that my body had been consumed by pain. I don’t know what I did to it that caused so much destruction other than being a blue collar worker. It’s funny. Someone once told me that my body was coming to pieces because I was a hick and low class and that low class people always thought their bodies were coming apart which tended to make their bodies fall apart in reality. I guess I believed it. With the exception of the me being a hick part. But it didn’t matter. All that mattered was my roiling bones and muscles. I couldn’t take any drugs to relieve the pain because I was against drugs and I couldn’t go to a chiropractor or take yoga because it required succumbing to errant ideologies. So, for some time, I just sat there after work boiling in misery. But then one day I realized that I was really dying of pain and I decided to do something about it. I decided to buy some stuff. I went onto craigslist and started looking for stuff to buy. I know it sounds ridiculous but I knew for a fact that buying stuff really could make you feel better. At least temporarily. Very much like drugs which I was, as I mentioned, against. The first ad that caught my eye went like this, “Bunny for sale. Doesn’t bite. Not house trained.” I immediately thought that if I bought that bunny it would help fix up my life. Imagine, bunny that doesn’t even bite! Well I called the number but the only person I could seem to talk to was a young girl who claimed to be the person selling the bunny. I really didn’t think it was right to deal with children because it was so easy to rip them off and I never knew whether they had the legal right to sell something with free and clear title. I didn’t want to buy a bunny who might turn out to not really be mine. But this little girl was insistent. She seemed to think the bunny would be perfect for me. Well, she gave me her address and I immediately drove out to the place which was like a mini farm of some sort on the outskirts of town. A mini farm! In my mind mini farms were excuses to throw stuff out in your yard and not be called a pig. There were a couple broken cars out on the lawn, a couple bathtubs with dead plants in them, a thing that looked like a tipped over oil rig, many cars, and about 3000 pieces of large confetti. These people were very near my saying, “if your cars weigh more than your house then you’re a hillbilly.” One of my very own inventions for identifying unwholesome groups. This place was not very farm like in my opinion. If I had to say right off the bat I would say that hicks lived there. Looking at the ground from my car window I saw that the confetti was actually lottery tickets. When I got out of the car this little girl came running out of the house and waved a piece of paper at me.
“Are you the person to buy the bunny?” She asked.
“Well, I’m here to look at it at least.”
“Oh, you’ll buy it mister.”
“Well, we’ll see. Where is it?”
“It’s at my mom’s house.”
“Whose house is this?”
“This is my uncle Buck’s house.”
“Well why did you tell me to come here if the bunny isn’t here?”
“Because I’m here. You have to drive me over to my mom’s.”
“Well where’s that?”
“In Covington.”
“Covington!”
“Yes.”
“That’s 75 miles from here!”
“That’s not far. We drove to Ohio once.”
“Are you nuts? Do you think I’m going to drive that far just to look at a bunny?”
“You’re not just going to look at a bunny. You’re going to buy a bunny.” She said, “It really will be the best bunny you ever saw. It won’t bite you even if you step on it by mistake and it can play games.”
I wasn’t about to drive to Covington to look at a bunny but as I turned to go I felt the muscles in my back pulling like claws against my nerves and I just thought, “What the hell? I have nothing else to do but suffer.” So I told the girl to make sure it was ok for me to drive her to Covington and she ran into the house and ran right back out again screaming, “It’s OK!” I didn’t think she’d asked anyone whether or not it was OK but I figured what the hell. They’re hicks anyway and give their kids away to each other like puppies. At least that’s the way I saw it. I had a very low opinion of hill folk. City folk too for that matter. I really just didn’t like people who were different from me in general. I used to like them but then all my friends convinced me not to like them because they were so obsessed with liking them. I guess I didn’t really dislike hicks and city folk, but I tried to.
So this girl gets into my car and immediately turns on the radio to the worst channel in the county.
“I’m not listening to that.” I said.
“Why not?” She asked.
“Because they play the same three bands over and over again. Van Halen, Journey, and Rush. No other bands on there. Unbearable.”
“It’s uncle Buck’s favorite channel. He calls in and talks to the DJs all the time.”
“Figures. Since I’m driving I’m picking the channel and my favorite channel is silence.”
“Why don’t you like the radio?”
“I do like the radio. It’s a great invention. I just don’t like listening to crappy music.”
“What do you listen to?”
“Nothing.”
“Well that’s no fun.”
“No, it is fun. It’s fun to be quiet.”
“I don’t like quiet.”
“Well you’re a child and children like noise and bright colors. You’re like primitive tribes.”
“Can’t you drive faster?”
“No.”
“Can we stop at McDonalds?”
“No.”
“Do you have a wife?”
“No.”
“Do you have pets?”
“No.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“We’ve gone like 900 feet and you already have to go to the bathroom?”
“I drank two cokes at once.”
“Jesus. Well you’re going to have to wait until I get to a gas station. I’m not turning around.”
We traveled along for awhile with me not thinking about much and the little girl prattling on about this and that. She told me that her name was Lulu Calhoun and she was born at the exact same time, to the nearest minute, as Jesus, only 2107 years later. I told her that that was unlikely and she told me that it was absolutely true and that her grandpa had “a stopwatch on her.” I really wanted to say, “What a load of shit.” but since she was a kid I just said. “Unlikely.” She said that she got lots of presents because of her birthday and Christmas being on the same day and I wanted to tell her that for complicated reasons having to do with psychology and economics she probably got less presents (net) than she would have if her birthday and Christmas were on different days but I thought it would open a complicated door. After we’d gone about twenty miles we entered the town of Fishersville which really wasn’t at town at all and I found a gas station. Lulu got out to find a bathroom and I went into the station with no other intention than to stretch my legs. The station was run by one of those foreign families who smile a lot and hope you don’t say anything that might require them to speak English. I’ll tell you something. Pain does strange things to your mind. Sometimes, when it gives you a jolt, it makes you want to inflict misery on innocent others. It’s like you want to share the pain. My back felt like some one was grilling shards of glass on it. It made me smile at these folks and say, “Did you know that Virginia Woolf wasn’t really a wolf?” They shrugged, smiled, shook their heads, bowed their heads, shuffled their feet, and then went back to staring into space. I bought a Slim Jim and walked out to find Lulu with her entire arm sticking up into a coke machine so that it almost looked like the machine was trying to eat her.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Uncle Buck said that my arm is finally just the right size to get free cokes.”
“Free and stealing are not the same thing. Get your arm out of there.”
“It’s stuck.”
“Oh God.” I said.
I went in to get the smiling people and brought them out to the coke machine. They looked at the girl and then the machine and then me.
“Arm stuck.” I said. “Little girl bad. Arm stuck.”
Lulu made a mean face and then her arm popped out. She said she just had to let go of the coke to get her hand out.
One of the foreigners said, with a crystal clear unadulterated midwestern inflection, “Your child is not very well behaved.”
Well what could I think of that?
We got back in the car and headed down the highway in a westerly direction. We drove for a few miles in silence and then Lulu told me that an unusual number of birds were crashing into windows around the country. I didn’t have anything to say about that. But then she told me that the reason they were crashing into windows was because they were all watching television through people’s windows and it made them so stupid that they tried to fly through pure glass. I asked her where she ever heard of such a thing. “Uncle Buck.” She said.
“Well your uncle Buck may be nuts.” I said.
“He’s smarter than you.”
“I doubt it.”
“He has over a million dollars in just change.”
“Hmm… that would be a lot of metal.” I said. Maybe it said something about my personality and maybe not, but this was just the kind of thing that I liked to think about. How big would a million dollars worth of change be? I immediately started thinking about the difference it would make with regard to what kind of coin you had. All nickels verses all dimes for instance. I was drifting further into this pleasant line of thought when Lulu told me that her uncle Buck paid her a penny for every breath she took.
“You’re quite a story teller.” I said.
“I’m not telling a story. He gives me a penny for every breath I take. All I have to do is count them all day long and tell him how many at the end of the day.”
“So, how much do you get a day?” I asked.
Usually nothing because he always thinks I haven’t really counted all day long.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe he’s not so nuts.”
“You know, he’s a doctor.” She said.
“A doctor! What, like a doctor of lawn mower engines?”
“No he’s real doctor. He used to do operations on people.”
“Uh huh.” I said.
“He really was famous for his operations. He transplanted feet from animals.”
“Wow.” I said. I was squinting through the windshield and noticed the sky beginning to turn dark in the west. I checked to see if my windshield wipers worked and they didn’t.
“You know.” She said, “If we were in a crash right now uncle Buck could sew us together faster than any doctor around here.”
“Uh huh.” I said.
“If you went through the window and had your head chopped off he could sew it back on.”
I wasn’t really too interested in uncle Buck because the storm in front of us seemed to be somewhat ominous and I was thinking about the fact that my car leaked like a wooden boat kicked full of holes during a rain. I was thinking that it looked like more than the usual afternoon thunderstorm. I said, “But could he sew a button onto a shirt?”
This seemed to make Lulu pretty angry, and I was surprised that she got the comment, but she did and she went off like a little time bomb chirping about how great her uncle Buck was. He could fix a car, a person, a cat, or an Osterizer. He could read a whole book in a day, jump over a trailer, catch a squirrel with his bare hands, drink a case of beer in an hour, and paint pictures of naked women without looking at naked women. When she was done I could only shake my head and say that he must be some amazing person. Then she said that she planned to marry him when she was older. I shouldn’t have said anything about that, first, because she was a child and second because I didn’t care, but my low opinion of hicks made me incapable of keeping to myself about this delicate issue. So I said, “You’re going to marry the brother of one of your parents?”
“Well, I told him I’d marry him when I was old enough.”
“I’ll bet he loved that.”
“I don’t think he believes I’ll wait.”
“That you’ll wait?”
“I’m really popular in school.”
“I guess you’re pretty modest too.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“It means you don’t like to brag about yourself.”
“No, I don’t mind.”
I wanted to say I was being ironic but what was the use? I was one of those people who just could not believe there were people who didn’t get irony. I would honestly expect a pink baby to get irony and would, quite frankly, shake my head if it didn’t. Some large raindrops started smacking into the windshield. Because the windshield wipers weren’t working I told Lulu that we were going to have to get off in Staunton and wait for the storm to pass. We pulled off and drove for a few minutes past car parts joints and crappy food places. We arrived downtown just as the storm was about to rip lose and since we parked in front of the Pompeii Lounge I told Lulu that I would take her up for a coke while thinking to myself, “And I can have a little nip,” which was the phrase I liked to use for having a couple shots of whiskey. We went into the front door of a restaurant on the street level where a man was standing behind a podium. The Pompeii Lounge was three floors up and you had to get past this man and get to the stairs in order to go up there. He was sort of like a host and a guard although I can’t imagine trying to keep anyone out of the Pompeii Lounge. He asked me what he could do for me and I told him we wanted to go up to the Lounge. He looked down at Lulu and then said into a microphone, which was on the podium, that two people would be coming up to the lounge. “A man and a child.” He said. Sometimes I thought that there might be something special on the second floor that they didn’t want anyone to see and so they announced you thus allowing the people in the Lounge to account for you in a certain amount of time. Maybe if you didn’t arrive on the third floor within about two minutes they would send someone out to search for you. But walking past the second floor there were just a couple of closed doors and I didn’t feel like looking into them as much as I felt like drinking whiskey. I experienced at tinge of guilt about drinking, knowing that I was going to be driving with a kid in the car but, again, my bad attitude towards hillbillies just made me think of Lulu as sort of a pet more than a human being. I was really bad about things like that. I was one of those people who, though not religious, would often tell myself, calmly and with gravity, “You’re probably going to hell,” and I wasn’t kidding. It didn’t really affect my behavior though. In the Pompeii Lounge it was kind of quiet since it was still afternoon. Behind the bar was a tattooed woman of about 35 who didn’t even look up at us such was her interest in her phone. At the bar was an old man staring at his hands and a hipster dude who was drawing on a napkin. There were two college girls from Mary Baldwin sitting at a table by a glass door which led to a small outside courtyard in the center of the building. You could always tell a Mary Baldwin student because they looked unwanted and frumpy. I’m not saying that in a mean way. I can’t stand the thought of implying that some girl is undesirable. I’m even particularly nice to frumpy girls because it’s one of my soft spots. Having said that I’ll tell you one of my favorite sayings about the Mary Baldwin girls. Supposedly, the local high school boys would say this: “The odds are good but the goods are odd.” I guess the fact that the local high school boys felt worthy of pursuing these college girls also says something. I know it’s not a very nice saying but I like it anyway. I guess a good phrase trumps my better nature. I smiled at the two MB girls and they smiled back. I went to sit at a table near the girls but Lulu wanted to sit at the bar and I had this idea that I wanted to keep her as quiet as possible so I acquiesced and we sat at the bar near a window that was open to the courtyard. It had started raining and there was thunder bombing away over the town. I wondered if the courtyard could fill up with water and make the building collapse. I made a mental note to think about that later since it fell in line with my kind of pleasant thought like the million dollars in coins question. I got the attention of the bar keeper and ordered a coke and a shot of whiskey. The bartender asked me if I had an ID and I gave her a look because there was no way I looked under 30 and then to show me she was kidding she asked Lulu if she had an ID to which Lulu answered, “I can’t even drive.” Once we had our drinks I held my glass up to Lulu’s coke and said, “Here’s mud your eye.” to which Lulu responded, “Fuck it.” which made me inhale my first swig of whiskey and forced me to cough until my eyes were watering and all of the bar patrons were looking at me. “Lulu!” I said, “You can’t say that! Why did you say that?” The bartender was standing there with her arms crossed, looking at us with obvious disapproval as Lulu said, “That’s what uncle Buck says when he drinks.” I really didn’t know what to think about that so I just said, “Well we’re not uncle Buck.” and shook my head at the bartender. Nothing got my goat so much as having someone like that bar maid with her atrocious tattoos looking down on me like I was some double wide trailer trash. And that sure was what she was doing after Lulu’s toast. I wanted to say something like, “I’m really not a hick and this kid isn’t mine and I don’t even know her or her kind…” But just thinking about saying it made me tired and made me wonder about my own situation in a way I didn’t want to. I sat staring into space for a few minutes thinking about how the courtyard could be a swimming pool with the proper sealant. Then I thought about the fact that despite being saddled with Lulu and the pain which registered in my body through numerous means, I felt pretty good. With the rain pelting the canvas awning out in the courtyard, the cozy quiet approximation of the other patrons, and the warm amber whiskey spreading inside my body like a soft feathery fire, I could imagine the possibility of no pain and no trouble. Normally I would never think of such a thing. Normally, I thought about pain and trouble because I felt they surrounded me and had to be acknowledged. Sometimes I thought that there was something wrong with me because of the things I thought in my spare time. I looked down at Lulu and watched as she blew bubbles through her coke with her straw. I tried to remember what it was like to do that but I couldn’t. How great it would be to be a kid with no worries in the world! I couldn’t believe how fast my life had gone by and how much things had changed. I felt profoundly disconnected from contemporary culture and it seemed like the people I met were foreign things in which I had no interest. I broke up with my last girlfriend because of sheer boredom. I simply could not be interested in the things she was interested in no matter how hard I tried. She finally realized that I only drank alcohol in abundance when I was around her and when she confronted me with that observation I couldn’t help myself and told her that she bored me to death. It was very unpleasant because it was such a simple and unmalleable truth that there was nowhere to go with it except down. It was horrible to be in love with someone you couldn’t bear to be around. And I could extrapolate part of that notion to society in general. It really bored me to death to have to listen to people repeating the tidbits they’d learned on TV or seen on Facebook. It felt to me like people scoured every nook and cranny of the earth for the most boring ideas they could find. There’s nothing worse than being in a conversation where you know everything that’s going to be said before it is said. But that’s the way people were to me. It made for a very empty world. Looking at Lulu I couldn’t help but to feel a little sorry thinking what was in store for her. I mean, how horrible would society be by the time she was an adult? I didn’t even like to think about it. And then I thought, “Maybe it was I who have changed. Maybe I skidded off the rails a long time ago and didn’t even notice.” I just didn’t know.

Lulu and I left as the rain began to let up. Back in the car I sat for a moment thinking about the broken windshield wipers and my life. Lulu asked me what was wrong. “Nothing.” I said.
“Then why aren’t we going?”
“We are.” I said as I put the car in gear and started rolling. I drove the long way out of Staunton and got on some country road that I knew headed south towards Covington. I really didn’t like to be on 81 with its perpetual tractor trailer crashes and ten mile back ups. I would rather drive an extra hundred miles than be stuck in a ten minute traffic jamb. Plus being a little tipsy made me want to avoid traffic. Lulu said she always like to go the back way no matter what and then she said it looked pretty outside and I agreed. The clouds were very defined and blowing by like dark grey steam while the sun tried to burn through various holes. It was really an amazing post storm sky. We went over a rise that revealed a spectacular view of some valley and Lulu asked if we could stop and get out to look at it. I was somewhat surprised that a kid like Lulu would want to look at the sky but I guess it goes to show you never know what someone keeps in their brain pod. While we were standing there looking at the exhausted remnants of the storm I asked her what her mom did in Covington.
“She makes tons of money selling stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Spices and herbs and stuff like that.”
“Hmm…”
I could imagine those spices and herbs being laced with crystal meth or cocaine but I didn’t want to pursue the subject. We got back in the car and drove on quietly for awhile. Lulu pulled a phone out of her pocket and started fiddling with it.
“So you have a cell phone already.” I said.
“It doesn’t work with anything. I can just look at pictures on it. My mom and uncle Buck won’t let me on the internet.”
“Well that’s probably not a bad idea.”
“No it is a bad idea. Do you have a phone?”
“Yes.”
“Can I look at it?”
I really didn’t want her messing with my relatively new iPhone but I kind of felt sorry for her having a neutered cell phone so I pulled mine out of my pocket and handed it to her. Within ten seconds I heard the voice of some girl I hadn’t talked to in two years. She was saying, “Roland, Roland, is that you? Roland, are you there?” I couldn’t believe my ears! Lulu had somehow called the last person on earth I would want to talk to. It was Connie Spinner and she was the highest ranking on my ranking of psychotic ex girlfriends. She once called the cops on me for running over a bird. It was a crow or something eating a dead animal in the road and it flew right under my tire when it tried to get away. Believe me, I wouldn’t run over any animal if I could help it but I had no idea how I was supposed to dodge a bird. She called the cops on me right then and there and told them I was heading south on 51. She was mad at me for not liking the food at some crazy Mongolian restaurant she had insisted we try. The food was so horrible I had to choke it down while holding my nose and it made her furious. Now there she was bleating through my cell phone just like the insane harpy she always was. I had no idea what to do. I would rather talk to a vacuum salesman than her. I wanted to hold my finger up to my lips to indicate to Lulu that she shouldn’t say anything but before I could do it she spoke:
“And who is this?” she asked into the phone.
“Who is this? Who is this?” I heard coming out of the phone. “Is this Roland Lynne?”
Hearing that voice chilled my blood and made me feel faint. I wondered if I should crash on purpose right then.
“Who is this?” came out of the phone again. Connie Spinner would not stop now. She would hound that phone until the cows came home.
Lulu said, “This is Roland’s new wife! What do you want?”
“Roland’s new wife! What do you mean what do I want? Who are you? What are you doing?”
Lulu said, “He dumped you for me and I’m only 11.”
“Is this an obscene phone call? Do I need to call the police on you Roland Lynne?” said Connie.
“He kissed me over a thousand times.” said Lulu in a louder voice.
“I can have the police trace this phone and come get you!” Shouted Connie Spinner.
“We’ve already had two babies and they’re cute as can be!” Shouted Lulu.
At that point my nerves unlocked and I grabbed the phone from Lulu. Connie Spinner was panting into the phone with her furious breath and I could imagine the red blotches on her face and the throbbing vein on her forehead. I pressed the button that hung up and put the phone back in my pocket.
“Lulu! Why did you do that? No wonder you’re not allowed a live phone! Holy crap!”
Lulu made the same mean face she made when she had her hand up in the coke machine.
What a child! What was I doing? Suddenly the thought of going the rest of the way to Covington didn’t seem like the right thing to do. But my pain erupted like lightening in my back telling me, “Go go go… do anything but don’t stop here.” so I kept going. I found myself wanting to imagine that I was on a Homeric trip of some sort in order to justify something but I couldn’t do it. Lulu asked me who that lady on the phone was. Good God. Where to start? I simply told her that Connie Spinner was a crazy woman whom I went out with sometime ago. Then I found myself telling Lulu the real story, thinking that it might be comforting telling it to someone who couldn’t possibly fault me for anything likely to arise with regard to adult relationships. I put it this way: “I was going to a liquor store quite often back then and I would only buy those tiny one shot bottles of whiskey because I didn’t trust myself to stop drinking after a couple of shots. One day the lady at the register asked me why I didn’t just buy big bottles of booze and save a million dollars a year.”
“You spent a million dollars a year on booze?” asked Lulu.
“No. That’s just the way she asked it. Anyway, instead of telling the truth I just said that my girlfriend was a drunkard and that I couldn’t have any alcohol in the house or else she would drink it all non-stop. Actually, Connie Spinner didn’t drink at all and disapproved of my drinking.”
“Well why did you say that?” Asked Lulu.
“Because I didn’t feel like making up some long story about how I couldn’t trust myself with big bottles of booze. I really would have had to make up all sorts of complicated things and I just didn’t feel like it.”
“I woulda kicked your ass for being a liar.” Said Lulu.
“Lulu! Don’t talk like that! Anyway, one day, without thinking about it, I brought Connie Spinner into the liquor store with me to buy some egg-nog mix for a Christmas party we were going to.”
“And you got caught!” Said Lulu.
“Stop interrupting me. But yes, I got caught. The girl at the register was a real concerned citizen type who couldn’t mind her own business and when I got to the register with Connie she asked me if this was the girlfriend who couldn’t handle the alcohol. It was a terrible scene and then soon afterwards I ran over a bird and Connie called the cops on me,…and.”
Lulu was looking at me with her big eyes and I stopped telling the story. It wasn’t bringing me any sort of relief to tell it. What was the point anyway? Suddenly, I really didn’t want to think about anything except for the road in front of me. But Lulu wanted to know more things about Connie Spinner.
“Yes, she was very pretty.” I told her. And she was.
“So why didn’t you marry her?” asked Lulu.
“Because we couldn’t stand each other.”
“Well, why was she your girlfriend then?”
There was just no way to explain it so I said, “I just liked the way she looked.” And that was the sad truth I suppose. Lulu shook her head and said, “Poor Connie Spinner.”
Well, what could she know? The sun was going down and there was another strip of black ink rolling over the western horizon as we rode up and down the hills of the Shenandoah Valley. We drove in silence for awhile and then Lulu announced that she was hungry. I was hungry too and so I told her that we would be able to eat at the Edelweiss restaurant which was about ten miles away.
“What kind of food do they have?” asked Lulu.
“German food.” I replied.
“What’s German food?”
“It’s food like they would eat in Germany.”
“What kind of food do they eat in Germany?”
“The kind of food Germans eat.”
I don’t know why I did this to Lulu. I could go on in one of these circular question-answer sessions for ever. Probably for the same reason that I liked watching trains go by. I liked simple things that let my brain coast. On the other hand I was driving a child to Covington to buy a bunny. What could come of that? Nothing simple.
“What kind of food do Germans eat?”
“German food.”
I guess I also liked to speculate on the way a child’s brain worked. To me they were like little experiments. They made me think about the development of the human mind in general and sometimes I would think that I should have been a researcher so that I could spend all my time studying the human brain. But I was far too lazy to apply myself to anything like that. I told Lulu that German food was things like wiener schnitzel and sauerkraut. She said she’d never heard of any of those things and asked what it tasted like. I told her that everything tasted like a chicken or a snake and that every food known to mankind tasted like a chicken or a snake if you took away the spices. Again, I don’t know why I was telling Lulu this. Maybe it was from being hungry myself. I think it made me annoying on several levels. Before we got the the Edelweiss restaurant we passed a truck stop that was next to 81. It was a major truck stop lit up with gaudy signs and full of chugging diesels sitting around, their darkened windows hiding who knows what kind of illicit activity. I really didn’t like truck stops even though I’d hung around worse places for many years. I preferred the railroad tracks. They were less prurient but still dirty and dangerous.
“That’s where I was born.” Said Lulu.
“You were born at that truck stop?”
“Well I was born at a some truck stop.”
“So you’re just a little country western song aren’t you? Born at the same time as Jesus at a truck stop.”
For some reason this made Lulu burst out crying.
“Hey, hey, what’s the matter? There’s nothing wrong with that! It’s romantic!” I said. But she kept crying and I could feel my heart melting. I maybe had never before been around a crying little girl. I don’t know but I hadn’t felt something like what I was feeling for a long time. And then suddenly I realized that the pain in my back was completely gone. I sort of twisted around in my seat to see if it was real and it was. I said, “Lulu, I think my back is fixed!”
“What?” She snuffled.
“My back isn’t killing me anymore!”
She whimpered and folded her arms in front of her like she’d just made up her mind about something. I was torn between being concerned for her and trying to absorb the fact that my back was not hurting for the first time in several years. It was like I’d just been taken off the rack or let out of jail. I felt very light and happy. Lulu dried the her eyes with the front of her tee shirt and I looked at her a couple of times trying to decide what was wrong.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“I’m ok.” She replied. And then I started feeling my back coming to me via the pain. It was like the old familiar clamp tightening up and saying, “hello, it’s me!” The first thing I thought was that somehow, feeling sorry for Lulu made the pain in my back go away. I mean, something was definitely happening there. What a strange thing. Then I had this really horrible thought. What if I could only have pain relief by making Lulu cry? I was trying to remember the feeling of no pain in my back. It was so luxurious. I wanted to make Lulu cry again but it seemed like it would be a horrible thing to do no matter how I did it. I wondered if there was a humane way to make Lulu cry. I thought about onions or pinching her nose for a second. But I could feel that she would need to be crying from sadness or anger or something emotional. Who could consciously elicit that response from a child? I couldn’t imagine it. Well, I could imagine it. I just couldn’t do it. We pulled into the Edelweiss restaurant and I parked. The place appeared to be closed but since it was a German restaurant I thought maybe they were being thrifty with the electricity.
“Well they’re closed.” Said Lulu.
“Maybe.” I said.
“What? They’re closed.”
I got out and went up to the door where I saw the tiniest closed sign in the world. I guess they didn’t want to waste paper either.
“Closed aren’t they.” Said Lulu.
“We’ll have to find somewhere else.” I replied.
“We could eat at the truck stop.”
“I don’t like the idea of taking you in there. Some trucker might take you and sell you in Mexico or something.” I said. Really, I’d eaten there before and the food was revolting.
“No one’s going to kidnap me!”
“Well the food’s also kind of bad.”
“I’m starving!”
“We’ll find something in Greenville.”
“Where’s that?”
“A couple miles up the road.”
We drove a few miles and came into Greenville. The sun was down but it was still slightly light in the west and another storm was rumbling in the mountains. Greenville did not look too appealing. It was one of those little towns that was known for nothing at all. Many years ago I’d been in the town of Greenville. I was on the way back to my ship which was in Norfolk after a two week leave. As usual, my car, an MG Midget, was running very badly and I stopped at this little store where, in the parking lot, I adjusted the points and the rotor to try to make it run better. It was snowing and night time. I pulled out of the parking lot onto the road and my engine conked out. I got out of the car and started pulling it backwards, which was easy to do since it was the size of a go kart, and I remember suddenly seeming light on my shoulder which indicated a car coming up behind me. I jumped out of the way just in time and the car, a van actually, crashed in to my MG Midget. It was totaled. The van had a dent the size of a nickel on it’s bumper and when the police came they told me I should just forget about it and move on. I had some very nice tools in the car which included a beautiful transit level given to me by my grandpa. I brought all the tools into the little store and told them that I had to get back to my ship and asked them if they could keep the tools for me until I returned from a Mediterranean tour which would be about six months. They said sure. Well I never saw the tools again or my MG Midget. I probably could have gone back and maybe the tools would have been there but I just didn’t do it. Sometimes when I drive through Greenville I wonder if my tools are in someone’s garage nearby. Sometimes I want to put up a sign that says, “Tools lost at this little store thirty years ago. Do you know where they are? Call Roland.” That was the kind of absurd thinking I would do while driving through Greenville. Now, all these years later, on one corner were three log cabins which were being renovated by hippies. They’d been working on them for about ten years and they always looked the same with two broken Volvo station wagons in the yard, the same windows knocked out, the same hammock filled with empty flower pots, and so on. There was a hardware store that was never open and an antique shop run by the hippies which had nothing to sell except buckets full of skeleton keys and about a ton of old burlap sacks. There was a restaurant called Jimbos which was where I was thinking we might get something but when I turned down the little drive where it used to be there was now a restaurant called Mitch’s Pig Hole.
“Let’s eat there!” Exclaimed Lulu.
“Are you kidding? There’s no way I’m eating in a place called Mitch’s Pig Hole.”
“Please.”
“Forget it.”
“Come on. I’m starving!”
“No.”
Lulu folded her arms over her chest and pouted. She wasn’t crying but she looked like she might begin at any moment. And sure enough, as I appreciated Lulu’s displeasure there was a slight relief in my back pain, like some weighted barbs were being lifted. There was soreness but the knife was no longer there. It was so horrible but I felt this desire to tip Lulu towards crying by saying or doing something mean. But I couldn’t do it. Just seeing her lips turned down nearly killed me and so I said “Ok, we’ll try Mitch’s Pig Hole.” and parked the car. She immediately revived and my back split in two with pain. “What a thing!” I thought as I clinched the steering wheel with all my strength and felt little beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I noticed the pain was quite different after a moment of relief. Oh did it hurt!
The parking lot of Mitch’s Pig Hole was filled with pickup trucks and motorcycles. I wasn’t worried about bringing Lulu in there because I figured her family was probably made of the same people who were in the restaurant. I also wasn’t worried about getting into a fight with rednecks since I always imagined a good fight as possibly doing something chiropractic to my back. Pain will make you look far and wide for relief. I was worried, however, about eating gross food. I used to try various unheard of restaurants but finally came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth it because the food was almost always atrocious. At first I thought that we lucked out because it seemed like the front door was locked but it was just hung poorly and opened when Lulu kicked it. “What a girl.” I thought, “They’ll probably hire her as a waitress.”
The place was dim inside. The walls were entirely covered with animal heads from about above six feet to the ceiling and below that were all sorts of weapons bolted to wainscot. So it was to be a hunting motif. There was some dreadful country western music playing, that sort of country music that was more like rock with extra pitiful lyrics and which was nearly unbearable to hear. Give me some Merle Haggard or Patsy Kline but not that stuff. Lulu immediately skipped out a little dance at the sound of the music and I cringed as I thought of her 11 year old brain already being infected with low class, not so fine, art. The patrons appeared to be what you would expect, gruff men and women in various states of stupefaction slumped over their beers and ashtrays, food spattered on their faces and dimness in their eyes. A number of eyes aimed at Lulu and me as we walked to a table up against the wall. We sat down under a wild boar. Someone had put a crumpled pack of Marlboros in its mouth and there were initials carved in one of its tusks. I was impressed. Lulu looked around like she was right at home and I tried to imitate her. There were a couple of guys at the bar who had the look of real violence about them and they were staring at us. There were just certain guys who I could feel were cut out for fighting. Who enjoyed fighting like someone else might enjoy a massage. These guys were that type. Thinking they were country boys when they were in fact just bipeds, one or two notches up from monkeys. I couldn’t tolerate people like that even though I totally understood them. They really were animals disguised as humans, able to pose as humans for all practical purposes, but never really part of the human tribe with its social checks and balances. I stared back at them with a neutral face while hoping that they would forget us and resume talking about killing things or whatever they talked about. I refused to be afraid but I knew either one of those guys could break me in half so I really didn’t want them to be perturbed. I was looking right into the eyes of the fattest of the two when suddenly a white spot appeared on his forehead. His face turned very red as he reached up to the front of his sloped head. I turned to see Lulu holding a plastic fork and chewing straw wrapper when I realized what had happened.
“Lulu! What are you doing!”
“I was aiming at you!”
“Good God Lulu! You sure did miss!”
I thought the guy would come over an kill us but he and his friend just burst out laughing and resumed drinking their beers. I thought, “We’ve been in this place for less than 30 seconds and Lulu has already brushed me against death. What a child!” I was also annoyed that my judgement of other human beings was so profoundly wrong so often. I almost would have rather those guys had come over and killed me just to show that I’d pegged them right.
Lulu was now looking at a menu and smacking her lips. I picked one up and took at look. It looked like normal red neck fare, greasy, salty, and deadly. A waitress came at our table from behind me and leaned her hips to the table in what I would have to call a provocative manner. “What can I get you two little chick peas?” She asked.
“I’ll take the Hog Heaven Slow Delight and a large Coke.” Said Lulu.
“Do you have hamburgers?” I asked.
“We have the Triple Decker Piggy Paddy Delight.”
“Ok.” I said, “That and a Bud I guess.”
“Delightful.” Said Lulu.
The waitress walked away.
“Everything on the menu is delightful.” Said Lulu in a sing song manner.
“Yes I’m sure it is.” I replied.
“What a revolting place.” I thought. And then I thought about how it seemed to me that everything I experienced in the contemporary world was somehow revolting. Like every little experience brought an uncomfortable feeling with it. Did the pain somehow change my entire world view? It really did seem that this negative phenomenon began with the onset of my body going bad. I mean obviously Lulu liked this place and the red necks liked this place. I wanted to think that they were all really just children with children’s taste and that the entire world was turning on childish cultural bearings but it didn’t make sense to me. Why would it bother me? I thought I liked the way children thought. Straight to the point without the sophistry. Was Mitch’s Pig Hole to the point? Maybe it was. Really, the origins of our food were hanging all over the walls. The tools of our trade were too. People were eating and smelling funny and drinking. They were laughing and vibrating in their chairs with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. They were certainly enjoying their surroundings. They didn’t see gaudiness or grossness. Why did I? Was it because I found myself in these places so often? Was it possible that I was precisely what I had such a low opinion of? Was I this?
“…and call someone else on your phone,”
“What?” I asked. Lulu had been talking but I hadn’t heard her.
“We should call someone else on your phone.”
“Oh yeah. That was fun. Maybe you could call all of my old girlfriends and have a talk with them.”
“How many girlfriends did you have?”
“About five hundred.”
“Really!”
“No.”
“Who’s your girlfriend now?”
“No one. And that’s the way I like it.”
And it was true. One of my favorite lines of all times was, “If you’ve had one girl, you’ve had them all.” I swear that was my experience. I couldn’t tell the difference between any of them so what was the point in chasing girls? My only regret is how long it took me to figure it out. I’m not implying that men are any better in any way. I’m sure they too lose their luster. But I wasn’t going to tell any of this to Lulu, even though I had a strange compulsion to do so.
“You should always have a girlfriend no matter what.” Said Lulu.
“No, I shouldn’t.”
“You might need someone to bring you beer in bed if you’re sick or to come get you out of jail.”
“That’s just depressing Lulu.”
“What’s depressing about it?”
“Nothing.” I looked around at the place and tried to figure out why I was there and then I said, “We should call your mom and tell her we’re on our way.” It had occurred to me that I should act like an adult for a moment. “You did get permission to go with me didn’t you?”
She looked down at the table and I knew that she hadn’t. But why was I even asking? I knew she hadn’t asked from the second she came running out of the house.
“Lulu,” I said, “I hope this isn’t going to cause trouble. I don’t want us to get in trouble with your folks. I should have checked with your mom or dad before I took you. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“You won’t get in trouble. As long as uncle Buck doesn’t find out.”
“Well now what makes you think he’s not going to find out? And how do you think we’re going to go to your mom’s house and look at a rabbit without her noticing? I must have been nuts! You don’t think he’s going to notice that you’re gone? And what about your dad? Where’s he?” I didn’t know why I asked that all of the sudden but I did.
“My dad got killed.”
“Oh I’m sorry Lulu.”
“He got squashed by a tractor.”
I couldn’t help smiling a little bit because I once met a dude on a job site who told me about how various relatives of his had died. Basically, everyone of them was crushed by a tractor which had rolled over onto them. Ever since then I imagined being squashed by a tractor as being a particularly country way to go. But I shouldn’t have smiled. Lulu once again started crying and everyone in the place turned to look at us.
“It’s not funny!” Sobbed Lulu.
“No. I know. I know. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” and I was. My back felt like it had been pumped full of morphine but seeing the tears in Lulu’s eyes was worse than the back pain.“Please don’t cry Lulu.” I said.
“My dad was a great tractor driver.”
I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing and Lulu could see right through me. She cried harder and my back felt like the back of an eight year old—perfect, supple, absolutely painless. But Lulu was breaking my heart. She got up and started running for the door which she slung open so hard that some feathers fell off a stuffed hawk above the exit. I went after her but when I got outside she was gone. The sky was dark and the storm which had been in the mountains was now coming down and rumbling in the valley. I suddenly was mortified that she would run off and be lost out in a storm. “Lulu! Where are you? Come back!” I shouted.
I looked around the edges of the parking lot and then happened to look at my car where I saw Lulu sitting in the front seat at the driver’s wheel. I ran over to the car and opened the door. 
“Lulu, I’m sorry.” I said. “I swear I didn’t mean to laugh. There was a reason for it but it wasn’t a good one. I’m really sorry. Come on. Let’s go get our food.” But she just sat there. I squatted down by the door and said, “What’s the matter honey? I truly am sorry.” And then I realized that I hadn’t squatted down like I was for a number of years. I just couldn’t do it because of my back. Some rain drops started popping on the parking lot so I stood up and pushed Lulu over then sat down whereupon my back started tearing away from the spine, or so it felt. The pain made me know that Lulu was feeling better so in a way I welcomed it even though every time it came back there seemed to be a new vengeance to it. I looked over at Lulu and saw that she was looking out the windshield at something. I looked up just in time to see a large black bird crash into the glass. It rolled off the hood and fell to the ground. “Jesus Christ.” I said.
“I told you.” Said Lulu.
I looked at Lulu again and wondered if she had some sort of magic powers even though I did not believe in such things. I’ve seen birds crash into windows before so I couldn’t think that it was such a big deal. But Lulu had mentioned it. And there was no doubt that her emotions had an effect on my back. I wondered about the pheromones and electrical signals that a living thing exuded. I believed there was a scientific reason for everything. But I was too lazy to think through those sorts of things. In my mind there was calculus and then there was magic. One was true, the other was easy. I should have been examining my emotional defects, like the one that allowed me to smile at Lulu’s revelation about her dad. I literally couldn’t help it but I had to ask myself, “How could you do such a thing!” I felt sick. I asked Lulu if she was all right and if she wanted to go back in and get our food. She said ok and we went back in.
Our meals were sitting at the table and we fell to eating them. I looked at Lulu and wondered about her. Despite her country ways, she was a very tidy eater. She didn’t spill a thing and I would have to describe her eating manners as oddly lady like. I, on the other hand, seemed to be dropping food left and right, and I imagined all sorts of stuff sticking to my face. This was just the kind of thing I imagined happening to me all the time. I was in Mitch’s Pig Hole, despising it for being so gross, and yet, despite my best efforts, I was eating like I belonged there. Lulu’s one eating fault was that she liked to play with her cokes. She really liked to blow bubbles through her straw. But I wasn’t about to complain about that. When we finished our food she leaned back in her seat, patted her stomach, and said, “A cigarette would be delicious right now.”
Her lady like eating habits were evidently terminated.
“Jesus. Don’t tell me you smoke already.”
“Sometimes.”
“Well, you really shouldn’t. It’ll stunt your growth.” I said that just for the hell of hearing it said. I think my grandpa used to tell me that and though I didn’t believe it I wanted to say it to Lulu. Sitting there I had the thought that ideas and sayings just sort of die out for no reason and it struck me as somewhat sad. I did not like to see things go away or change. But everything did just that. Looking at Lulu I realized that she hadn’t changed yet. She was a kid and I enjoyed her straight forward way of looking at things. She was someone that I could actually stand to be around. She said things that were interesting even if they were wrong or infected with hick notions. I wondered what would become of her.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked.
“I want to be a police detective.”
“Really? That’s interesting. Why do you want to do that?”
“So I can shoot people.”
“That’s nice.” I said. What a perfect example. How many people would be that honest?
So what if it was the wrong reason for wanting to be a cop. It was better than saying what everyone else would have said which would be something like, “I want to help people.” And as I thought about this it occurred to me that this very notion could be responsible for the ascendency of fake news. Maybe there are other profoundly bored people out there who are sick of stock answers about social issues. The new president wants to make poor people into fertilizer? Ok, I’m for it! Not because I’m really for it but because I want to torment the hippies who would be writing naughty words on the sidewalk and blocking traffic to show their righteous resistance. Was the nature of adult boring predictability a thin layer of imagination covered by tectonic plates of conformity? I was a grown up in the sense that I took care of business and more or less did the right things. But I could never understand the desire to conform and belong to the group, to constantly reiterate common knowledge and feel for dents in the seamless beliefs of large crowds. Yuk! I would take Lulu for an intellectual companion any day!
The waitress returned and asked if we wanted any dessert. Lulu wanted a piece of pie and I said ok since I was still feeling bad about her dad. I really wanted to know how long ago he died and to ask her questions about her family but I didn’t. When she finished her pie we got up and went to the cash register where our waitress was standing with her elbows on the counter looking down at something very intently. I looked down and saw that she was reading “The Broom of the System” by David Foster Wallace. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like finding a baby building a railroad trestle! I felt like God was trying to prove that I was wrong about every thought I had.
“Can we pay?” I asked in a friendly manner.
“Sure thing. How was that grub?” She asked.
“It was delightful!” Said Lulu.
“It was good.” I said “The beer was fresh.” I don’t know why I said that. I guess because the food, to me at least, was not that good. But I didn’t like telling people their food wasn’t good unless they were perpetually trying to get me to eat it, like, for instance, Connie Spinner used to do. Basically, I felt that if I never had to eat your food again as long as I lived then I wasn’t going to tell you that it was bad. But I didn’t want to tell a flat out lie either, hence, the beer was fresh comment. What a mess!

Out in the parking lot Lulu asked me if she could drive to which I replied no. We hadn’t known each other for two hours and yet I could see that she was beginning to manipulate me in subtle ways. I’m sure she knew that I felt bad about her tractor smashed dad. It’s funny, but I realized that you don’t have to be a parent to understand how a child’s mind works. I mean we were all children once and those simplistic methods of human push and pull are hard to forget. I found that it was hard to say no to Lulu but after the initial moment of feeling mean or bad you knew you’d done the right thing and wanted to keep adding up those things so as to make a good child. At least that’s the way I looked at it. We headed out of Greenville and cut back over to some dark roads in the county where we made for Covington. There were little spats of rain here and there but the storm seemed to be lingering at the edge of the valley and the mountains where the distant lightening cracked and lit the lush greenery into a violet relief. Lulu fell asleep for about half an hour and I just focused on the road. When she awoke we were about two miles out of Covington and I asked her where her mom’s house was. She said it was right down town on top of a building.
“So she lives in an apartment?”
“No she lives in a house.”
“On top of a building?”
“Yes. It’s a great view. You can see the river and the railroad yard and drop things on people who are walking on the sidewalk.”
“That doesn’t sound very nice.” I said. But another side of me thought, “That sounds nice.” and I realized that I missed tormenting people just for fun. I know that’s a strange thing to say but it is absolutely true. It seemed to me that people only picked on each other in professional forums but that in normal everyday life tormenting people was no longer practiced very much. It’s was like people had become so good and serious that they just couldn’t torment properly. I really missed tormenting people. It was a form of interaction that had deep roots in my opinion. But now people practiced ‘mindfulness,’ which, to me, meant ‘vapidness’ and I realized that the people I knew who were the most vocal advocates of such thought were also the most simple minded and boring. They were the people who did derivative art. The real artists were brutes and children who knew that picking on people was healthy and natural.
About a mile out of Covington we went past a cemetery which had a single feeble sodium light burning over two ornate metal gates.
“My grand pappy’s buried there.”
“What was his name?” I asked.
“Lepton.”
“Well that’s an interesting name. Did you know him?”
“Yes, I told you he timed me when I was born.”
“Oh, right.”
“Did he die recently?”
“When I was nine.”
“Well I guess he was a good grand pappy.” I said not knowing anything else to say.
“He invented steel wool.”
“Ah. Well.”
“He had a steel wool factory called Fuzzies. That’s what he called it when he invented it but then someone stole his idea and changed the name to steel wool.”
“Are you making up a story Lulu?”
“No, honest. He would have been so rich!”
“Well where’s his factory?” I asked even though I felt it was wrong to interrogate a kid. I didn’t mind Lulu making up stories but I just couldn’t let it go when I thought that she thought I was gullible.
“My mom lives on top of it.”
“Ah ha. Well I can’t wait to see it.”
Lulu sat up very straight in her seat and said, “Turn left here.”
I turned down what appeared to be a main street. The town was another place around the size of Staunton but with a more squalid atmosphere. It was another place I’d been to many years ago. It seemed that every one of these little towns in Western Virginia had been on my route somehow when I was serving in the Navy. Driving between Norfolk and Dayton I never seemed to be able to stick to the road but would instead wander off and explore. The thing I remembered about Covington was climbing a set of stairs that went up a small mountain in the middle of town. I climbed the stars while wearing long black coat and being on an unauthorized absence from the Navy. I wondered why some one would put a set of concrete stairs up such a tall hill. At the top of the hill there was nothing but the end of the stairs. It was the perfect metaphor for my life at that time. Always going and ending up nowhere. And then while creeping down this main street with a small girl in my car I remembered that the town with the steps to no-where was actually Clifton Forge, not Covington. My poor brain!
“Just park here.” Said Lulu while pointing to a long blank curb.
“Here?” I said as I pulled up to no place in particular.
“We’re here!” Said Lulu as she jumped out of the car. I got out and saw that we were in front of a dismal grey building. There was a sign over the entrance which read, in very faded letters, Fuzzies Pawn Shop. est. 1943. I could hear voices coming from somewhere up above and I asked Lulu if that’s where her mom was while pointing up.
“Yes, that’s my mom’s. She’s having a party!”
Suddenly I felt very unpleasant. The thought of crashing a party and announcing that I’d just driven one hundred miles with a child I didn’t know to look at a bunny struck me as beyond insane. On the other hand my back was constantly reminding me that my life was right near over and I had not much to lose. Certainly, I could be a fool and if it felt too bad I could compare it to my back! We walked up to the entrance and Lulu pushed a button and held it down. After about thirty seconds a loud “WHAT!” came through a speaker.
“It’s me Lulu!” shouted Lulu.
“What! Did you say Lulu?”
“It’s me! Lulu!”
“What the hell! What the fuck is Buck doing?”
“I’m not with Buck.”
“Not with Buck? What the fuck! Stay there!” And then the speaker crackled like someone had hit it.
I actually started feeling like I was going to start shaking and my heart was pounding like crazy. I could hear footsteps clopping down the stairs and then numerous bolts being shot back on the door. I imagined saying, “Hi. I’m Roland Lynne and I came here with your daughter to look at a bunny.” I felt a strong urge to run down the street and hide in an alley, or run a little further and jump into the river. This whole thing was not really that unusual though. It seemed that I often put myself in these really unpleasant situations and then just stood there in the klieg lights basting in self inflicted misery. Just waiting to see if I would crack. It created a truly horrible feeling. A metaphysical experience brushing the fringes of historical pain. The door opened and standing there was a lovely woman. She appeared to be about forty years old with a very intelligent face and dark green eyes. I could not tell, though, if she was smiling or scowling because there was something funny about her lips. She stared at me and then down at Lulu who was just standing there. I had expected Lulu to at least hug her mom or her mom to hug her but they both just stood there until I finally asked, “Lulu is this your mom?”
“Yes.” She replied.
“Who are you?” The woman asked me.
“Uh, well, I know this will sound strange but I came here with Lulu to look at a rabbit that is being sold.”
“What?”
“She said there was a rabbit at your house and that I should look at it.”
“Did you escape from somewhere?”
“No ma’am. I’m sorry. I know it’s unusual. I almost don’t know what I’m doing here myself but I just saw this ad for a pet rabbit and called about it.”
“And you let an eleven year old girl talk you into taking her to Covington.
“Well, as I said, I know it’s strange. But I really was looking for a pet.”
“A rabbit?”
“Or something. It just happened to be a rabbit.”
“Does your uncle Buck know where you are?” She asked Lulu.
“No. He wasn’t home.”
“And you told this man you were selling the rabbit? And that it was out here?”
“Yes.” Replied Lulu sheepishly.
“That rabbit died a couple of months ago.” She said to me. And then she turned to Lulu and asked, “Why did you do this?”
“I wanted to come see you.”
And right there I could see something deeper in the woman’s eyes. A cruelty of the sort a person develops after they have decided that they have been done wrong by all of life and were no longer interested in being human. And as I perceived this, my back began to float away as if its own little soul was fluttering to heaven. And my spine, being connected to my brain, lifted me along with it. I knew that Lulu was being crushed and as we stood there my mind began bend and flex with desperation. I felt the euphoria of my healed back fighting with sorrow and the two seemed to be deep in my soul where the heat had been dissipating for so long. I suddenly realized that I had been heading towards being precisely the person Lulu’s mom was but now the brakes were screeching and smoking as I tried to stop it. It was like I was at a car crash and someone was bleeding to death before me and I couldn’t stanch it. I wanted to take Lulu back home to her uncle Buck’s just to get her away from here and this. I wanted to save her. But I was petrified that if I asked her mother she would say, “Take her!” which would be too much for both me and Lulu. My heart was swelling with emotions and then something burst and it suddenly occurred to me what to say. But I didn’t get to say it because Lulu’s mom simply shut the door and bolted the locks.
“Oh Lulu.” I said feeling like I was going to die of sadness.
She started crying and I really thought I was going to crack up. I stooped down and put my hands on her shoulders. “Lulu…”
She looked at me and snuffled, “Are you mad at me?”
“Oh honey no! Oh Lulu.” I wanted to say so much but what had happened seemed to be such a crushing thing that I did not want to give it any more weight. I thought, “I have met the strongest little person in the world.” and “This is what people are like before something from society begins to grind them away.” I told Lulu that I would take her back over the mountain to her uncle Buck and she seemed to be ok with that. On the way back she talked about this and that, made up unlikely stories, and smiled at things out the dark window. I kept thinking, “I want to be like Lulu. I want everyone to be like Lulu.” My back was killing me and it felt great.

COME OUT PRETTY

March 18, 2017

Why I liked her I did not know. There was no reason at all and when I really thought about it I always came to the conclusion that I just picked her out of the blue. But then I don’t see how that could be. According to my computer science course nothing could be picked out of the blue. True randomness was almost impossible for a human to execute. Supposedly. Anyway,
I guess I did like the way she looked. Now I’ve been in many arguments about objectifying a woman’s body. But that argument usually originates with a woman whose body I have not managed to objectify. I don’t really care about the validity of any aspect of that argument. We are human objects as far as I’m concerned and if someone who didn’t know a thing about me looked at me and decided they wanted something to do with me, I would be fine with it. That’s not an argument but a meek opinion. If I were proved wrong by some sound intellectual posit it wouldn’t bother me either. Perhaps we shouldn’t form any opinion about another until we meet them intellectually. Usually, though, I don’t meet people in their minds before I meet their physical, walking, talking body. I don’t live on that planet yet.
But that planet is coming fast.
Anyway, this girl did not like me and I did not like her. But I wanted her anyway. Incredibly, one day, I saw her in this little shop that was a combination eatery and bookstore. It was incredible to see her there because it was in a town that was about 20 miles from where we lived. The town is important because it is one of those places where a certain kind of person (she) is never going to live. There is nothing there but a giant factory, and a bunch of crappy little stores that sell items which this certain type of person would never buy. It is the kind of town where desultory tattooed kids wearing pajamas stand around smoking cigarettes in parking lots while their obese parents go back and forth between death and television. Trash blows down the streets which are crumbling in the way of modern concrete which implies age without fortitude and shallow ideas of purpose. When you come into this town you do indeed feel it. It is spent somewhere back in time and the time when it was being spent was brief. It is, in a nutshell, depressing.
I like towns like this. I like them because they clarify things nicely. This girl, our subject, (and object) would not be caught dead in a place like this. But if she happened to be there and you happened to see her you would think, “What in the hell!” And you would follow her with your eyes waiting for some sort of explanation. Now that doesn’t sound very clarifying, that is, the question of why she’s there. No, the clarifying part is that she stands out so clearly. Like a dot of light in a dark place. But let’s make it clear, this dot of light is not good or bad. It’s just clear. This is what happened in the little shop. I was sitting there eating some soup and reading a book about fascist poets when she came through the front door and walked up to a book cart. She pushed her glasses up her nose and picked a book which she flipped open and started reading. Aside from wondering what a girl like her was doing in this town I was wondering if she was really reading the book. I mean how could she be concentrating on a book in a place where she did not belong? But maybe she saw this little shop like I did. It was like one of those little outgrowths on a railroad trestle where you could step aside when a train came so as not to be crushed. A place that works within a place you should not be in the first place. I shouldn’t have been there either. It made me feel odd to be in this tiny isle of books within a grotesque city of no books because I knew I was there to do nothing less than find the very girl who walked through the door. I could not pick them out in my own town which was flooded in books and women. I really needed contrast for my lazy head to work.
Now I pretend I’m reading my book on fascist poets (who would write such a book!) but I’m doing nothing of the sort. I’m looking up at the girl and trying to decide one simple question. Is she reading the book or is she pretending to read the book, which is what I’m doing. I WAS reading the book but now I’m trying to read the girl. Tons of ideas come into my head. Ideas about reality and the history of philosophy. “What could I know! What does everything mean! What can this girl know? How does it work?”
I know that I’m in the giant game of culture. The big mesh and mash of ideas created by others and adopted by me under duress. A powerful voice tells me I don’t belong in this place or time because I do not like to solve puzzles which were created merely to be solved. Solving buildings, machines, and technology interests me. But the follies of the emotional mind! The interaction between humans! What a bottomless pit!! And I’m marginally good at playing the game. That’s the worst part. I can solve the puzzles over and over again. Not perfectly mind you, but close enough to work. And isn’t it strange that every time I solve one of these puzzles I want to add some spice to the pot for the next time around. Like I want to add more puzzles to the puzzles. I play the very game I loath. When I think about this what I really want to do is break away from it all with some physical violence. I want to clear the decks of all the convoluted wasteful thought that flutters around in my head wasting my time. And just as I’m thinking all of this the girl looks up from her book and stares right into my eyes. One thing I didn’t mention is that this girl did know me. I just mentioned that she didn’t like me. She knew me and didn’t like me. This shows you how upside down my world was. I was attracted to the fact that she didn’t like me. Objectively, she was quite wise not to like me. Subjectively, she was also quite wise not to like me. And this was exactly the way I thought I wanted it to be. I think in Flannery Oconner’s book “Wise Blood,” the character Hazel T. Motes wants to create a church called the Church of Jesus Without Jesus. And that was what I wanted. I wanted the girlfriend without the girlfriend. And I figured the best way to have a girlfriend with out the girlfriend was to meet a girl who didn’t like me and then keep it that way. What a complicated thing. It would be no problem being disliked but how would I create a connection that somehow bound us in a relationship where we would see each other and be together without being together? This girl had been not liking me for approximately ten years and I thought that was a solid sign that she would be a good candidate for being my girlfriend without girlfriend.

So I asked, “What are you doing here?”
She answered, “Looking for a book.”

Now there was the first swing of the ice pick. The first little chip of ice comes flying out of the massive sheet, the glacier which comprises this girl’s emotional bridge to me. She will talk to me. I already know that. We have talked many times and she is very civil. But now I want to actually dig in. To get a rhythm going with my pick.

“What brought you into this place to look for a book?” I asked
“I’m on my way to Massanutten for a skiing expedition. I want to find a book on skiing.”
“So are you going to learn how to ski by reading?”
“I already know how to ski.”

I looked at her lips which always reminded me of an upside-down mouth that might have been on a doll. Her nose was peasant like and she had eyes that reminded me of a rodent. It just killed me that I was so attracted to her. I didn’t even care about her body since she was a little fatty. Not obese but a little plump. Pleasantly plump I think it’s called. I thought about how would I define the shallowness of my own mind. Very shallow? As deep as a nick in a penny? It just drove me crazy that I already knew why she didn’t care for me and I could not think up the tiniest flicker of defense because I knew she was right. I would have to promote myself over a pretty big hurdle.

“She already knows how to ski.” I thought.
I could say:
“How long have you been skiing?”
“Where did you learn to ski?”
“How often do you go skiing?”
“What kind of skis do you have?”
and so on and so forth. But if there was one thing I could not do it was conduct a normal conversation. I mean I could. I just wouldn’t.
So I said, “You really look nice and snug in your ski outfit.”
“Fuck you.”
I’m sure I was blushing. I really had a hard time when girls cussed at me. I could cuss up a storm and often did but I had a hard time saying cuss words at girls. At least if I knew them. I could cuss at a stranger woman easily enough.
“You look good in it.”
“You have a problem with the way I dress.”
Actually that was true.
She was an atrocious dresser. One of the worst in town. Rainbow colored cowboy boots with conservative grey skirts and middle eastern blouses. I mean horrible. I did not want to make fun of the way she dressed but it was impossible not to.
“I like the way you dress.” I said.
She didn’t say anything but turned down to her book and began flipping through some pages. A minute ago she was like an ice cube and now she was like a dry ice cube made of carbon dioxide, so cold that if you were to touch her your skin would be torn off. How do you make someone who hates you like you just a little bit? Was it possible? I didn’t want her for a girlfriend but I definitely wanted something. I wanted that girlfriend without a girlfriend. At this point I thought about girls who I knew liked me but whom I didn’t like. There was nothing that they could do that would change it. I really would sit around pondering these girls sometimes and ask myself exactly why I didn’t like them. The answer was always pretty simple—I just didn’t. That was the way this girl didn’t like me. She just didn’t. But I was always attracted to impossible things. Always looking for that minuscule crack in the armor which had repelled a million attacks. There was a planter next to my table and in it a couple of flowers under a larger green plant. I plucked out a little flower and took it over to the girl. She looked up at me and I held out the flower.
“Here.” I said.
“What are you doing?”
“Giving you a flower.”
“Why are you giving me a flower?”
“Well, I just wanted to.”
“You should keep it. I’d probably lose it.”
I went back to my table and tossed the flower back into its pot. She really was a tough customer. I wished that I could read her mind for a few moments. Just a few moments. I don’t think it would be fair to read someone’s mind for more than a few moments. I just wanted to see enough to see exactly what she thought of me so that I could try to correct what ever it was that she didn’t like. If I could just get her into a complicated conversation where I could suss answers out of her. It really was like pulling teeth! She saw herself as an intellectual and I’m pretty sure she saw me as pleb or worse. But I had no reservations about flinging out bait.
I cleared my throat. “Do you think Ezra Pound was a closet socialist?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I was just wondering about Ezra Pound.” I said.
“He was a fascist and he supported Mussolini.” She responded.
“Well, that’s what they say but if you read some of his poems closely you see flavors of socialism.”
She let out a little derisive snort like laugh and turned back down to her book while shaking her head. I thought about what she really liked. She liked horrible music and horrible clothes. I think she liked dogs and hipsters and the internet. I didn’t like anything that she liked so I couldn’t really bridge the gap with subjects of her interest unless I faked it. Well I didn’t dislike dogs really, just people who were obsessed with them. Her dog was a pretty bad dog. One of those skittish, formerly mistreated, totally destructive creatures that can do no wrong because of their unfortunate past. Believe me, I don’t blame a dog for anything it does but their owners can be tedious.
“How’s Snippy doing?” I asked.
“She’s dead.”
“Oh. That’s too bad. I’m sorry.”
Well I have to admit I was feeling pangs of defeat. And as I pointed out previously, I’m kind of lazy when it comes to thinking things out. Even though not a believer I found myself asking God if he planned on making everything that could possibly go wrong go wrong. I often found myself asking that question when a series of misfortunes befell me. I was pretty sure that the reality was that when you noticed something going wrong and were particularly annoyed by it you would immediately develop a heightened sense of effrontery. And I think you can attribute a lot of human misery to this idea: When things go wrong and you think there are forces against you it will cause you to eventually lash out senselessly. But I was restraining myself. For once I thought I have to marshall the crackling sparks of my brain into some sort of order and not allow that smoking apparatus to cloud my resolve. I couldn’t be lazy though I was dying to be!
“Doris” I said, “Would you join me for a minute?”
She came over and sat down across from me. She put her book on the table and I saw that it was a book about lucky charms and folk incantations. I bit my tongue and folded my hands in front of me on the table. I touched the spine of her book with my finger tip and then tapped it.
“I want to ask you a question but I don’t want you to answer right away. I want you to think about it for at least thirty seconds. Ok?”
“What question?”
“Well, I know you don’t really like me very much and I just want to know why.”
“I think you’re a rat.” She said.
“Well, that wasn’t thirty seconds but I guess that idea is pretty well formed.”
“It is.”
It’s funny that I was not at all surprised by her answer. In fact it was pretty much exactly what I thought she thought but hearing it still shook me. I didn’t’ mind being considered an eccentric person or a non-serious person. I didn’t mind having a criminal history or being unsophisticated. But the thought of being a simple rat was disturbing. And right then and there I could grasp that I was being rat like at that very moment by pursuing the engagement of this girl. If some girl I simply didn’t like kept pursuing me I would consider her to be a creepy rat and the more she pursued me the creepier and rattier I would think she was. I really was a big believer in leaving people alone if they wanted to be left alone. But wasn’t I trying to make her my un-girlfriend? Didn’t I want her to be mine without being mine? I thought I would take a chance. But then I stopped and asked myself if I had thought it through. How could I think it through? It was like trying to build a computer with twigs! I just had to say it.
“If you’ll be mine I’ll leave you alone.”
She stared at me and I noticed that there was a very big emptiness in her eyes. The liquid sparkle of depth and comprehension was very vague and it occurred to me that the girl was missing something that most people had. And then it hit me that she had no personality at all and a second torpedo hit me making me realize that that was exactly why I was attracted to her. Her upside down mouth and other doll like features were the very un human characteristics that drew me in. It was the laziness of my emotional mind coming to the foreground. I did not want a girlfriend. I wanted a giant doll! Some creature that could be put away into a corner without any feelings of guilt. It was an endless battle. In every girlfriend I discovered a person who needed constant care and attention. I was too lazy to do it. I could not face the strain of engagement. And though I would make up excuses for being that way, like, I have too much to do, or more important things to worry about, I knew I was afflicted with a serious defect. And then it crossed my mind that maybe she understood that she had no personality and as such regarded me as creepy for being attracted to a person like her. I kept looking into her eyes and wondering. She gave a slight cough and said, ‘Have you ever thought about seeing a psychologist?”
“No,” I responded, “I’ve never even thought about it. I have a personality.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“People without personalities go to psychologists. They go in the hope that the psychologist will build them a personality.”
I had no idea what I was talking about but I was willing to bet that she, like so many other hipsters in our town, saw a mental health professional and I once again saw myself digging into her emotions with the idea that something would come undone and give me some sort of purchase. Really, I was biding time with provocative small caliber shots from my limbic system while another part of my brain tried to formulate a tactic and then a strategy. Basically, I was thinking backwards.
“Just what do you mean by ‘be mine’.“ She asked.
I couldn’t believe it. A real question! A real question about our potential future non-relationship! 
“Well,” I said, “You have to hear me out. I have this idea about having a girlfriend without a girlfriend. I’m sure you’ve read Wise Blood and remember how Hazel T Motes wanted to create a Church of Jesus without Jesus and…”
“That’s not what he wanted.” She interrupted.
“What?”
“He didn’t want to create a Church of Jesus without Jesus. He wanted to create a Church of Truth without Jesus.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.”
How do you continue a sensitive conversation when the very beginning implodes and makes you look like such a peon? I was really counting on the literary reference to lend a tad of legitimacy to my idea. Now it didn’t even have a tad of legitimacy. I felt like I’d just gone over a waterfall and I looked around the little book shop cafe for something else to fixate on. The girl sat there looking at me. Outside a garbage truck lumbered by with two dirty men hanging on the back. Someone dropped a fork or something behind me an I could hear air coming out of a vent. I wondered what I should be thinking at that very moment. But was useless. I had to let go of all my ideas about this girl and do the laziest thing of all—tell the unvarnished truth.
“Look,” I said. “I’m going to tell you the facts. I’m attracted to you for some reason but I don’t like you. What can I do with something like that?”
She made a funny face and got up from her chair. She put her book back in the cart and then tugged up her ski pants as she walked to the door. I was thinking, “What a little thug.” when she turned around and said, “Gosh, I’ll have to think about that,” and then walked out the door. I sat there thinking that I must be insane while at the same time thinking, “Well, I really don’t like her!” And just as I was thinking that she came back in, walked up to me, and asked why I didn’t like her. 
I had to laugh.
“Why does it matter?” I asked.
At that moment the lady who ran the little book store cafe came up to us and told us we were making too much noise and must leave. I couldn’t believe it! It wasn’t like we were in a library! There were people slurping soup and chomping away on stiff biscuits all around us.
“You must be kidding.” I said.
“No, I’m not.” She replied.
“Jesus,” I said to Doris, “We’re being kicked out of a place in Waynesboro! That’s something for the books!”
But she didn’t seem to see anything funny about it.
We both went out the door and I said, “Should we do something?”
“Like what?”
“I could go skiing with you.”
“But you don’t like me.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t ski by you does it?”
“What else?”
“What do you mean?”
“What else can we do?”
“Well, we could eat food somewhere?”
“But you don’t like me.”
“We could still eat together.”
“What else?”
“What do you mean?”
“What else could we do?”
“Well, we could do anything any other pair of people do together. We just wouldn’t like each other while we’re doing it.”
“I don’t know why I’m beginning to appreciate this idea.” She said.
“I tell you, I think it’s going to be the wave of the future.”
“I think you may be right.”
We walked off down the street under the massive chimneys of the Dupont factory, hand not in hand, disliking each other pleasantly, as we both pondered years of anticipation and folly.

VISITING FEAR

February 9, 2017

I almost had a disaster while flying an airplane. Sometimes I wonder if it was the most frightening thing I ever experienced. It’s hard to tell for sure. I’ve had a loaded gun aimed at me and I’ve been threatened with knives, however those things, along with other frightening incidents were very quick and they didn’t get a chance to dig into my psyche. Shortly after the airplane incident I saw a girl I knew and she said I looked pale and unusual. I don’t remember anyone ever having said that I looked frightened. But I must have looked that way because this girl mentioned it before I even told her what had happened. At the time I’m not sure how much fear I actually felt. It seemed like I felt a sort of shock along with a suspension of belief or maybe a difficulty in absorbing what had happened. There was also an element of pleasure that may have been perverse. When I think about it now, however, I can definitely feel fear and it’s been years. It’s just one of those things where you think back and ask yourself, “What could you have been thinking? What was it like?” You want to relive it now and then to see how it feels. I’ll tell you, it does make you feel fear, though it may be a different kind of fear depending on your mood and your surroundings as you recall it. The terror has various elements, some irrational and some horribly rational. The actual incident took about eight minutes. Eight minutes of terror and a frantic marshaling of thoughts and physical movements. My mind, my hands, and my feet were the three things that could save me. They seemed like awfully weak little things at the time. But there was nothing else.

I was going to be doing my first solo cross country flight. The cross country term is a bit of a misnomer since you really weren’t flying across the country. You just had to fly to three different airports, one after another, which were at least fifty miles apart. So you were going to fly around two hundred miles and land at three airports. I was a student pilot and at that time I probably had about thirty hours of flying logged in, half of which was solo work. I cannot tell you why I wanted to become a pilot. I don’ remember ever thinking that I wanted to be a pilot. But one day I woke up and thought, “I’m going to take flying lessons.” I could have just as easily woke up and said, “I’m going to get a haircut.” There was no reason for it. But once I started flying I did like it. I enjoyed the precision of the machine and all its parts. I liked being in this small pod surrounded by complicated things. I liked learning about what everything did. There were so many little buttons, levers, wheels, fuses, pedals, knobs, and touchable things which controlled the plane. Their complexity lent you a feeling of security, like there was an intelligence melded to the machine. You could imagine that the system would not allow things to go too wrong. Like many hours of engineering and mathematical work were purring deep inside the works, watching out for errors and drawing you to attention if you went astray in your manipulations. But above all of that, when I was in the plane, I had the same sense of adventure and play that I had as a child when I climbed into a box and pretended to be in some sort of traveling vessel. Like the machine that was going to take you to across the Mongolian Steppes or to a dark rainy planet. It was a good feeling to revisit. Flying was very much a thought and a belief, a trust in the good side of imagination. You could fly a plane with no more force than it would take you to move a feather. It was far away from beating things into shape with hammers or tearing food out of the earth with rough hands. There was a delicacy to things. I liked it. I would think to myself that I wanted to be delicate and fine way up in the sky. It was like you were doing something that had a very serious physical component but you were mostly using you mind. There was a lot more thinking than moving. The movements were tiny. It was just the opposite of everything I’d been doing all my life. I’d used a lot of force without much thinking about it. Now I was on the other side for brief periods. It was beautiful and strange because there was a feeling in my gut—something like the confluence of intelligence, adventure, and terror. That was real. I didn’t know it very well but I knew it well enough.

The first part of my cross country flight was a long meeting with my flight instructor at the ground school. Here is the basic rule concerning your planing for a flight: You must make yourself familiar with every possible thing that could affect your flight. Weather, airports, traffic, radio frequencies, maps, your physical condition, the plane’s physical condition, documents, intentions, inspections, fuel, your level of skill, and on and on. There is no way you could really know everything that could affect your flight. For instance you couldn’t know that a bird will fly into your engine or a piece of the plane will fall to earth. But I’ll tell you, you do want to know as much as possible. I’m not saying that in the pedantic sense but in the gut feeling sense. You DO want to know. So you sit there and go over all sorts of things. The weather is a big deal when you’re flying. You want to know what it is like out there and then you really want to know what it is going to be like later on when you’re skimming through the sky. There are all sorts of resources for weather information and interestingly the reports are all coded in a manner that make one think of spy communications. I always thought that there was a psychological component to the complex way weather information is presented to pilots. It is very esoteric and it makes you think that there are super smart people out there somewhere who know things you can’t know and who can prognosticate in their rarified world with much better results than the local weather man who seems to be wrong so often. But the complicated reports, in reality, are as wrong as often as everyone else. Still, you feel better about them. Like, “I’ve figured out this code. I know the secret. It’s going to rain at three o’clock and not a minute sooner. I can go!” I guess in theory, at least, you could say, “Look, it said it was going to be nice out! That’s what I based my flight on!” The fickle weather had a major part to play in my disaster. It was not what it was supposed to be. But that wasn’t the ultimate disaster part. It was just the contextual terror.

So I sat there in the ground school with my flight instructor and went over everything. The kind of minutiae you review is like this: FUEL— I’m going to use X fuel warming up the plane. I’m going to use X fuel taxiing to the run way. I’m going to use X fuel taking off and climbing out to altitude. I am going to use X fuel in transit because of this altitude, this air density, this head or tail wind, the leanness of my engine mixture, etc.. It’s like you try to compute your fuel usage down to the tablespoon. Before you start the plane you dip a stick into the fuel tank to physically see how much fuel you have. Generally you fill the tanks to the brim no matter what kind of flight you’re planning. It’s so obvious! Fuel! You gotta have it! Anyway, we go over everything with a fine-tooth comb and all looks to be in order. I seem to know what to do. My flight instructor looks in my log book and ensures that all the preliminary requirements which allow me to do my first solo cross country have been signed off. He shakes his head at the endless rules and phrases then tosses me the book. I remember thinking, “How can he know what I know? Do I know enough?” This flight instructor is a real nice guy who is some big shot at a pharmaceutical company but who loves flying more than anything. He really was a good instructor. I think he about died when I did what I did. I had been through two flight instructors before him. My first one had a crooked eye which was slightly disconcerting considering the importance of visual acuity while flying, but he was very jovial and laid back. I remember him calmly saying “Whoa!” (as in you’re about to crash) during my first landings which were rough and he pointed out that I’d spelled pilot wrong on some form I had to fill out. I spelled it “piolet” Pee oh lay! I remember staring down at the word, not embarrassed, but amazed that pilot was not spelled the way I would have sworn it was. I really had tremendous hubris about some things. But not flying. It was one of the rare things I actually took seriously. That first flight instructor left to become an airline pilot which was his dream job. My second flight instructor was the son of Laura Ashely. He was very British in the stiff upper lip sort of way and he was a stickler for details. He taught me some important stuff via strange methods which combined military flight training with aristocratic snobbery. I once accused him of not having a very good sense of humor and he responded by asking if he should come to flight school with his underwear on his head to allay my impression. I wanted to say, “Yes, you would think that was funny.” His favorite thing to do was distract me with some gossipy conversation while we were flying and then suddenly point out that I was fucking up everything because I was not paying strict attention to the machine and our situation. I thought it was a mean thing to do but it turned out to be a valuable lesson. You can daydream in a classroom or while driving a car. You CAN daydream while flying a plane and there are many aspects of flying that incline you to do so. But you cannot let go and really sink into a daydream without taking a big chance. David Ashely neatly clipped my propensity to stray from the plane’s needs. After returning from my first solo flight he seemed to think his job was done and advised me to just go flying and have fun. Then he just vanished. I don’t know what happened to him. Looking back I think I had the perfect trio of flight instructors. The first one set me at ease about flying by being so laid back. The second one burned serious thoughts into my head by mortifying me and testing me constantly. And my third one was a natural born pilot who integrated many ideas into my sense of flying by simply being a good teacher . Later, when I was doing instrument training I had all sorts of instructors from diverse walks of life but my first three were my real flight teachers. Anyway, my flight instructor signed off on my flight plan and sent me out to the plane for my first solo cross country. I was not the least bit worried about anything.

It was a nice morning with clear skies and an occasional gentle breeze. The weather was expected to remain pleasant. Today I was going the furthest away by myself and I was ready. I packed my flight bag, inspected the airplane, and put out my maps. I did the engine run up which tests various systems along with the engine and made sure all my flight controls were free and correct. When I thought all was in order I filed a flight plan via the radio, and took off for the south. My first airport was in South Boston. On the way there I flew over my house and looked at things. I looked at my roof, the horses, the dogs and the cat. I looked at the little paths my pets made around my place. You didn’t really notice them when you were on the ground but from a couple thousand feet they were very distinct. I could see the Y of death where the dogs would run out into the field, and then split off to surround a doomed ground hog. They obviously did it often and with a consistent tactic. When I flew over the animals I liked thinking, “What if they knew their human was up their buzzing by in a machine? Would they even look up?” I doubted if they would. After I passed my house I climbed to just under 3000 feet, communicated with Potomac Approach to request flight following which allows them to keep a kind of passive track on me, and settled into computing distances and directions. Potomac gave me a frequency for my transceiver so they see me better on radar. It didn’t take long to get down to South Boston and the only thing I remember doing on the way was looking at the Norfolk Southern rail line trying to see a train. After an uneventful forty five minute flight I landed at the airport in South Boston and then immediately took off again heading to the second airport which was in Brookneal. Again, I flew for about half and hour or so and with a little difficulty, found the airport. You would be surprised how hard it can be to find a small airport in rural Virginia. I was not shy about admitting it when I couldn’t find an airport. I would call Potomac Approach and say, “I’m a student pilot and I’m lost.” I liked saying I was a student pilot because that was an excuse for not knowing what you were doing. I’m pretty sure if I were about to crash a 747 I would claim to be a student pilot because it would make me feel better for a few seconds. Even with my transceiver blasting out a signal I was always amazed that Potomac Approach could find me precisely all the way from up around DC and say, “Turn to heading blah, blah, blah, and the airport will be three miles directly in front of you.” It was like magic and it always worked. This time I found the tiny airport on my own. I landed in Brookneal and took off five minutes later after sitting behind two baulking planes waiting to take off in front of me. The third airport was in Farmville. I flew over there and made my landing and take off. Now all I had to do was make it back home.

There are all sorts of complications regarding which way you think you are heading and which way you are actually heading when you fly a plane. There are variations in the magnetic field of the earth which have to be accounted for depending on where you are . There are deviations caused by metal in the aircraft. The directional gyro, which is set to the compass, and has the ability to maintain rigid and therefor accurate direction in three dimensions, is an amazing machine. It can remain very accurate even after all sorts of jarring maneuvers and it is generally the instrument you use to determine your direction insofar as manipulating the controls are concerned. But you have to set if from the compass. It always struck me as strange that such a technical marvel as a modern airplane still used a device that was invented around 200 BC. You learned all sorts of things about a compass. You learned how, in the old days, pilots would break them open and drink the alcohol out of them when hard pressed for booze. You learned the myriad ways that they could lead you astray and all the formulas for countering their sensitivity. You could do all this stuff and compute till your head spun, but ultimately you would have to pick a number from the compass to apply to the gyro and hope it was right. When I left that last airport I did something at least slightly wrong.

I guess I’d been flying along for about half an hour before I realized that I was lost. I could have called Potomac approach and asked for a vector but I wasn’t really worried about it. I knew I would hit the James river eventually and that I could then find Scottsville which would orient me. A few minutes later I saw the James and the town of Scottsville. And then two things happened at the same time which gave me the first pangs of concern. I looked at my gas gauges and saw that they were both reading quite low. And then I looked at Scottsville and realized that it was not Scottsville. This was where the strange constellation of ideas which make sense and those which don’t make sense collide. I thought, “There is no way I burned that much fuel! It simply didn’t happen.” I should have been able to fly around for four hours or so on full tanks and I’d only flown around two and a half hours. I also thought about the fact that fuel gages in airplanes are notoriously unreliable. I assumed that was one of the reasons why you used a stick to physically see how much fuel was in your plane before you took off. “Have I overlooked something that everyone else knows?” I wondered. I begin to think about what I know and do not know about my flight. I, once again, have the thought, “Who decided that I know how to fly an airplane? How do they really know?” I had thought this many times. Or the slightly more disturbing thought, “I can’t believe they let me do this.” It was almost like I’d never expected to be flying an airplane and when I was flying an airplane it seemed like a surprise. If I had read the giant book called the F.A.R./A.I.M. ( Federal Aviation Rules/Airman’s Information Manual) from stem to stern I would have come across the rules about fuel gages in airplanes. I had read large portions of the book but there were chapters which were almost impossible to bear because of their particularly federal denseness. I really should have read the whole thing. This is the bizarre rule: The fuel gages must be accurate when the fuel tanks are full and they must be accurate when the fuel tanks are empty. The implication is that for all readings in-between the gages can say anything. And I can tell you they do. That’s why I didn’t pay much attention to it. But if I had read that little passage I would have more inclined to believe I was really running low on fuel instead of completely not believing it. Well that’s not strictly accurate. I had a small idea that I might be low on fuel somehow. I was getting ready to call Potomac approach and tell them I was lost when I looked out and saw the face of the Red Hill quarry about 15 or 20 miles away. I didn’t know just where I was but I knew where I had to go and so I set off in that direction. On the way to Red Hill I looked at my fuel gages a few times to see if I could notice any unusual fluctuations but they just read low and stayed there so I tried to stop worrying about them. About the time I crossed Red Hill I tuned into a special frequency that transmitted an automatic report on conditions at the Charlottesville airport. There was nothing special going on there except for a bit of a cross wind. I wasn’t thrilled about hearing that because cross wind landings were one thing I was somewhat apprehensive about. To this day I still regard a cross wind landing as a throwing of the dice. You may have the wind coming across the run way at ten miles per hour and they will be able to tell you that, but the chances of the wind really blowing across the runway at a steady ten miles per hour are pretty slim. All it takes is a one second gust up to twenty miles per hour at the moment you’re landing and everything will be different. It sounded like there was about a fifteen mile an hour cross wind blowing across the runway. Every airplane was rated to deal with a certain crosswind component. Jets and large propeller planes can handle significant crosswinds because they’re heavy and still going relatively fast when they land which reduces the effect of the crosswind. But the little Cessnas I flew were like insects. The one I rented when I flew was rated to handle a crosswind of around 20 miles per hour. Student pilots were also rated for a certain crosswind capability and this number was entered into your logbook by the instructor. The number increased with time and skill. I was rated to handle around an eight mile an hour cross wind. But these rules were very inconsistently applied. There was a sort of rule that overrode a lot of other rules. It was a rule that said “for the purposes of training you can override all sorts of rules.” I never saw that rule written out anywhere but a number of flight instructors had told me about it, usually after some bizarre maneuver. Strictly speaking I should have called the airport and told them that I would need to go to another airport where the cross winds were lower. But I didn’t. If I could possibly be low on fuel I wouldn’t want to be flying further away. That was a thought. But I still didn’t really believe I was low on fuel. I know I didn’t believe it because about eight miles from the airport I decided to fly over Charlottesville and look down at the mall to see if I saw anyone I knew. It was a small deviation but I often look back at that few minutes when I was circling Charlottesville and think that it was one of those major “what if” moments that probably changed my life. It makes me cringe to think of what would have happened if I had flown straight to the airport. After leaving Charlottesville I radioed the airport and told them where I was and what my intentions were. They told me which runway was in use and mentioned that there was a pretty stiff crosswind gusting up to twenty miles per hour. When they said that I began to feel some more concern. It was like this little chemical mixture started brewing inside me. Something that made all my senses sharpen up and stretch out. When I got near the airport and was descending I looked down and was surprised to see how much the tops of the trees were swaying. I remember thinking that they looked like seaweed moving in a fast stream. This definitely put some fear in me. Since I’d begun flying I viewed wind in a totally different way than I had ever before. It was like this thing that was waiting for me, waiting to see how I would like it when it started pushing things around. Whenever I was on my way in for a flight I found myself looking for every possible clue as to what the wind was doing. I would look closely at flags and smoke. I would notice little bits of paper blowing down the street and try to determine how fast they were going. Used car lots were useful for all their bunting and banners twirling and flapping. But the things you could always see were trees. I had learned early on in my flying experiences that when you could see trees moving there was wind of aeronautic importance. I entered the pattern and was about 1200 feet off the ground. I could feel the wind trying to push me out of line and my body tensed up. I turned into the base leg which was the last turn before the final approach and I could feel the plane slow down significantly as I flew directly into the wind. I knew then that it was coming across the runway at a near perfect right angle. I could tell it was going to be a difficult landing and I was definitely nervous but I wasn’t thinking that things had reached a critical stage. It doesn’t really cross your mind that, “I’m not going to be able to land.” Obviously, you have no choice. Eventually you will land no matter what. But you can definitely worry about it. As I turned into the final approach I felt the plane trying to twist away from me as the wind pushed us out of line with the runway. To realign myself I crabbed the nose into the wind so that I was flying in line with the runway. This causes a somewhat uncomfortable feeling because you are flying straight down the runway but your plane is turned to the side to counter the cross wind. Whenever I did this I found myself twisting my body because of some irrepressible belief that I could force the plane to move a little more like I wanted it to. My hands and feet on the controls didn’t seem like enough. Sometimes, when I was struggling with an airplane, I would think of the phrase, “humans were never met to fly,” which would come up now and then with regard to sensory illusions in the cockpit. I was always suspicious of that phrase because I didn’t really think we were any more or less made to drive a car than fly a plane but maybe there was something to it. The sensation of suddenly being weightless or being pressed down so the blood goes out of your head doesn’t really happen in a car unless you’re in an accident. But it happens in a plane and your body just can’t believe it sometimes. There’s a fair tome of work with regard to the human body’s misinterpretation of reality while operating airplanes. Essentially it’s like operating in three dimensions is just a little too much for the human mind to properly process. So for a crosswind landing using the crab technique, in theory, just before you touchdown the wheels, you will straighten out the plane. It is a split second movement which I had done a number of times but not in a wind this strong. The runway at Charlottesville is a little over six thousand feet long. Within the first five hundred feet of concrete I was down to five or six feet above ground. But I could not get the plane down. The wind was pushing so hard that I was crabbed much further than ever before and I just couldn’t get the machine stabilized enough to finish my landing. I flew the whole length of the runway trying to get down. Most of the time I was probably going 60 or 70 miles per hour but it didn’t’ feel like I was going very fast. It never seems like you’re going very fast in a small plane because everything around you is so big. But you are moving fast enough to destroy things. At the end of the runway I radioed the tower and told them I was going to abort the landing and would try again. Just before I jammed in the throttle and began climbing I saw some of the personnel from my flight school standing out side watching me. I had the unpleasant thought that you can gather to watch a plane crash whereas you couldn’t really hang out on the highway and say, “I think we’ll watch some car crash.” I began to feel more fear. I took the plane back up to around 1200 feet and made the turns of the pattern. I tried to resist looking down at the trees again but I had to and they looked even worse than just a few minutes before. When I was halfway through the pattern I called the tower and reported that I was “midfield” which let them determine whether or not another plane could land or take off before me. They acknowledged my notification but that was all. I could hear a curt somberness in the air traffic controller’s voice. Like he didn’t want to tell me about the crosswind again, which would be the normal thing to do under those conditions, because he knew my plate was full. I was afraid. I was shaking and I knew there was cold sweat forming on my skin. As I turned into the base leg, about a thousand feet up, the most horrible thing happened. The engine began to cough and die. Most people are familiar with that little pang of fright when your car engine falters on the highway. That unexpected drop in power and speed that just comes out of no where. It is really hard to convey what that loss of power and the sound of an engine dying feels like in an airplane. It was such a terrifying feeling, almost like a real electric shock going through my body. I frantically pumped the throttle and the engine caught and ran. The impossible thing had become possible and then actual in a matter of seconds. I thought, “I may very well be crashing an airplane.” I wasn’t watching it on TV or reading about it somewhere. I was really going to crash an airplane all by myself and I was going to get to think about it for a few moments before it happened. I really should have called the tower at that instant and notified them that I was critically low on fuel. There were many reasons I should have done that. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was too much of a horror to tell them, “I not only can’t handle this crosswind but I’ve run my machine out of fuel too. I’ll be coming down.” Having to say it seemed like it would make it even more true though it was clearly true enough. I also felt like every molecule of my brain wanted to focus on making the engine run and keeping the airplane under my control. I didn’t pray or beg, I just thought, “Run run run!” I didn’t look at my fuel gages or any of the instruments or think about the radio. Everything was about flying. It was strange. I was coming down and I know it took awhile to fly down the runway again but I don’t really remember it very clearly. It was like the terror eased a little bit of my memory into the fog while I was zooming along that six thousand feet of concrete. I tried and tried to get the plane down but I thought I would crash if the wheels hit the ground while the wind was blowing so hard. My body was feeling so many things at once. It felt the plane, the gravity, the wind, and the chemical blasts of my endocrine system reacting to atavistic notions of survival. I twisted and turned in my seat. I leaned my shoulders into the wind. I pushed the rudder, the ailerons, and the elevators. The movements of my body were trying to react against something I could not see but only feel. The wind was not steady. It would not let me get a grip on it. Every time I came close to dropping the plane the wind would crush over my wings and tilt me horribly out of control. There seemed to be one last dictum making itself known to my mind and that was ALWAYS FLY THE PLANE. I guess years and years of records about airplane crashes showed that sometimes people were so terrified or stymied that they just let go of the controls as if there was simply nothing left to do. I could feel the overwhelming confluence of disasters trying to take the plane from me and I wondered if maybe I had already lost control and didn’t know it. And then at the very end of the runway, when I was just about to abort and try again, the engine completely died. I could just hear air rushing by. It sounded relatively peaceful compared to the sound of the formerly roaring engine. It was like I was suddenly in a large empty church, in front of a big screen full of earthly objects rushing towards me. I called the tower and said, “My engine’s gone. I’m coming down.” I said to myself, “I am going to crash someone’s airplane.” It was funny that that is what I thought. I didn’t think that I was going to be killed or even hurt. I just felt a mortification that I was going to destroy some magnificent machine that belonged to someone else and had been flying just fine for many years. I pushed the wheel forward and manipulated the rudder and ailerons to make the plane come down. I hit the ground hard and one of my wings tilted over precariously. Just when it was about to scrape the ground the wind relented for a moment and I straightened up. The blue lights at the end of the runway were right in front of me. I thought I would surely hit one of them and tear a wheel off but I went right between two of them and then off into the grass at the end of the runway. There was a fence in front of me so I turned sharply and rolled down a hill. I came to a stop down in a little gully. I and the plane were unscathed. I radioed the tower and told them I was ok and that the plane was ok. They told me to get out of the aircraft and get away from it because I guess they’d assumed I had done some damage and were afraid it was going to catch on fire. But the wind was blowing hard and I knew the plane would sail away if I got out and let off the brakes. The parking brakes on a plane were very much like the fuel gages—they didn’t quite work right. I wasn’t about to let the plane blow into a building or something after all of that so I stayed put with my feet on the brakes. The emergency personnel showed up followed by a bunch of flight instructors. My flight instructor, called me on my cell and asked what happened. “I ran out of fuel.” I said. I saw him standing outside the fence, the very fence I almost hit, with his fingers laced through the chain links. I felt sorry for him. The airport was closed and the state police were called. It was a big deal. A truck came down to tow the plane back up to the hanger complex. There the flight instructors checked the fuel tanks with sticks. They were bone dry.

We all went into the flight school office where I was met by a Virginia state trooper. He put his face right into my face while he asked his initial questions. I think he was trying to smell alcohol. The officer seemed to be treating the incident like I had been in an auto crash. But I didn’t crash. It was more like I had just skidded off the road. I could have (If I’d had fuel) turned around the plane, taxied up to the runway, and taken off again. The owner of the flight school said I might have to go up to the tower office and talk to the airport administrator. I wasn’t worried about any of it. All I could think was that I’d landed the airplane and didn’t crash. The trooper went out to look at the plane and then came back and filled out some sort of accident report. Then we all went back out to the airplane and inspected it. We looked for fuel leaks which would show up as red or green streaks down the surface of the plane. Aside from being very pure, the fuel for an airplane is dyed so that if there is a leak you can see where it came out. Then the flight instructors, including mine, started grilling me about the flight. They wanted to know about the altitudes I had flown and my fuel mixture settings. In the end they seemed to agree that I hadn’t leaned out the mixture enough during the flight. In fact, I hadn’t leaned out the mixture at all. Generally you don’t need to mess around with the fuel mixture if you’re flying below 3000 feet. I stayed just below 3000 for all of the flight. But there needed to be some reason and that was the one they picked.

Everyone who saw me land said that it was a great landing, under such adverse conditions, one that many licensed pilots probably couldn’t do. But, and it was a big but, I ran out of fuel. It’s a fairly common cause of small plane emergencies and so at flight school it’s driven over and over again into your head that you calculate your fuel supply and usage very carefully. There are even rules about how much fuel you must have on hand when you land at your destination. You need to have enough to fly for another 30-45 minutes depending on whether it’s day or night. I had run out of gas in cars and done some walks of shame down the highway with a gas can. But this was much worse. Pilots are very aware of each other’s reputed skills and behaviors. Now I would have a reputation as a pilot who’d run out of gas. I didn’t like that idea, but it did not bother me as much as it might have. Somehow, making the landing without smashing up seemed to make a lot of incidental fallout more tolerable.

Several weeks later someone else was flying the same plane and it almost ran out of fuel again. The flight school called Cessna and the technical people said there was no way that plane could burn as much fuel as it appeared to have burned. The plane was taken out of service and the engine disassembled. The mechanics discovered a freak bit of wear in part of the carburetor butterfly valve. Somehow this loose part was actuating an accelerator pump repeatedly which was engorging the engine with fuel. It was really an unusual thing to have happen. When I was told about this I felt somewhat exonerated. It was still my fault because of my not knowing about the fuel gages, but it was better.

The thing I fixate on is my slight detour over Charlottesville. Had I not done it I would have been sent to Gordonsville airport some miles away after my last abort. Evidently the air traffic controller was about to issue that suggestion just as my engine died. I would have climbed to a couple thousand feet and headed east. My engine would have stopped a couple miles away from the Charlottesville airport and then I would have to come down into a field or an empty straight road under very windy conditions. Because of the hills and the curvy roads I would have had a hard time making an emergency landing. I have relived this scenario a number of times and it bothers me more than the actual incident. It is such a real “what if” because my detour to Charlottesville was so arbitrary and spontaneous.

My feelings about flying are what I would call somewhat indifferent. I grew up, not around airplanes per se, but around the history of aviation. I think that makes me somewhat more interested in the idea of flying than actually flying. A lot of actual flying is just staring off into the great nothingness. If you’re up high the stuff on the ground is pretty homogenous. You could be driving a bus. You could fall asleep. But the history, the going off the ground and out into the sky—that’s important to me. My grandmother, as a child, played with the Wright brother’s niece and the house I grew up in was built on the country’s first private runway. As a little kid I would dig holes in the back yard and find pieces of asphalt and concrete. Jets from Wright Patterson Air Force Base would streak over our house and cause sonic booms that would shake your windows and make people jump. We loved a good sonic boom! During my life time we left the planet which I compare to some ancient human floating out onto a lake on a log, the first tiny step into something that will be utterly transformative to human beings. Just think of it. Out of all the thousands of years of modern human existence we are living in the time of the first steps away from here. For some reason that means a lot to me.

I went flying the day after my incident. My instructor thought I should get back on the horse immediately and I agreed. I actually felt even more comfortable flying after the incident. It was like I thought, “My horrible thing has happened.” I also found myself thinking that I was glad that it happened to me. I mean, how many people can say, “I ran out of fuel while flying an airplane.” It was something that happened to me. It will go into my catalogue of things that I will be able to think about when I’m sitting before the fire having a whiskey, too old to actually do anything else. I’m glad I have it.

RAW CHINESE

November 25, 2016

I pulled up to the stop light and looked down into the car next to me. There was a small Chinese girl sitting there with her mouth hanging open, staring off into nothing, and running her hands over her shoulders which were covered with a thick, brilliant white, furry coat. She was very attractive which was surprising to me since I generally was not attracted to Asian women. I could not figure out why she was so fetching and I was really transfixed. So transfixed that I didn’t notice when the dude who was driving the car with the Chinese girl in it got out and came around to my truck. He was not Asian but plain white and very thick around the crucial fighting points, i.e. the arms, legs, and neck. He had a shaved head and was wearing a big shiny metal watch. Just about when he got to my door the light turned green so I drove away waving down at the girl as I passed her. The dude ran back to his car, jumped in, and took off after me. His car was one of those things they call a tuner which I guess is the contemporary version of a hot rod. It had a high pitched little engine that screamed through the gears as it came after me. I kept going down the highway in my old truck which had a giant gas hog V8 in it. It had a lot of power but it was very socially crippled because of its hydrocarbon consumption. I liked it for the simple reason that it separated me from the contemporary man. It helped let the world know that I was backward and slow and that I liked raw force for the sake of raw force. The dude’s tuner was agile, high tech, fast as hell, and it got great gas milage! The modern man was after me in his tuner which was screaming like a mosquito as it bolted down the lanes.
When he was right on my tail I blasted off my engine and cowled his tuner in a thick black smoke that you could probably feel between your fingers and certainly taste in your mouth. I wasn’t worried about what the Chinese girl thought about it because I figured she wouldn’t understand what was happening and at any rate was probably used to thick smoke in her lungs if she was from China. That was another thing about being a slow backward man. I could take one look at someone and make all sorts of judgments. I was happy to do it. Of course I was wrong time after time but who cares? I sure didn’t. I could see the girl in my rearview mirror and her countenance hadn’t changed at all which I found to be very interesting. The guy was making all sorts of faces and punching his fingers away on his smart phone. I wondered if he could be downloading an app which might make his car faster. Or maybe he was downloading a weapon! What if he could download a Taser? I wouldn’t put it past these people today. Their world was to me almost magic. The things they could do! Now I was at another stop light and he pulled up next to me and jumped out of his car again. But the light changed and I drove away right as he got to my door. I waved at the girl again and smiled my best smile. She smiled back! Now I really wanted the dude in the tuner to follow me. I thought that there must be some way for me to get my hands on that Chinese girl. We raced down the main corridor that came into our town from the north and three times in a row stopped at lights where the modern man jumped out of his car to get me and three times in a row I simply drove off before he could. He was chasing me and I was chasing his woman. If he only knew! We came around a long sweeping corner and suddenly I heard a buzzing that sounded like it was on the roof of my car. I stuck my head out the window and looked up to see a drone flying along right over me. That dude had downloaded a drone! Now he came racing up next to me and the Chinese girl’s window came down. “You’ll never get away!” Shouted the dude over the girl’s head. “All I want is the girl!” I replied and then blasted down the gas pedal unleashing another choking cloud of soot and a formidable roar. I had it in my head that my truck might remind the Chinese girl of her home town in China assuming that she lived in a smoky, dirty, industrial hell hole. That’s what I was thinking when suddenly something grabbed my ear. Some part of the drone was holding on to my ear as it flew along right outside my window. Then I felt something being pushed into my ear. “An ear pod!” I thought. And sure enough a voice came through. “I’ve got a photo of you and your filthy truck on Facebook and you’re being shredded as we speak. I’ll have a live feed in another minute!” said the voice. The dude in the tuner had now established communications and I could guess that he had set up a “Pillory Page” for me on Facebook. “Can you hear me?” I asked.
“Yes. And so can the Facebook community.” replied the tuner dude. It was just as I thought. This guy was going to try to kill me using the internet. Our cars were running neck and neck allowing me to look right down at him and the Chinese girl who was now watching me on her phone.
“I only want your woman.” I said. “Also, do you know where I can buy some dirty black oil? I need to burn some more hydrocarbons.”
“Just keep talking.” said the dude.
I looked over and saw that they were on the other side of me now. The tuner was screaming along in first gear and sounded like a dentist’s drill boring through a molar. But he was probably using about a drop of gas per hour whereas I was burning cupfuls per minute. I wanted to tear away from them again but when I stomped down on my gas the engine blew a head gasket. I could tell this because of the squealing sound coming from under the hood and the copious amount of smoke coming out of my tail pipe as oil and water pumped into my cylinders. “Well that engine is gone.” I thought. But since it was still putting out some power I kept going. It looked like my truck was being followed by a oil well fire and my iphone alerted me to the fact that I was being mega-disliked on my Pillory Page. It was notorious but I was pretty excited about being so popular on Facebook. What a feeling! Over two million “dislike” hits and I didn’t have to do a thing! What connections the world could put together! The dislikes were pouring in by the thousands every few seconds. It was so invigorating. I could imagine people wringing their hands as they watched me pollute the air. And the tuner dude thought he was hurting me. He was helping me! I loved it! The rain of dislikes was like being in a refreshing shower, making my blood flow with fervor and my mind race along on endomorphs. It wasn’t that I really liked being a polluter. I mean I cared about the environment. I really did. I not only lived out in the country in my real life but had as a secret wish the desire to live in a simple hut in the woods without electricity or running water. That sounded extremely appealing to me, especially when I was in a giant grocery store or a giant traffic jam. I was one of those people who really didn’t need much or want much. Maybe it was from not wanting much that made me somewhat vigorous when I did want something. The dude driving the tuner had pretty much all I wanted at the moment, namely the Chinese girl. I know it sounds crude and mean to just want some dude’s girlfriend but, believe me, none of them care. We would trade girls like cold germs if we weren’t so bent on fighting over things. I never resisted some other guy’s attempts to steal one of my girlfriends. I always figured it was not up to me or the other dude but up to the girl being stolen. If she wanted to go what was I supposed to do about it? I mean really. I think that attitude came from having had several girlfriends who wanted to test my love for them by having me pummeled in a fight while defending their honor. I didn’t mind defending their honor but I did mind the fact that they had forfeited their honor by their own volition prior to my pummeling. Admittedly, those were girls of yore in the same way that I was not a modern man. Brute force really had a bigger role in past days. And maybe that was something that I missed. The intricate subtleties of contemporary behavior simple choked me down and left me gasping for air. People thought too much. I was too lazy to think. I preferred to misinterpret and then destroy evidence. It made me feel good to do that. I looked down and smiled at the Chinese girl and she saw me smile at her in the phone. She smiled down at her phone and I took a photo of her and posted it on my pillory page so that she could see that I saw her smiling. God damn! The things I didn’t understand! I had long accepted the fact that life transpired through social media. But in the era of energy concerns I couldn’t help but to think that there was something very wasteful about a smile having to be sent back and forth on the electromagnet spectrum, transferred from digits to pixels and God knows what else then back again. At the same time I didn’t want to be a frump about it. This was the way it was and just because I didn’t understand it didn’t make it wrong. In fact, in some strange way, I had to believe that it was right. That little tuner could blow away my truck because of the complicated secrets which resided in black boxes under the hood. My truck worked on the premise of iron and fire which had been around since the Newcomen steam engine which was invented about 1712. Why couldn’t I let go! I loved fire, iron, and smoke! Small, delicate, whispering machines just didn’t move me. And here I was after a Chinese girl who probably hated smoky factories and clanging iron. She probably wasn’t wearing that lush white fur coat for nothing. She couldn’t take her eyes off that phone with its quiet liquid flow of information. I wanted to catch her and force her out into the air. I wanted to roll her and her white coat in the dirt, throw her phone down a sewer, run my fingers through her hair and be a mess. I had thoughts of being raw and fundamental. But I knew I was wrong and for some reason I could feel the perception of my wrongness sapping the life right out of me. There was a reason the world was going the way it was going. The minds were displacing the bodies and the lives which could be lived through the mind were softer and less miserable. I didn’t want to be miserable but I didn’t want to leave my body either. I was one of those people who was simply too lucky and had too much fun with my body. My brutal truck and greasy clothes were vestiges of something I was losing. They were the tiny insignificant things I could control which prevented the past from completely snapping from the present. But it was absurd. And I knew it. I decided that I would go ahead and lose my mind. I stomped down on the accelerator and the grimy mill squeezed out a few more horsepower as I turned into the tuner and tried to run it off the road. Behind us a cloud of black smoke trailed and flattened out on the concrete as cars swerved and danced to their computer programs which were trying to figure out what pollution was. The Chinese girl was staring into her phone with a terrified look on her face and the tuner dude was shaking his fist at me with his giant metal watch bobbing up and down on his wrist. I could see that the watch didn’t have a face, like it was a strange little circle of nothing and I thought that it made sense that a contemporary watch would come right out of the factory without any ability to tell time. I had the tuner wedged up against a guard rail which was sending up blue and green sparks as the paint and galvanized metal burned each other. The Chinese girl held up her phone to the tuner dude’s face and was saying something to him. I imagined her saying, “According to the internet we are being squashed by a truck.” but who knows what she was saying. I could only have wild dreams about what she might be saying. Suddenly the guard rail stopped holding the tuner against my truck and we both went sailing into the air over a ravine. The Chinese girl was screaming and the tuner dude was frantically shifting gears and stomping down his accelerator in an effort to get away from the disaster. Parts were separating from my truck and winging through the air. I did not bother shifting gears or stomping the gas in an effort to get away from the disaster. I still believed in gravity and the doom it held for things flying high. But I admired the tuner dude for thinking that he could out maneuver the world. It really was a good way to be.

TRESPASS

April 21, 2016

The guy who sold me my M.G. Midget was named Miles and he looked like Tony Orlando from Tony Orlando and Dawn. Because he was so lowly in the sales chain his desk was in a half walled partitioned niche somewhat reminiscent of a baby crib. There was a bible on his desk. He also had a photo of a nice family sitting by his pencil jar but as I was to find out it wasn’t his family since his family didn’t have anything to do with him nor he with them. Miles was a consummate liar and charmer and I guess I knew that but when you’re buying a car on “the strip” which was the notorious street where sailors bought worthless junk, watched strippers, got drunk, and found whores, you aren’t going to do any better than Miles. In other words, there was a certain amount of resignation built into my psyche right off the bat when I started negotiating for my M.G. Midget. At fist they wanted 2 thousand dollars for this car so I offered 1500 which brought out a derisive laugh from Miles and caused him to go fetch the manager who, of course, was just another salesman. I guess I got my first real taste of theater on the car lots of Norfolk. It was an amazing display that Miles and David (the fake manager) put on for me. They leaned on the desk and stuck their faces in my face while I yawned and looked at my finger nails. They howled about my outrageous offers and scribbled meaningless numbers on pieces of paper. I ho-hummed as they referred to little black books and pulled out files referring to the history of my future M.G. Midget. I read my copy of Oliver Twist while they slobbered over an adding machine and crossed out numbers on sales contracts. When it was all done, I got the car for 1755 which was fine with me. Miles and David wanted to have a prayer with me after the contract was signed but I just couldn’t keep a straight face so I drove off in my tiny M.G. Midget, smoking a Kool, and letting the dirty streets of Norfolk hum under my snug new ride.

I drove the M.G. Midget around for about two weeks before the engine blew up. I couldn’t believe my eyes! When I went back to see Miles about this blown engine he said they could get me another engine for…about… 2 thousand dollars! I couldn’t believe my ears! I had my M.G. Midget towed to a shop run by the Navy where you could work on your own car. I took the engine out and found that it hadn’t blown up at all. A washer had fallen off of something and lodged between the flywheel and the bell housing causing the engine to seize. I was happy about that but I decided that I was going to kill Miles anyway. If that sounds like abrupt, unsound decision making you might want to keep in mind that I was a very young man in the Navy. The whole world was a different creature from where I’d come or where I would be going. In a nutshell—it was simple and to the point—perfect for a young man’s attention span. So I started hanging around at a bar which sat across the street from Miles’ car lot. I could only hang out there a couple nights a week because of my ship board duties so it wasn’t very efficient but eventually I was there one night when Miles came in with some scagg woman. I was sitting at a table in the corner by a cigarette machine drinking a coke and reading Interview with a Vampire. I was at a really good part of the book where Claudia was bemoaning her lack of sexual outlet so I was less excited about finally seeing Miles come in there than you might think. I waited with my head down in my book until Miles finally got up and went to the bathroom. He had to walk right by me so I was worried that he might make me out but he didn’t notice. After he’d been in the bathroom for about 30 seconds I went in. He was standing at the sink washing his face of all things. When he heard me walk in he started to turn around but I grabbed him around the neck and choked him down to the ground. I banged his head on the concrete floor twice and he was knocked out. I took out his wallet and took his money which was about 30 dollars and then flushed his ID down the toilet. I never really planned to kill him I guess but I bumped his head pretty hard on the concrete. That was not my first act of violence but it was the first time I’d actually hunted down someone and I wondered if that would turn out to be something.

The next day, while having breakfast at McDonalds, I read in the Virginian Pilot about Miles being attacked. He said he knew who his attacker was but refused to tell the police. This was the kind of tactic I would expect from someone like Miles. I didn’t really think that he’d had time to see who I was when I attacked him but I could see him trying to scare his attacker by saying he knew his identity. I wasn’t worried about it either way but then a few days later I received a letter from the car dealership where Miles worked. It said, “Important Warranty Enclosed do not throw away” but when I opened it I found a typed letter which said, “I know you did it. David and I will pray for you.” Well, I have to tell you that put the spook to me. For one thing Miles and David were about as religious as a bird. Their whole Jesus thing was just a ruse for selling cars to gullible sailors. I mean if you saw Miles in that bar with that scag girl you’d just know he was a sinner from Gomorrah. But this letter showed me a new side to Miles. This was the kind of toying a psychopath would participate in and now I was wondering if I might have to revisit the idea of killing Miles. But instead I sent a letter back to him saying that I knew that he didn’t know I knocked him out in the bathroom because I could clearly see that he didn’t see me before I got him in a choke hold. I imagined this as one-upping him on the psychopathic front because I was a big believer in fighting fire with fire. But then Miles one-upped me by sending back a drawing of me choking him in the bathroom. He said that David was an expert licensed forensic artist who like selling cars better than drawing but who could be counted on to help a friend in need when art was called for. He said he described me to David using nothing but “psychic influx” and they were able to come up with this rendering. It was really an astonishingly good drawing of me except there was a big wart on my chin that I didn’t have. Now I really wanted to draw a mean picture of Miles (and David) with them in some sort of morally compromising situation but for the life of me I just couldn’t draw people. No matter how hard I tried, my people looked like things that children would draw. Like if you looked at my drawings you could say, “That’s a person but if it had two more legs it could be a cow or a dog.” It was really terrible art. So I had to give up on that idea and wound up writing a scathing letter that I pretended was from the attorney general notifying all Virginian used car dealers that they were going to be investigated for fraud, that a list of names was in my possession with various fraudsters who were known to trade in M.G. Midgets among other small, easily hidden, smuggled, stolen, converted, and illegally imported vehicles. I made it sound super official and yet very subtle. After I sent out that letter I got a certified letter back from Miles’ real lawyer and I have to admit that put another spook to me. At this point I decided to go back to the “just kill Miles plan” since I was tired of writing and drawing.

It’s funny how violence is just the simplest answer to all human problems. I mean you can sit around arguing for 50 thousand years or you can just kill someone and be done with it. Of course, all my friends lambasted me constantly for saying such things but they couldn’t come up with any convincing arguments against it. Also, they read things like the New York Times and the New Yorker as well as listened to NPR—all anti-kill advocates in every way. You wouldn’t think those kind of people would be on a war ship but, believe me, they’re like the common cold and can be found everywhere. Why they always wanted to be friends with me I’ll never understand. Maybe they didn’t think my heart was really in the violence. I do smile a lot. And, you know, you don’t have to be some sort of mean horrible person to be a killer. I mean, I’m very nice to almost all people that I meet. I mean, I was even nice to Miles when I first met him! I don’t know. Ultimately, I guess you could say that I just don’t have a whole lot of patience.

So I started to spy on Miles. First, I followed him home from work and discovered that he lived in a shit hole apartment not far from the Naval base. I also discovered that he had a sister who lived with him and, according to their mail, went by the name of Petunia. Petunia was exceptionally good looking and it annoyed me to no end when I thought about the fact that she was related to the odious Miles. Imagine sitting on a bicycle (I couldn’t use my M.G. for obvious reasons) smoking a cigarette and thinking, “I have to kill Miles.” and then two seconds later thinking, “What if Miles winds up being my brother in law.” That is quite a range of possibilities if I don’t say so myself. Miles saw me hanging around on my bicycle a couple of times and chased me away with a baseball bat. The second time he did it I shouted back at him, “I’m going to date your sister!” which caused him to throw the bat at me. I have to tell you that one nice thing about being in the Navy is that you are safe as an egg on your ship. In other words it wasn’t like Miles could ever come get me and strangle me in my sleep since he’d have to get past all sorts of armed guards and watchmen. Essentially, I could torment Miles to my heart’s content and then go back to the ship and sleep like a baby. Actually, looking back, that might have been a detriment to the development of my social skills. To be able to escape the ramifications of your behavior for restorative periods might have allowed me to develop an unusual sense of social norm. Anyway, one day I was sitting their by Miles’ place looking at my partially flat front tire and tossing pebbles down a storm drain when I looked up and found Petunia standing before me. She was wearing a light blue dress with little white hippopotamuses on it and when I looked at her face she was smiling in a funny way with the corner of her lip raised like Elvis might do. She was incredibly pretty. I couldn’t think of a thing to say and before I could not say it, she raised up her dress exposing her dainty underwear. She then dropped her dress and walked away. “Man! That girl knew how to stun!” I thought. If she had me in her hands she could have done whatever! But then I thought, “That was not normal.” And I wondered if she had some of the unusual personalty traits that afflicted Miles. And then out of the blue, at that very moment, I realized that Petunia was Miles’ wife and not his sister. God, what was I thinking!

At this point I completely forgot about Miles and Petunia for about three weeks while our ship went up to the Yorktown Naval Ordnance Base to take aboard some bombs. It was funny but when you left the land and went out on the great blue ocean you could just forget everything that was bothering you. By the time we pulled into Yorktown I was completely absorbed in an “at sea” college course in algebra. I was very excited about this because I actually pictured myself as being in college. Before I went into the Navy I sure as hell didn’t want to be in college but now that I couldn’t be in college I DID want to be in college. So as a college student I really wanted to do a good job at my algebra. I got an A and was so proud I sent my tiny, one letter, report card to my parents to show them how much I’d changed from being a straight D student in the old days, which were about a year ago. My dad sent me a dollar. That’s what he always said he’d do for every A I got. I was pretty pleased with myself and thought, “That’s the first money I ever earned with my brain!”

On the night before we pulled back into Norfolk I started thinking about Miles and Petunia again. It was a rough sea off of Cape Hatteras and I was sea sick just like everyone else. I tried to think of just Miles so I would associate him with my sea sickness but it was hard not to think about Petunia. I had come up with a plan for stealing her from Miles and getting her to marry me. Since I’d finished reading Interview with a Vampire I’d been thinking a lot of strange things may be possible. For instance, I thought that if I learned all of the chemical elements and their atomic numbers I would be far ahead of the general population intellectually. And I had this vague idea that I might be able to use algebra to get my hands on Petunia. I fell asleep thinking about all sorts of formulas with Xs and Ys all over the place. Now, looking back on it, I can’t imagine how I thought I would use algebra to win Petunia’s hand but I really did believe that that was what I was going to do and believing in something with your whole heart, I can tell you, is a powerful thing. So, a few days after we’d returned to Norfolk, I was sitting in my M.G. Midget (there was no use trying to fool Miles anymore) by Miles’ apartment. There was steam coming off the asphalt because it had been scorching hot and then it rained for about three minutes. Petunia was lying in a chaise lounge by the apartment pool reading a book. Miles had the day off and was up in his third floor crappy apartment looking down at me through some binoculars. I was looking at Petunia through binoculars too. Lots of people used binoculars back in those days because of James Bond and all those spy shows so it wasn’t really too unusual seeing a couple of dudes looking around with them. I was torn between looking at Petunia’s body in her black one piece swimming suit and trying to see the title of the book she was reading. I was also writing down numbers and Xs in a notebook I had on my lap in an effort to derive an equation that would bring Petunia into my world. Looking back on this particular aspect of my endeavor I have to admit it was somewhat insane. I can’t in my wildest dreams imagine what I thought I was going to do with a bunch of numbers that would bring about romance. Squinting my eyes through my binoculars it really looked like Petunia was reading The Thorn Birds which had me very excited since I happened to be reading the same book. I guess it wasn’t that incredible though since everyone was reading The Thorn Birds right then. The world was really somewhat smaller and more coherent in those days. Anyway, that’s was we were all doing when suddenly a little brick building with a green pipe going into it next to Miles’ apartment blew right off its foundation raining bricks down all over the place. Bricks were making giant splashes as they landed in the pool and one of them landed on my hood leaving a perfect brick imprint before it bounced off. Petunia jumped up from her chaise lounge and went under an umbrella over a picnic table. She had to climb up on the picnic table to get under it all the way and I admired her limber, slightly plump body as her feet gripped the wooden boards. People were streaming out of Miles’ apartment like ants and I noticed that Mile’s was now looking out of an open hole since all the glass had been blown out of the windows. He was looking right down at me with his binoculars and I shrugged my shoulders like, “I didn’t do it!” Police cars and fire trucks started arriving and with their sirens howling and their lights flashing. I felt a little bit stunned and confused about what I should be doing after an explosion like that. But since I had a well oiled nineteen year old mind I figured out that what I needed to do was start my M.G. Midget and move it twenty feet closer to the pool so that it would appear that I had a purpose. After I moved the car I got out and climbed over the fence to the pool. I started walking around Petunia’s picnic table, sort of rubbing my chin and pretending to be thinking about something deep. By now the police and firemen were running all over the place like chickens with their heads cut off. Surprisingly the civilian people all seemed to be calm enough as they milled around the front of the apartment building and I wondered what they’d all been doing before they were interrupted by the explosion. I was on the fifth lap around Petunias’s picnic table when she said, “What are you walking around this table for?”
I really didn’t have any good reason to be walking around her table except for the basic truth that I was acting like a shark moving in on some delectable prey but I couldn’t say that. I really had a hard time expressing myself back in those days. Usually, I expressed myself through some sort of brainless behavior and tried to avoid words. I mean I kind of thought like, “If I don’t have any words, at least I can throw a rock or something.” Lots of young men crash their cars into bridge abutments or drink so much booze that their brains pop out but that wasn’t me. I mean, I did something similar but not so over the top. I considered myself to be totally under control. Who doesn’t think that they’re under control? At least until there’s verifiable proof to the contrary. So I told Petunia that I was here to make friends with her. As soon as I said it I couldn’t believe that those words came out of my mouth. But they did come out of my mouth. They were still ringing in my ears while my face turned red and my eyelids fluttered in my head. Petunia looked down at me with a curious look on her face. I was wearing my sailor’s uniform which was all white except where an ink pen had exploded in my front pocket leaving a blue mark shaped like West Virginia. Suddenly, I felt very stupid and exposed. I felt like someone had just pushed me onto a stage, before an audience, with no script or idea of what was going on. But Petunia reached her hand down and I took it. She climbed down off the picnic table and asked me if I knew what just happened. I told her that a little brick building had just exploded. Probably a gas main or something. She asked me if it was safe around there and I said it probably was very dangerous and that she should come with me in my M.G. Midget to a safer place. I couldn’t believe what was happening. It was just like a dream coming true right before my eyes! I opened the passenger door and Petunia climbed into my tiny car. I got in and started up. I still remember the smell of the leather seats and petunia’s damp swimming suit as we drove out of the parking lot. It was the first really warm day of spring and all around us I could feel life breathing in and out. I was unbelievably happy. I turned my head at one point and saw that Miles was looking out the window at us. I had to stop for a moment and look at him with my binoculars. His mouth was hanging open like the entrance to a bird house and I found that satisfying.

That day I took Petunia way out away from the squalor of the base and the strip. I drove her out into the country to a place where I would hang out. It was a sort of strange place called Dean’s Booster. I don’t know how I ever discovered it in the first place since it was just a slab of concrete out in the middle of a corn field. There were a couple iron pipes coming out of the concrete and there must have been some sort of little tag on something that said Dean’s Booster. I figured out that it must have been a pump house for an irrigation system that was long defunct. It was a nice place to go in order to get away from everything. Or at least you would think that. In fact I had just a few months earlier been caught there by a cop. I guess he followed my trail through the corn field where I’d mowed the corn down with my car. I drove through a lot of farmer’s fields back in those days, thinking of my M.G. Midget as a sort of a toy machine instead of a car thereby thinking that it didn’t have to follow the rules of full grown cars. Of all things, the cop showed up just as I’d started installing a cassette player and some speakers that I’d bought. He wanted to see the receipts for the cassette player and speakers which I thought was odd. Of course I’d already thrown the receipts away and so he made me put my hands on the trunk of my car while he called me in. They didn’t have anything on me so then he wanted to search my car. That worried me since I had two pistols hidden in there but he didn’t find them. Incredibly, he let me stay there and continue installing my new cassette deck and speakers without even giving me a warning or anything. He just left. Anyway, that’s where I brought Petunia. We got out and sat on the warm concrete. There was a nice dry heat coming through the dead stalks of corn and it smelled very fresh and pleasant. We started talking about where we came from and I found out that she was the daughter of a state senator. She told me that she was MIles’ wife but that they were now divorced and only lived together to save money. She said that Miles was really not that bad a person but just too obsessed with being a salesman and making good deals. I told her about my deal with the M.G. Midget and how Miles wanted to say a prayer after the sale and she told me that it was all part of his sales ideology. He thought that there was a some fundamental connection between Jesus and marketing and that if he figured out the exact nature of that connection he would be able to make a killing. I told her about how I pounded his head to the floor in the bathroom and about his ugly girlfriend. Then she said, “He’s a dick head.” and we moved on to other topics. She wondered how I wound up in the Navy and I told her I had no idea. It was kind of funny because I found myself really wondering, “How DID I get in the Navy.” So we both talked about my past trying to figure out how I got in the Navy. Every time I looked over at her I found myself thinking, “I can’t believe this.” A real pretty girl sitting right there across from me on the concrete slab wearing a nice black one piece swim suit. I wondered if I was in heaven. I wanted to sit there talking with her for the rest of my life. It was really the fist time I’d ever been with a grown woman. A grown woman who was even married! A real grow up! And oh but she was beautiful. She had black curly hair and a wide face that made me think of a Russian. She was slightly plump but just so and just right. She had a way of sticking her tongue out when she talked which I liked immensely. Every second I was thinking, “What do I do next?” and “How do I proceed to keep this person in my life?” It felt like those first few seconds when you’re actually balancing on a two wheel bike and magically not tipping over. No grownup holding the fender and no training wheels. You’re really doing the magical thing against the whole world’s gravity! A gentle breeze annoyed some dust into a small twister that went by Petunia’s face causing her to shut her eyes momentarily. I imagined her sleeping next to me with her eyelashes touching her cheeks. I imagined living on a farm with her where we would get up in the dark and feed animals and then watch the sun come up and enliven all the sleeping things. I imagined us having little rollie pollie babies who would crawl around the barn and eat bugs. And then she told me that she was going to marry a sailor from the USS Enterprise. I could feel my heart foundering and plunking my ribs feebly. This was reality! This was what real people did! They just said real facts and damn the consequences. Now I had to act the same way! I said, “Well, congratulations.” I didn’t mean it at all. I thought, “Fuck the Enterprise and all the sailors on it!” What was I going to do? What!? One minute ago I was in hog heaven and now it was despair! In all ways it really was too much for me. I just sat there looking at Petunia and wondering what I could possibly do. And then because I couldn’t think of anything else to say I asked, “When do you think you’ll get married?”
“Oh,” she replied, “I’m not sure I really want to marry him.”
“Holy Moly!” I thought. “There was hope! Despair has been crushed and replaced with hope just like that!”
And then she said, “Why don’t you take a look around you?”
“What?” I said.
She scooted a little closer to me and said, “Take a look around you. Someday. Someday you’ll remember this day and it’s gonna make you cry. Someday, far in the future you’re going to be in a whole new world and when you look back on this day and the days around it you will hardly believe that they even happened.”
“Are you trying to tell me my future?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “it’s not your future. It’s THE future.”
This was the kind of nutty thing my hippy sister’s friends would say to me and I would usually blast them with my version of reality which was nothing but the way it was. Petunia, however, warranted listening to because she had me transfixed with her beauty. That was a bit of reality. Until you knew better, pretty girls were interesting to listen to because they were beautiful.
“Look,” said Petunia as she plucked a small bit of corn tassel from her hair, “I want you to burn this time into your memory.”
I didn’t really understand what she was saying. But I figured I had to say something so I said, “I think I will have this time burned into my memory. It think it is already burned into my memory.” I didn’t mean it though. There was really no such thing as memory for me. There was nothing to remember because hardly any time had gone by yet.
“Because,” she went on, “Because some day this is going to seem so beautiful to you. Just sitting here on a slab of cement out in a corn field.”
And then before I could help it I said, “Because you’re here.”
Petunia’s face flushed a little bit and she licked her lips. “Well, maybe, but it’s more like this. It’s more like this time is neutral and fresh as opposed to what it is going to be.”
Now I licked my lips and asked, “What do you mean?”
“Some day all the people around you are not going to seem like people any more. They will all be like bad characters from television. Completely predictable and so boring to listen to that you will always be angry just being in their presence. You’ll actually miss people like Miles! You really will! And all those red neck sailors on your ship. You’ll miss them too! And you’ll miss me!”
“I know I would miss you!” I said. “But maybe I won’t miss you.” I added, thinking that perhaps she’d be with me in the future.
“You will never believe what is going to happen. How all this simple rich life is going to be replaced with something else.”
She was right. I didn’t believe it. All I could see was right here right now and that was all I cared about. The future was for dead people. Even though it was sunny out we both heard a rumble of thunder in the distance. My future with Petunia was a little shroud around the moment. It was light and easily shed whereas the moment was solid and tactile. I put my hand on her foot.
“Someday people will be so obsessed with goodness and justice in an effort to mask their shitty personal lives that you’ll want to become a criminal or an animal just to remove yourself from being associated with the species.”
“I want to be an animal.” I said.
“You will be an animal.” She replied.

MR. C.

February 23, 2016

My neighbor is a guy who moved to rural Virginia from NYC back in the late seventies. He made his money as a sort of famous photographer and from what I remember his actual big money came through a book he helped create. He took the photos for the book and someone else did the writing. The book was about Christmas tree ornaments. It’s hard to believe that someone could make serious money on something so stupid but I guess he did. He took a bunch of photos of Christmas tree ornaments and then found that he was rich. He bought a brownstone in the city and married a woman thirty or so years younger than he was. He had it made.

Then he made a terrible but not unheard of mistake. He decided to pitch the city life and come down to the Confederacy where he could live the life of a planter/farmer. He sold his brownstone, gathered up his young wife and a pile of money and headed south. He found a large chunk of land in central Virginia that had an old house and barn on it. He let the local fire department burn down the house for practice and then proceeded to renovate the barn into a giant house. He did the renovation very nicely for he had a fastidious sensibility. I was only in that house once. The main room downstairs was the size of a gymnasium and you really could shoot hoops or have a short track motorcycle race in there if you wanted to. I guess it served as a sort of photo studio too. He could photograph a hot air balloon in there. But as I said, it was nicely done.

The trouble my neighbor had with the Confederacy was that he was pure NYC and therefor viewed the southerners as so many scruffy groundhogs to be dealt with like the rubes they were. He basically made enemies with every single person he met. The notion of southern chivalry, hokey as it may be in some views, is something that really does exist, though perhaps attenuated and somewhat superficial in this age. There are people down here who might do what they say and some of them will even tell the truth sometimes. Mr. C could not believe this. He fought perceived lies with real ones. He fought every single person he met over every single issue you could imagine. By the time I wandered into his territory looking to buy some of his prime land he was known as a monumental dick from NYC. The first time I met him we had the following conversation.
ME: I’d have to plant some deciduous trees.
C: No, I couldn’t let you do that.
ME: If it’s my land I’d plant what I wanted.
C: I’d have a clause in the contract and the deed.
ME: What’s wrong with deciduous trees?
C: What’s a deciduous tree?

He really did own some beautiful property. Originally it was around 150 acres of woods and fields. But as Mr. C’s young wife proceeded to spend money he began to gerrymander his land into byzantine forms which he would sell to bewildered people who wondered how they were going to drive across a small river to get to their house site. The piece of land he was going to sell me was a gorgeous 18 acres. Really, the only bad thing about it was a 500 thousand volt power line across the top of the property. Otherwise it was like something out of the Wizard of Oz. Just gorgeous views! Green fields and mountains in the near distance. I loved it. But just after I made my first offer I noticed that Mr. C moved the boundary stakes so that the piece of land was now smaller even though it had the same price. I told the real estate agent that Mr. C had cheated and moved the boundary stakes. The agent was mortified by not surprised. When I confronted Mr. C about the boundary line being moved he said he had to do it because his wife had spent some big glob of money recently. In his mind it was perfectly all right to cheat me out of some money because of his wife and her spending. It was perfectly natural because he was from NYC and I was a hick from Goobersville. I wound up telling Mr. C that I wasn’t going to deal with a criminal and a carpetbagger. But I still wound up being his neighbor because he’d sold a beautiful piece of land to a man named Dr Word who then sold the piece of land to me. It was more than I originally wanted but it really was my dream property. I loved it right from the get go and it was far enough away from the 500 thousand volt power line that I would not hear the special noise that would occur when there was rain or heavy moisture in the air. On the first piece of property, when it rained it sounded like there was a 2000 horsepower electric motor humming in the sky. Harmless but disconcerting to man and groundhog alike.

Mr. C lived about half a mile from where I started building my house. He would drive across my fields in his land rover and visit me while I was nailing boards and digging holes. He had two young children who rode around with him. He was kind of a busybody and I don’t think he really accepted the idea that the land he sold was no longer his. I think he imagined some sort of feudal rights running with the metes and bounds or something like that. At this point I didn’t really hate Mr. C or anything like that. I just thought he was a pest.

Our first battles started when he decided to “sneak in” a bridge across the little river that went through our properties. Like his house, it really was a well done bridge with iron girders and nice thick wooden road boards. It must have cost 30 thousand dollars. But while building it he kept driving bulldozers and backhoes over my land smashing part of my field into a mud hole. I don’t even think I would have minded if he’d asked but he didn’t. He just assumed that he could do whatever he wanted. So one day I went over here and chewed him out for fucking up my field. It didn’t seem to phase him. He moved his equipment off my property and kept building. And then I saw an article in the local paper about how a county resident was in trouble for building a whole bridge without any sort of permit or consultation with the authorities who manage rivers. He had to go before the county commissioners and get fined and chewed out but, again, it didn’t bother him. There was just no way he was going to negotiate with a bunch of rebels and peons from Dixie. The next thing he did was decide that he wanted to build a giant barn on the first piece of property that I was going to buy. I could not understand what possessed him to want to do this. This barn would be about half a mile from his house but about 500 feet from my house. He had every right to do this but it still bothered me. I felt like he was moving closer to my territory with his bridge and barn so that he could bother me and watch what I was doing. One of the big reasons I had for buying the property was that it was so private. I really liked privacy. I did not want Mr. C to encroach on me.

So Mr. C built his barn. It was a really nice barn but I didn’t understand why he needed it. He didn’t have any animals and had no desire to acquire any as far as I could tell. He didn’t cut and store his hay but rather let someone else cut it and sell it. Why did he need a barn? Well I have to tell you that one of the other things I liked aside from privacy was a lack of stuff. I was a very minimalist person. As it turned out Mr. C and his wife were not minimalists and so he needed a barn in which to store all his junk. I guess that wouldn’t have bothered me terribly since it WAS a nice looking barn. What bothered me was the fact that the barn was not large enough to store all their junk in. So Mr. C rented five semi-truck tractor trailers which he parked along the edge of my property. This was when I started hating him. When I confronted him he said, “We don’t have room!” and I said, “You mean you don’t have room in your giant house that used to be a barn, and you don’t have room in your giant barn which IS a barn. And a barn worthy of storing hundreds of cows or thousands of bales of hay? How much junk can you have? What’s the point of having it if it’s just sitting in a trailer?” But he couldn’t have cared less about what I thought. I came up with all sorts of schemes for destroying his trailers. I wanted to drill a quarter inch hole in the top of one of them and pour gasoline into it so I could light it on fire. I wanted to cut holes in the tires or write anti—Mr. C graffiti on all of them. Things like “I’m such a pig from NYC that I have trailers full of trash that I’m hoarding like a kooky woman with a thousand cats.” But really I didn’t do anything except pour steam out of my ears every time I looked out my window.

A few months after the semis arrived I was awaken in the middle of the night by a bulldozer. I could not believe my ears! Mr. C just decided that he had to have some grading done on the drive way by his barn at 10:30 PM. One thing I forgot to mention about Mr. C was that he was extremely cheap. He had things done very nicely but he didn’t like to pay for it. So he hired the kind of people who could only work in the middle of the night, sort of “off hours” people who might be inclined to steal their employer’s equipment temporarily or insist on hunting rights during lunch hour which would be in the middle of the night. He fought constantly with the people he employed. And then he’d come over and complain to me about them. His employees would also come over to me and complain about Mr. C, about how cheap he was, how he cheated on the numbers, and how he was such a giant dick. On the night of the bulldozer I actually threatened Mr. C with physical violence. I slammed my fist into my hand and said, “I’m gonna kill you if I hear one more peep from that bulldozer!” He told me, with a straight face, “I had no idea what time it was!”

About a year after the bulldozer incident I came down my drive way and saw Mr. C directing some backhoes around up on the property with the barn on it. I stopped and asked what he was doing. “I’m going to build a house here. My wife spent too much money and we have to sell our original house.” I couldn’t believe it! Now I was going to have Mr. C and his wife for my close neighbors! What a disaster! So I watched as he built this new house. Ironically, this new house was built to look like a barn. Mr. C really liked barns for some reason. Maybe he thought southern people all lived in barns at one time and was trying to recapture something from history. Or else he just had more junk to store and needed barn-houses. The barn house turned out to look pretty nice like I figured it would. Mr. and Mrs. C moved in and went about their business. Mrs. C’s main business was spending money though I don’t have any idea what she bought. Stuff I guess. Anyway after about a year Mr. C told me that he had to sell the house he just built because his wife spent all their money again. “Where are you going to go?” I asked. He pointed to the barn and said he was going to turn IT into a house. I couldn’t believe it. He was slowly getting closer and closer. Barn/houses were creeping up on my house!

Sometimes Mr. C would decide to take a photo of my house. sign it, and then give it to me as sort of a token of neighborliness. Sometimes I would be nice to him because I thought, “Well, he’s an old man with a spendthrift wife and everyone hates him.” But I couldn’t be nice to him for long because he always found something else to offend me with. One Sunday I heard some of his employee hicks shooting guns across the little river. They were doing target practice with their 30/06 hunting rifles and it sounded like Vietnam right outside my door. This was the kind of thing that drove me crazy about Mr. C. Why, on all days of the week, would you let those red necks come out on a peaceful Sunday afternoon to do their target practice? But instead of going over to talk to him about it I got my own high-powered military assault rifle and went over to the little creak by the side of his barn/house. I fired off ten shots like a machine gun so that the noise practically dented the side of his house and then went back to my house. Within a minute he was zooming across the field in his land rover screaming at the hunter/target practice dudes to stop. I don’t know what he thought had happened but it was very satisfying to me.

One day Mr. C said that my dog came over to his house too much. I told him that he should stop feeding my dog then. He denied that he fed the dog. At that time I was a private pilot and sometimes I would fly over my house just to look at things. A few days after I told Mr. C to stop feeding my dog I flew over our houses at low altitude and saw a perfect trail from my house to Mr. C’s house. It was my dog’s path. I also saw with my own eyes, from an airplane, Mr. C dumping some sort of food into a bowl by his door and my dog hogging away at it. God I loved it! He was such a big fat liar that I didn’t even know what to say to him.

Over the years it seemed that we would go back and forth arguing about this and that but it really got to the point where I didn’t worry too much about him. I definitely terrified him a few times and then felt a little bad about it because I figured that he was too dense to understand what he was doing wrong. Aside from being wrong headed about social life he had a propensity for blowing up his cars and lawn mowers because he was one of those people who simply could not understand that engines absolutely had to have oil in them. His land rover machine was constantly drooling out oil where ever it went and that caused an epic fight between him and the rich woman who bought his original house. He would drive over to her place to bother her or watch her ride her horse and while his car sat there it would be pouring oil out on the ground. So this woman, who was an environmentalist hippy type, kicked Mr. C and his land rover off her property. He came over to my place to complain about it and I tried to explain that you had to keep your oil in your car engine. You HAD to for many reasons! But he just couldn’t understand it. He blew up a couple of cars, several lawn mowers, a weed whacker, and a tractor. All dead and out of oil! He also ran over monumental rocks and old iron farm implements with his riding mower. He liked to cut about ten thousand acres with this little John Deere riding mower that was meant to cut a little quarter acre plot. You’d hear this thing going along with the engine screaming and then a giant gnashing sound as the blades cut into a boulder or something. For the next few days you’d see his lawn mower in pieces on his driveway as he hired various dumb ass (cheap) mechanics to try fixing it. He liked cutting his grass so much that when he ran out of his grass he would start cutting mine. One day he came up to me and said that he’d run over a pile of rocks in my driveway and destroyed his lawnmower while trying to cut my grass. What could I say? Then there was the cattle battle. The one person Mr. C liked to fight with more than me was S. Fox the hillbilly cow farmer who leased some land around us. His cows would bust out all the time and tromp around our yards smashing everything in sight. At first they really made me mad and I would shoot them with my pellet gun, whack them with giant sticks, or throw big rocks at them as hard as I could. No matter how hard I hit one of those cows they would just look up at me like, “What?” and then continue eating like a fly just landed on them. I finally gave up on the cows and accepted the fact that I lived in farm land. But Mr. C would not accept that he lived in farm land. I don’t know how many times he called me and said, “There’s a cow on your property.” He really didn’t care where the cows went as much as he cared about the fact that there WAS a cow loose. One of S. Fox’s cows could be loose and over in West Virginia and Mr. C would be mad about it. Sometimes the cows made it through my property and over to Mr. C’s property. He would then call animal control, the police, S. Fox, me, and who knows who else. He would use his professional photographer skills to document the cow’s trespassing habits. He would come over to my house and tell me that S. Fox was a real bastard. “You wouldn’t believe what he said to me!” He’d say. But I could believe what he said to him. S. Fox really was a big bruiser red neck that reminded me of a bull and I liked to imagine him standing there in his greasy coveralls while Mr. C complained about his cows. I could see S. Fox with a piece of hay sticking out of his mouth and his eyes half shut in a bumpkin stupor while Mr. C went on and on about the cows. But S. Fox definitely didn’t care. What a perfect match! The ultimate hick against the ultimate NYC person. A pure deadlock of conflicting cultures! Two people who couldn’t care less about what the other one said. There was no way around it. We all wound up in court because of the cows. Somehow Mr. C worked with animal control to get S. Fox summoned to court and I was dragged in as a witness. I never saw Mr. C so happy. He must have thought that S. Fox was going to be publicly flogged or something after losing his case which he was sure to do. Mr. C had all sorts of big glossy photographs of cows who were trespassing. They always looked very happy standing there with grass hanging out of their mouths (ironically, like S. Fox looked) as they stared at Mr. C and his tripod. The problem with the photographs, as the judge pointed out, was that the cows could have been anywhere on the planet except the ocean or desert or the north pole. It was a pretty amusing trial. S. Fox actually hired a lawyer. I claimed that I didn’t mind the cows except when they trespassed on my “curtilage.” It was a new law word I learned just for the trial. S. Fox’s lawyer was a real performer and he strutted around the court room with his finger in the air like he was telling everyone “wait just a second here!” He accused my horses of trespassing on S. Fox’s land which I denied. He asked me how I knew it was S. Fox’s cows who were trespassing on my land. I told him that I could see them coming and going over the fence. The judge laughed a few times. At one point Mr. C and I were sent out into the hall for some reason. The bailiff instructed us to absolutely not talk to each other while out in the hall. As soon as we were alone in the hall Mr. C started telling me that S. Fox was a giant liar and a bastard and then asked me what I thought about S. Fox’s lawyer. The bailiff immediately came out and sternly warned us not to speak to each other. The second the bailiff shut the door Mr. C started talking again and I told him to be quiet but it was too late and the bailiff stuck his head out the door and said that we’d be cited for contempt if “we” said another word. It was unbelievable but Mr. C just couldn’t shut up about S. Fox and his lawyer, or understand that we were forbidden to talk to each other for some legal reason. I had to walk away and put my hands over my ears so I wouldn’t get a fine. When we got back in court it was announced that S. Fox was guilty of letting his cows go and he was to have a 100 dollar fine. Mr. C couldn’t believe that that was all that was going to happen. I told him he should sign some of his photos and give them to S. Fox and his lawyer but Mr. C did not understand my joke and said, “Why would I do that?”

Now, every spring, Mr. C will call me at least once to tell me that there is a cow on my property. I think he would really like to continue fighting the south but he’s becoming too old. His final big war was with a fairly famous movie director who bought the house/barn behind the house/barn Mr. C was living in. I don’t know how the fight started. It may have been over the driveway. Mr. C loved to sell pieces of his property with the idea that the buyer could use some of Mr. C’s driveway to get to their property. And then Mr. C would get mad at them for some reason and tell them that they had to get their own driveway, usually at significant expense, or else walk to their house from the main road. I think that’s what Mr. C did to the director. But the movie director was fairly rich and used lawyers to attack Mr. C. So Mr. C decided to pile up a mountain of ripped out trees and brush behind his barn/house so that the movie director looked out his front window at a pile of withering vegetation. The movie director had two giant, exotic dogs of the type that the rich often own. They looked like tigers and ran around between the director’s B/H and Mr. C’s B/H. When they barked they sounded like giant dire wolves from the pleistocene and they were good at barking for long periods of time. The director trained them to go right up to his property line, aim their giant muzzles at Mr. C’s B/H and bark their balls off. It didn’t bother the director to hear the dogs bark because he was deaf. Unfortunately Mr. C was also deaf so the only person the dogs bothered was me. I would bomb them with rocks and then I bought a high powered sling shot to shoot them with but it didn’t matter. They were wily dogs and I couldn’t come close to hitting them. The movie director had a very shy wife who was also the inspiration for a character in a famous sit-com from the late 70s. Some times I would scream up into their yard, “Shut those fuckin’ dogs up or I’ll kill ‘em.” and I knew the only person who could possible hear me would be the shy wife. That made me feel bad. And all of it came back to Mr. C and his machinations. I was standing in my drive way screaming at dogs and then being embarrassed because of Mr. C. I think their war would have gone on a long time but the movie director wound up investing in his daughter’s internet company and lost all his money so he had to sell his house. I thought it was ironic that both the director and Mr. C seemed to pour all their money into women and then had to sell their houses. Mr. C started off with 150 beautiful acres and wound up basically living in the final barn/house which was sort of down in a ditch with no views and very little acreage. And then I found out that he was doing a reverse mortgage so that even his final house was being slowly taken away from him.

The other day Mr. C called me to complain about the phone company. He wanted to somehow have the internet without having the phone company or something like that. Evidently he’d had some sort of fight with the phone company and they were threatening to shut him off. The way he described it it sounded like it was, as usual, entirely his fault (he didn’t pay them!) but he didn’t see it that way. I told him what I knew about the internet out in the country and then recommended that he get one of his kids to come out to his house when he got the phone company out there so he’d have some savvy tech back-up. Then he’s like, “My daughter, I don’t know how old she is, 29 or something like that, …getting her to come out here is like pulling teeth. And my wife, she lives in another room and won’t talk to me. And some rats ate the wires in my land rover so it won’t start, and my lawn mower…..” and on and on. Before he hung up he said, “Thanks for spending some time with me.” It was sort of sad. After all our fights I realized that someday I was going to miss Mr. C.

cold gray

February 1, 2016

It was one of those gloomy, wet, winter mornings when you walk outside and think about there being a warm beach somewhere and the fact that certain people are on that beach being warm and loved by the sun while you’re blinking your eyes and wondering what is wrong. I was trying very hard to focus on something positive so that I wouldn’t just vanish in a depressive fugue because it was just that bad outside this time of year. If you got warm in a bed somewhere it was extremely difficult to go back into nature, and life, and the life of nature because there was simply no welcome. It was just the opposite, like nature was saying, “You no longer belong here. Go away!” But of course there is no going away. You just have to go out.

The positive thing I was trying to concentrate on was that I was meeting a girl for coffee in town. She was not a very special girl but good enough. I had a sort of crush on her and I’d certainly have some makeshift relationship with her if conditions were right. The thought of going to see her while I was driving along was like a small warm spot in a big bland coldness. But it was a very small spot in a very big blandness. As I drove along the trees stood tall and dark kind of looking down on me and the road with that dead grayness in-between them. It was flat out sad and as I drove along I just wondered over and over again about how I could escape. And then my truck stopped working.

On the side of the road I stood looking down at my engine. I knew a lot about engines but I couldn’t bear the thought of taking anything apart because my whole body wanted to stop and wait for the cold to be gone. But I wanted to get to the coffee shop so I popped a few things open with my pocket knife and looked around. I was probably out of gas. But I didn’t know how I would deal with that. I would miss my date and freeze my ass off walking up the road. I wanted something easier than being out of gas. It was very cold out so part of me thought that maybe I had some frozen gasoline in the fuel line. But it was hard to figure out because my brain was infused with cold and gray and it just wanted to stop. I put my hands on the fuel line and held it tightly thinking I could warm some frozen plug of fuel. But I knew it was hopeless. I was probably out of gas.

A car full of rednecks pulled over in front of my truck. I recognized a couple of them as dudes I’d seen sitting on various porches smoking cigarettes and throwing beer cans into the yard and getting up now and then to toss some horseshoes or kick a dog. I never waived at them and they occasionally gave me dirty looks when I drove by but all in all I didn’t think much about them. They all got out and surrounded me and my engine. A strange feeling came over me. A really unusual thing. I started feeling the little smatterings of happiness tingling in my head. I was thinking, “These guys might kill me.” and it made me happy. It was like there was a solution hovering about me. A solution that would require no effort on my behalf. I just stood there basking in a new warmness.

The guys smelled like cigarettes, liquor, and bodies. They were all wearing greasy CPO jackets and ball caps. Their hair was long and oily but not like hippy long hair. Hippy long hair was on purpose. This long hair was ‘no money for a haircut’ long hair and it was animal like. All their boots were cheap Kmart things and their pants were polyester maintenance man pants which were so dirty the permanent seams were gone. They all stared down at my engine and then one of them asked, “What’s wrong with her?”
“Well,” I said, “It may be a frozen fuel line.”
And then another one asked, “Do you have gas?”
And I said, “Or, I’m out of gas.”
One of the guys was a fairly old man and he said, “We’re going up to the Little store if you want to ride along. You have a gas can?”
I did have a gas can and I got it out of my truck bed. Some redneck from the house on the hill across the road came outside and shouted down, “What are you boys doing?” One of my guys shouted back, “Our good deed for the day!”
So I got in the back seat of their car and a redneck got in on both sides of me. There were five of them all together. Three in the front seat and one on each side of me in the back. I had the gas can on my lap. It had about a tablespoon of gasoline in it which washed around and made the inside of the car smell like gas. The second the doors of the car shut every one of the rednecks lit up a cigarette. There were five flames all around me lighting up cigarettes and the warmness and happiness suffused me pleasantly. Could they smell the gasoline? God, what a life! No worries at all! The thought of being blown to pieces with the rednecks just made me very happy because it sounded warm and light. It was very warm inside the car. The guy right in front of me was named Bob and I had seen him walking up and down the road many times with a paper bag full of booze and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Actually, he usually did wave at me and everyone else when he was walking along drinking out of his bag. Just when we were about to pull out onto the road a cop car went by and the old man said, “There goes your friend Bob.”
“He’s not my friend.”
“He know’s you did it.”
“He doesn’t know shit.”
“He knows you killed him.”
And they left it at that. I knew they were trying to spook me by implying that one of them was a killer. I’d heard that exact kind of subtle implication in a few dozen conversations over the years so it didn’t really bother me. I found myself thinking, “I hope you are a killer Bob. I hope you kill this morning or at least this day. I won’t mind if you kill me.” The only thing that would bother me about being killed would be missing my date. I thought about my body lying out in the woods while my date cursed me for being late. And then I thought that I might be the most fucked up human being on earth. And then I thought that I had some unbelievable hubris for thinking that I could be the MOST anything on earth. And then I thought, “The driver of this car is drunk.” Because we were definitely weaving back and forth across the road as we headed up towards the Little store. Then Bob pulled a bottle out of the glove compartment and took a giant swig. He handed the bottle to the driver and the driver took a giant swig. He handed the bottle back to Bob who put it back in the glove compartment. I wondered why no one else was offered a swig. The three rednecks who didn’t have a swig definitely looked unhappy. I wondered about what kind of fights they had among themselves. I imagined them sitting around a table with a candle on it all holding hands. I imagined one of them saying, “Ok, let’s just let our feelings go and discuss this problem.” And then once again I thought about the plight of my own brain which was not working very well. I seemed to want to think up really unlikely things that didn’t collaborate with reality. Like I would think, “What would it be like to be cut in two by an egg beater.” and things like that. And it occurred to me that my brain was just casting out and looking for a pleasant thought to come from the abyss of senselessness. But the things I reeled in were not pleasant or even neutral—just annoying. My head was just too spent and lazy to put things in order. And the wane gray of winter was choking me down with its quiet dispensation of grief. What could a person do? I really wanted Bob to go on a killing spree.

We pulled into the Little store and the redneck on my left got out. I got out and the oldish man got out. I put my gas can down by the pump and then walked up to the door of the Little store. It wasn’t just a little store though it really was little. It’s proper name was the Little store as in the family name was Little even though person who owned it and ran was named Violet Maupin. She was a very old lady who every year would knit together these sort of Christmas puppets which she would fit over upright cartons of cigarettes and display on a shelf in her store. There was a line of cigarette cartons dressed up like Christmas personalities in the Little store. It was Violet Maupin’s big event of the year and when I thought about it it just made me sadder even though it was one of those things that was funny to a non redneck. What if I was becoming a redneck? What if those cigarette personages were not funny anymore because I saw the serious side of them and I was seeing the serious side of them because I was becoming infected with what ever invasive virus causes one to become a redneck. But what did it matter? If I didn’t mind being killed why should I mind being a red neck? I reached for the knob of the little store door and found it locked. “Closed.” I said to the old man who was standing next to me.
“She’ll be back in a minute. Probably changing Danny’s teeth.”
“Changing his teeth? What was he talking about? Did she have a baby with dentures or something?” I thought.
“She has a baby?” I asked though I don’t know why I asked because Violet Maupin was about 100 years old.
“No Danny, her gimpy boy who drives the tractor.”
I knew who he was talking about but I really didn’t want to think about it. I stood there with my hands in my pockets and looked at the tree tops which were swaying in the freezing wind. I looked at the old red neck who was bent down looking at a newspaper stand. He stood up and said, “I was watching about that British invasion last night.”
I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. Did the Brits attack another island like the Falklands sometime between yesterday and today? It seemed like I would have heard about that.
“You know,” he said, “you look to be about my age, old enough to remember.”
“Do you mean the British rock invasion?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine this being what he was talking about nor could I imagine that he thought I looked to be about his age. Jesus Christ! “What the hell? He must be 70!” I thought to myself.
“Yeah, you know, the Beatles and those guys like the Rolling Stones. I saw this thing about it on PBS.”
PBS! What the fuck. I couldn’t imagine this guy or any one of the guys from the car watching PBS under any circumstances. But then you never know. For all I know they could be designing iPhone apps inside their shacks at night. Things like “beer finder” or “wife killer.”
“No.” I said. “I missed it.”
“Well it was really interesting. All about how the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came over and everyone went wild.”
“Hmm.”
Just then the door opened and Miss Maupin was standing there smiling through her hundred year old face. Her hair was like this frizzy stuff that reminded me of a mushroom for some reason. But it was weird, you could tell that she was probably a beauty in her youth. You could still see a certain shape in her face that looked nice. She was about four feet tall and didn’t talk much. A couple months ago she was robbed by someone who whacked her with a baseball bat.
That was tough to even imagine. We walked into the store and I told her I wanted to fill my gas can. She flipped the big switch that turned on the gas pump. Then she turned to the old man and asked what he needed. He said, “Pampers.”
“What size?” She asked.
The old man held his hands about as far apart as they’d be to hold an eggplant and said, “I don’t know. For a baby about this big.”
“Who’s baby?” Asked Miss Maupin.
“Building’s.” Said the man.
I walked out the door even though I wanted to stay and continue listening to the conversation. A woman named Building? Or maybe that was the father’s name. Jesus. I went up to the pump and unscrewed the cap to my gas can. I flipped the pump handle and started pumping gas. The old man came out of the Little store carrying his Pampers. I thought, “What a strange thing. These boozing marauders are out buying diapers for someone’s baby.” The dude who had been driving and who had had the swig of liquor on the way up came over to me with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He was really a frightening looking dude. Like he had all sorts of genetic malfunctions that were still working their way through his body. It looked like he had a small glob of axel grease in his beard and his nose hair came right out and intertwined with his mustache.
“You know you can put a cigarette out in gasoline?” He said.
I did know that but I wanted to say it in a way that was real neutral so that he wouldn’t feel compelled to put his cigarette out in my gas can.
“Yeah, I know. I guess you have to have an open flame to light gasoline.” I said as I walked toward the Little store. I was just putting my foot on the step up to the door when the clapboards sort of lit up and then there was a deep explosion that was more of a whoosh than a bang. “Holy shit!” I thought as I turned around and saw the dirty hairy dude jump into a water tank that was used to test leaking tires and which luckily happened to be right there on the island by the pumps. I actually heard sizzling from the water putting out the flames on his clothes. The rest of the rednecks surrounded the tank and were laughing their asses off. The parking lot was on fire but the car was over to the side and there was nothing to really burn but the asphalt. The fire burned out fast and a cloud of black smoke blew over the mountain like a signal saying “rednecks just did something again.” The hairy dirty guy got out of the tank and looked incredibly unscathed considering. His hair might have been a little bit curlier and his skin a little redder but he didn’t look injured.
“God damn! Now that’s the way to take a bath! Cried the old man. “Burn it loose then rinse it off!”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were all jumping around and slapping their knees to beat the band. Then, at the same time, all of them went into a coughing fit from laughing so hard. Next, when the coughing settled down, they all spit and then lit up new cigarettes. I didn’t know what to say. My gas can was split open and lying next to one of the garage doors of the Little store. Technically, the scruffy dude owed me a new gas can and all the gas that was in it. But it seemed weird to ask for reparation from a dude who was just completely on fire and was now charred and soaked and standing in the freezing wind. They were all still shaking their heads as they looked at the dude. Miss Maupin was standing in the door of the Little store with her hands on her hips. “You boys don’t be cuttin’ up out there.” She said and then turned back into the store. She really seemed to be pretty laid back. But then I’d heard she really didn’t say much after being hit with a baseball bat and if that doesn’t bother you I guess an inferno in your parking lot is no big deal either. Now the dude who’d caught on fire was saying that his skin hurt. I said, “Maybe you should take him to a doctor.”
I just said it because I guess if a normal person caught on fire I would recommend they see a doctor. But these were hill rednecks and it made me feel like a pussy the second I said they should go to a doctor. They didn’t pay any attention to me. The old man went over to my gas can and picked it up. “Look at her! Split right down the middle!” He brought the gas can back to me and asked me if I had another gas can. I told him no, that I only carried one gas can around with me. “Well,” He said, “Let’s go down to Marilyn Monroe’s house and borrow a gas can.”
“Marilyn Monroe?” I said.
“Yeah,” said the old man. “She’s Dawn Johnson’s daughter. Dawn named all her kids after movie stars. There’s Marilyn Monroe Johnson, John Wayne Johnson, Shirley Temple Johnson, and the baby, Don Johnson Johnson.”
“Well, I can probably get a gas can from the Little store.”
“No,” said the old man. “We owe it to you. Milt here used up your gas and busted your gas can. We owe ya. We’ll get you a can and some gas from Marilyn Monroe.”
I said I would have to call someone first to let them know I wasn’t going to be on time for a date. Suddenly all the rednecks were very interested in me. “You have a date?” Asked two of them at the same time.
“Yes, I’m supposed to meet a girl in a coffee shop in town. I’m going to be late so I’d better let her know.”
I walked up to the pay phone which was on the front of the little store. All the rednecks followed me. I would have used my cell phone but on this particular part of the mountain it just didn’t work so I dropped a quarter in the slot and dialed Janny’s number. She answered and I told her that I was having some car trouble up on the mountain and would probably not be in town for a awhile. She said OK and told me to call her when I was on my way in. I hung up and turned around to see all the rednecks looking at me like puppies. “What?” I asked.
“So who’s this girl you’re supposed to meet?”
“She’s just a friend.”
“What’s she look like?” asked Milt as he sort of patted his burnt clothing.
“She’s ok. Just looks like a girl.”
I didn’t really like thinking about those guys thinking about Janny though I don’t know why. It’s not like they would ever meet her but I guess I just didn’t want her image being inside any of their heads. I could just see her silhouette lingering inside the dark cavern of one of their brain pans. Dark woods with eyes peaking from behind rotting logs and tongues hanging to the ground. Ugg! Just then a guy came walking down the road and one of the rednecks said, “Speaking of the devil. It’s John Wayne!” John Wayne had long black hair and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He was wearing sunglasses and a button down cowboy shirt that was unbuttoned down to the navel exposing his bare chest. The rest of him was blue jeans and cowboy boots. His unbuttoned shirt was untucked too.
“Damn, he must be freezing.” I said.
“Not him.” said the old man, “Those Johnson kids were all born with out what ever nerves it is that feels cold. They have no blood pressure either.”
John Wayne walked up and asked what was up. He had a toothpick in his mouth.
The old man said, “Well we were buying some pampers for Building and Milt here just caught himself on fire.”
Bob said, “You could a lit a cigarette off him!”
Then the other rednecks told their version of the story embellishing a little bit so that you would have thought a small atomic bomb had gone off in the parking lot. I thought it was kind of bizarre to have to embellish a story about one of your friends being completely on fire in a parking lot. It seemed like enough of a story to me without extra credit. The old man asked John Wayne if Marilyn Monroe was at home and he said yes. Then the old man asked if John Wayne wanted a ride to Marilyn Monroe’s and John Wayne said he had just come from there but might as well go back. The whole time, I have to admit, it did not appear that John Wayne was the slightest bit cold. It made me freeze just to look at him. So we all went over to the car and piled in. John Wayne and I sat in the middle of the back seat with a redneck on each side of us. The redneck next to me was Milt. I noticed that John Wayne was wearing a lot of cologne. It smelled like something I remembered from a long time ago. Milt really smelled bad, like burnt hair and grease. I started thinking that I probably wouldn’t be able to go on my date without having a shower first. It was pretty ironic actually. This particular girl had an acute sense of smell and often said I smelled like an animal of some sort. She would really have to say something now unless I showered. We drove a little further up the mountain and then turned into a rutted driveway that wound into the woods. We then started to go downhill at a precarious pitch. I saw an upside down car way back in the woods and wondered how it happened to be there. I mean who goes for a drive and winds up up side down in the middle of the woods? Trash was strewn on both sides of the road and I noticed that, for the most part, it was made of liquor bottles, beer bottles, and plastic toys. Now and then there would be a lawn mower part. We came around a giant rock out cropping and there stood a house which was leaned over pretty far. Coming out of the side of the house was a trailer home and then coming out of the side of the trailer home was a tin shack of the kind you’d put rakes and shovels in. On the side of the tin shack was a small lean-to which might have been used to keep wood dry but was now used to keep trash dry. Next to that was a little creek. It looked like they added on until they hit the creek. We pulled up to the house so that the bumper of the car was almost touching the porch. Everyone got out and the front door of the house opened to reveal a chunky woman with bleach blond hair who was holding a small dog across her chest. I assumed that it was Marilyn Monroe herself because she looked like Marilyn Monroe in a very remote way but as it turned out I was looking at House. House had a haircut that really did remind one of a roof. It went out at the sides like her face was a gable. The old man said, “Hey House! Here’s your wrappers!” and tossed the pampers to House who sort of turned to the side so they bounced off her hip. “You almost hit Pebbles!” She shouted as she petted the little dog furiously. She bent down and picked up the pampers then went back into the house. We were all walking up onto the porch when another girl came out the door. She looked kind of cute I thought but then I saw that she was cross eyed and a little bit toothy. “Who we got here?” She asked.
“A stranger.” Said Bob.
The girl looked at me with a sort of disapproving expression and I thought, “I’m like an Martian to her.”
“What’s he here for?” Asked the girl.
“Well Milt here put a cigarette out in this fellow’s gas can and it blew up so we’re here to get him some gas.” Said the old man.
“Why did he do that?” Asked the girl.
“Do what?”
“Why did he put his cigarette out in the gas can?”
“Well, I don’t think this guy believed you could put a cigarette out in gasoline.”
“I did believe it.” I said.
“I don’t understand.” Said the girl.
Then she turned to me and asked my name.
I’d been dreading this question. “Cathy Poste.” I said. And then to quickly explain I said, “My parents were extremely boring so they made up for it by trying to be different. Dyed hair and crazy names. Stuff like that.” But none of the hicks seemed to think anything about my name or at least it seemed that way.The girl kept looking at me but I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. I actually wondered what it would be like if I fell in love with this girl, married her, had kids with her, and was part of this family. I thought it would be like jumping in front of a train but it would be an dramatic change. And then I thought that I was thinking like my own boring ass family. Wanting change for change’s sake. But it wasn’t totally illogical. I did need a change. But it couldn’t be aimless. I couldn’t do that anymore. The girl turned to John Wayne and asked, “Did you get my wax?”
“I forgot.” Replied John Wayne with his toothpick still hanging out of his mouth. Suddenly tears started welling up in the girl’s eyes and she stomped her foot then ran into the house. John Wayne turned to the hicks who were all standing on the porch and said, “I was supposed to get some candle wax. She wants to melt it onto some hairy spot of her body and then pull the hair out with the wax.”
“I know what part she’s talking about.” Said Milt.
“I’ll bet I know too.” Said Bob.
“And I’ll bet you’re all wrong.” Said the old man.
I really felt sorry for the girl right then and had the idea that I should somehow steal her from this life of squaller and misery. Now that she’d gone inside I was already forming an idea of her in my mind which I was sure would render her better than reality. The old man turned to me and said, “That was Shirley Temple. A thirty year old maid. Doomed.” I shook my head a little bit and asked about the gas can. I didn’t think that girl was 30. Maybe 35. Milt opened the door and they all started filing in. I followed them into a house that looked pretty much like I imagined it would. It was filled with junk to the point where you really imagined small animals packing away as many nuts as possible whenever possible. Surprisingly it actually smelled nice though. A sort of woodsy smell with something sweet underneath. I imagined there being so many smells that they all canceled each other and left only a few nice ones. I was thinking about that girl which made my mind cast in a more positive direction. I probably should have been thinking about my date. But this hick girl was able to generate an even warmer spot inside me than my coffee date had. And it was only a date anyway. I couldn’t disregard pleasantness in any form. I would take all of it and use it against this dull grey day. I didn’t really even have a choice. I stood there in the middle of the living room and looked around. It was very dirty and worn. There was a TV going playing cartoons and on a couch in front of it sat three small children in various states of dress. They were all eating out of a plastic bowl which was sitting on the middle child’s lap. It looked like jello and they were spilling it all over the place. “Imagine looking under the cushions of that couch!” I thought to myself. House came in from a hall behind the couch and the little dog she was holding appeared to be wearing Pampers. All the children burst out when they saw her and the dog. “Let us hold Pebbles!” They shouted.
“Kiss my ass and shut up!” Replied House.
She turned to me and said, “They only want to hold Pebbles after the know I just changed her diapers.”
“I see.” I said.
Another woman came from the hall way. She was pushing a walker that had wheels on it which looked like they’d come from a lawn mower. There were also some of those fake chrome wheel covers on it like the ones on gang banger’s cars that spin backwards at traffic lights. Leave it to the hill people to hop up a walker with custom equipment. Every time the woman took a step the walker shifted back and forth in a way that made it look like it was much harder to walk with the walker than it might have been to walk without it. The old lady looked at me and said, “So you’re the one courtin’ Shirley Temple.”
“Uh. I don’t know about that ma’am. I think your confusing me with someone else.”
“He’s here to get some gas ma.” Said the old man. He turned to me and said, “This is my ma. Lucretia Lee. She’s a direct descendant of Robert E. Lee.”
I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed but in a strange way it felt pretty good. It was like I left my house half and hour ago in a bored funk and now I was in a foreign country meeting foreign people. “A direct descendant of Robert E. Lee.” I said, “That’s impressive.”
“She has the hind leg of Traveller hanging in her bedroom.” Said Milt.
“Traveller?” I said.
“That’s Robert E. Lee’s horse.” Said the old man.
“She has its leg?” I asked.
“She does.” Said one of the hicks I didn’t know the name of.
“Did a taxidermist stuff it?” I asked. I don’t know what made me ask that. They all looked at me like they did when I suggested they take Milt to the doctor. Like I was a retarded city slicker hardly worth aiming an eye at.
“Let’s get that gas.” Said the old man as he walked into the kitchen which was open to the living room and only demarcated by its ancient linoleum floor. He opened a cabinet over the stove and took out a red gas can. He shook it and said, “Probably a gallon in here.” I could see why these people were inclined to catching on fire. I really wondered how the house remained unburned. I was debating asking about storing gasoline above the stove when Shirley Temple came out. Now she was wearing a little green dress with flowers on it. Lucretia looked at me and said, “Now doesn’t she look nice. She really does look just like Shirley Temple. Have you ever seen Little Miss Broadway?”
“I don’t think so.” I said. I really didn’t think the girl looked much like Shirley Temple but she didn’t look bad.
“Let’s watch it.” Said the old lady.
I looked around at all the hicks to see if they heard the same thing I heard. I had a partial image of sitting on that couch surrounded by hicks watching Little Miss Broadway but I just couldn’t bring the image into full bloom. Before I knew it the old woman was shooing the kids off the couch and telling the old man to get Little Miss Broadway out of the cabinet. Shirley Temple ran over to the couch and sat down near the end and then patted the cushion between her and the armrest indicating that I should sit there. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I started walking over to the couch but then Milt said, “Oh no. You’re not going to sit on the end there where no one can watch you. We know about you at the movies!” The way he said it I, at first, thought he was talking to me and I was about to be really confused but then realized he was talking to Shirley Temple. Milt pointed to me and said, “You can sit in the middle.” Shirley scooted to the middle of the couch. I could’t believe what was happening. I wasn’t thinking about my date anymore. I was starting to think about adventure and how it comes about. I just didn’t really have any good idea about what to do so I went over and sat on the couch next to Shirley Temple. The old granny, Lucretia, sat on the other side of me and then Bob, Milt, House, and one of the other red necks slouched down onto the couch. John Wayne came up behind the couch and put his hands on the backrest right behind Shirley Temple and stood there with his toothpick. The old man put the VHS into an old whirring machine and off it went. Little Miss Broadway. It was like being in a scene from the Beverly Hillbillies. Cigarettes were lit and smoke rose over the couch. A liquor bottle was pulled from someone’s CPO jacket and passed down the line. I took a small sip. I didn’t want to be drunk but I found it very appealing that this whole family thought it was OK to have a drink at ten in the morning. I knew too many people who only sipped craft beers and did not drink for the alcohol. I couldn’t stand those people and now I was with their opposites. Shirley Temple tried to take a drink but the bottle was snatched from her by John Wayne. I guess she wasn’t allowed to have booze for some reason. My can of gas was sitting on a coffee table right in front of us. As Little Miss Broadway proceeded I thought first, “The real Shirley Temple looks nothing like the Shirley Temple next to me.” Two, “The actual Shirley Temple only has one dimple.” and finally, “Why do I feel so semi-comfortable in this unusual setting!” The old lady started telling me that George Murphy, who was the leading man and Shirley Temple’s dancing partner, was the inspiration for Ronald Reagan’s political career. “He was the first big star to make the jump from Hollywood to politics.” She said. I thought it strange that she would know this. It made me actually wonder if she did in fact have a horse leg from general Lee’s horse in her room. Why couldn’t this be some fallen family? Like some aristocrats who’d gone to seed. I asked the old lady if their family had lived in this house long. She told me they’d been there for over 580 years. That made me think, “So much for the horse leg story.” Then the old lady told me about how Shirley Temple was one of the most effective ambassadors we’d ever had. I didn’t really know how effective a diplomat Shirley Temple was but I did know she had been a diplomat so, again, I was wondering about this old lady’s intelligence. Then she said, “You know it was Kissinger who got her going in the foreign service. He recommended her to Nixon and Nixon appointed her as a representative to the UN.” I couldn’t believe she knew this. “How do you know all of this?” I asked her. “Why shouldn’t I know it?” She responded. And then I thought “Yes, why shouldn’t she know it?” She then told me that the Shirley Temple sitting next to me won the Augusta Farm Bureau Ciggy Piggy Beauty contest four years ago. I smiled and said I could see that. Shirley Temple leaned to my ear and said, “Emma Sump almost won it but she was too corny when she sang.”
“Well I’m glad you won.” I said.
She leaned a little closer to me so that her shoulder was touching mine. I was a little nervous but it felt nice to be so cozy with this girl who was sort of forbidden. Then she put her hand on my knee and firmly squeezed. This made me a little more nervous. I sort of looked to the sides and it appeared that all the hicks were absorbed in Little Miss Broadway. I wondered if John Wayne was also absorbed. Was he still behind us? I scratched the back of my neck and then pretended that something might have brushed against the back of me so I could turn around. John Wayne wasn’t there. Now I was feeling less nervous about what Shirley Temple was doing. I found myself thinking that I wished I could be alone with her so we could talk. I was curious about what she was like. The old lady now pronounced out of the blue that we should alI go to Richmond soon. I didn’t understand what the granny was talking about. Now Shirley Temple’s hand was working its way up my leg while the Shirley Temple on the TV was singing something about not being a frumpy head. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the old man nudge Bob. I stole a look and saw that they were both looking at Shirley Temple’s hand on my leg. I looked to the other side and saw that the old lady was also looking at Shirley Temple’s hand. Why couldn’t Little Miss Broadway be a little more interesting right now? They were all absorbed a second ago! “Shirley Temple was certainly talented for a little kid.” I thought. Now she was tap dancing and she was pretty amazing. The living, breathing Shirley Temple was still moving her hand. I was torn between the two Shirley Temples and becoming concerned for what was going to happen in the next 30 seconds both on and off screen. I felt agitated but couldn’t think of what to do. And then I said, “Look at that girl dance.”
The living Shirley Temple smacked my leg with her hand and everyone snickered. The old man said, “Don’t make her jealous! She can be a polecat if she’s jealous!”
I felt like I was on a first date back in high school and the entire family of my date was with me. But I wasn’t on a date. I was getting some gasoline so I could go on a date. And then I found that I didn’t care about my real date anymore. She would want to talk about what was happening on Facebook and what she heard on NPR and I would tolerate it because I simply yearned for human contact. But now! Talk about human contact! Then I imagined us as not humans but a bunch of raccoons or groundhogs curled around each other in a nest where everything was confused and overlapping. That really was how these people lived. They overlapped. They didn’t sit around pontificating about their relationships. They simply related all over the place. This was just the opposite of me. I wouldn’t say that I was a snob but others might. Generally, I didn’t like being bundled together with a bunch of people. Also I didn’t really like to be touched which was strange since I liked touching other people as well as inanimate objects and animals. In fact I could be very touchy. Sitting here on the couch I felt like I was being touched all over the place even though it was just Shirley Temple’s hand that was really doing the touching. I guess my shoulders were touching the old lady’s shoulders. I started going into a sort of daydream about my touching and anti-touching tendencies. “Why was I like that?” I wondered. I thought, “I like acting on others but don’t like being acted upon.” Could that be true? I felt a little sick thinking about it because it suddenly struck me as my own psychobabble. I don’t like thinking about those things just like I don’t like being touched. But I wasn’t minding it now. Being touched that is. I looked over at Shirley Temple and saw that her eyes were flecked with little spots on her irises that sort of went along with her freckles. Her eyes were really just barely crossed and her teeth were not so bucked up close. I felt like I could lean over and kiss her and it would be just fine. And that’s what I was getting ready to do when the front door opened and a giant person came inside. He looked like the rapist dude from the movie Deliverance. I mean there didn’t look like there was a friendly bone in his body and he really made me think about the missing link. The granny picked up a cane that was lying in front of the couch, pointed it at the dude and said, “Well now Ollie, it looks like you might have some competition.” Ollie! What a name for a brute! Was he a cute little baby at one time? It was hard to imagine! As soon as granny said that Ollie might have some competition Shirley Temple put her arm over my shoulders and pulled herself closer to me. I could imagine her saying, “I’m done with you Ollie. I’ve met this city slicker.” And then I could imagine Ollie tearing my head off and putting it on the TV set for the hicks to watch. I kind of liked the idea of fighting such a brutal looking man though. It was like, how could I go wrong? I would die in a hail of bravery. No one could fault you for being killed by Ollie. I mean I wanted Bob to kill me a little while ago when I was riding in the hick car. And I was still having some problems seeing beyond the horrible grey day which was so oppressive. Twenty minutes ago dying in a fight seemed OK and now dying in a more romantically tinged fight seemed even better. It was weird. It was like just the opposite of what I was just thinking. Being beaten to death in a fight certainly would count as being touched by someone else. This was extremely annoying. I was overthinking everything. I just wanted everything to be ok without having to apply myself to making it so. I was just being lazy. But that was what cold grey weather did to me. It just made me lazy as could be. Ollie stood there to the side of the TV and I couldn’t help contrasting him to the Shirley Temple in Little Miss Broadway. Talk about humans from opposite sides of the evolutionary chain! He had more hair on his knuckle than she had on her whole head. He leaned down to the TV and looked at it for a moment, and the said, “Little Miss Broadway?” It seemed like he shouldn’t be able to say those words. I wondered if he would even know how to watch a TV. He sort of put his fists together in front of his stomach and pressed them so that the muscles bulged in his shirt like his sleeves were full of plump groundhogs or beavers who were arching their backs at threatening animals. I could smell him from ten feet away. He smelled like someone from a South American war. I timidly and quietly asked Shirley Temple if that was her boyfriend. I really wasn’t a very timid person and I wouldn’t exactly call myself a pussy but their was just no use puffing up in front of this guy. Shirley Temple said, “He was my boyfriend but now he isn’t.”
“Uuh,” I said, “What went wrong?”
“I found someone else.”
I was sure she would say it was me if I asked so I didn’t ask. I know there was a certain amount of presumptuous thinking there but as I told you I was lazy in the head and I was ready to accept any plausible explanation for anything that might have been complicated or dangerous to think about. I folded my hands on my lap and concentrated on Little Miss Broadway. The original Shirley Temple was now being dragged away back to the orphanage and all the hicks were staring at the TV with their mouths hanging open. I was relying on my ability to vanish into a story in order to not think about the real world around me. I imagined being in the movie, maybe as the plainclothes policeman taking Shirley Temple back to the orphanage. I imagined the feeling of a stiffly starched shirt and the course material of a suit from the thirties. I imagined holding Shirley Temple’s plump little hand as I dragged her away from her birthday party celebration. She pouted and her adoptive parents scowled. But Ollie was still there. I could feel his dark presence next to the couch and then I could feel him behind the couch. He put his hands on the backrest and leaned down causing the bones of the couch to creak and groan. His breath was going down the back of my head. I tried harder to be in the movie with Shirley Temple. I could have easily grown a pencil mustache and worn a grey fedora hat. I would have fit right into the thirties fashion scene. I would be willing to take up tap dancing in order to dance with Shirley Temple on top of a long table in a marble mansion. But it was awfully far away from where I really was. It felt like a steam pipe was leaking on the back of my head as Ollie took long deep breaths and expelled them, purposefully I thought, down the back of my neck. I thought of my coffee date who was probably wondering why I wasn’t getting in touch with her for a progress report. She was the kind who wanted to keep track of everything. She wouldn’t move without a plan. But now I was with people who didn’t plan a thing. I too did not like to plan. But what had it gotten me? I had had a girlfriend who every time she called me would say, “I know you don’t like to plan, but…” and then proceeded to form a plan. I just did not live that way. But sitting there surrounded by hicks watching Little Miss Broadway while Ollie breathed down my neck made me think planning could have its advantages. I guess I always wanted to be free just like an animal. A creature who went from moment to moment with no idea what was going to happen next. And I wondered if it was an adventurous nature or laziness. I looked around at the hicks and thought about their lack of planning. What had it gotten them? Well it seemed like they lived in a dirty hell hole but I sure couldn’t say that they seemed to be unhappy. On the contrary. They seemed to be just fine. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to be just fine. Suddenly, Ollie flicked me on the ear. It was just like something someone would do in high school. A slight perturbation of the status quo. Now I had to think very fast. This was the exact kind of provocation that I would myself perpetuate on some innocent person and so I knew exactly what was going through Ollie’s mind that very second. Every moment I waited was increasing the likelihood of a more serious attack. But what was I to do? I was a guest at some people’s house, people I barely knew. Should I jump up and demand an apology? Should I jump up and punch Ollie? Time was ticking away and I could feel the heat of Ollie’s breath increasing in intensity. I decided that I would count to five and then do something. I had no idea what but that was the only way that I could think of to make myself move. I counted to five and then stood up. I turned around to face Ollie and saw that he was just standing there looking pretty neutral. I felt like if I punched him as hard as I could that he wouldn’t even bat an eye. These were the kind of moments that you typically didn’t get a lot of time to think about, where the animal instincts kicked in causing you to dive for the door or lash out with everything you had. But I just stood there thinking about the fact that I was standing there thinking about it. I wondered how long I could stand there thinking about it. And then, incredibly, I thought about the fact that I was wondering about the derivative nature of my thought, how I was wondering about my wondering. What if this derivative thought went on for ever and I just stood there for ever and turned into an ornament at the hick house? They could hang their dirty jackets on me and toss their shoes around me. And someday I would be dumped out in the yard with the rest of the junk. But none of this happened of course. Because Ollie blinked. While I was standing there Ollie evidently misunderstood my rumination as some sort of unknown psychological maneuver. He blinked and then he put his hands in his pockets and moseyed out the front door. I didn’t know whether to feel bad or good about it. I had just won one little battle of the day but it was purely by luck that I did so. It made me feel good. I felt so good that I announced to the hicks that I was going to get back to my truck so I could be on my way to my meeting. Now they were all staring at me with their mouths hanging open and I thought that if I had some marbles or ping pong balls I could play a game of trying to toss them in the hick’s mouths. Even Shirley Temple who had just been feeling my leg was looking stupefied. It was like they were in a trance of some sort. I actually had an urge to wave my hand in front of their faces to see if they reacted but instead I turned around and walked over to my gas can. I picked it up and headed for the door thinking that any second one of them was going to say something to me and try to stop me. But they didn’t make a peep. I walked out the door and started up the drive way. I had walked for about a minute when I heard someone running up behind me. I turned around to see Shirley Temple huffing and puffing in her little green dress. She grabbed my arm and said, “You have to come back some time you know.”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind coming back to see you sometime. But what was wrong with all of them back there? They seemed like they were on drugs or something.”
“They’re just sleepy.” She said.
“But it’s only a little after ten in the morning.”
“Well none of them have been asleep for about two years now.”
“Two years?”
“Well Shirley Temple Johnson,” I said, “I don’t understand a thing about your family but I’m glad I met all of you.”
I really didn’t know what else to say. Shirley looked at me with her face slightly askew and I really did think she looked beautiful standing there on that cold gray driveway in her light dress. What could I believe about these people? She appeared to be truly warm even though though it was freezing out. And she appeared to be truly happy despite the slog of grey light that filtered through the woods trying to press me down and down. What did they have that I didn’t have? Or maybe what did I have that they didn’t have. I didn’t know. But I felt better and believed that maybe the cold and the grey might not be able to kill me after all.

THE PRIESTLYS

December 30, 2015

The Priestly’s lived in the house at the end of our road by the highway. It was a rough but pretty stone structure next to several out buildings which had boarded up windows and vines growing wild over the roofs. They rented the place, I think, from the church across the street and I know that the Priestly’s were poor. Mr. Priestly looked like a southern man. He was dark in complexion from working outside and was always just in need of a shave. He had very deep blue eyes, thin lips, and something of a sharp nose. I never saw him wear anything but those kind of polyester uniform pants, usually blue, and he didn’t wear a shirt. The not wearing a shirt was why I associated him with the south. When I was young, grown men simply did not go shirtless unless they came from the hills of Kentucky or Tennessee and knew no better. Mr. Priestly had a wife that weighed about 300 pounds. He weighed about 130 pounds. His wife was very pale and never came outside. She wore a sort of flannel bathrobe or pajama outfit all the time. There were four malnourished girls that belonged to the Priestly’s. They were very shy, and like their mother very pale. They certainly weren’t fat though. In that regard they were like their dad only maybe even a bit more wispy. Their lips were red and showed starkly on their etiolated faces like they’d been eating bright red berries since they were born. Usually, I’d see them playing out around the buildings behind their house and if they saw me they would hide like mice.

Well one day my friends and I were having an apple fight in the parking lot of the church. There were apples flying all over the place and some of them hit the Priestly’s house. I remember looking up to see Mr Priestly running full tilt across his yard, barefoot, holding a can of beer in one hand and a piece of chicken in the other. His face was beet red and there was foam around the edges of his mouth. We scattered like rats while he screamed at us to come back. I ran behind his house and climbed on the roof of one of the outbuildings. I waited up there for about five minutes looking at the vines and trying to count all the bees which were collecting food from flowers. It was a beautiful day and the air smelled sweet and warm. It was the beginning of summer and we’d all just been out of school for three or four days so we were in that state of bliss which comes from knowing your days are free and endless. There was nothing to worry about anywhere anyhow and I think I must have been smiling to myself when I looked down and saw the four Priestly girls looking up at me. They were standing next to a dried up birdbath all of them dressed identically in jeans and white tee shirts. There lips were like the red roses and their hands were behind their backs like they were hiding what they could of themselves. I don’t think I’d ever said a word to any of them. It was the first time I saw them outside that they weren’t running away from me. It’s not that I ever chased them. I didn’t. But I would be out playing and run into them somewhere and they’d take off like I was chasing them. That’s just what they did. Anyhow they were looking at me and I was looking at them. I don’t know what possessed me to say it but I said, “Your dad is after me.” and when they didn’t move or say a word, I added, “We were throwing apples.” They didn’t move a muscle or change their blank expressions. I thought about their names. They were all named after birds. Sparrow, Robin, Lark, and Dove. I knew this because I was the paper boy and the Priestly’s were on my paper route. No matter what kind of trouble I’d been into around the church during the week I would have to show up on Thursday afternoons and knock on the Priestly’s door to collect for the paper. It was a very strange thing. Mr. Priestly would be trying to kill me all week long and then I would have to go right up to his front door and face him and his family. Every time he answered the door the whole family would be standing there behind him. And Mr. Priestly, instead of dragging me in and chopping off my head would be acting as nice as you could imagine. He would smile like I was his long lost son and have me come in while he dug up some money. They would make me sit on the couch and Mrs. Priestly would always bring me a soda pop and ask me if I wanted anything to eat. I never wanted any food but I loved the soda pop since my parents wouldn’t let us have it. While I’d be sitting there on the couch and Mr. Priestly would be back in the bedroom looking for money Mrs. Priestly would tell me about the girls and what they’d been doing. She’d tell me that Dove got an A in spelling and that Lark had avoided a paddling in school because she was so cute. She’d tell me how Robin sewed a button onto her shoe and Sparrow tore it off and ate it. I don’t know how much of what she told me was true but I guess I didn’t have any reason to doubt her. I think that she and Mr. Priestly wanted me to marry their girls. I not only had a paper route but I also cut grass so I was a good earner and I can tell you the paper was never late even when I had a lot of stuff to steal from people’s yards and garages on my route. So I’d sit there and listen to Mrs Priestly while the girls sat on the floor looking at me like I was fresh out of a zoo. One time Mrs. Priestly told me that the girls had a special treat for me. They had made some cookies by themselves and Dove brought them out to me on a plate with a carrot and a piece of celery which I suppose were there to decorate the meal. The first cookie nearly killed me. It was like a solid piece of cooked sugar and hard as a railroad spike. But I ate several of them since I was a sugar lover. Occasionally Mr. Priestly would offer me a beer but I was only ten and didn’t like beer. Also, I never thought we weren’t allowed to have beer in our own house. Only candy was forbidden so it was only candy I wanted. Every time I was sitting in their living room I thought about the South. I would think to myself, “I’d like to live in the South.” Eventually Mr. Priestly would pay me and give me a large tip which I could never understand since they were the poorest people around our neighborhood. They would all stand at the door waving when I left. Well, Mr. and Mrs. Priestly would wave. The girls just stood there like dummies.

So I was looking down at these girls wondering if they would go tell on me. I had no idea what to say to them. Finally, I asked them if they knew where their dad was and they all shook their heads no. I climbed down from the roof and dusted off my pants. The girl known as Dove, who was the oldest, asked me if I wanted to play hide and go seek with them. As I stood there looking at them I felt sort of sorry. I don’t know why. I didn’t really want to play with a bunch of girls. Especially the Priestly girls who were so quiet, pale, and sort of sickly. I was about to say no when Sparrow came over and took my hand. Sparrow was the littlest one and she was known around the neighborhood because she ate all sorts of little things like seeds and bugs and buttons. She pulled my hand and said, “Come on. I wanna show you something.” She pulled me again and I followed her around to the pump house where an old spring used to flow and provide water for a defunct orchard. This little concrete building that was half underground was where we often went to sneak cigarettes. It was cool and dark inside with tiny frogs sticking to the damp walls. A small trickle of water came out of a pipe in the wall and dripped into a square pool in the floor. Sparrow let go of my hand and tried to pull open the door but it was too heavy for her. I pulled the door open and Mr. Priestly jumped out at me and said, “Gotcha!” He then grabbed me by the arm, threw me into the pump house, and slammed the door. I hit the floor and my hand went into the pool which was about a foot deep and silted with creamy mud on the bottom. I could feel my heart banging away and I was breathing very fast as my eyes adjusted to the dark. “God damn!” I thought. “What the hell!” I couldn’t believe that little rat Sparrow would do something like that to me. But just when I was thinking that the door opened again and Sparrow was shoved into the pump house by her sisters who slammed the door after her. I could hear the hasp being latched which I hadn’t heard when Mr. Priestly shut the door. I couldn’t really understand what was going on. Sparrow started crying and I told her that it was ok, that I was right there but she acted like she didn’t know who was talking in the dark. “You little dummy. It’s me, the paperboy.” I said. “Your dad just threw me in here right in front of your eyes. Who do you think it is?” But the more I talked the more she cried. I could see light coming in from cracks where the roof met the walls and there were shadows moving where I assumed the sisters were walking around outside. I figured that Mr. Priestly had just wanted to scare me and he left as soon as he threw me in the pump house. I figured he didn’t lock the door because he wanted me to walk out and let bygones be bygones. But the sisters may have had other ideas. I kept trying to calm Sparrow and finally she settled down and started talking about spiders and frogs. I tried to open the door but it was locked fast with the hasp and the sisters seemed to be gone. Sparrow said she was afraid to move for fear of falling into the pool. I wound up letting her sit on my lap so she wouldn’t be touching the floor. I wasn’t really all that upset. I was already looking forward to telling my friends about how Mr. Priestly tricked me and threw me in the pump house. I loved to tell stories so much I would start telling them before they were even done happening. But then, as we were sitting there listening to the water drip into the pool, the strangest thing happened. Sparrow started telling me a story. But it was not the story of a little girl. It was not about dolls or princesses. At first it was about something I could not understand. But then it became something very terrifying. She started by telling me this: “Once upon a time, many years from now, you will be upstairs somewhere in a restaurant. It will have just stormed outside and you’ll be sitting next to a woman who is looking at you while you look out at the wet rooftops and think about the sliver of sunlight reflecting sharp beams off to the sky. You were drinking a drink. A supposed drink. An alcoholic beverage with about three drops of alcohol in it. The rest of the drink is made of rhubarb, cherry, and lime and it is so sweet you will think of being a little kid again and how much you would have loved it if only… but you’re not a little kid anymore. You’re something much worse so you order a hamburger that costs twenty five dollars. The woman orders some deviled eggs and a main course of grits and eggs even though it is dinner time. The hamburger comes and it tastes like a sunburned possum. It is gamey and you want to throw up but you keep eating it because you don’t want to offend anyone. The center of the burger is raw and bloody.You want to complain but you know that you will be told the following: “This is what good, natural, local food tastes like.” and you’ll think, “If only I’d known! Good food can be recognized because it tastes bad! If only I could understand that good food tastes bad and accept that as the new paradigm!” But you can’t understand and you can’t accept it. Everything inside the restaurant makes you feel ill at ease. You do not belong there at all. You have stumbled into the wrong world. Logic is upside down. Good is bad, and sick is well. Everything is pretend. You pretend things are good and special. You pay good money to stamp the deal in your mind. But you don’t buy it at all. You are just sucked along because if you don’t agree to the nature of this world you will be ostracized. Gaggles of girls sitting at the tables around you are taking photographs of themselves and their food. They are documenting raw boredom and making a photo collage of a life you never wanted to be part of. You are in the photos and there is no way to get off of them. This is your life but you have no idea how you got it. Later, after restraining yourself from thrashing the chef and waitstaff who were so insistent on telling you how good the bad tasting food was, you go to a musical venue. It is songwriter’s night and there are six folk song singers with their guitars. They sing and talk about nothing. It is amazing how long they can sing and talk about nothing. The notes they play have no sound to them. It is like being in a torture chamber watching a film loop of nothing. You realize that the boredom is so intense it actually interests you to contemplate the very intensity of it. What a perverse notion! Finally, you tell the woman you can take no more and leave. You do it nicely because you do in fact love her and don’t want to hurt her. But you want to kill yourself. That’s how much you want to get away from the life that has somehow come to be twisted a tad too far. Do you understand any of this?” Sparrow asked.
I didn’t really understand it. It was so cool and dark but I could suddenly sense many heated days ahead, burning up life, leaving smoke and ash in its wake. I just couldn’t understand it. I don’t know why I did it but I tucked Sparrow’s head under my chin and told her I’d remember her and love her ‘till the day I died. She responded by eating my collar button and then falling asleep like a darling dream cub.

MORNING SONG

December 23, 2015

We awoke at the same time by what instrument I do not know. Darlene had something in her hair that looked like streaks of grease. The sun was coming around the curtains at a high angle and all around us were empty vials and hypodermics. We were on dead empty. Everything in the room had been burnt, smoked, licked, sucked, and polished clean of dope. Now there was nothing left except an empty day that would be followed by another empty day. Let me tell you. There are empty feelings in the world but this particular version of empty is the most intense you’ll ever know. Even the death of a loved one will not leave a hole like this. This dope makes a contrast with normal life which is ripe for a large hole and no matter what you do that hole will come. Even if you don’t run out of money you’ll eventually run out of energy. Darlene left and I never saw or heard of her again.

We awoke because the dog was barking at something out in the back yard. I rolled over and saw that there were some little pieces of hay in Lena’s hair. Her face was flushed and the first thing I thought was that maybe she had a fever but I knew that she didn’t because she was the most healthy person on earth. Really, she was the quintessence of hardy midwestern peasant stock with slightly chubby arms that would be just right for pulling calves through the fence or heaving straw onto a cart. I felt very safe with Lena. Like she could beat up a burglar if I happened to be asleep and she happened to be awake when he was hovering over my bed with a crowbar. She wasn’t much of a cook but I didn’t care. As it turned out I wasn’t that safe with Lena. She ran off with someone who sold machines designed to pump tar onto large, industrial type roofs.

We awoke to an alarm from an antique clock. Chloe propped herself up on her elbow so that she was looking at me with a tilted head when I opened my eyes. She had a barrette dangling from a clump of loose hair. I could tell she had things to say about last night. I wasn’t in love with her anymore and I had demonstrated it by talking to someone else for almost the entire party. But I didn’t do it to be mean. I really wasn’t interested in her anymore and I would do just about anything to not have to simply tell her the truth. I just didn’t love her but I didn’t want to hurt her. Instead of berating me for being rude at the party she told me that she was sick of me and wanted to leave. She said it with a tear in her eye and I just couldn’t think of a thing to say except, “Would you like some coffee?”

We awoke to the chirping of a car alarm somewhere down in the canyon of buildings. Surrounded by tall sheets of sparkling glass we sat up in bed and looked at one another. Beth had a crumpled flower in her hair and the stem was sticking out in such a way that I thought there might be a chopstick in there too. Her pajamas probably cost ten thousand dollars and there was real gold in her lipstick. She was English. I had no business what so ever being with her. My dad fixed vending machines and my mom sat home smoking and watching soap operas. I faked my way into Beth’s life using charm that I learned on television. They just didn’t make aristocrats like they used to. She fell for it all. I left her for Lena.

One morning I awoke and there was nothing in anyone’s hair. But there was a song playing and it was so beautiful that it made me want to cry. The lyrics were terrible but the singing and the melody were just lovely. I listened to the song over and over again all morning long. I realized that the song was doing the same thing to me that falling in love did. It made me feel exactly the same way. It evoked the same simultaneous notion of finding and losing which was the hallmark of all my loves. Eventually, I turned off the song and didn’t listen to it ever again. But I’ll tell you it echoed in my head for a long time.

THE LETTER

December 17, 2015

During the summer following my last year in high school we had a lot of men wearing suits sitting in our living room. The first set of suits were police detectives investigating a theft. Someone had stolen a pair of bicycles from the mayor of a neighboring town and one of the bikes had been traced back to me and my gang. I remember sitting there on the couch dressed in torn up jeans and a tattered tee shirt wondering about why grown humans dressed like they did if they had a choice. I thought suits were strange things to wear. It seemed like they always went with gold rings and cologne and people who were very serious about things. The detectives seemed to be fairly serious about the stolen bikes. I can’t imagine what my mom and dad thought sitting there on the couch being gracious hosts as always while I explained how I came to have one of the stolen bikes. My poor parents had been through a lot. Just a month earlier I was supposed to be graduating from high school but I was pretty sure I had flunked out so I didn’t go to graduation. I honestly can’t remember exactly how all of that went down. I think I just didn’t talk to my parents for about a month, dodging in and out of my basement room through the window well and eating dinner leftovers late at night. It was like there was an unspoken understanding—I didn’t want to tell and they couldn’t bear to know. As it turned out I had graduated and a diploma arrived in the mail about mid summer. My parents were buoyed for about two days before the detectives arrived and sunk them again. But maybe I’m exaggerating a little. I’m not sure my parents were all that upset by the things I did. Or else they were just used to it. Or else I was even more oblivious to what they thought than I thought. I think I would have been upset with me. I think I would have killed me. Anyway, I made up a iron clad lie about the bikes and the detectives had to leave empty handed. But then a few days later one of the neighbors arrived wearing a suit and bearing a complaint. He told my mom and dad that I took his twin daughters’ bicycles and threw them over a fence into a drainage culvert. This was true just as it was true that I stole the mayor’s bicycles. But I could’t lie my way out of this accusation because the twins were eyewitnesses. Here’s what happened. I had been sitting on a curb down in the church parking lot at the end of our lane just smoking a cigarette and thinking about motorcycles when the twins came riding down into the lot on their bikes and started circling me. Their names were Dawn and Fawn and they both looked exactly the same physically. In fact, though, they were very different. Fawn was a delicate little girl and Dawn was a tough little tom boy. But they were only like that when they were apart. Together they were like one annoying unit of girl. So they were circling me and taunting me with their chirpy little voices. They were accusing me of being in love with Natty Barber who was a fat girl from the next street over. Dawn and Fawn were about 14 or 15 and they were both comely but I didn’t care. I couldn’t stand them. Well Dawn came in a little too close to me on one of her circuits and I jumped up and grabbed her handlebars wrenching her off the bike. She stood there with her hands on her hips and I said to Fawn that she’s better come over to me or else Dawn was going to get it. She came over and I grabbed her handlebars. She got off and I walked both of the bikes over to the fence and threw them into the culvert. Both the girls started crying and ran up the hill towards the church. When they got to the top of the hill they turned around and called me a “cocksucker motherfucker hunk of shit” and then went home to tell. I don’t know why Mr. Shaw, their dad, waited so long to come complain. It was a few days after the detectives and around a week from when I threw the bikes over the fence. Maybe he wanted me to worry? I don’t know. I know I didn’t worry. In fact I’d totally forgotten about it until he showed up at our door. So after my mom and dad gave Mr. Shaw a cup of coffee he told them about how I picked on his girls and tossed their bikes into the culvert. I remember I actually snorted and laughed a little bit when he described what happened. I also remember that he left out the cocksucker motherfucker part and the part about them bothering me in the first place. I noticed that Mr. Shaw’s suit had dandruff on the collar. I wondered if Dawn and Fawn had dandruff down in their little bushes. Then I wondered what Mr. Shaw would think if he knew what I was thinking. Would he kill me? Or was I normal? Those were the kinds of things I would think in the middle of some issue around me. Pretty much any thing would attract my attention except the point, if there was one. I folded my arms and focused on Mr. Shaw. Mr. Shaw had some really formidable gold rings on his right hand. I think he was some sort of vice president at a bank and I always imagined him as somewhat rich. Oddly, he actually liked me for the most part because he had four daughters and no sons. Sometimes I’d run into him on the lane and we would talk about motorcycles or go karts and I know he liked that. As he told my mom and dad about my bad behavior I started sensing that he didn’t really want to be there telling on me. I started thinking that his wife had made him come over to tell on me. And then I started sensing that he was glad I threw the twin’s bikes in the creek, that he’d done his duty by telling on me, and that bygones could now be bygones. By the time he about to leave he was chumming it up with my mom and dad who’d certainly partied with the Shaws at street parties and liked them well enough. I thought all was well but my mom and dad did not think that. They already thought that I was too mean to my sister, or at least my dad did, and that I shouldn’t pick on girls at all. I think my mom may have experienced a slight sense of something perverse when I picked on my sister. Like she was actually tired of my sister telling on me so much and didn’t mind a little torture now and then. My dad gave me one of his dead serious lectures about how he would personally have me put in jail if I did any of the following: Beat my sister, read her diary, stole her money, spit on her, shot her with my pellet gun, burned members of her plastic model horse collection, and a few other things. It was all old stuff and I had moved on to just completely ignoring my sister. I’m sure my response was, “All right. I won’t.” I guess my dad was one of the law and order people from the Nixon era and he liked to threaten me with jail time for intrafamily crime. When it came to the very real crimes I was committing in the neighborhood I think he simply could not comprehend it. And this was despite the evidence that was strewn all over our yard like bones around a dog house. Sometimes I would think, “I don’t even have enough money to buy a pack of cigarettes, where do you think I got this motorcycle?” or “Do you think the police just like our house?” It may have been a thing parents of that time were doing. Pretending that their kids were like dogs and cats. Feed them and give them a place to sleep. Take them to the vet now and then. Talk to the dog catcher when necessary. But don’t look too closely at what they’re dragging home and burying out in the yard. What a perfect life for both parents and kids. I mean it!

So two weeks later another pair of suits appeared in our living room. These were recruiters for Nashville Auto Diesel College. Now this, I imagine, had to be a major downer for my parents. Both my parents were reasonably intelligent college educated people. My dad had a masters in geology. For my whole life they had been telling me about how I was going to go to college and learn all sorts of stuff like they did. But by that summer, especially after my graduation fiasco, I think they’d given up on my higher education and were just hoping that I might not be a criminal of some sort. In some fundamental part of my brain I think I really though I was going to college after all since Nashville Auto Diesel College had the word college in it. The only difference would be that instead of professors and pretty girls there would be washed up country western singers who’d become diesel instructors and half the hicks in the Tennessee Valley. It would be like being in shop class permanently! I was really excited as the recruiters described my future to my parents. I would get the maximum benefit if I took the combined diesel, auto, and welding courses. This would be like getting a Phd in car mechanics and I could expect to make six dollars and hour after I graduated. I couldn’t even imagine it! I was so bad with money I don’t think I’d even owned six dollars at once yet. With six dollars coming in every hour I’d be rich. And I could see with my own eyes that these diesel recruiters were not fooling. They were wearing some very colorful suits and I thought that this must be impressing my mom and dad. The cologne wafted through the house and I noticed that both recruiters had the same style of slicked back hair like someone had greased it down with a grease gun and then smoothed it with a spatula. Very gangster like I thought. Very impressive! They weren’t just wearing gold rings but gold rings with diamonds and other stones in them! You really got the impression that Nashville Auto Diesel College was a place for rich people. I think my mom was about to start crying and I was imagining that she was going to miss her baby but I was probably wrong about that. I think that my dad wanted to start crying too but when he realized that my entire college education was going to cost only $1800 from start to finish he kept his composure.
Well, a month or so later I found myself at Nashville Auto Diesel College and I noticed that it was really called Nashville Auto Diesel School which reminded me right off the bat of why I thought I’d flunked high school. I just didn’t pay attention to words! Written or spoken! But I did pay attention to Nashville Auto Diesel School because everyone called it Nads as in gonads which was especially pungent when combined with the president’s name which was H.O. Balls. What a pair of names to be in one institution of higher learning! On one hand you wondered how H. O. Balls could hold up his head in public. On the other hand you’d see him with his twenty year old secretary who was a classic blond bombshell type and you knew he didn’t care about his name. Every morning H. O. would be driven to work in a brand new red Ford pickup with his blond secretary at the wheel. She would park and run around to open the door so H. O. could slowly climb out and stabilize his cane. H. O. Balls was well into his eighties and he was a paragon of success to all of us. Who wouldn’t want to be in his shoes? His son, Thomas Balls, was the one who kept us whipped into shape with the help of his assistant, Mr. Dixon, who was a small framed mulatto and a former flyweight boxer. Mr. Dixon would literally beat you with his fists out in the hall and then make you come into class, stand in front of everyone, and announce that you were sorry for whatever you’d done. Sometimes a guy would do that and then add on, “And Mr. Dixon beat me into saying it.” whereupon they’d be taken out into the hall and beaten again. I have to tell you, I had a certain kind of respect for this kind of discipline. It just really got to the point. I liked getting to the point. On the very first day of class we had a safety lecture which consisted of having a jar passed around the class. Inside the jar was an etiolated fingertip from a former diesel boy. It was fascinating to see a human finger floating around in a mason jar. The instructor said, “This is what happens if you stick your finger into a running engine.” and that was that. Not another word was said about safety for the rest of the year. I looked around at my four brand new friends, Hudson, Goad, Lee, and Calhoun. We all smiled at each other and wagged our fingers. That was the kind of thing that I could pay attention to. That was the kind of thing that all of us could pay attention to.

Several days after the safety lecture I watched Hudson get his finger cut off. But it was not in diesel class. It was under a mountain up in Gallatin Tennessee which was north of Nashville. My new friends and I were walking through the woods on this mountain, already goofing off instead of studying, and suddenly we came to what appeared to be a roof sitting about three feet off the ground. We couldn’t find a way into it so we pealed back a board and discovered that it was a hole of about ten by ten feet, lined with stone, and about 100 feet deep. We figured out that it must be some sort of ventilation stack for a railroad tunnel beneath the mountain and decided to find the entrance to the tunnel. When we found the tunnel we saw that it was so long you could not see the other side and decided that we should go through it. We knew there was a chance that a train might come while we were in there but we figured we could lean against the wall and not be hit. Also we didn’t think a train would come. Not really. So we started going through the tunnel and after about ten minutes we were in the pitch black and a train was coming. We could hear the deep thrum of the locomotives echoing and then a glimmer of light beginning to illuminate things. I think it was kind of hard to believe that it was really happening but it really was. I remember we all lit cigarettes at the same time and then leaned against the damp rock walls of the tunnel. The tracks were right there at the tips of our toes and suddenly it didn’t seem like such a sure thing that we could be in there at the same time as a train. But there was nothing to do about it. When the locomotives got to us the engineer blew the horn and it made our ears ring since it was like five feet away inside a tunnel. I was surprised no one screamed out of the locomotive at us. They didn’t even open the window. The train was not going very fast, maybe ten miles per hour. I remember that the cars were so close you could see the sides of them light up when we drew on our cigarettes. They really were like two feet from our faces. It was when it became clear that we would all be all right that Hudson decided to put out his cigarette by sticking the end of it under a train wheel. When he did this it squashed his finger right off. I don’t know how it just got one finger but it did. Just his right fore finger. He was screaming at the top of his lungs but it didn’t matter because the train was so loud plus we were deaf from the horn beep. Goad lit his cigarette lighter and we could see a thick stream of blood oozing out over part of a finger bone. Hudson wrapped the front of his tee shirt around the finger stump and kept howling. When the caboose went by one of the train men was on the back deck and he screamed at us to get the fuck out of the tunnel. Hudson was now whimpering but he, like us, wanted to see if we could find the squashed finger before we left. I think we all had the same idea of bringing it back to diesel school so we could get it put in a jar and passed around class. But all we could find was some glob of formless flesh that didn’t look like anything so we left it on top of a sleeper plate where it had fallen. On the way out of the tunnel we smoked constantly, Goad lighting cigarettes for Hudson and handing them to him. Incredibly, when we were about 500 feet from the tunnel exit another train came around the corner and it was a passenger train that was going pretty fast so there was no way we could beat it out. Again, when the train was upon us the engineer blew the horn and it was so loud we almost dropped to our knees. Hudson got blood on the side of his head because he could not help covering his ears. There was also a cloud of fine orangish dust that followed the passenger train and I remember seeing this horseshoe shape at the end of the tunnel where the train was blocking the middle light. It was a deep orange colored horseshoe and it was somewhat mesmerizing. After the train passed we stood there looking around waiting for something else to happen to us . Hudson had stopped crying and was just holding his finger in the bloody front of his tee shirt and saying “Ow ow ow”. We slowly began walking down the tracks. What a way to loose a finger! What a place that tunnel was! While we were hiking back to the car I remember thinking that we had a pretty good time except for the finger and our eardrums being blown out.

A few weeks later we were pretty settled down to a routine that was more or less like being back in any school. Hudson took a lot of kidding about losing his finger under a train wheel but I think he was pretty good about it and seemed to take the loss in stride. Some of the diesel boys wanted to go back to the tunnel and see what was left of Hudson’s finger but Goad made the good point that whatever was left had probably been eaten by a rat or something. Still, some of the guys went out there to look around. Supposedly though, no one would go into the tunnel. It was discussed whether we were brave or stupid for going in there but I didn’t care what anyone thought about it. I was sort of bummed out because sitting in class rooms listening to lectures about steering systems and carburetors really wasn’t that interesting when you got right down to it. I wound up daydreaming in diesel school just like I daydreamed in high school. But in high school I dreamed about engines and machines. Now that we were talking about engines and machines I found myself forced to daydream about other things. I don’t even think I knew what I was daydreaming about at first because I didn’t know about anything but machines. What else was there? I could almost trace my entire train of thought back to one specific moment about sixteen or seventeen years earlier. I was a baby in Texas with nothing in particular to think about. One day my dad held me out over a running car engine so I could look at it. I was hypnotized. I remember hearing the hissing air being sucked into the filter and seeing the belt sliding around and around the fan which was spinning like a dark dangerous toy of some sort. There was a white dot on the fan belt that would disappear into the depths and then come back just the same over and over again. It was amazing. It was all sharp and precise and to me living like a beast from who knows where. It was not amorphous and flabby like my baby sister. It made a better noise and smelled better. I would have jumped right down into that engine if my dad would have let me go. I think the neurons in my brain all clamped down right then and there plotting for me an intellectual course that would wind up with me sitting on some railroad tracks with the thoughts of a sparrow. At least it seemed that way. Or at least I can write that it seemed that way because I don’t think I saw it that way back then. Just not quite yet. And then a few things happened on the train tracks behind the school that brought about focus in a very circuitous way. I was pretty much broke all the time down there in Nashville. My dad sent me forty dollars every two weeks and I would blow it within a couple of days so the rest of the time I survived by riding freight trains out into the suburbs where I would shoplift food from groceries. One day I was sitting on the tracks eating one of those little cups of instant pudding when I suddenly wondered if I was bad. It just came out of the blue. I mean sitting there eating stolen pudding on the train tracks just suddenly seemed like it might be wrong. It was just a little flicker of a thought but it seemed to have some slight current with the things I was daydreaming in class. Like I was thinking about something beyond my immediate situation for the first time ever. A few days later I was sitting on the tracks eating some Wonder Bread and drinking milk out of a glass bottle. I was also smoking a Kool and looking at a dead end street where two men were screaming at each other from their respective trailer homes. I remember that the street had some very nice trees on it and there were leaves coming down because of a slight breeze. It was fall and the air was just barely warm. It was nice. It was pretty to watch the leaves come down on this little street. And then through the settling leaves both men ran into the street and started fighting. One of them had a stick and he beat the other one down to the ground and kept beating him until he crawled away whimpering and slobbering like a dog. For some reason the contrast between the two men fighting and the falling leaves did something to me that, again, reminded me vaguely of my daydreaming. But I couldn’t see what it was. Just this feeling like something was big out there and I was missing it. Like there was a secret that spanned violence and beauty even though that made no sense whatsoever to me. But the feeling was easy to forget about within the daily routine and so it was a few days later that I was back on the tracks again just tossing rocks, smoking cigarettes and being thoughtless. A train came by and then slowed to a stop so that the caboose was right next to me. A train man came out and said hi. I said hi and asked why the train stopped. He told me it was stuck. I thought he was teasing me but he explained that there were not enough locomotives on it to pull it up the hill ahead and that they were waiting for another locomotive to come out of the Nashville yards and give them a push. I thought it was amazing that a giant train could get stuck and I had a funny notion about such a giant thing being the way it was and my being so oblivious. And then out of the blue the trainman asked this, “Are you a problem child?” I wasn’t sure exactly what a problem child was but it sounded serious and unpleasant like convict or mental case. I understood he asked it because I was hanging around on the train tracks smoking cigarettes and throwing rocks. I thought, “Do I look like a bad person?” It made me think of the guys fighting on the dead end street under the trees. Were they problem children before they were problem adults? And then another thought hit me. I didn’t mind being bad. I didn’t mind those guys who were fighting being bad. But I suddenly felt like I did mind them being stupid. Or looking like they were stupid. And it made me think that maybe I looked like a stupid person. This was a very abrupt bit of illumination. I realized that I had thought I was actually pretty smart but then it seemed possible that I might not be. I was thinking about these things when the train man asked me if I wanted to ride along for a couple miles until they got to the top of the hill. There was a locomotive coming around the corner and I said yes. When I got on the caboose he told me to act like I worked for the railroad in case anyone from the locomotive asked who I was. Part of me wondered if this trainman might be a child molester since he asked if I was a problem child instead of a problem young man. But he wasn’t. He was just a nice train hick who could see I liked trains. So I rode up the hill with the locomotive roaring behind us. I thought it was amazing that I got to ride on a freight train without being hidden down in a coal car or in a boxcar. When they told me to jump off I was as happy as could be. But as I walked back towards the school I began again to wonder about something that was serious and hard to describe. I guess that I was wondering about where I came from and where I was going. It was like something in me was trying to break out of the moment and go back and forward in time to other things. I don’t know how it came about, just walking down those tracks not thinking in any rational way, but I came up with an idea that I thought would tell me something. I went to the diesel school library which was a little room with a bunch of technical manuals and car magazines along with a few tables and chairs. It was a quiet little room where no one went and there was considerable dust on the books. I found a dictionary which was what I was looking for. I looked up a word I’d never heard of. The word was reconnaissance and I picked it out because it looked long and complicated. I read what the word meant and memorized how to spell it. I can honestly say that I was slightly impressed that I memorized such a long word and that it was certainly the longest word I could spell at that time. I put down the dictionary and went to a phone booth. It cost fifty cents to call long distance and that was about all the money I had. It was enough for cigarettes or a couple of sodas and I didn’t like parting with it. But I had to find out something. I called home and my mom answered. She asked if I was ok since I usually only called on weekends if I called at all. I said I was ok and then asked her if she knew what reconnaissance was. She said yes. Then I asked her if she could spell it and she did. I couldn’t believe it. I asked to talk to dad and I asked him the same questions. He knew the word and he knew how to spell it. It really struck me as amazing that my mom and dad would know such a thing. And right then and there it came to me that I really was stupid or at least that other people knew some things that had never even occurred to me. I don’t know if it made me sad or jealous. It seems like I would have felt one of those things but I don’t know.

I can say that on that very day my life did change. It was a very small thing, like a tiny crack in bedrock that might sit for sometime doing nothing but like that tiny crack it was not going to go away. I started thinking that I might want to know some things that were not necessarily connected to machines. And I tell you that was a major departure. I literally thought about nothing but machines and how things worked in the physical world. I loved the idea of spinning metal and having my body moved along at high speeds over the countryside on or in these machines. I loved steam and grease and roaring things that smashed and pounded the earth. I wanted to figure out how things effected each other and levered their energy into some other movement or action. How they blasted into space or dived into the ocean. How they dug miles into the earth. But because of the word reconnaissance I began to break away from the world of machines and think about some other things.

For no reason I could figure out one of the other first things I thought about was Dawn and Fawn. Several weeks before the word reconnaissance I had received two letters, one from Dawn and then one from Fawn. They both accused the other one of liking me. I wrote back to them, in one letter addressed to them both, and told them that I was going to get both of them when I came home from diesel school, probably around Christmas. I had nothing else to say to them. It was a very formal letter with a date, a heading, a closing etc. I also assumed that my sister gave them my address so I sent her a formal letter telling her that she was doomed too. It may be hard to believe that I wrote back to simply tell them that I was going to torment them but back in those days a paper letter was not a special thing. It was like email. If someone sent you a letter, even if it was some little rats, you got some paper and a stamp and you wrote back without even thinking about it. Slowly over the next few days it occurred to me that the faces of Dawn and Fawn were often flitting around in the back of my daydreams. It was as if they were watching me and waiting for me to acknowledge them in some way. Incredibly I found myself thinking that I should write them another letter. I had no idea what I wanted to say. I would be sitting in fuel injector class listening to the instructor go on about fuel pressure and I would be thinking, “What about that Dawn and Fawn. What do they have to do with anything?” Finally, one evening I sat down in the diesel library with a pen and some paper. It was raining and the leaves had all come down. There were some streetlights on outside so I could see the barren trees and their glistening branches. It was windy and the windows hummed slightly but it was very cozy by the little lamp on my table. I felt good. I felt good being there doing what I was about to do. It was not wrenching on an engine or throwing a rock. It was not riding a train or smoking on the tracks. It wasn’t going through a tunnel with the boys. But I had that feeling of anticipation that I experienced when I was about to do something dangerous or unknown. I began to write. And think and write. I did not know exactly what I wanted from Dawn and Fawn, what point I wanted to make, or question I wanted to ask. But once I started writing ideas seemed to be waiting on me to draw them out. I began by telling them that I had been in love with both of them since the fist time I set my eyes on them when they were five years old. It was untrue of course. I disliked them from the get go but not for any particular reason. Writing that I loved them seemed somewhat like going into the train tunnel. But I didn’t have to go into a train tunnel. I could be sitting at a desk in a warm little room with the rain battering down a few feet away. I had the sensation of those first games you created as a child where you turned a meaningless object into a thing that was real. That flow of imagination which maybe stimulated something chemical in your brain so that you felt good in your body. As soon as it was out of my pen that I loved them I wondered if maybe I really did love them. So I wrote about how I had hidden my fondness behind acts of cruelty and only tormented them so as to have some excuse for being around them. And thenI wrote that when I avoided them it was in order to make my desires for them more intense. The more I wrote the more I realized that I felt really happy. In the machine world things were unequivocal. In my letter there could be anything. I used the dictionary a lot. I found that I liked using the dictionary to fetch new words. I also discovered that I did know a lot of words. I just didn’t know precisely what they meant and I couldn’t spell them. But I could look them up and use them. I sat there and wrote for over two hours. When I held up my letter in front of the lamp I thought it looked very nice and I kept wanting to re-read and write some more. But I was spent so I stopped and went back to my bed to sleep. That night I had a dream that I had shot Fawn in the lip with a pellet gun. I was terrified when I realized that I’d hit her in the face and while I was running up to her I kept saying “I’m sorry. Oh my god I’m sorry.” When I got to her she wasn’t too upset which made me like her more than I would have thought I could. I stuck my finger in her mouth and sort of folded back her lip trying to find the pellet. I found it and thought it was embedded in her flesh but it was really just stuck in some little fold behind her lip. I pushed her skin and the pellet fell out. She was unscathed and I was relieved. We kissed each other and then I ran down a hill to a pair of railroad tracks and then I awoke. That morning while I sat drinking coffee I decided I would sent off my letter within the next week. I was apprehensive about sending it because I liked writing it so much and didn’t want to stop. For the next couple of nights I went to the diesel library and re wrote my letter. First I would read the previous night’s letter and warm myself up with thoughts. Then I would start a new letter. I printed very slowly like someone drawing an apple or a face. I wanted my words to look nice and they did. When I was writing it was like I was in a different place unbothered by anything around me. It was very peaceful but at the same time exciting because I knew that in the end two girls, whom I didn’t really know all that well when you came right down to it, were going to read my words as sure as the sun comes up. How would these words unfold in their minds? I relished thinking about them lying in bed reading my letter and looking things up in the dictionary while they painted their toenails and wasted hundreds of tissues. Would they write me back? I thought they would and started planning my next letter based on things I thought they might say. I sent my letter off on a Tuesday morning, dropping it in a mailbox on Gallitin Avenue and then patting the mailbox like it was an obedient pet.

About nine days later I came out of my basement apartment and found Fawn standing there in the yard. I couldn’t believe my eyes! She was holding a letter in her hand and looking very timid.
“Fawn!” I said, “What are you doing here?”
“I ran away.” She replied.
“How did you get here?”
“I walked.”
“You walked here from Ohio?”
“Yes.”
“Well…what are you going to do now?”
She held up the letter and just sort of wilted. I couldn’t believe it.
“Can I stay with you?”
“God Dawn. Don’t you think your mom and dad are going nuts right now?”
“I don’t know.”
“We should go call your parents. They’ve probably got the police out looking for you and everything else.”
She held up the letter again and looked like she was going to start crying. I didn’t know what to do. She really looked like a little kid and when I thought about her walking down some road in the middle of the night I felt pretty bad. She was standing there quivering in her sweat shirt and I realized that whatever happened I was going to be responsible for it. I thought about what kind of conversation I was going to have with Mr. Shaw when I called. “What have I done?” I thought.
“Well,” I said, “we don’t have to call anyone right now. Are you hungry?
She nodded her head.
“Let’s go get you something to eat.”
Again she held up the letter and asked, “Is this real?” Then she started crying a little bit.
I took her hand and said, “It’s real Fawn. It’s real.” She stopped crying and squeezed my hand.

That night Mr. Shaw came to take Fawn home. He was surprisingly calm. While Fawn was in the car and we were standing outside I explained the letter and told him I was sorry for writing it. He patted me on the shoulder and said it was ok and that all he cared about was Fawn being found safe. And then he told me that I was probably going to have to talk to the police but he’d already told them that I was all right. They drove off with Fawn waving out the window. I stood there looking at the clouds which were folding over upon themselves and building up for a little rain. I thought about the day and how I took Dawn around with me. I told her about the diesel library and she wanted to see it so I brought her there. She wanted to know which table I wrote the letter on and I pointed to it. She went over and sat at the table. She put her hands on the table and rubbed it. “I never had anything like that letter.” She said. I didn’t know what to say. The letter now seemed like something out of my hands. It had certainly done much more than I’d intended.
“Well,” I said, “I spent a lot of time writing it. I’m not sure what my intentions really were but somewhere along the line it became a story with more to it than I thought there would be. I sure didn’t think one of you would come down here.”
“Did you want Dawn to come?”
“Well I didn’t think that either of you would come. I would have never expected anyone to walk from Ohio to Tennessee because of a letter.”
“Do you wish I wasn’t here?”
“Well. No. I don’t wish you weren’t here. It’s actually nice to see you. It’s nice seeing someone from back home.”
“But it could have been Dawn.”
“Well it wasn’t. I don’t know. I think when I wrote that letter it just sort of got away from me and took on its own life.”
“So you didn’t mean the things you wrote?”
“I don’t know. I think I did mean them. I’m changing Fawn and I guess I’d say that it just so happened to be you girls that I picked to begin changing with. I wanted to write something and it turned out to be a romantic letter. And when I was done and thinking about it I didn’t know what else I could have written about.”
“So it was just an experiment?”
“It’s funny you should say that. Maybe it was an experiment. I’ve been doing experiments lately.”
Her mouth turned down and she put her head on the table. 
“I wish I was here watching you when you wrote it.”
“Why?”
“Then I could tell what you really thought. Whether you really meant it.”
I pulled a chair up to the table and sat across from her. I took her hands in mine and smiled at her. She smiled back.