Another work in progress

In a controlled rage, David pushed open the glass-plate doors at the entrance to the Washoe County Courthouse in Reno. He stopped outside in a midday hanging in the balance between winter and spring. He took a deep breath, still trembling, trying to pull himself back to the ground.

His day in court had not gone well, but it could have been worse. He felt no remorse for the rant he’d thrown at a Reno casino, his first day back in civilization after a long hike in the northern Sierra Nevada. He was right. The modern world was spiraling toward oblivion and people were ignoring it as hard as they could. The casino is the antithesis of the forest, the real world.

The sky overhead was splotched blue and gray. Bits of sun forked through. David was calming and then he thought about the smug judge, the marshals on either side of him, sharing a joke. But when his moment came, he agreed to pay a fine and go free.

That got his pulse going again. He put his helmet on and descended the granite courthouse steps to his motorcycle. Straddled it, stomped the kickstart. It didn’t start, coughing up that phlegmy sound of mechanical indifference. David hurriedly retriggered the kickstart, heaved at it again and again, ratcheting up his frustration tighter and tighter. He cursed aloud.

Then the sound of failure different, and on the next stomp the engine came alive. Get the hell out of here, he said, and twisted the throttle grip. First gear, release the clutch. The bike launched forward, accelerating recklessly into traffic. An old man with a dog was crossing his path just yards ahead. No time to look for a way to steer around them and sensing only bad outcomes, David jammed on the brakes and leaned just enough to his right to dump the bike on its side.

The street rushed up into his face, grating the skin beneath his jeans and jacket. The side of his head thudded aground. He noted the feel of the helmet, cushioning the blow. He and the bike skidded a few feet forward, behind the man, who seemed not to notice, and the dog, who did.

One person witnessed this. Standing on the sidewalk, Maria saw the motorcyclist was out of control, but he had managed to throw himself to the ground to avoid hitting the man. Or his dog.

She had never seen any of them before. Maria walked up to David, who had pulled himself from under the motorcycle and was sitting on the macadam, taking inventory. She stood over him, her hands on her hips, considering why they had been brought together in such a way. It seemed very romantic to her.

He pulled off his helmet and shook his head, looking up into her face.

She liked his eyes. “Are you the one?” she asked.

He was probably in a mild state of shock, having cycled through frustration, rage, panic and pavement rash. Still, it was clear to him that she was angelic.

“I might be,” he answered, dazzled enough not to really know what question he was answering.

 

This occurred on Wednesday. They courted for three days. On Saturday, a fortune teller in Sparks told Maria that she and David were destined to be together. They married that night at a wedding chapel in Stateline, Nevada, on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. The witnesses were David’s brother, the cook from the Wald Guest House, Maria’s roommate from Sparks and the wedding party that was waiting behind them in the wedding-chapel queue.

David and Maria spent their wedding night in a hotel room near the top of the tallest casino on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. It was a place that strived for luxury and excess, the polar opposite of the Wald Guest House, where David had lived his entire life. Holding hands with her in the elevator on the way up the glittering casino hotel tower, he acknowledged the doubt knocking around in his cranium as the floors ticked by. Of the two of them, Maria was probably better prepared for this sudden turn of events as she was willing to follow a path set by soothsayers. David, on the other hand, was caught completely off guard.

From a work in progress

The sun begins to come out as we head to Doolin, a little town along the coast. Find a place to park. Not a lot going on there. A port where ships go out to the Arran Islands. Rhonda is already heading off toward the shops. Betty points up the road to some picnic tables outside a pub.

“Go claim one of those tables and we can get some lunch,” she says, heading off for the pub.

I find an empty picnic table. There’s a mare and colt across the way, looking forlorn on the drought-stressed hillside. It’s weirdly quiet.

Our Honda Jazz explodes into a shrieking fireball; the blast wave flattens innocent passersby, knocking them to the ground. A ball of flame bursts heavenward, and turns into black smoke, definitive, evil black. A piece of front bumper lands a few feet away from me.

It’s quiet again. The little village in shock. People pick themselves up off the ground, amazed they are still alive. Others creep cautiously from doorways into the sunlight. What’s left of the Jazz is burning, a birthday candle that outlived the celebrant. I turn around, realize I am standing now and not sitting on the stone wall. This must be a good sign, I think.

The horses are gone, wisely.

I feel a little sad for the Jazz, which had begun to feel like a cousin. And then remember that Betty said she was fun to travel with. Well, I guess so.

Rhonda comes out of the shop and then moments later I spot Betty in the crowd in front of the pub. She looks around, spies me, and continues to scan the crowd. Rhonda starts for the wreckage, but Betty heads her off, takes her by the upper arm, points toward me. She looks me in the eye and nods up the street, away from the smoldering carcass.

The crowd is crowding around the ruins; Betty is guiding us away from it. We pause in front of a pastry shop. Rhonda embraces me, her heart and lymphatic system pounding. Closer than usual. She has high blood pressure anyway. I’m thinking about aftershock.

“Do you have your wallet and passport?” Betty asks me. I have mine and Rhonda’s passports, and nod.

“There’s nothing left of ours in that,” Betty says, looking toward the Jazz. “We have to start over.”

I have my arm around Rhonda, who I think is in shock, and we follow Betty away from the main street and through some backyards and onto other streets, unthinking or more exactly not knowing what to think, glad that we have somebody to follow. I think. There is another road leading inland that eventually goes over a narrow bridge beside which is another pub. Betty leads us inside to a table.

By then, everyone has either heard or heard of the explosion in the center of Doolin, leaving the pub by the bridge surprisingly empty. The bartenders and waitresses are talking among themselves, distracted from their jobs.

“What was that?” Rhonda asks when we’re settled at a table.

“I shouldn’t have dragged you into this,” Betty says. Genuinely, I think. “I told you I’m not where I’m supposed to be.”

Rachel

Someone named Rachel texted me on my cell phone today. I don’t know anyone named Rachel, though it would be nice to because I could call her Rach with a long A and say stuff like, I wonder what Rach is up to today, or gee, Rach sure was in a glum mood at the bowling alley.

Rachel, of course, is the name of the ship that rescued Ishmael at the end Moby Dick. Didn’t mean to spoil it for you.

Anyway, texting Rachel want to remind me that I could vote early and urged me to vote for an attorney general candidate in my state. This annoyed me. Full disclosure, it was also raining at the time.

I texted Rachel back words to the effect that I don’t pay exorbitant wireless service fees every month for the convenience of spammers, salesmen and volunteers for political campaigns. Don’t text me any more, I said.

Feeling smug for about 10 seconds when Rachel responds something like, oh, sorry, didn’t mean to disturb you but you can still look up more information about her candidate if I clicked on the link in this new text message.

I responded: Are you stupid? No means no. Stop texting me.

Rachel is hard to turn off. She texted back another apology and said I might get more texts because other people might have my number and if I want them to stop I should just reply STOP.

Fearing the worst, I responded STOP.

That seems to have ended it.

Is there an app that would require anyone not on my contact list to pay $1 or so into my account before their attempted phone call or text message goes through to my phone? If not, why not?

Since I’m doling out brilliant solutions to vexing problems. Why doesn’t the US Postal Service issue digital stamps — a penny or two — merchandisers and known contacts would have to embed in their spam before my email software accepts it? I would pay 2 cents to convey my two cents to people I know, even to people I don’t know. Like you. Even Rach.

Here’s a picture that’s nothing to do with this blog post.

Back Ashore

Back at the harbor, the Danish couple have another moment of unsynchronized matrimony getting off the ship.

There is an obvious protocol for disembarking. Each person who crosses the threshold to solid ground turns to see if the next person needs any assistance. I’m standing behind Mrs. Danish, who expects her husband to wait for her to go first.

But he brushes past her. Ignores the old fellow who preceded him and bounds some distance away on the wharf, where he begins to fire up a cigarette he has already retrieved from the packet.

The older gent who had expected to be relieved of his post simply tilts his head slightly to one side. He holds his position faithfully and awaits Mrs. Danish. When her face turns toward him, he smiles. Once across, she thanks the old gent and takes his place in the human protocol. Then her lad jumps across, unassisted and like his father scampers along the wharf.

Then it is me. I do not need her help, but I willingly accept it. She takes my hand firmly and uses her other hand to guide my elbow. Enchanted in a passing pas-a-deux at six below with a fur-bound Dane.

We trade smiles. I turn to help the next passenger get back on solid earth. And so forth, our race proceeds, trying to pick up the slack caused by others.

I end up in a van with Mrs. Danish and her son. The husband waits on the wharf for the last van to savor his smoking. In cramped quarters, she smiles at me awkwardly. We have wound up knee-to-knee, sitting across from each other. It is impossible not to look at each other.

“I got hypnotized to quit cigarettes,” I offer, trying to be helpful, but I don’t think she fully gets my drift.

I force myself to look out the window as we launch off on another hair-raising drive through town. We are dropped off at the outfitter’s office and go our separate ways.

The Financial Crisis Was My Fault

There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the past week or so as the nation assesses the worldwide crisis that trashed financial markets 10 years ago. Over the past decade, many slide rules have been worn to nubs trying to prove who was to blame.

So many candidates. Banking regulators who didn’t stop profit-focused lenders from selling grotesquely risky home loans to deluded households that want bigger pieces of the American dream than they could rationally afford, which were then bought up by greedy Wall Street tycoons who slathered them in snake oil and sold them to easily duped investors. One thing all agree on is that this was absolutely not the fault of the U.S. Congress, which is never to blame for anything that goes wrong.

I realize now it was my fault. On July 14, 2008, I appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal program to discuss a forthcoming Federal Reserve Board regulation on mortgage brokers.

Several callers were more interested in the rapid boil in financial markets that in less than two months would poach Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I should have used the opportunity to implore all those regulators, lenders, mortgage borrowers, Wall Street hucksters and innocent investors to come to their senses and stop the madness. But I didn’t.

My bad, America.

Windshield Photography on the Viking Trail

A Hertz Chevy Cruze, sunroof window cracked open, tuned with fresh air pulled through the top of the cabin windows. A cool vacuum over my skull, running its fingers through what’s been long gone. The late afternoon light drawing color and shadow from a soaring, roaring park road on the western edge of Newfoundland.

Madness takes over from the phone. One Step Beyond, it urges.

Okay, I say. Lifting off at the crest.

 

More from Me and My Monkey

She is already done with me. I climb down the steep steps to the main deck and maneuver along the leeward promenade toward the bow just as we smash into the ice again and make about 10 or 20 yards before we have to back up, rev the engines and ram forward again.

There is a small but hearty band of us forward on the main deck, intent on our progress, pounding away at the ice regardless of how cold the seawater had to get to freeze.

After a couple of cycles of stall-backup-ram ahead, I see us as an American football team with no passing game. We have to rely simple-mindedly on our offensive line and running backs to wear down the ice that separates us from that channel of open water near the iceberg.

At the moment, we are 100 yards away. But we are notching first downs, moving forward in eight-, 19- and 26-yard gulps and all of us on the bow are convinced this is just a matter of time.

I’m standing by a bell when a prize position near the center opens up and I move to the line of scrimmage. We huddle and the quarterback calls the same play every time, fullback dive, sometimes to the left guard, sometimes to the right. We hammer away. And hammer away.

The chains keep moving. I turn to the fellow on my right and ask him, ‘Is it one or two more?’ He says one, but I think it’s two. And sure enough, we get about 12 yards from the goal line when the defense stiffens and stops our forward progress. We huddle again on second down and of course every man and woman among us knows the play by then.

I like to think the captain revved it up a little more, but he probably didn’t. Or that we on the offensive line drove more resolutely into the wilting defense. The ship surges forward, the ice cracking and scattering to the side, plowing toward that clear sea ahead, but losing momentum and then the guards, tackles and tight ends lean into it, our hips thrusting forward, the quarterback helps drive the pile of a dozen or so humans trying to will a multi-ton iceberg ship forward to the promised land, our momentum staggered but not extinguished over those last few feet and then.

We are through. Touchdown. The offensive line turns as one and cheers for the captain. “Ring the bell,” I say, and Lakshmi – I didn’t know she was there – flails away at it and I see Dr. Nashville leaning gleefully over the rail, snapping memories into his camera with abandon.

It is almost anticlimactic, streaming toward the big iceberg in open water, a victory lap after ejaculation, as the rest of the tourists pour up from below to the main deck and the captain throttles down and we drift as close as we can toward the iceberg which is, after all, flipped over and shrunken enough to get out to the open sea. With most of itself hidden underwater.

It looks big out here, but it was bigger before, maybe a year ago when it sheared off the glacier and began its long journey, perhaps to sink a poorly navigated transatlantic vessel. We glide toward her, cameras clicking electronically.

Another bit from Me and My Monkey

“I cannot promise that we’ll get out to the icebergs because the sea is quite frozen,” the tour  guide says. “But we will try.”

It’s not every day that your boat ride might get cancelled because the sea is frozen. I wait until Beehive chooses one of the two vans. Then I get in the other. Not trying to avoid her, just avoid her in public.

The harbor is only a few blocks away, but we tender tourists must be coddled, I suppose. Plus, it is another opportunity for the locals to show off their disdain for snow-packed, narrow lanes, whipping us around blind curves on threadbare tires.

The harbor, coated in snow, countenances no nonsense. People come here to wrench a living from the sea or wait for supplies to come in when the bay isn’t frozen shut. The guide climbs out of the van, leaving us idling diesel fumes into the cold morning, waiting for the iceberg tour-boat to arrive.

After a little while, it appears, smashing what looks like a puny layer of ice in a channel out in the harbor before angling for a nearby berth that looks ominously frozen. The boat gets sort of close to the pier. The crew maneuver a staircase just over the edge, connecting ship to shore and its stream of tourists eager for icebergs.

It is just the littlest bit dicey navigating the stairs at the bow of the tour ship, and the helpful captain grabs elbows as necessary and guides the revenue to somewhat safe and steady footing on the deck, where we follow ourselves below to a cabin that holds a couple three dozen of people. Benches on either side of tables. I find myself across from the Danish family from the airplane: the distant husband who smokes, handsome wife and teenage son.

The tour guide delivers a mandatory safety lecture. I’ve heard hundreds of these on airplanes and still sometimes listen because, well, you never know. But not so many on watercraft.

At one point, the tour guide mentions the unlikely event of an emergency and the presence onboard of immersion suits and how we are to crouch – either before or after taking off our boots, I’m not sure about the order – and stand up, whereby we will be magically in the immersion suit that will prevent us from freezing to death in an arctic sea that is, itself, so frozen that we’re not sure we can get this boat out of the harbor, much less anywhere near the icebergs which are, coincidentally, frozen in place.

I want to ask the tour guide to go back over that bit about the immersion suits because I’m still low on sleep and English is probably her third language but I realize this would be too gauche, like raising your hand during the mandatory safety explanation on an aircraft and asking whether it is really necessary to put the oxygen mask over one’s face before helping others, including infants.

From across the table, Mr. Danish asks the tour guide if smoking is allowed on the ship. The guide says no. Looks a little disgusted that he has asked.

Then the iceberg tour ship backs away from the wharf, out into the harbor, a little over three degrees north of the polar circle. Captain points us to sea and shoves it into Drive and the tour guide says we can go aloft. The congregation rises with near unanimity to clamber topside. I notice on my way, following the herd, that Beehive and Lakshmi and a few other souls are staying behind. Again, the feeling that we have been assembled at a place from which there is no escape, notwithstanding the immersion suits.

 

July 4, 1968

Speedy makes his first “I Flick Butts” bumper sticker and places it on a 1967 Plymouth Valiant.

At a red light, we pulled alongside a new Plymouth Valiant. A woman about my mother’s age was smoking a cigarette. She blew the smoke out the window. Her Valiant was a two-door coupe in luminescent aquamarine, a boxy trunk with suggestive, miniature fins. The woman didn’t look like a thrower, but you never know.

“Let’s see where this goes,” my father said. When the light changed, he hesitated long enough for the Valiant to pull ahead of us. The driver seemed to be done with her smoke; her right shoulder dipped slightly as though she might have been grinding out the burning end in the ashtray.

As we were slipping in behind her, the cigarette came flying out the window. She appeared to toss it with her right hand, across her body.

She pulled into a shopping center and wheeled toward the supermarket. We followed her, which was beginning to feel a little less creepy, and parked a few spaces away. She gathered up her things and pulled down the visor to check her face before she opened the door and slid outside. She walked around the back of her car and toward the market.

My father slowly pulled out of our parking spot and rolled behind the Plymouth and then stopped. He tore off a length of tape about 16 inches long and stretched it temporarily across the steering wheel, uncapped the marker with his teeth, and inscribed “I FLICK BUTTS” on the tape.

“Slide over and take the wheel,” he told me. “But don’t start driving until I say so.”

He pushed the gearshift into park and got out of the car, closing the door softly behind him. As I pulled myself behind the steering wheel, he ducked below sea level in the parking lot, into the underwater of tires and side panels and grills below the windowed auto world where the top third of motoring humanity is visible. I watched him carefully place and smooth his homemade bumper sticker on the Plymouth.

He stood up and turned to me. “Go ahead. I’ll come around and get in the other side.” He was a little breathless. I wondered who this man was.

June 27, 1968

A man driving a 1963 Rambler Ambassador throws his cigarette onto the road. Speedy runs him down, knowing the butt-flicker is the owner of the newspaper where he works.

After work, Izzy has an important meeting with Juliana.

The maintenance barn was an inheritance from the days when the country club had been somebody’s farm on the edge of town. It was filled with equipment—mowers, tractors, three-wheeled jitneys for getting around—and a small mountain of 70-pound bags of fertilizer sold by the public works department of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and manufactured by the good people of Milwaukee doing what comes natural to them.

I washed up more thoroughly than usual and sauntered down the lane toward the employee parking lot. Juliana was smoking a cigarette in her family’s Fairlane parked under a tree.

She had her waitress uniform on and it was a little tight, which I later found out was by design, and the top two buttons were undone. It was hot, but having been outside all day I was used to it. She ground her cigarette out in the dashboard ashtray, looking at me with a smile in her eyes.

“You were going to throw that out the window, weren’t you?” I said.

“And have the whole goddamn Boy Scouts of America breathing down my neck?” She fired up the Fairlane, and we rolled in a very well-behaved manner out the entrance road of the country club. I studied her thighs beneath the steering wheel.

It was soon clear that we were not going directly home.