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.

June 20, 1968

Riding home with his mother from work, Izzy spots a butt-flick from a 1964 Volkswagon bus. In Thailand, the air force was dropping flowers and popcorn from airplanes to celebrate the adoption of a new national constitution. When they get home, Speedy is excited about a constitutional argument about the legal standing of trees.

My father was excited because a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a Minnesotan named William O. Douglas, was there to support the protesters.

“Justice Douglas said that trees and paths and waterways should have the same legal protection that people and corporations have,” my father told us over our hamburgers and salad as the sun began to set. “He said the environment and all its parts should have standing to bring lawsuits in court. It was the damnedest thing I ever heard.”

I was trying to picture trees in a courtroom.

“When I was a kid, we used to go fishing over there and no one gave much thought to the barges on the canal. And then one year, they weren’t there. It was funny to have this big-shot Supreme Court justice and his newsmen and photographers and FBI spies making so much noise about preservation.

“Nobody can bring the barges back,” he said.

Then something came to his mind. “I started to interview this guy who didn’t seem like one of the protesters—his shoes just weren’t right—and he started to tell me why he was there and then stopped. He asked me if I was undercover, which is the most bizarre thing anyone has ever asked me.

“I told him I worked for the paper, and he thought about it for a moment and said he didn’t have anything to tell me.”

June 16, 1968

June 16, 1968, was Father’s Day.

Izzy comes across a woman enjoying a cigarette in the passenger seat of a 1959 Mercury Monterrey. Later, he and his sister visit their uncle at the hospital.
“‘You’ve got untold worlds that empty into thee,’ I said. His eyes flickered with the strain of struggling to command his voice. Then he looked away.”

June 9, 1968

Izzy and Speedy follow a kid in a 1957 Buick LeSabre who is looking for a way out of the draft. They end up at a Quaker meeting.

“In the Army, my father also met a soldier who told him about Dick Mobius, a mythical apostle of Herman Melville who started an anonymous society with no leadership, no secret handshake, no dues, no organization and no mission statement. The sect is held together only by its oral tradition: memorizing passages from the tale of the white whale and spouting them when it seems appropriate.”

Day 1 in AutoFlick chronology

June 7, 1968, is the first day of the AutoFlick story. Izzy and his father see two kids in a 1965 Triumph Spitfire throw cigarette butts into the road. They follow them to a gas station.

While there, a woman driving a 1963 Chevy Malibu comes into the gas station and drops her cigarette on the pavement, crushing it with the toe of her shoe.

“At the time we were riding to our work that June morning, I had no idea that a social science experiment was about to happen to me.”

 

 

New Cover, AutoFlick for Father’s Day

AutoFlick has a new cover, and I’m happy to say the novel is now available at two actual bookstores in Bucks County, PA: The Doylestown Bookshop and The Lahaska Bookshop. Go there. Buy lots of books. Tell them I sent you.

And I’ve retooled my online sales strategy. For two years, I have watched in frustration as Amazon sellers undercut the $16 retail price. Within a week after the book was first published, someone was selling a “used” copy for $11. Now, there are people offering the book for $2.

I don’t know how they manage to do this, but I think I made a mistake in how I designated sales channels on Amazon’s CreateSpace program. I have turned off all those options, although I suspect the resellers will continue to offer steeply discounted versions of the book.

The only authorized seller (by me) is my Amazon Seller page. It’s the only way you get a copy with the updated cover.

 

Another bit from Except Me and My Monkey

I begin to melt in the soul of the minivan whose ageless heater stirs decades of cramped adventurers. A bouncy ride back to the outfitter’s store, I weigh my options for dinner. Unsolicited, Lakshmi, the Hindu woman, tells me she’s heard the Kangia Café is good. It is across the street.

So, I find myself having supper with her. Locals speaking Greenlandic at the few tables. We claim seats at the counter looking onto the street, peeling off some layers to spray around ourselves, building a nest of sorts. I wonder if she’s being nice to be because of something she saw back in the Reykjavik domestic airport.

The Inuit proprietress asks what we want and, glancing at the chalkboard menu, I propose a baguette more because I like the sound of it. Lakshmi says she wants one too. The proprietress is busy with a pipeline of pending orders. We return to the counter.

“I am going to places that my husband said he always wanted to visit,” Lakshmi says. This is a great relief to me as we now have a topic to talk about.

“Why did he want to come here,” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says softly, almost as though she is with him again in her mind. “He never said.”

“And he is ….”

“Dead. He died happily, I think.”

“How long.”

“One year ago.” I am sure she is remembering him. It’s almost as though he’s there with us. He’s one of those tall, handsome Indians with majesty in his stride and graceful airs, I decide.

“Where else has he taken you.”

Lakshmi then proceeds to tell me about her sexual experience over 30 years of marriage and family vacations and their life in America and the handful of oddball places she’s been since her husband died less than a year ago. The one that sticks in my head is the two of them waking up in a meadow in late spring, cows milling around. A married couple date, after farming off their two children to an obliging neighbor. A concert with college kids at the liberal arts bastion where he taught English lit to America’s future. The Byrds. Eight Miles High and then the meadow. They did it again in the morning before an audience of great, moonish bovine eyes assessing their significance in the universe.

I am spellbound during this reckoning and almost disappointed that the owner-manager of the Kangia Café has summoned us to the counter to choose the ingredients for our baguettes.

It becomes a wonderful little meal. I throw some barbecue chicken into my order, although my what’s left of my family back in Maryland is steering away from meat that doesn’t swim. That’s what vacations and turning points are for, among other things. Lakshmi, true to form, goes strictly vegetarian.

I am encouraged that my Hindu friend also orders a bottle of local beer, which Greenlanders are remarkably good at even after only a relatively short period of time since temperance was no longer the rule of the land. Can’t go wrong brewing or distilling when you start with glacier water.

At a moment when I’m about halfway through my sandwich and I turn to look at the production end of the café and the proprietress glances my way at the same time, I offer a thumbs-up and rub my belly, a satisfied buddha or lesser Inuit idol and she smiles. As the world is relatively small, you can never go wrong thanking the cook.

Lakshmi and I finish our supper perched on stools, watching the traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, out on Ilulissat’s main drag. We drain our beers in quiet and I pay the check. As we put our layers back on, she thanks me without looking, the way a wife would acknowledge a husband.

 

Chapter 2 excerpt: Except for me and my Monkey

In Ancient Footsteps.

 

A near-handful of hotels in Ilulissat have dispatched vans to greet us, the recent arrivals from Reykjavik. Energized, I find my way to the Hotel Icefjord driver and identify myself but I must have used too many English things because he just grins and nods his head. I wander away.

Suddenly there is no one near the Icefjord sign and I realize the Dachshund-size baggage claim belt has already delivered its goods and there is my bag, forlornly waiting for me. Together, we roll outside where the Icefjord van is quickly filling up. It’s down to an Italian couple and me for the last seat in the van.

They can’t be separated, so I take the last seat, next to Hank, who is squeezed into the middle of the front seat. I didn’t notice the make or model, but it’s a ubiquitous three-row van that may have been purchased online from a Mexican auction lot. In Greenland, the main requirement is that it use diesel.

The roads, and everything else, is completely covered by a winter’s worth of snow, compacted to a fun frozen concrete that the drivers in Ilulissat take as a perfectly serviceable driving surface. No need to take corners cautiously, or slow gently to stop signs, or even stop at all, much less give a little leeway to pedestrians, of which there are many. No, sir. If you’re driving on this – no chains, no four-wheel drive and, for all I know, no snow tires – just go ahead and drive. Fast as you think safe.

We bob, we weave and we swerve past the new graveyard and the Hotel Arctic and the frozen harbor and through downtown Ilulissat, turning whimsically here and frantically there and finally over a blind drive into the front entrance of the Hotel Icefjord. As I was the last one on, my bags are the first off. I hustle inside.

Later, on a guided hike to Sermermiut.

We drive to the starting point of the hike in another rundown minivan that keeps the tourist industry humming in Ilulissat.

The proceedings are in some disarray. The guide indicates that he’ll do the English spiel first and then the Danish, and he tells me about an old cemetery up the hill, but the old cerebrum isn’t ticking as smoothly as usual given that I’ve had about three hours of sleep since the night before, whenever that was. The journey from Iceland took three hours and crossed three time-zones, meaning we got to Greenland about 10 minutes after we left. I start walking up a staircase in the side of a hill that he said led to the cemetery when he calls me back. Not yet, gringo.

More discussion, mostly in English. Stay on the path, it’s a UNESCO heritage site. The expedition gets underway. It’s cloudy and plenty cold and every once in a while, it snows or the wind, which is at our backs, picks up. There are interesting photographs as the sun, low on the horizon, tries to muscle through the clouds, murky blue and yellow hues in the sky. But to get to those polaroid memories, I have to take off my thick winter gloves to work the camera. And in no time, the fingers start to freeze and then you just get the gloves back on and there’s another photo asking to be taken. Again, it is somewhere south of zero.

The snow is crunching, reverberating, underfoot. The tones modulate based on some hidden algorithm buried below. The Danish kid is whistling along on his sled. The pipsqueak in the backpack squawks every now and then.

The guide explains that the third wave of native people, the Thule, lived here as late as 1850, when they were lured away to the comforts of European living in Ilulissat, then going by its Danish name.

We march on, the slanting rays of sunlight strafing the landscape tipping down to the waterfront, where we cannot go. Have to stay on the boardwalk, which is buried under the snow, but it’s playing a part in the modality of our snow crunching boot bass line.

The guide is trying to explain the geology of the place. Some brain cells turn to permafrost. Not getting it, completely. Now that we’ve stopped walking, it’s getting colder. If that was possible.  The guide pours coffee and tea into plastic cups. He tosses one into the air and the coffee freezes in brown sleet before it even completes its arc. This is magic, he says.