This wraps up the AutoFlick chronology, for now. The story ends on Nov. 2, 2002, and so doth the posts reflecting on each chapter. But 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the year when the AutoFlick story started, so I plan to repost some of the chapter excerpts and add some historical notes.
We gently placed Martine on the bow seat. There was nothing to really secure him there, so Lee put his employer’s hands on the gunwales and looked at me.
“That should work,” I said.
“I run with you,” he answered. I took this to mean that the former long-distance runner for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would more or less keep pace with us by running along the canal towpath.
But before he left, Lee lit a cigar and put it in Martine’s lips.
I grabbed the tow line at the bow and walked backward into the water, sliding the canoe down the gravel until it floated free. It was badly unbalanced until I clamored into the stern.
And so I began paddling upstream into the negligible current of the Delaware River, with the wasted, smoking shell of my friend Vic Martine uncertainly perched in the bow of our family’s canoe, north toward the mountains where men and mules had dug anthracite out of the rocks and shipped it downstream on the canal so genteel folks could light their parlors and heat their homes.
After a bit of paddling, I paused and reached fore, taking the joint from Martine’s face and indulged myself in a puff before throwing it into the river, thinking that I would spend my newfound inheritance in Intel Corp. to take Elizabeth on a long sea cruise aimed at true love.
On my way out of the van, I grabbed the package Lee had given me the day before. When I got to my desk, I unwrapped it and found a dog-eared, clothbound book entitled “Handbook for the Therapeutic Use of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide-25. Individual and Group Procedures.” On the inside of the front cover Uncle James had written his name and an address in Vancouver, British Columbia.
I was so happy to have something of his in my hands that it took a moment for me to realize that this had come from Martine’s house. In halting increments of understanding, I realized. They must. Have known. Each other.
The text was heavily annotated; Jimmy underlined all over the place and commented profusely in the margins—using diverse pens and pencils. It had the look of a journal that had been referred to often and annotated over a long period of time.
It was a manual for LSD research. The authors laid out guidelines they had developed through their own work and the work of others for using the drug in psychological and psychiatric therapy. I pictured Uncle James with a white lab coat and this handbook stuffed in the pocket, watching patients rocket around inside their brains, pulling a pencil from behind his ear to scribble something he thought was important.
Jimmy had underlined a passage describing the necessity for a patient to understand that his present state is inadequate and then summon the strength to get through “the difficult and painful process of coming to understand and accept himself.”
Ain’t that the truth.
James had underlined a sentence stating that the therapist cannot do these things for the patient. In the margin, he wrote, “so don’t even try.”
The authors thought there was an underlying factor that would explain the range of experiences people had from the drug. But they acknowledged that, as of 1959, they hadn’t yet come up with an explanation. They thought it had something to do with self-acceptance and the willingness to surrender it.
The LSD manual described six levels of experience with the drug, and James had jotted down initials and dates alongside these descriptions that may have referred to actual sessions he had attended. The sixth level described a richer interpretation of reality and the feeling of complete accord with it.
In the margin, James had written “light.” In myth class, we had discussed the theory that the Eleusian mystery religion of the Greeks, practiced for some 2,000 years, was facilitated by an ergot-infused drink, basically, wine laced with “natural” LSD. On my misguided little trip with Evelyn, I had not stumbled across anything remotely like an epiphany, but that didn’t necessarily mean there hadn’t been one there. Perhaps I was just too damn inexperienced to know one when I saw it. I was neither baptized nor christened, and I didn’t have a college degree. On the plus side, I had a bunch of merit badges and had at least been wedded under the watchful gaze of the holy ghost.
My dad, Isaac Yardley, said I should write down any cigarette throws that happen when he’s not around. For the past few days, he hasn’t been around much. He says he’s spending time at the houseboat because he can think better there and he’s got some paper to write for his anthropology class. My mom says Dad has some stuff to work out. I didn’t ask her about it, so maybe she had to say it. She took me to meeting last Sunday and most days she has been picking me up from school.
Mom and me were riding home from school when I saw somebody smoking a cigarette in a white car in front of us. Dad knows all about car models because he’s been watching traffic for 30 years or something like that, and he and my grandfather, who I never met, had this thing about catching people throwing cigarettes. I don’t know anything about cars and don’t plan to.
Anyway, I asked Mom if she would follow the car with the smoker. I had to tell her about the research project, which was news to her. So we followed the white car and it seemed to take a long time for the driver to finish smoking. But Mom kept after him and I could tell she was getting into the chase, and I realized how much I missed Dad. He has harpoons stuck in a bunch of us, and I thought how much he must miss his father.
The white car gave us the slip, and we never saw the cigarette fly into the street. I wish I could say what it looked like and what it represented in the evolution of car design, but they all look the same to me. Mom seemed bummed about it, but I told her that was all part of the research. We have to take the negative results along with the positive.
Because we were in Mom’s car, I had to write this down on a scrap of discarded script from the musical.
Elizabeth was not amused when I came home very late that night from the Beeping Sleuty. I told her I had gotten a little drunk after work and decided to wait until I felt safe driving.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m still working on that,” I shrugged truthfully. “Maybe this is my midlife crisis.”
She shook her head, puzzled. “Who were you with?”
“A bar crowd. I don’t expect to see them again. Honestly, I thought of you a few times.” I reached forward and took her hands in mine. “I don’t think I’m cut out for the saloon life, but I may have to try again some time to make sure.” Elizabeth looked back, her eyes still faithful, and sighed.
She was cutting me a lot of fucking slack.
Somewhere between my trip with Evelyn and that Saturday morning, the sniper shot a woman as she was crossing the parking lot of a home-improvement store in Virginia. It was as ruthless and random as all the others, but this time there were reports of an eyewitness.
It turned out that the person had not witnessed anything. And so a couple million of us looked once again over our shoulders for ways to not be a target.
Later, Izzy follows his neighbor’s 1999 Ford Taurus all the way home, where he finds Juliana, his old high school girlfriend chatting with his wife in the kitchen.
The Beltway Sniper continued shooting people. Izzy follows through on his plan to hire a pretty woman to clean his father-in-law’s houseboat.
The sunset purpled a little farther into the west. We turned and walked slowly back to the Beeping Sleuty, still clenched together, but our brains were off on separate orbits. When we got back to the houseboat, we sat and embraced on the vinyl bench, and she slung her leg over mine and pressed her face into me. Our lips kissed, but I closed my eyes and thought of Elizabeth. Their tongues are pretty much the same, in the end, but their techniques and tastes are as different as snowflakes.
The happily-married guy’s fantasy.
This went on for a while, but one or the other of us eventually grew bored. Evelyn drew back and looked in my eyes again. I was tripping like nobody’s business. But I remembered what my father told that kid at the Magical Mystery Tour and was getting used to it.
“I need to get going,” she said.
“At some point, I need to go home,” I said, wondering how long it would take until I could possibly do that. It was nearly dark outside.
Evelyn stood up and straightened her dress. I wondered where she was off to as she staggered toward the door. I followed after her.
Evelyn fished in her purse and pulled out a cigarette. I wished that I had a lighter, but of course, I did not. She lit her smoke and we stood there quietly while she smoked. I was surprised that I enjoyed being downwind of her as much as I did, wondering why people complain about second-hand smoke.
Finally, she flicked the cigarette into the water.
I had to ask.
“This is a non-smoking vessel,” she said, as though she had been deputized her to enforce maritime law.
“Are you going to be alright?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said, and I was convinced that she actually was. I watched with great pleasure as she hopped from the Beeping Sleuty to the marina gangplank, waved happily to me and vamped toward the rest of her evening. We had never set a time or price for her to maid-up the houseboat. It hardly seemed important.
I pulled the other vintage beer from the refrigerator and a bag of stale potato chips and watched a baseball game involving the Anaheim Angels and the Minnesota Twins. The Twins were one of the Senators traitors that had abandoned RFK Stadium, so I rooted—for once in my life—for the Angels. Though I didn’t last to the end of the game, the Angels would homer twice on their way to victory.
Izzy digs himself in a little deeper at home by bringing up religion in a conversation with his wife. Also, he’s getting perilously close to hiring a college girl to clean the houseboat. When he goes out to get milk, the Beltway sniper strikes again.
Later that evening, there was an emergency that required me to go buy milk. I drove Elizabeth’s car, which needed gas, and while I was loading my credit card into the machine, a 1999 Ford Focus sped impatiently to the other side of the island of pumps. The driver, a woman, was smoking a cigarette. This looked familiar. She got out of her car, dropped the cigarette on the ground, and intentionally stepped over it, rather than grinding it out.
We traded meaningless smiles when our eyes crossed.
“You left your cigarette burning next to the gas pump,” I said, still smiling.
She looked at me questioningly, not getting my drift. Was I someone she knew?
“The cigarette. Shouldn’t we put it out?”
She shrugged and went on with the gas-pumping procedure. Whoever I was, I didn’t matter.
“I’ve got a bumper sticker for you, but it’s in my other car,” I said, making sure she heard me, without trying to bear down too hard. She was an accomplished ignorer, however.
When I got back in our car, there was a news alert on the radio. The sniper had gotten another victim, a man killed while pumping gas at a service station in Virginia. Later, they identified him as a white guy of about my age. Coulda been me.
When I got home, I realized I had forgotten to get the milk.
Izzy starts to get himself in trouble at the marina.
It was a warm day and the houseboat was musty. I threw open all the windows and began to attack the place with a spray bottle of all-purpose cleaner. At some point I noticed a young woman in cut-off jeans and tank top working on the cabin cruiser tethered next to our houseboat.
I went outside and took a seat in a deck chair. I was just watching her, barely trying to be discreet. This may have been the effect of the all-purpose cleaner fumes.
She had a Mediterranean look, I decided, about the same age as my daughter. I was having a pleasant, middle-aged guy’s daydream when she looked straight at me and smiled.
She waved back, enthusiastically.
“I’m Izzy,” I called. “Who are you?”
“Evelyn,” she said. Apparently glad that I cared.
She had a tatoo on her shoulder, I noticed.
“Beneath the unclouded and mild azure sky, upon the fair face of the pleasant sea, waited by the joyous breezes, he floats on and on, till lost in infinite perspectives,” I said.
She seemed amused. “What’s that?” she asked.
“Moby Dick,” I said.
“You know. The novel. Moby Dick.” I enunciated with an abundance of caution. “The white whale.”
Not sure this made a mark either.
“It’s just some old book I’ve read a bunch of times.”
She didn’t know what to make of this. I headed for firmer ground.
“Is that your boat?”
She laughed. “No. I just clean it.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said, gesturing about the houseboat.
Evelyn seemed ready to resume her boat cleaning, and I figured I couldn’t just sit around on the deck ogling her. I went back inside and plugged away at my tidying up of the in-laws’ mostly forgotten weekend getaway. I stopped only a few times to check up on Evelyn.
Later, he and Henry come across a guy smoking a cigarette in a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, which makes a decent outdoor planter.
The Beltway Sniper attacks begin. Late in the day, Izzy and Henry follow an elderly woman driving a 1939 Plymouth.
On the morning commute, the world tilted further toward the bizarre. By the time I delivered Henry to school, a landscaper had been shot while mowing grass at a car dealership somewhere else in suburban Maryland.
I was downtown counting cars along a street that might someday get speed bumps when a motorist waiting in traffic told me there had been another killing, a taxi driver filling his gas tank. And before this news had been fully digested, a pedestrian asked me if I felt safe working outside.
“He shot another one, a woman sitting on a bench at a bus stop,” the pedestrian said. “She was reading a book.”
“Though of real knowledge there be little, yet of books there are a plenty,” I suggested.
It was creepy on the street, and I began looking for rifles in the back seats of the cars that swam by.
At the end of the day, I took refuge in the darkness of the theater at Henry’s school, checking on the show’s progress. They were rehearsing a scene in which Ishmael, on Queequeg’s home island, realizes that all westerners—missionaries, whalemen, merchants, himself—are destroying paradise. In the musical, Ishmael decides to go back to whaling. Idly, I wondered if there was some way I could move onto the houseboat.
On the way home, news of another sniper killing, a young woman shot while vacuuming her minivan at a gas station. The radio said the public schools were in lockdown. It was unsettling, to say the least.
Henry and I came upon a 1939 Plymouth coupe convertible. The driver—an elderly woman who could have started her driving career in that car—was lighting a cigarette with the window rolled down. She drove very, very slowly through the residential streets near where my son went to school. She and her car looked as though they had been sailing those streets together for decades, through the tail end of the Depression, the gas-starved war years, the buoyant can-do fifties, the getting-our-act-together sixties, the excellent dance moves of the seventies, the cashing-in of the eighties, the numbing glide into the nineties and now the little old lady from the Northwest quadrant and her rocking black Plymouth convertible were drifting along the leafy streets, oblivious to the snipers and the weapons of mass destruction and anthrax in the mail.
I’m getting sloppy about making these posts on the right date because the story is moving toward its last month. After that, I’ll have come up with something new. The 1999 Volkswagen New Beetle comes in later, after this passage. However, I did find another typo in the text!
It was Saint Jonah’s day, and the last day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. I drove Henry to his second Quaker meeting, and I did not go in. We had both attended the week before, and it only made me realize how little I cared about the church I had been going to for the last 25 years or so. Gershwin may have had it right when he questioned whether Old Jonah made his home in dat fish’s abdomen.
Long ago, before we were married, going to church became one of the things Elizabeth and I did together, not long after the date we arranged when her car stalled in front of my speed gun. Mostly, I liked being with her, although I had some latent curiosity about what people saw in it.
Church was baked into Elizabeth at an early age. So when we began to think about getting married and having a family, I figured that maybe this was a way for a flawed individual such as me to be a good husband and father. I loved Speedy, and I never stopped being his son, but there are a damn lot of trails through the woods.
And it didn’t hurt too much. I married Elizabeth in the church where her family had been going for a long time. I never thought of myself as converted; it was more like being diverted.
Before I knew what was happening, the first child, Herman, came along, a bubbly creature who turned suddenly somber when his sister Isabel was born a couple of years later, and then Henry.
I was a silent but not unwilling co-conspirator as we subjected our children to rituals that I never faced: baptism, christening, Sunday school and confirmation. No one ever thought to ask whether I had any of those merit badges. People assumed that, since I was married to Elizabeth and attending church regularly and putting something in the collection plate and hanging Christmas lights and hiding Easter eggs and trying not to fart in bed, I must have been saved at some point. To keep this pretense going, I nodded appropriately and as much as seemed necessary. If I had to, I mentioned the Boy Scout church.
Jesus wasn’t a Christian, I told myself, yet he managed to be a decent fellow.
The problem with the Quaker church, as that would-be draft dodger called it long ago, was that they didn’t believe it either, but they kept coming back to make sure. Plus, it reminded me too much of Speedy. So after that first Sunday meeting with Henry, I opted out altogether. If Emily Dickinson could take the Sabbath at home, surely it was okay for me, a 51-year old perpetual undergraduate, to waste Sundays out in the sunshine.
That Saint Jonah’s Day of 2002, after Henry went into the Friends meeting without me, I turned the key in the ignition of our decrepit minivan, thinking about those tireless electrons racing to the spark plugs, the crank turning, fuel releasing into the pistons, blastoff. All systems go.
This was too easy. I shut down the engine. I got out of the car, locked the doors with the front windows rolled down and threw the car keys onto the front seat. This was the parking lot at a Society of Friends meetinghouse, after all, during a Sunday meeting.
With neither prayer nor plan in my head, I sauntered down the drive to the undulating two-lane road that was reminding me of up-county roads where I grew up, or tried to.
I was beached at a terrible place to hitchhike. The road was narrow and had no shoulder. Traffic hurtled at me around a curve and pitched headlong down a slope toward a bridge that spanned a tributary of the Anacostia. There was no place for a driver to pull over and little opportunity to even see me there before it was too late. All of which was peanuts given that this was late September 2002, the beginning of the second year of the Great Fear, decades removed from a time when kids still hitched, and generations after a time when the Depression and the war effort had socialized adults to the point that they would stand by the road and ask a neighbor for a ride.
I stood there anyway, thinking my chance of getting a ride was so remote that I was, in effect, just vertically sunbathing. Yet it was liberating to cast my thumb-bait to drivers as they poured over the hill and curled around me onto the bridge. Most of them probably didn’t see me, or couldn’t put together enough context to sort out what I was doing. A few may have put it together but were just too dumbstruck to do anything about it.
None of which really mattered because that limited stretch of asphalt where I waited was connected to all the others going places by being rooted on the roadbed.
Then a 1973 Audi Fox began to slow as it headed into the turn. I was out of shape and it took me a few seconds to realize that the driver was decelerating for me. He pulled halfway onto the driveway to the meetinghouse as I headed for the passenger-side door.
“Where ya going?” he asked.
He had me there. Unprepared, I muttered something about down the road and pointed forward through his windshield.
“You don’t see hitchhikers much anymore.” The driver looked to be a fellow traveler in the baby boom. There was a golf bag in the cargo area.
“I haven’t done this in 30 years,” I said, remembering the protocol. Talk if talked to. Be small and keep your odor to yourself. Watch for signs of weirdness. Don’t get too comfortable, but don’t be uneasy. Just two oxygen breathers hurtling down the road. It was different being an adult, or at least of adult age, but even more different was the fact that I was hitching a ride without any particular place to go.
“And jolly enough were the sights and sounds that came bearing down before the wind,” I said.
“I’ve got a golf game,” Audi Fox said, turning off in the general direction of a golf course that I had vaguely noted in the many years I had lived in Prince George’s County. Subconsciously, I was still mapping ways to earn a few dollars, in a pinch, on a weekend.
“I guess I’ll just hang out there for a while and then head back,” I said. “If that’s all right with you.”
It turned out it was alright with Audi Fox. He parked and changed into his golf shoes while sitting on the back bumper. I considered whether I should offer to carry his bag for him, at least to the clubhouse, but I feared that once back in the yoke, I might get lost and not find my way out again. So I walked with him for a little way toward the clubhouse and then said so long and lurked off toward the nearest tee.
After so much of my youth misspent on golf courses, this was the first one I had been to since I walked away from the country-club summer job with Brady’s advice in my back pocket.
I watched a foursome of middle-aged guys in varying stages of being overweight and adorned to the gills in golf paraphernalia. They had two electric carts, as did the next several groups lined up behind them.
I looked out over the course and saw no caddies anywhere. As it was Sunday morning, there were no greens-keepers either. A golf course left almost entirely to the golfers, running amok in their gay, motorized carts, simulated automobiles with no onboard ashtray. This must be a public course, I thought to myself.
Here and there, someone was walking, bravely dragging a bag of clubs behind them on a two-wheeled cart.
I rediscovered that I liked watching golf balls smashed off and away from their little wooden pedestals, even the deformities that sliced and hooked hideously astray. If the soul of a golf stroke is the arc of its trajectory, do such atrocities reflect evil, or are they just the output of lousy artists? Or did they exist only to draw a contrast to beautyl, those wondrous efforts launched bravely into the cerulean September heaven, climbing to a peak and then settling with self-confidence in the fairway, inviting its maker to attack the green?
I sat down in the chemically pimped-up grass, watching without trying to look, as another group ascended the tee box, stepping through their rituals. I sank back on my elbows, feeling old roots in the earth, relishing a perspective closer to the ground and glad that I had no fiduciary duty to watch where the hell the balls ended up, or to throttle down a lawn mower in order to be paid the minimum wage. The golfers loomed like actors or celestial beings against the impeccable sky. It was easy to be subverted by such prosperity, even when people around the world were scratching in the dirt for something to eat and walking miles through the bush for a bucket of rancid water, and our own boys and girls were dancing across minefields to give what-for to the zealots.
After a while, I decided I was thankful that I wasn’t a golfer and I picked myself up off the plush grass. I ended up walking all the way back to the meetinghouse, as I knew I would, trudging backward with my middle-aged thumb in the road, practicing a dying social art.