October 11, 2002

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.

October 9, 2002

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.

October 7, 2002

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.

I waved.

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.

“Say again?”

“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.

October 3, 2002

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.

 

 

September 22, 2002

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.

September 21, 2002

Izzy is taking Henry and a friend to the marina, where the boys are going to film another vignette for their musical about the aftermath of Moby Dick. Along the way, a cigarette is tossed from a 2000 Chevrolet Suburban.

Ahead of us, as we slogged through weekend traffic across the city, the driver of a 2000 Chevrolet Suburban was smoking a cigarette. The Suburban’s tinted windows were rolled up, sealing its occupants from the environment.

The driver’s side window, however, would periodically roll down an inch, belching a white puff of smoke and then the tip of a cigarette would emerge, tapping ash into the street. We pulled behind the Suburban at a stoplight. When the light turned to green, the cigarette fell into the street as we, the traffic, moved forward ensemble.

I committed myself to stay close to the Suburban. When my father harpooned an auto-flicker, I knew it right away. I wondered if Henry had figured out the signs yet.

“You want me to put this in the notes?” Henry said. When I turned to look, he had already pulled the notebook from the glove box and was writing something down, peering at the Suburban.

“We’re never going to know any more about them now they’ve gone back into their cave,” I offered, almost ready to give up the chase.

“If you live in a coffin, you got to keep it clean,” my son said.

“What are you talking about?” Leonard asked from the middle pew.

“We are doing research for a behavioral study,” Henry volunteered. “Why people defy God by throwing cigarette butts from their cars.”

“Cool.”

“I’m a frustrated social scientist,” I said to the middle row, wondering when this had become about god.

Then, suddenly, the Suburban pulled into a small parking lot next to a collection of run-down stores that had once held loftier commercial aspirations. I swerved in behind the Suburban.

From a box in the Pennsylvania dirt, my father could still yank my steering wheel.

The three of us sat in the parking lot silently concentrating on the Suburban. After a moment, the driver’s door opened. A short, foreign-looking woman climbed down from the cab, straightened out a tube top that looked too small to be comfortable, and trudged daintily on sneakers toward one of the markets.

Was there anyone else in the sport-utility vehicle? I reached for the pile of bumper stickers on the floor between the two front seats.

“I’ll do it, Dad,” Henry said.

But I couldn’t send him out there into enemy fire.

“Keep the engine running,” I said, easing open the door. “Tell Mom I love her if I don’t make it back.” I walked toward the Suburban. I couldn’t see anything through its tinted windows. As surreptitiously as possible, I slid the magnetized disk onto the left hip of the Suburban and then made a 180-degree turn back to the minivan.

“Smooth, Dad,” Henry said. I was already pulling the gearshift into gear and maneuvering us toward the street when the Suburban driver re-appeared stage left, momentarily looking straight at me, and I at her. But she turned away immediately, schooled not to make visual contact with strangers, and I watched in the outside rearview mirror as she walked around the back of her vehicle without noticing the new ornament there.

Then we were back in traffic, headed toward our next assignment, only a small detour for science on the path to art. We went to a marina on the Potomac where a motley collection of musical-theater pirates was waiting on a cigarette boat that looked ready to fly.

When the captain turned the engine over, everyone within a nine-iron turned their heads.

Henry and Leonard climbed into a smaller, saner inboard cruiser and followed the go-fast boat out toward an open expanse of the river to film it coming closer, full of pirates.

I kinda wished I was on the fast one.

September 17, 2002

Izzy recreates an event from his youth: sneaking next door to put a bumper sticker on the neighbor’s car, a 1999 Ford Taurus.

But first, Henry outlines the plot of the musical he’s working on.

At dinner, Elizabeth and I asked Henry about the musical.

“We were working on Scene 4 today, the one where Ishmael is booted off the Rachel because the missionary discovers him with the missionary’s oldest daughter in a position that missionary daughters aren’t supposed to be in.”

I thought this was ironic, which must have been the point. “The missionary?”

“Yeah. The Rachel is taking a family of missionaries to a south Pacific island, but the oldest daughter falls in love with  Ishmael. But when the captain agrees to put Ishmael off the ship at the next port of call, the daughter sneaks away with him.”

The sinking of the Pequod might have been the best thing to happen to Ishmael, I thought to myself.

That night, after dinner was had and homework was attended to and my wifely administrations were concluded, I tried to keep myself awake until all the lights in Ted’s house darkened, but his Ramadan was taking too long. I set the alarm on my wristwatch for three in the morning and went to bed.

It was one of those sleeps with one level of consciousness keeping watch over my shoulder, waiting for the alarm to go. When it did, I knew right away why, and I don’t know whether I was ever asleep, or what sleep is if you’re not in a summer heat coma near the 16th green. I slid out of bed, pulled sweatpants and a tee shirt and padded into my son’s room, remembering a story we used to read to the kids, lying side-by-side in a child’s bed, embalmed by the warmth of infancy.

“Hey, buddy,” I whispered, and stirred Henry’s shoulder.

“What’s up, Dad?” Disorientated, but not particularly surprised.

“I got a mission for us. It’ll only take a minute.”

Henry was in pajamas. We headed down the staircase single-file and at the front door he asked what we were doing.

“I want to leave something for Ted’s car.”

It was balmy and wonderful outside in the pre-dawn. I had a magnetic bumper sticker in hand. We paused to study Ted’s house for a minute. No lights. There was the hush of a household making sawdust. I crouched down, for no goddamn reason, and crept to the back of Ted’s Taurus.

“Should I come along?” Henry asked.

I shushed him, index finger to lips, and waved him to follow me. But instead of crouching and creeping, he just walked to my side.

The Taurus was the biggest-selling car in the U.S. for several years, but by the time this model was dispatched in 1999, it was losing ground to the Toyota Camry, and sales depended mightily on fleet purchases by risk-averse, cost-conscious bureaucrats. Its rear end featured a burglar’s mask arrangement of lights and a roundness free of personality. By 2002, it had become a car’s ass that America was tired of looking at.

My magnetic bumper sticker would not stick to its plastic bumper so I made due with an uneven patch on the trunk.

“There,” I said.

Crawling still, I crept back toward our front door, the teenager in pajamas and bare feet walking along behind.

September 15, 2002

Izzy gets into an argument with a guy in a 1989 Lincoln in the parking lot near the C&O canal. Later, he goes for a little rid.

Then he drove off faster than he’d arrived. The 1989 Lincoln Mark VII had the spare-wheel bump in the trunk, which would remind some people of Secret Service agents climbing up the back of a Lincoln in Dallas to shepherd the lady in pink back to her seat. It was a design lost in the 1970s, all boxy and rectangular, with an iron-pumper’s stance. The roofline tried to lift the car visually, but there was just too much holding it down, rooted in steel, flexing its muscles.

I couldn’t remember whether anyone had previously said they’d thrown a cigarette into the street just because the window was open.

Along the C&O canal, there is a mule-drawn canal barge for tourists, a lot like the one in New Hope. I watched from the towpath as the barge captain began his spiel for the modern generation of canal-history buffs.

A mule not far from me shat. The teenager dressed in 19th-century clothes who walked along the towpath with the mules didn’t seem to notice.

The barge crew moved to pull in the gangplank that connected them to dry ground. It crossed my mind that I would like to try vaulting across a canal to a barge before I die.

Instead, I dashed to step on the gangplank before it was unmoored, and I boarded the barge.

When they pulled in the board, we were tethered to the land only by ropes pulled taught by a pair of honest, god-fearing mules. We lightened up on the cushion of fluid that held us free off the earth. Free of the cares of life, I settled into an old wooden barge-pew worn warm by generations of lore-seeking tourists like myself, and with my new shipmates set off for barbarous coasts.


September 10, 2002

I found a typo in today’s chapter!

There was a smaller crowd at James’s funeral service; he had spent most of his adult life far away and no one seemed to know anyone from that life. I thought that Mrs. Crick, his anonymous benefactress, would show up, but she did not, and I figured she was intent on taking her generosity to the grave.

My sister, Katie, gave a good little speech about how James was judged harshly by some for his work with doctors who were studying psychoactive drugs in behavioral therapy. “There are a lot of ways to come to the truth,” she said, sounding more like Speedy than I could bear. “We can’t dismiss the striving of people of good heart who are trying to help others.”

So I was there to help stow away the remains of the last of the Yardley brothers and try to make sense of a world that snuffs out bright candles too soon. The best I could come up was to tell myself to avoid the Heroism of Misguided Causes, like the ones that doomed those poor saps on the Pequod. Those kinds of pursuits might be all right for novelists, I thought, but I had a life to live. A fucking life to live, as Juliana would have reminded me.

Back in 2002, I hung around the Korean War Memorial for a while, and then headed home. In front of me, a 1998 Dodge Stratus. An uninspired rear end with a curved lid on the trunk. Like a lot of cars, it was camouflaged in gray, invisible in the September evening.

The driver in the Stratus, in slow motion, threw his cigarette into the street while we were both parked at a traffic light.

“Write that down,” I said to myself, fumbling for the notepad that Speedy and I had kept, and scribbled without looking. “’98 Dodge Stratus. Driver threw cig to street just to make me notice what’s going on.”

When I got home, our neighbor was sitting in his car, parked in the street. I waved to him as I turned up our walkway, but he didn’t respond. I detoured.

“What’s up, Ted?” I asked, chatting through his open passenger-side window. He was a career Army man who still wore khaki to work. He sat behind the steering wheel looking like the last still-swimming fish in a dingy aquarium.

“I put in for retirement this month,” he said, talking as much to himself as to me, staring through the windshield at an expanse of nothingness. “But the department has stopped processing retirement requests.”

The Army was the only job Ted ever had. He was almost ready to leave a couple of years ago, and then his own son went in and then the Pentagon, where he worked, was attacked by zealots.

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“It means they don’t want to let anybody go if they think there’s another war coming.”

Ted’s boy was in an armored division.

I think my Mom had one of these before the World told her to stop driving. Would have been Dad’s last car purchase. Anybody else notice how boring cars were in the late 90s?

September 7, 2002

Taking his kid to an on-site filming session, Izzy gets into it with a BMW yuppie. BTW, I get spam on this blog from:

  • people who want me to “monetize” my website and
  •  people who want to sell me some kinda app that generates blog content.

To the latter, today’s extensive post is dedicated. To the former, just send me whatever money you think I should be making at this.

Then, a couple of generations later, I was driving toward Old Town, a place in Alexandria that was heavy on brick and cobblestone, for the making of another video for the musical. Someone—I suspected Henry, but he denied responsibility—had outfitted me in clothing intended to resemble 19th century seafaring attire. Because there would be no place to change where we were shooting, I wore my costume en route.

With us were four girls from the cast, including Meredith, who was playing the role of a missionary’s daughter who is outbound on the Rachel when they pick up Ishmael. I wasn’t sure, but I thought there might be more than a thespian thing between them. Along with her three sisters, the missionary girls would sing onstage about the better life they left behind in America while a video of that better life played on the screen in the theater.

Or so it was explained to me.

My role was to amble around in the background, looking like I was about 150 years old. In the musical, the character played by Meredith was going to fall madly in love with Ishmael after he’s rescued from the sea.

The girls were chattering a mile a minute, a like-filled blur of something akin to the conversation of birds cooing on an overhead phone line. To pass the time, they rehearsed their onstage song, a parody of a 1960s girl-group ballad about boyfriends that made me think of Juliana.

 

A blue-gray 2002 BWM 320i convertible was ahead of us in the boulevard. The top was down. The passenger, a young woman with carefully blonde hair and long, slender arms of tan, was smoking. The driver, sunglasses, pastel golf shirt, big watch on his wrist, was not.

The traffic was a wide, moving logjam, creeping through a gauntlet of side streets, parallel parkers and un-parkers, traffic lights and cars dodging around a Metrobus. The BMW was finless and mostly chrome-free. There was a small ornamental BMW badge in the middle of the back. It was a tidy, fancy box that symbolized the driver’s entry into the pampered classes. The 2002 model year was a huge seller, in the U.S. and globally.

A lot of people were knighted that year.

Then the princess casually dropped her cigarette into the road. Not a flick or pitch. Just an unconscious letting go that said, I’m done with this, let someone else pick it up. Or not.

I almost lost them at the next stoplight, which was a lot closer to red than yellow by the time I pushed through, an angry horn of protest in my wake from a car trying to exert its right-of-way from an intersecting street. Henry looked quickly over at me, usually the most boringly non-contentious driver on the road.

“What’s up, Dad?” he asked.

“She’s a flicker, son.” The most important thing was to stay close. Joan Jett came to mind, and I realized that I don’t give a damn about my reputation either.

The four girls in the back quieted down and tuned into the front seat of the minivan. A parent going off the rails. This could be amusing.

Next thing I knew, we were side by side, me in the left lane, the BMW in the right. I held my position even though the car in front of us was pulling away. BMW had to slow down for a right turn happening just in front of him.

“Hey, Daddy-O,” I called. The BMW driver was at least 20 years younger than me. When he glanced my way, I mimed the roll-down-your window signal, even though his windows (and his roof) were already down. He looked away, pretending he hadn’t seen my gesture.

“Your girl dropped a cigarette back there.”

A double take. He was trying to pay attention to the car in front of him. A car behind me barked: I held my ground.

“She threw her cigarette in the road,” I repeated.

I could feel the intense focus of high schoolers aft and starboard, unable to look away from a social shipwreck. It is written somewhere that minivans, especially when they are captained by middle-aged men dressed as ancient mariners, are not supposed to harass BMWs.

The BMW found clear space and zipped ahead. But my harpoon was in him. He had the jump on me, but I held on a few yards behind his left bumper, cutting off a lane change. We pulled alongside again; I was looking aft, careful of the traffic. I could feel Henry staring straight ahead, wishing perhaps that this wasn’t happening. Then the BMW suddenly turned right onto a side street, too quickly for me to follow. I caught a wave of intuition and zipped ahead into the right-lane space that he would have occupied, and sped toward the next intersection, hurriedly turned right and then made the next right, thinking I might catch him coming in the opposite direction.

It was a tree-lined residential street a block off the boulevard and the BMW was at my mercy, rolling straight toward us. I edged toward the middle of the street, which was narrow anyway because cars were parked on both sides. He probably could have squeezed through, but an entry-level luxury car paint job is a hard thing to sacrifice to a lunatic baby boomer dressed for serving fish and chips. In the battle of nuttiness, I had gained the upper hand.

Our slow-motion jousting match brought us closer together. As we came driver-to-driver, I held up my left hand peacefully. I stopped directly alongside him, and though he obviously didn’t want to, he stopped as well.

“Hey, man. I just want to know why the first mate dropped her cigarette in the road.”

The pretty young woman was looking furiously straight ahead, and she turned once to glare at me in utter disgust, as though there ought to have been somebody around in a position of authority to deal with me.

The BMW driver was stuck. “Well, uhh, you know. People just do things.”

“This is research. For science.” The science card can be powerful. I nodded sideways toward Henry. “We don’t care what your names are, and we’re not taking license numbers. We’ve heard all kinds of explanations. Is that your answer then, ‘people just do things’?”

The young woman was fuming. “Yeah,” she said, louder and getting her fur up. “People just do things. And what’s up with that stupid hat?”

Unconsciously, I looked up as though I could see the black tri-corner on my head. “We’re theater people,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Have a good day.”

And then, we captains each steered our vessels through the narrow channel between cars docked to the curb.

“What was that?” asked Meredith from the middle row of the mini-van.

“It’s a research project I started with my dad a long time ago,” I said and clasped eyes with her the way people do in rearview mirrors. She had a distant look as though she was trying to imagine how someone as old as me could have a father and an existence in the blurry, sepia-toned long-ago. Maybe my old-timey seafarer hat helped her orient herself between my father’s time and the present.

I didn’t think any of them would have believed me if I said he gave his life for this project.

That afternoon we filmed at a couple of locations in historic-looking spots in Alexandria. After we dropped off the girls, Henry informed me that the logs of whaling ventures recorded isolated cases in which women, disguised as men, joined the forecastle crew of whalers. “It wasn’t common, for sure,” he said. “Whaling masters sometimes took their wives with them, or took wives from the islands.”

Historical context was important to him.

“Life was very hard before the mast of a whaler,” he said. “It would have been a desperate choice for a woman to make.”