Monthly Archives: October 2014
‘Mogwai’ means “evil spirit” or “devil” in Cantonese (Chinese: 魔鬼; pinyin: móguǐ; Jyutping: mo¹gwai²)
In late October of 1984, Celine, age 8, had gone to the neighbor’s house to watch a movie. She felt lucky to live next door the first family she knew who owned a VCR. One of the teenagers who lived next door used to babysit Celine and now worked at a video store and would bring home movies on the weekends.
Celine was dying to see a movie, any movie, but always had to wait for the invitation. When the call came on Saturday she squealed with delight.
“Mama! I’m going to watch a movie at the Lee’s! Bye!” And she was out the door. Nahlie the family boxer watched from screen door as she ran to the gate.
“Be home in time to come to dinner with us,” her mother yelled from the living room.
They lived on the edge of Seattle’s Chinatown (now known as the International District) in an area that was rapidly gentrifying. They were one of the first white families to move in to the mostly Asian neighborhood. Celine’s father had been pleased to be able to purchase the solid home from an elderly Chinese man. He was moving in with his daughter and no longer needed the large house.
When Celine came home from the movie, she opened the door and yelled, “Hellloooo! I’m home!” but no one answered. And Nahlie was nowhere to be found.
That was the last thing she remembered from that day.
They found her asleep in the attic, curled up into a ball.
“How’d she pull down the attic stairs?” Her father asked in disbelief. “She can’t even reach the cord!”
Her parents speculated that Celine had watched a scary movie, and upon coming home and finding everyone gone had panicked and jumped to reach the spindly string to pull down the attic stairs. Nahlie had turned up a few blocks away and Celine had gotten in trouble for leaving the gate open. But the mystery always remained why she never remembered what had happened that afternoon.
Thirty years later:
Coming home from work, Celine opened the door to her new house and thought of how may times in her life she had crossed this very thresh hold. It was hard to think of the place as her own, but with her parents relocated to a smaller home, she had inherited the very house she had grown up in. She and her son Wilson gratefully accepted the gift of the big old house. Looking back on all the years spent in cramped apartments, the two-story craftsman felt like a mansion. Celine knew that not having a mortgage meant they could finally travel. Today she would tell Wilson she was taking him to the basketball camp he wanted to go to in California. Their difficult lives were finally easing after so many years of hardship.
Opening the front door, Celine half expected to hear the tapping toenails of her long gone childhood dog Nahlie on the hardwood floors. But all was quiet in the house.
“Helllooo! I’m home!” She called out into the stillness. Wilson must not be home yet from basketball practice, she thought to herself. At 15 years old he was obsessed with sports and spent all his spare time at the gym, coming home only when he needed to eat. Luckily the school was within walking distance and the neighborhood had improved greatly since Celine was a kid.
Coming into the kitchen, she flipped on a light switch. Celine thought she saw something out of the corner of her eye darting towards the stairs. Could there be mice or god forbid, rats, in her house?
“Hello? Wilson?” she called out again, this time cautiously. In her mind she remembered unlocking both bolts on the front door when she came in.
She crept over to the stairway the led to the second story peered into the darkness. From the bottom of the stairs she could make out the attic stair pull down cord faintly swaying.
In a flash she saw everything from the night long ago when her parents had found her asleep in the attic. The stairway opening before her and the feeling of being pulled up the stairs. She remembered the men with masks on their faces and the knife they grabbed from the kitchen to chase the furiously barking dog away. She recalled the way they spoke to each other in a language she couldn’t understand. Their wide suit lapels shiny and wet from the rain that had fallen that late October eve so long ago. The squeaking sound of their wet footsteps on the wooden stairs.
She remembered the smell of cigarettes on his breath as the man bent down and looked into her face with his black eyes. “Go upstairs little girl. Go to the attic and pull the steps up behind you. We wont hurt you. We’ve just come to retrieve something the old man left behind.”
She felt paralyzed by the memory just as she had a child.
And just as suddenly the memory spell was broken when she heard someone coming the front door.
“Hey mom! I’m home! What’s for dinner?”
FISH AND WILDLIFE – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER
“Hey, Kelly.” She felt a hand on her shoulder. “Kelly, are you awake?”
Kelly rolled over and half-opened her eyes. The casement windows were open, and she smelled the ocean before she heard the low hum of the waves. The filmy curtains filtered the bright Florida sun, casting a soft yellow reflection onto the marble floor. She smiled and stretched.
“I am now,” Kelly said. “What could you possibly want at this ungodly hour?”
“7:30 is not an ungodly hour,” said her husband Jeff. “It’s when I leave for work.” She watched him carefully knot his tie. He walked to the bed and brushed her tangled hair out of her face. “Before I left, I wanted to tell you we’re having dinner with the Martins tonight. 7:00 at Nemo’s.”
Kelly sat up in bed. “The Martins? Are you kidding me? Couldn’t you make something up and get out of it?”
“I’ve run out of excuses,” Jeff said, laughing. “And I work with Joe. I can’t fend him off any longer. We can tough it out for a couple of hours. Oh, and they’re gluten free now. Joe said he and Linda feel a lot better since they eliminated gluten from their diet.”
“If you want my opinion, I think Tanqueray’s their problem, not gluten,” Kelly said. “Fine. I’ll be ready at 7:00. It wasn’t part my plan.”
“What are you up to today?” Jeff asked. “You busy?”
“Well, I have the new Martin Amis book,” Kelly said, “and I can’t put it down. I was going to read for a while, then have lunch with Hope and Courteney. After lunch I thought I’d sit by the pool and read some more, then make us dinner. But apparently I’ll be spending my evening with the Martins tonight.”
Kelly and Jeff heard a truck pull into their driveway, the engine sputtering and grinding. The creaky truck door opened, then slammed shut. The sound of frantic barking drifted in through the open windows, followed by a string of expletives. Kelly heard the dog wail, and the barking abruptly stop. Jeff pulled the curtains back and looked out the window.
“Surprise, surprise, your boy Charlie’s actually here today,” Jeff said. “I haven’t seen him since Tuesday. What’s the excuse this time? I’ve been kicking mangos and cigar butts out of the sand all week.” He glanced at Kelly. “I heard the Haneys were poaching game again. Is that where Charlie’s been? Out hunting with his dad?”
Kelly thought for a minute. “I don’t know exactly but I doubt it. I think his dad just got out of jail, but he’s really sick and can’t watch the kids, and Charlie had to take his dad to the doctor, and then take the kids to school, and…” Jeff held up his hand to stop her.
“OK, so the usual Haney melodrama,” he said. “The weekly crisis. Why can’t we just hire some immigrants to do our yard work like everyone else? Look at the Janney’s yard and beach. Ricardo’s there every day, no excuses and no drama. Every day. It’s spotless out there.”
Kelly shook her head. “Jeff, I want to hire local people. The Haneys have been in this area for years, and Charlie needs a job. It’s hard to get work, and he’s trying his best. I can put up with him skipping one or two days a week when his family needs help.”
Jeff grinned at her. “I’m glad you’re putting master’s degree in social work to good use,” he said. “Cross your fingers that Charlie shows up for the next few days. It’s going to take a while to clean up the yard and the beach.” He walked over to her and kissed her on the forehead. “Have fun with the ladies. Bye.”
Kelly watched Jeff’s athletic frame walk down the hall and disappear. They had met at Florida State University in the early 80s and been together ever since. Jeff was getting his undergraduate business degree and Kelly was finishing her master’s degree. Jeff Douglas wasn’t the type of guy she usually dated. He was jock, in a fraternity, an avid Gators fan, and was four years younger than Kelly. He was also handsome, tall and tan with bright blonde hair and shiny white teeth.
Because of Jeff’s friendly, unassuming manner, Kelly was surprised when she discovered how wealthy his family was. The first time she went to Jeff’s hometown of Naples, back when she was still Kelly Sweeney, she gaped as Jeff pulled up to the enormous, meticulously maintained Mediterranean villa with its lush greenery and velvet lawns.
“Why didn’t you tell me you’re rich,” Kelly asked. “You could have given me a warning.”
“Does it matter?” Jeff asked, grabbing her hand. “Besides, it’s not me, it’s my parents. You should ask them.” He smiled at her. “Let’s unpack and go for a swim. You’ll love it.” Jeff was right. She loved Naples then and was happy when they moved there after she and Jeff were married.
Kelly got out of bed, put on her robe, and went to the window. She watched as Charlie stomped around the lawn, picking up stray leaves and rotten fruit and stuffing them into a Hefty bag. She leaned out the window and called down to him. “Good morning, Charlie. Nice to see you.”
Charlie turned and looked up at her, squinting into the bright sun. “Hey,” he grunted, and resumed stuffing palm fronds and rotten mangos into the bag. It wasn’t the interaction Kelly was hoping for. She wanted him to skim the debris out of the pool and rake the beach before he left. She decided that yelling orders out the window was not her best tactic with him. She sighed, splashed her face with water and headed downstairs.
Kelly walked into the spacious kitchen and opened the French doors to the pool area. Charlie had his back to her as he picked up the yard. She decided to make some coffee before talking to Charlie. She looked at her kitchen and wrinkled her nose. Ten years ago her black granite counters and stainless steel appliances were the height of Naples kitchen decoration chic. She thought she needed a kitchen remodel, but what she really needed was something to do with her time.
Her son and daughter were both away at college, so she had a lot of free time even with her volunteer work. Kelly and Jeff donated money to several charities and attended various galas celebrating the donors generosity. Kelly loved the parties, but she had the nagging feeling that the parties were the main priority rather than the charities they ostensibly supported.
Even before the recession, the disparity between the rich and the poor was pronounced in Naples. The middle class had long since left Naples for Fort Meyers where there were jobs and affordable housing. The less fortunate remained, living in rickety houses at the outskirts of town. The worked at the restaurants, tourist resorts, country clubs, golf courses, and local estates, working at jobs that barely paid a livable wage.
When she and Jeff moved to Naples, before she had her daughter, Kelly worked for Collier County Social Services. Having grown up in Central Florida, Kelly was used to the pockets of poverty that seemed to exist on the outskirts of every Florida town. Her hometown of Crystal River was no exception, but it was mostly middle class. In Naples, people were either wealthy or provided services to the wealthy.
Kelly’s friends hired Central American help to maintain their residences, and teased her about hiring Charlie Haney. According to her friends, immigrants were harder workers and more dependable than the local families. Kelly thought the real reason her girlfriends preferred immigrant labor was because they could pay them less and didn’t have to pay any payroll taxes. But she kept these opinions to herself and stuck with Charlie.
She grabbed her cup of coffee and walked out to the patio. Charlie was picking up Jeff’s discarded cigar butts scattered around the outdoor bar. “Charlie,” she called. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Charlie dropped the bag, and ambled over to where she stood. “Ma’am,” he said quietly, his pale eyes narrowing as he looked at her.
“How’s your dad doing?” she asked. “I heard he was home. That must be nice for your brother and sisters.”
“How’s that,” Charlie said mildly. “Dad’s sick again. We’ve been waiting on him hand and foot since he got out of jail.”
“Is he working?” Kelly asked.
“Not right now,” he responded. “He was hosing down charter boats at the bay, but got fired last week for missing so much work.” Charlie shrugged. “He’ll figure out something. Now he’s watching the kids, so I guess my brother doesn’t have to do it.”
“Have you heard anything from your Mom? Is she still in Tampa?”
Charlie looked at her for a couple of seconds before he responded. “Uh, no, we haven’t heard from her. Last thing I heard she was working at some restaurant. I don’t really know.” He started walking toward the pool, bag in hand.
“How are you brother and sisters?” Kelly continued, following him to the pool. “Are they all back in school? Do they like it any better this year?”
Charlie shrugged and picked up the bag. “I don’t know. I think they hate it. Ma’am, I’d better get back to work.”
“Before you go, could you make sure to clean the pool,” Kelly asked. “Oh, and could you please rake the beach. I stepped on broken glass a couple of days ago when I was taking a swim.”
“I’ll do it,” he said. “I can never figure out why people have a pool when then live on the beach. And why they want the beach cleaned up when they have a pool. Just doesn’t make any sense.” Charlie retrieved the rake from the tool shed and headed out to the beach.
It didn’t make sense to Kelly either until she and Jeff bought their house. It was nice to have a pool for parties and the kids, but sometimes Kelly wanted to swim in the warm salt water. The beach in front of the house was beautiful, with white sand so fine that it glittered in the sun. The Gulf was warm and protected by the bay, so unless it was stormy was the ocean was calm.
Naples was famous for it’s white sand perfectly groomed beaches. Every morning at dawn you could see hundreds of workers in front of the beachfront homes and resorts with rakes and and buckets, picking up piles of debris left by nature and humans. Everything from errant strands of kelp, crab carcasses, picnic leftovers and condoms were picked up, bagged and disposed of. The final step was raking the glistening sand into smooth parallel lines.
The concept of taming nature in Florida was foreign to Kelly until she moved to Naples. When she was growing up, the family business consisted of guiding tourists through the Crystal River to watch the manatees swim lazily through the warm water. The Sweeney’s owed their livelihood to nature; tourists from all over flocked to Central Florida to see the tropical birds, panthers, alligators, and exotic foliage.
However beautiful, nature in Florida was also inconvenient. Kelly did not love the swarms of mosquitos, huge spiders, and hurricanes. In Crystal Springs, nobody she knew hired workers to cut back the dense foliage, and dispose of rotten fruit and dead flowers. Since moving to Naples, Kelly took the same joy in a smooth, raked beach as her mom took after Kelly vacuumed the shag rugs into rows of perfectly matched triangles. She watched as Charlie methodically raked the white sand.
“Thanks, Charlie,” Kelly called. “We appreciate what you do here. We really do.” She supposed he might be good looking if he wasn’t so scrawny. Or so sullen. She couldn’t remember seeing him smile. When she talked to him, he stared at her expressionless, his pale eyes blank over his high cheekbones. Kelly never knew what he was thinking. Charlie was never rude to her, but he was also never really polite. He just seemed to tolerate her. Kelly finished her coffee, and ran upstairs to the bathroom to shower before lunch.
She dropped her robe and looked at herself critically in the mirror. She was 50, no longer young. She studied her face, the dark circles under her eyes and the fine lines over her lips. She was never the prettiest girl in the room in her 20s and 30s. Her figure a little too full and her features too strong. And she was a brunette, as rare in Florida as the fabled ghost orchid.
As she entered middle age, her features seemed to work better. Many of her lithe blonde friends turned to Botox and fillers as their faces pinched and their features narrowed. Kelly didn’t want to go that route just yet. She looked at the purple circles again, and decided to pick up some new concealer at Saks after lunch.
Charlie and his ancient pickup were gone when Kelly left the house to meet her friends for lunch. She jumped into her Mercedes and pulled out onto the street. The restaurant was only a couple of miles from the house, and Kelly briefly considered walking, but it was getting hot and she was running late. She hoped she could find a place to park.
She took a right at the sign that read “Olde Naples” and drove downtown. Kelly would never get tired of how beautiful Naples was. The shops and restaurants were a mix of Mediterranean style stucco structures combined with an architect’s concept of old Florida. The streets were full of residents and tourists. Everyone looked happy. Downtown Naples always reminded Kelly of Main Street in Disneyland, picture perfect and spotlessly clean. Several people Kelly used to work with at Social Services thought it was creepy, but Kelly loved it.
She pulled the Mercedes into a parking spot across the street from the restaurant. She saw Hope and Courtney waving at her from one of the outdoor tables. Kelly put on her sunglasses and ran across the street. “Hugs,” she said, half-kissing each of her friends on the cheek. She looked at Hope’s smooth face. “You look great,” she said, sitting down and putting her napkin in her lap.
“Well, I feel great,” Hope said. “It was a lot better after the swelling went down. Hardly any bruises.”
“But what about your hair,” Courtney said to Hope. “Can’t they do anything about those ends? They’re frazzled.”
“You should talk,” Hope responded as she looked at Courtney’s white-blonde hair. “Maybe you should consider your original color, whatever that might be.”
The waitress came to their table. “Do you ladies want anything to drink?” she asked.
“We’ll get a bottle of Sancerre,” Kelly said. “And some menus. I’m starving.” She looked at Hope and Courtney. “I haven’t had anything but coffee. Charlie actually showed up today, and I was distracted. No breakfast. He hasn’t been at the house for a week and our place is a mess.”
“Your first mistake,” Courtney said, “was hiring a Haney. They’ve been causing trouble around here since the 70s. Anyway, I thought Charlie was in jail.”
“It was his dad, Del,” Kelly said, taking a sip of her wine. “I guess Del just got out of jail. Charlie said he’s sick, and he isn’t working. He told me his dad got fired from the marina for missing so many days. It’s ridiculous.”
“Most likely drunk sick or drug sick,” Hope said. “Don’t you believe everything you hear. My husband said Del got fired for stealing chips from the marina store. The day’s catch was missing too. A couple of 10-pound snook” She shook her head. “Del just got out of jail for stealing and the first thing he does is steal again. What was he thinking.”
Courtney interrupted Hope. “He wasn’t thinking. The Haneys are all inbred idiots.” “I’ve heard some stories about Charlie, too. I can’t believe you hired him.” She looked at Kelly. “I hear he’s been poaching game with his dad and selling the meat out of that house.” She rolled her eyes. “Swamp people.”
“I can’t believe either of you,” Kelly said. “I’m trying to help a local family out. The Haneys are poor, and they’ve had a lot of bad luck. What’s wrong with trying to help people?” She crossed her arms and looked at her friends. “Not everyone is as lucky as we are. I try to give back a little.”
“Well, you keep being our little town angel,” Hope said. “I hear a bell rings every time you hire a Haney. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that nothing goes missing from your pool bar.”
After lunch, Kelly kissed her friends goodbye and drove to the mall. She wandered the air conditioned halls until she arrived at Saks. After an hour and a lot of help from the sales clerk, Kelly finally decided on the perfect shade of Cle de Peau concealer. It was $75, but the sales clerk said it would be well worth it.
“It takes ten years off your face,” she said, smiling sweetly at Kelly. “And it matches your skin tone perfectly. Trust me, it’s worth it.”
Kelly returned to her car with the Cle de Peau. She briefly thought how horrified her mother would be if she knew Kelly spent $75 to camouflage the circles under eyes. Kelly looked in her bag at the slim black tube. She opened it and dabbed a bit under her eyes. The concealer glided on like beige silk.
Kelly thought about what the Haneys would do with $75. Hope said that Del was fired for stealing food. Kelly thought maybe she should drive to the Walmart, buy $75 worth of groceries, then drop them off at the Haneys. She knew where he lived with his family, because she had dropped Charlie off at his house one day when he couldn’t get his pickup started. He lived in a ramshackle cabin about thirty miles east of Naples, near the entrance to the Big Cypress Park.
Kelly drove to the big Walmart out on Highway 41. She was amazed at how full the parking lot was. She grabbed a cart and navigated it up and down the crowded aisles, filling it full of food she thought Charlie would like. Charlie usually turned down Kelly’s offers for a sandwich after he was done in the yard, so she wasn’t sure what to buy. She filled the cart with organic produce, a few loaves of wheat bread, ham, bologna, and some Sun Chips and headed to the check out.
Kelly drove east on 41, looking for the Ochopee Post Office. She remembered that his family lived on the first dirt road after the post office toward the inlet. There were always tourists pulled over taking photos of “The Smallest Post Office in the US,” so it would be fairly easy to find. Born and raised in Florida, Kelly learned at a young age that there was nothing a tourist wouldn’t take a picture of.
She took a right on the dirt road, dodging the rocks and potholes that led to the Haneys house. Her Mercedes skidded through the dust. Kelly prayed she wouldn’t bottom out and get stuck. After about five miles, Kelly saw the house. She pulled up, parked, and popped open the trunk full of groceries. There were several cars parked next to the house, but she didn’t see Charlie’s truck. Kelly got out of the car and walked up the rotting wood stairs to the screened porch.
She peered in and knocked. Through the screen door, Kelly saw four or five kids crouched around a Nintendo PlayStation positioned in front of a 65″ wide screen TV. “Hello,” she said. “Is Charlie Haney here?'”
A teenage boy unlatched the screen door. “Who are you?” he asked. “What do you want?”
“I’m looking for Charlie Haney,” Kelly said. “He works for me. Is he here?”
“Nope.” the boy said. “I’m his brother Sammy. What do you want?”
“Well, I heard your dad was sick so I brought some groceries over. They’re out in my car.”
“What’s going on out there,” someone yelled. The boy looked quizzically at her and turned around. “I don’t know dad,” he said. “This lady said she brought us groceries.”
A large man emerged from somewhere behind TV. “I’m Del Haney,” he said, coughing loudly. “Who are you now?” he asked. “And what do you want?” I’ve already talked to my parole officer this week.” He had his son’s pale eyes, but he wasn’t as wiry as Charlie. Del was thick through the middle and his high cheekbones were covered in pockmarks.
She smiled. “Well, hi Mr. Haney, I’m Kelly Douglas. Charlie works for me and my husband. He does some yardwork, cleans our…”
“It’s Del,” he said. “My name’s Del”.
“Del, that’s a great old Florida name. What’s it short for?” Kelly asked.
He stared at her. “Del,” he replied.
“Oh,” Kelly said. “Well, Charlie’s been working for us and…”
“So you’re that lady. The one who likes the beach raked.” He looked at her. “Why don’t you just hire some illegals to do your shit work for you?”
Kelly stared at him, momentarily speechless. “I make an effort to hire local people,” she said nervously. “I want the money to stay in the community.”
Del looked around at the messy yard. “This isn’t Naples, is it? This is Ochopee. Not your community, lady.” He laughed. “Hiring local. That’s a good one. I think Democrats spout shit like that.”
Kelly could hear Charlie’s pickup coming down the dirt road. Del turned his head and watched Charlie pull up to the house, rocks and dust flying. Charlie jumped out of the car and walked slowly over to where Del and Kelly stood.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked, hands on his hips. “Shut up,” he yelled over his shoulder at the barking dog in the front seat. “Is there a problem?”
“No, no problem,” Kelly said, looking at the bloody truck bed, which was piled high with dead turkeys. Kelly knew that turkey season was in the fall. It was April 1st today. There were feathers everywhere. Kelly felt a headache starting to pound in her temples.
“You said your dad was sick, so I picked up some extra groceries at Walmart, and thought I’d drop them off.” She averted her eyes from the back of the pickup. “They’re in the trunk of my car. I thought it would be helpful.”
“Who asked for your help?” said Charlie, glaring. He wiped his sweaty face. “We take care our own. Maybe you should drive back to Naples now. And don’t come back here.” Del doubled over in a fit of coughing.
“Hang on, hang on, just a minute” he gasped. “Sammy,” he yelled. “Sammy get out here and get these groceries in the house.”
Kelly watched in silence as Sammy grabbed the Walmart bags from the trunk and took them into the house. She turned around and looked at Charlie.
“You. Redneck. Asshole. You’re fired.” She glared at him. “Today was your last day.”
Charlie shrugged. “You think this is the first time I heard that?” He and Del looked at each other and laughed. “You’d better get out of here and keep your mouth shut about the turkeys.”
Kelly fished her car keys out of her purse, got into her Mercedes, and took off in a cloud of dust. When she reached the highway, she pulled out her cell phone and texted Hope: “DO YOU HAVE A RECOMMENDATION FOR A GOOD MAINTENANCE MAN?”
She’d have to hurry if she was going to stop and report the dead turkeys to the Florida game department and make it home in time for dinner with the Martins.
Throughout middle school and freshman year of high school, Lauren Pate thought that if she never got a boy it would be the complete end of her.
But then she got one. And it WAS the end of her; that is, of the person she’d been up to then.
The pre-boy Lauren had barely cared about the judgments of the other girls. The post-boy Lauren actively sought every chance to appear in public (after-school stuff, mall, church, sports events), to show off her proud acquisition for the girls’ admiration and/or jealousy.
The previous version of Lauren had found little interest in flights of the imagination. The new Lauren devised elaborate stories to tell her parents about where she had just been or was just about to go to, instead of where she actually had been or would soon go.
Lauren 1.0 held no fascination for logistics, geography, or community. Lauren 2.0 scoured her own and surrounding neighborhoods for places and times at which she could be alone with the boy. She became like a reverse Nancy Drew; instead of searching for hidden places where things might have happened in the past, she sought out hidden places where things might happen in the future. Unlocked tool sheds, tarp-covered boats, the back patios of vacant houses all became potential, and in a few cases actual, trysting spots.
Old Lauren had found written communications media boring. New Lauren devised corny but “hot” texts to send to the boy, describing in lurid detail what she planned to do with, for, and to him, and what she expected him to do with, for, and to her (most of which they never got around to actually doing).
The past Lauren had seldom given a thought to the future, either fantasizing about it or preparing for it. The subsequent Lauren spent two and a half days wandering around her daily routines like a fear-befuddled zombie when she thought she could maybe be pregnant.
She imagined all sorts of horrific but realistic futures for her and her just-possible baby, both with and without the boy. These scenarios raced through a mind that held almost no attention to anything in the proverbial “here and now” during that time. She barely stayed mentally alert enough to get to and from her classes, but she listened to nothing in them. Her mind was too obsessed with future nightmare scenarios.
In one scenario she foresaw herself tending the baby alone, in the single room of a micro-apartment that she couldn’t afford, rejected by her parents and deserted by the boy, with no job prospects and nobody to help care for the child.
She then foresaw herself a few years after that, her temporary state aid expiring, her kid refusing to go to school, her apartment about to become a luxury condo, herself stuck in a community-college program that would lead (at best) into an overcrowded, low-paying career.
She obsessed about this fate and how to avoid it. She realized she had all these newly-discovered skills. She could apply them in school, get her grades up, get into a good college for a good career.
Once she decided that, she also decided to pay more attention in school the rest of the day. Which, with a few backsliding moments, she did. Ignoring the boy in the hallways, she snuck out to a Korean mom-and-pop restaurant she’d never been to before, where nobody would know her. She ordered something, then went into the women’s and peed onto a stick she’d obtained surreptitiously.
She sealed the stick in a Glad Bag, put it into her purse, came back to the dining area, waited the proper number of minutes, then peered into her purse to look at the Glad Bag with the stick inside.
When she saw that, she sighed out enough CO2 to personally contribute to global warming. Then she finished her meal.
A few weeks later, she read online somewhere that an orgasm was sometimes called a “little death.” She silently decided that that was what she’d had from the whirlwind of lust, infatuation, and fear. Old Lauren had died so that New Lauren, Dedicated Lauren, Determined Lauren could be born.
She drifted away from the soon after that. It had never really been about him anyway.
“I’ll start this little trip with a story about me. It’s the same one I’ve told on all of the trips. Of course it gets better each time I tell it.” Bob made his address to the group via a wireless headset as he drove towards the highway.
Fifty years ago I met my best friend. From our very first meeting we found a “twin-ness” that is hard to describe. You know a friendship so close you don’t even have to talk out loud; you just know what the other person is thinking. We were both fifteen at the time going to one of those idealistic Los Angeles public schools, ideal because of the beautiful almost year round sunny weather. We had apple machines and an outside lunchroom where we got homemade cinnamon rolls that from time to time a seagull would shit on the sweet syrupy frosting.
I was just standing in the hallway putting my first and second period books into my locker.
“Ouch, what the hell did you do that for?” Annie screamed as I accidently slammed her locker door hard on her fingers.
I was mortified and quickly apologized. “I’m so sorry, I’m always messing something up. I didn’t see you there.”
Annie sucked on her fingers, her books scattered on the green linoleum. “It’s alright, I’ll be OK. You look like you’re going to cry.”
I turned my head so she wouldn’t see my boyish tears, blinked my eyes and tried to hide my attempt to brush the tears away on my sleeve. As Annie knelt down to pick up her spilt books. I bent over to help her just as she rose to stand up. KLUNK! My chin smacked hard into the top of her head.
“Oh Shit!” we both yelled at the same time and then instead of crying we started laughing like crazy, me holding my chin and her holding her head, thereby cementing a friendship those many years ago.
People thought we were going steady and in a way we were. We tried kissing and making out but somehow all that romantic stuff didn’t really work. We liked hanging out together and while we stayed best friends until college, we cherished our “special” relationship.
We split up our senior year in high school. I went into the army and didn’t get killed. Annie went to Radcliff, protested the war and married her psychology professor. We kept in touch via yearly Christmas cards and occasional letter and expensive long distance calls.
One of the letters I remember said, “Dear Bob, I follow your experiences gladly. I’m happy to find out that you are having a fulfilling life. I didn’t know you liked to cook. That’s so cool. I’ve always wanted to live in Paris but being a wife and mother to two kids has really put that pipe dream on hold. Remember how we would pretend to be French beatniks? Do you still have that cheap beret we sent off for? I have mine…”
I saved all of her letters and cards, carried them with me all this time. Every few years we would actually meet, usually at Christmas time when both of us were visiting family. I got along fine with her husband and her kids called me uncle Bob. I would bring them souvenirs from my travels and bake special treats for them.
I never got married. I had girlfriends but never found anyone that made me want to settle down. I had a very busy life moving from place to place. The army was good to me. I was a respected chef after having studied all over Europe and Asia.
One day I got a call from Annie. “Bob, Bob, is that you?” She had been crying. I could tell right away from her shaking voice.
“Yeah, of course it’s me Annie, What’s wrong? Are you all right? The kids?”
“Oh Bob, I don’t know what to do. I thought he was just busy all the time. I never thought he would do this to me and the kids.”
“What the hell happened? Calm down and tell me.”
“He’s left us, all of us for an almost teenage girl, one of his students.” She started crying really hard.
“Now, now Annie. Tell me everything. We’ll figure something out.”
She confided in me the whole sordid story, of his late nights, of every Wednesday night when he said he was doing research on a big project. How he seemed distant and cold towards her. Oh yeah, how he would have sex with her but made her do things she had never done before.
She told me, “I never would have guessed until I read an article in The Ladies Home Journal about the five signs your spouse is cheating on you. Then it became clear as a bell. I finally confronted him after I waited for him one Wednesday night outside of his office. When he came out, his arms wrapped around this young girls waist, I knew for sure he was cheating.”
She moved back to her parent’s home for a while and we wrote or called each other every week. I was in China and couldn’t come back to console her although, another man did step in, swept her off her feet and into the rarified arena of politics.
Annie found her niche and through his political influences became a well-respected advocate for women’s reproductive rights. She shone in her newfound commitments. Her children grew up and our lives grew even further apart until one day about six years ago when I found a surprise email in my inbox. It was from Annie.
“Bob, remember your BFF Annie?”
I was shocked and seeing her name brought all of my memories to the surface. I got tears in my eyes just like the first time we met. She wanted to talk and sent me her cell number. I was scared to call her. So many years had passed and so much had happened to both of us. I had followed her career, proud to have her as a friend, as an old close friend.
My life had gone all right, almost married a couple of times but my job had gotten in the way or as I liked to say my career had saved me from expensive heartache. I was alone but not lonely.
I called the number she sent me after a couple of hours reminiscing and a couple of stiff drinks. It was late my time, West Coast time and even later East Coast, her time. By the time I got up enough nerve to dial her phone, at that particular moment, I was feeling very lonely.
She answered. She sounded sleepy and spaced out. “Bob, is that really you? Thanks for calling me, thanks so much for calling me.”
“Annie, are you OK? You sound tired, I know it’s late but..”
“I am tired Bob, but I had to get in touch before it’s too late.”
“Too late? What do you mean?”
“Bob, oh Bob, I’m dying.”
Her words struck me dumb. I couldn’t talk and finally I managed to blurt out, “How? Why?”
She explained in painful talk her short battle with cancer. She and I talked for an hour until her nurse came in to squeeze more morphine into her body. I stayed on the phone until she whispered, “Thanks Bob for being my friend.”
All I could manage to say was “Annie remember, I love you and throughout our lives I’ve always loved you from the moment we met so long ago.”
By the time Bob finished his story the afternoon was waning. “OK kids, we’re going to stop for the night. I hope my story wasn’t too sad. The moral of this story isn’t a moral but the reason why I go to The Gathering. Each year I burn a little something of hers, a letter a Christmas card, not everything but one memory at a time.
Mid summer arrives with cool temperatures in the late nights. The sun sinks into the Northern horizon after ten; bright shimmering stars stand in lovely configurations that never change until the morning light blooms after a few restless hours of sleep. The Gathering happens deep in the thick forest; a special place carved out where like-minded folk could come and create a like-minded community for a small bit of time.
After just five days The Gathering ends with a spectacle, a Paganistic service, it’s goal being to purge the soul of something that is haunting you or something dear to you that holds you back that holds on to something you need to let go of.
In days of yore pilgrims were rewarded for their piety with a glimpse of a saintly bone or a piece of mummified finger as a relic of devotion. Our Renaissance half-heathens would have been overjoyed to emerge into twenty-first century pilgrimages like The Gathering with its mix of tribal sensibilities and modern conveyance; the modern seekers creating a more tribal and pagan culture of worship than the pious Christian pilgrims attaining Constantinople by constant prayer on the backs of equally pious donkeys.
The new gatherers had fire and whisky and all manners of attaining their precious high, their oneness of forgiveness and resolution far more intense than the worshipers of a single almighty entity.
These modern pagans whose sensibilities were closer to their Neolithic brethren were going to erect a gigantic pyre to burn everything they brought with them including all of their problems and obstacles in an orgy of fire, searing away sin, wallowing in forgiveness.
The start of our trip is the tenth of June; ten days before the Summer Equinox, when the modern pagans descend into the old forest creating The Gathering.
My name is Bob; you don’t need to know my last name. I will be your narrator and trip guide for this chapter of The Gathering. You might guess my age to be not more than forty-five but I know I am at least twenty years older than you youthful ones might think.
Like America is rapidly becoming, you won’t be able to guess my ethnicity. I am brown and my eyes and hair could tell you a lie as my head is shaved and my eyes are grey.
My fulfilled wish was to be a guide for new recruits. I have achieved what I set out to do for the past five years. My Craigslist ad tritely read, “Either you’re on the bus or you’re off the bus.” Corny, I know but I know where I coming from and I hoped that it would attract the type of people I want to share the journey with.
The rest of the ad read, “Experienced driver is seeking fellow travelers to go to The Gathering. I have been a witness for the past five years. We will ride there and back in my beautifully prepared, fully equipped RV. You will have a private sleeping area; five hundred thread count sleeping bags, air conditioning for the hot days and heat for the cold nights. I am a world-class trained chef with cooking credentials from New York to Tokyo, Paris to San Francisco. I provide pure water to drink. You bring your own personal “trip” devices. We even have two showers in my completely green, ecologically correct motor home. Message me for more details.”
The calls came in fast and I picked my team quickly and painlessly. The morning of the tenth we met in Ravenna Park. I prepared breakfast on one of the great wood stoves at shelter number one. Their instructions were to come alone with enough gear for a ten-day trip.
My four fellow travelers were dropped off and carried their bags up the hill to the shelter. The RV was parked all freshly shined and polished for the road. I had a great breakfast brewing on the red-hot grill: Crepes Suzettes, Thai fried eggs and hot strong coffee.
Once we introduced ourselves (first names only) I explained to my little tribe that this ride would not be normal because in order to find out a little about each other we had to tell a story. Not just any story mind you but one that illuminated the reason for taking this pilgrimage to The Gathering.
The group picked up their belongings as I carefully made sure the fire was extinguished and boarded the ship, er, I mean the RV. My four new friends settled their personal belongings into their berths. The RV had a great table with big comfortable chairs and as I prepared to drive they found favorite spots to sit as I buckled myself into the Captains chair, checked my dashboard and prepared to take off.
I turned on my microphone and as we hit the highway. I addressed my mini tribe. “Travelers, we are about to embark on a very special journey. Since I am your driver I am going to start the round of story telling. This way you can get a sense of who I am so hopefully you will trust in me and I won’t appear to you as a stranger since we are going to spend the next ten days together. By sharing our stories this trip will develop so much meaning. It is like hiking with a group of strangers you have to trust in me as the leader. This way we will also get a glimpse into each other’s psyche.
How it all happened is very easy to explain. My fiancee heard there was this mom and pop butcher shop way out in the countryside that was supposed to sell only the best, organic, free range meats, all from local farmers. She’s big on that sort of thing, you know? She’s becoming a standard issue Real Housewife of Seattle via Chicago, I told her in the car. She giggled politely.
That was just about the last “normal” moment we had that Saturday. Within minutes, we had to turn on to a detour route off of the main road. Turned out that the big landslide from weeks before still hadn’t been fully cleaned up, even though she’d said it had to have been by then. No, I didn’t tell her she was wrong. At least not verbally. I’m trying to learn all the little compromises you have to make for your marriage, like my father used to tell me.
Besides, the next several mistakes were all mine. I took one wrong turn after another. Then I thought to follow a line of cars I saw on a road that crossed the road we were on. It was slower than slow, but at least following the crowd would lead us SOMEWHERE.
Which it did. To a long dirt driveway in a grassy field, where dozens of cars were already parked.
Each of the drivers ahead of us was stopped at the end of the driveway by a chubby white guy in a windbreaker carrying a clipboard. He took money from each of them, then told them where to park. But when it was our turn, he didn’t ask us to pay. Instead he gave us directions to a different parking area and told us to meet “Jimmy at the back gate.”
The back gate turned out to be in back of a temporary outdoor stage, bedecked with amps and instruments and mic stands. Jimmy at the back gate turned out to be another chubby white guy in a windbreaker, but younger. Instead of a clipboard, he carried an iPad, with a wireless headset attached to it. He walked up to us as we pulled up in the Sentra. I had to explain to him two or three times, over some loud quasi-heavy-metal music on a PA, that we weren’t in any band, we weren’t performing, we weren’t even performers. He let us stay; didn’t even ask us to pay.
We got out of the car and finally learned where we were.
We were in hell. Or at least in purgatory, if my late father’s church had believed in purgatory.
The name of this particular Demi-Hades: the Sylvana Blues Festival.
Led by my fiancée, we walked across the grassy flat space beneath the late summer sky. Everywhere we looked, we saw the same few variants of white America. White bearded, beer bellied males with T shirts honoring Robert Johnson or Dr. John. Their young adult kids and grandkids, with T shirts honoring the new movie versions of old comic-book heroes. Bored boys staring into smartphones. Girls pleading with their flat-shoed mothers, begging to be bought some of the junk foods sold from booths along the edge of the grounds. Middle aged women desperately trying not to look their age. Lovey-Dover couples bearing matching giveaway tote bags from the local NPR station.
We found the only other blacks in the whole place huddled where we had just been, in back of the stage. They were too busy to talk, and I told them I appreciated that. They very efficiently got their instruments and gear packed up and loaded in an old SUV. I really felt like getting back in our car and following them out of there. But my fiancée had already determined we were going to stay, at least long enough for lunch or something like it.
Even though we’d originally take this trek because she wanted “healthy” gourmet food products, she now really wanted some greasy pizza slices or a cube of French fries from the food booths, and an ear of roasted corn on the cob, and a plastic glass of wine in the fenced-off beer garden. Again, I refrained from any snide remarks. Even though this feast meant staying perhaps another hour at the most uncomfortable place I’d been to so far that year.
She could sense the feelings of fear and frustration I was trying hard to repress. In the line for the greasy pizza slices (which, I had to admit, turned out to be almost a Platonic ideal of greasy pizza slices), she asked me what was wrong. I told her I felt uneasy. I told her I felt trapped out in deep red redneck country, even if some of the local rednecks claimed to be “liberals.” That just meant they’d lynch us and then feel guilty about it afterwards. Maybe go to their shrinks about it, and then give a little money to feed African children.
After having tried all day to keep my foot out of my mouth, I’d just stuffed the whole thing in there. It wasn’t pretty.
Neither was her reaction. She turned right around in the pizza line and glared at me the glare of the world’s most disapproving schoolmarm.
But before she could say anything, the next band started in on the stage. It embodied nearly every white blues cliché in the book. A fat guy who thought he was either Page or Plant; a skinny bald guy who thought he was Thorogood; a glasses-wearing guy who thought he was Clapton. In song after long drawn-out song, they thoroughly removed anything subtle, anything poignant, anything “blue” out from the blues, leaving only a hard brittle shell of macho posturing. The only thing they didn’t do was play “Mustang Sally.”
I didn’t tell my fiancee any of these opinions. I kept my trap well shut as we moseyed from the food booths to the beer garden, while the band conveniently made it hard to talk.
By the merciful end of their set, she was on her second wine. I still nursed my one beer, since I hoped to be driving out of there as soon as possible. Now beyond her initial moment of displeasure, she asked calmy and dispassionately why I couldn’t appreciate that all these people around us were trying, some with more success than others, to learn something from the black music tradition, to find parts of it that resonated in their own lives.
She was being diplomatic, to me and to the scene that surrounded us. I knew I had to be diplomatic back to her, as best as I could.
I told her I DID care about the black music tradition.
Yes, I’d grown up with a church-deacon dad. Yes, he’d scorned any black music that wasn’t Gospel or at least “uplifting,” like the more respectable parts of jazz. Yes, he’d have none of what he called “that old whorehouse music” in our home.
But I’d grown beyond that, I told her.
I’d learned to appreciate, no to admire, the so-called “lower” aspects of black cultural history. That, I told her, was why I couldn’t stand to see it all desecrated like this by a bunch of ignorant hicks.
Yep, I failed at my “be diplomatic” goal, pretty much immediately.
Before she could glare at me again, a young white couple approached our table in the beer garden. The girl was all dolled up like an Ikette; the kind of girl you have to struggle not to look at when your own woman is beside you. The boy (actually, they were probably only five years younger than me) wore a snazzy retro suit, with some strange badges pinned to its skinny lapels. Until these two appeared, I thought my fiancée and I were the only well-dressed people in the place. But compared to them, we were as shabby as everyone else there.
Yes, they asked if we were performing. When I said no, they said they were. My fiancée invited them to sit with us. They said they could only stay for a little while; their set was the one after next. My fiancée asked the boy what his metal badges meant. He said they were logos of old “northern soul” clubs. I said that meant Detroit and Philly, right? He said no. It meant old clubs that held DJ dances in northern English cities, playing old American soul 45s. My fiancée found this fascinating. I kept my trap shut.
Before they left, my fiancée promised the girl we’d stick around to hear their set. That meant enduring one more act before theirs. That act turned out to be more tolerable than the one before it. Low-key, folksy stuff, by a tall muscular guy who stood in one place the whole time. One vintage-looking guitar; one amp; total concentration; no BS.
My fiancée took my hand and led me out of the beer garden, back toward the stage. She said I looked a lot more relaxed than I’d been an hour ago. I had to admit I was. I didn’t even mind it as much when the soloist’s set ended and the hoary, “blusey” heavy metal music came back on the PA. It helped that I knew we’d be out of there before long.
And before long, the dressup kids’ band got underway. The Ikette girl announced the group’s name as “Cherry Preserves.”
How completely, utterly appropriate, I thought. After all, you put up preserves, or you did in my grandmother’s day, by cooking all the life and texture out of fresh fruit, then sweetening up what was left.
The other band members turned out to be a young man who looked like something from the “Quadrophenia” movie, a young woman who looked like something from an ’80s new wave band, and another young man who looked like the guitar player from that band Cheap Trick. (How did I come to learn all this trivia in my head about old white music? Don’t ask.) As a whole, they looked like they were pretending to be something they weren’t, but they sure weren’t pretending to be black.
Then they started playing, and prancing about on the stage. Their moves, even the Ikette girl’s moves, had nothing to do with the dance moves in old soul-music film clips or “Soul Train” videos. This was jerkier, more angular, less fluid.
Then it hit me. I’d been an idiot who finally got a half a clue.
Of course these kids weren’t trying to be black.
They were trying to be English.
They were reaching out to their OWN motherland.
Even if that meant imitating people who’d already been imitating a piece of black American culture.
These kids were trying to find their own soul, their own souls.
After that, the rest of the day went OK. The man at the main gate gave us workable directions to the organic butcher shop. It turned out that the butcher shop, the blues festival, and a holistic veterinarian’s office were the main reasons any city people ever came up that way.
My fiancée got her gourmet meats; we got on a long but drama-free detour route back to the Interstate and back home. On the drive, I even turned on the local NPR station. It had a show of old blues records. The real stuff.
I told her I still preferred the real stuff. She responded by singing the old line, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”
“If you don’t need pants, I don’t need pants.”
Fortunately, we brought pants. And many other things, each accruing into the overweight beasts we tied to our backs. So much for traveling light, for alpine starts, for August weather.
You could be in Baghdad. Or Syria. Or Ferguson. Or Chili, New York. Or Sebastopol.
You could be back in Sandy Bay on Moosehead Lake. Treading water, cold water that is warmer than the air temperature, but not by much. Treading water, eyes and face still, watching the clouds swallow Burnt Jacket Mountain. The rain’s arrival quickening. Clouds following the contours of the ridge and darting toward the surface of the lake.
I remember sitting at my laptop in the ICU, Dad slowly recovering, hatching the plans for this trip. There ought to be a rule against planning a trip seven months in advance. But the data is there: this should be a good weather weekend, especially for here. As predictable as the weather gets: that’s why you request a permit for this weekend at the beginning of February.
It also seemed reasonable. Perhaps a little too much armchair alpinism? I don’t know, it seemed conservative enough at the time. Up and over Aasgard: always a long, tiring journey. Climb Dragontail the easy way, then take a look at Prusik? Always dreamed of Prusik. Be careful of what you dream. Knees and lack of conditioning and family and work and a shortage of mountain time. They can all work against you. And even if you meet those challenges, there is always the weather.
And the goats.
We were ready for them this time, in that we made sure to pee a good distance from camp and keep their salt craving brown eyed selves from getting too chummy with us. I know it sounds silly to be bothered by goats, but perhaps you have never prepared a meal with a group of them staring at you.
No, the goats are not the problem. And while Joe’s bad stomach certainly has made him uncomfortable I think he will manage. No, the precipitation and the wind are the problem. No climbing today and the need to get back to the world first thing in the morning. And, while we brought pants, though there was debate about that in the ninety degree weather at the trailhead, we did not think a four season tent was necessary.
The tent we brought is really a two season tent: the walls are a mesh screen. The fly keeps the bulk of the sleet out, but with each big gust a cloud of dust and moist snow billows in under the fly and coats me and Joe and everything in here with a moist grit.
So, here I am, bathed in a moist grit.
I’m not snorkeling in Maui, swimming with turtles and humu humu nuku – whatever the rest is. You know, the Hawaiian state fish.
I could be skiing in Chile. Ok, not really. The dream of southern hemisphere skiing is not actually in my time or economic wheelhouse, but it is fun to dream about. Although the snow in Patagonia can be quite unreliable from what I’ve heard.
I could be savoring a pint in Galway while listening to the impromptu house band. Sure you could.
I am not home changing diapers. I am not joining a two hour conference call.
I am using my precious time away from the family, long planned and arranged – sitting here in what has been a beautiful summer, inside a moistening sleeping bag in an August snowstorm. I’m shivering too, almost jealous of Joe who had to wander off in search of the pit toilet to answer his troubled intestines. He’s freezing too, but at the moment he has a room with a view.
Staring at the tent ceiling. I could go outside but I was cold the last time I went out. The siesta is a good way to kill some time on a weather washed climbing trip. A nap, such a precious thing. But I slept a very long time last night – no reason to get up early, the sleet bounced off the tent all night and until well after sunrise. Now I am wide awake.
I could be surfing down in Huntington Beach, or climbing at Smith Rock.
You might say I’m whining and that would be fair, I’m afraid. There are some lines I do not want to cross, and one of them is thinking of my more mundane troubles at home – work, bills, kids, life. Rejuvenation is the word. Apparently I am catching up on sleep. Sick of my attitude, time to get up and look at the gray clouds, chase goats, and drink some coffee until I start to freeze again. Then dinner and sleep.
I return to the snow, which is tapering, and realize the clouds are breaking a bit. The breeze is still cutting and everything is coated with a thin layer of ice. Hopefully it will be gone in the morning. The descent to Colchuck will be all the more tedious if the steep trail is covered in ice. No goats and I try not to notice Joe’s flask. Perhaps he left it out for me?
The clouds are breaking into wisps. I putter around camp, making coffee, sorting gear, beginning to think in more detail about tomorrow morning’s retreat. Turning my gaze from the ground, I see that the way not taken on Dragontail is beginning to appear from the clouds, and then Little Annapurna, and off to the east the snowy trail towards Prusik Pass is coming into view.
Joe returns. We both agree that his flask should help him feel better. It provides some warmth and wisdom for me too. We make dinner and enjoy some bland freeze dried warmth in the chilly air. We lament our lost opportunity to climb. We share the flask and peer down toward Colchuck Lake and across the valley to Cashmere.
Clouds to the west make sunset a dim and early affair. We turn to the east, back towards our tent to see a gigantic moon rising. No clouds that way and this huge, frozen, luridly named landscape unfold before us. No vegetation in sight: we could be on another planet.
“Look at that buttery cue ball moon.”
“Look at the Enchantments,” Joe echoes, “I’m just so happy to be here.”
“No place I’d rather be.”
I was sitting at my desk in front of the screen where I had just watched a promo for a new HBO show. I was thinking about her, the girl who said, “Oh, I have no problem writing! It just pours out of me!” And I wanted to stab her in the eye. But at the same time I wanted to hold her like I did once. Later, after we were both back to our “real” lives, I went to her “literary art show” in the city and was greatly relieved to find that she really has about as much talent as an earwig. Prose poems inspired by 1970s porn, thumb tacked on the scarred walls of a Brooklyn 2nd floor walk-up do not make art. And even though I had wanted to fuck her at one time, the fact that she was clearly so delusional about her own ability somehow negated the whole thing. That and the fact she had a boyfriend who looked like Sid Vicious and who stared at me with such hatred I could smell it. She was dead to me now. But not really. And now here was her name on the screen beneath the iconic glowing HBO logo.
The story I really wanted to tell was of the week we were together, when the once beautiful but now hideous low-talent lurched into my life (the specter of her colorfully dyed asymmetrical hair and single flashy earring still fresh in my mind). We were both fellows at a summer writing workshop held upstate at a remote mountain lake retreat. The kind of place where they feed you homemade granola in hopes that you would excrete the next great American novel fueled by their whole grains. I’d even had to sneak sugar onto campus for my coffee because YOU CAN’T USE HONEY IN COFFEE. It. Just. Doesn’t. Work. I had escaped writer’s camp on day 2 under the pretense of mailing a manuscript to my editor (I know people, no one mails anything anymore, hello email and drop box, but this place was so granola they didn’t allow any internet! And zero cell service at the lodge!). So there I was slurping sweet coffee, catching up on my emails and texts on my phone and stuffing my pockets with sugar packets from the small town café where I awaited my ride back to camp, when I saw her through the café windows. Her shock of pink hair was like a neon sign saying, “I am not from this god-forsaken town!” Just then, as I was practically drooling on the window, I felt a tap on my arm. It was the lackey driver kid from writer’s camp.
“All set to head back to camp, Mr. Black?”
I absolutely despised being called Mr. Anything. So I just seethed at him while I took my last sip of coffee. He just shrugged and headed out to the street. I knew I was being an asshole, but I just wanted to sit and watch the pretty girl and drink my sugary coffee in peace. But she was gone when I looked back out the window. Eventually I stood up to follow him out of the café. They were feeding me this week and I really didn’t have anywhere else to be. The marriage was over, there were no children and she even took the cat. I paid for my coffee at the register and took a few more packets of sugar from the table by the door. I remember thinking, maybe she’ll see me getting into the van and think I am someone important.
Walking out onto the sidewalk I found Mr. Happy Driver waiting for me. The electric haired girl was nowhere in sight.
“I forgot to mention that we have to give a lift to another writer who arrived on the train today.” He said he opened the side door into the van.
“Must be some hot-shit writer to arrive a day late,” I replied irritated that I would have to share the bumpy ride back with some undoubtedly chatty writer. I was prone to car-sickness and needed to focus on the road.
As I ducked my head into the dark interior I saw her pink hair sticking up from the back seat of the van. It felt like a bolt of lightening passed through my chest. I simultaneously wondered if she’d heard my snide comment. When she looked up I saw she had on hot pink Beats headphones. Relief flooded my body. She pulled the headphones down around her neck. I realized I was staring.
“Frank Black,” I said quickly reaching my hand over the seat to reach her in the back.
“Lana del Writer,” she replied, then smiling said, “Not hot-shit, yet.”
Fuck. She’d heard me.
“So Miss Lana del Writer are you just coming up from the city…?” I asked trying to release the tension.
“I was in LA shopping my screenplay. HBO optioned it.” She replied. “I flew back to JFK on the red-eye last night and caught the train straight here. I hope I can get cell service up at the lake to find out if they bought it.” She paused, “And it’s not my real name you know.”
I laughed out loud. “Yeah, I figured.”
“But your’s isn’t your real name either is it?” she asked.
“Not exactly. My real name is Francis Buio. Buio means night in Italian. Way easier to say “Black” then all those vowels. Plus reviewers always spell it wrong. Not that they write my name much… So I re-launched myself as Frank Black.”
“Oh, I thought you were a big fan of the Pixies,” she replied.
“Aren’t you a little too young to know about them?” I half-jokingly asked. But my heart melted a little because I am a big fan of the Pixies and the fact that she got it, well, I fell in love.
“Yeah, my folks were super into them. They met at their concert. My real name is actually Rosa Doolittle.”
“Your parents named you after the first two Pixies albums?!” I spluttered. Now I was feeling old. “So that makes you…?” I was trying to do the math in my head.
“I’m 25 and just finished Grad school.”
I was now feeling sorry for myself for being 40 and for appearing old-as-fuck to this girl. But I couldn’t give up. “OK so now I’ve got to ask, where did you go to school?”
“I went to Columbia for undergrad then Iowa for grad school.”
“Jesus. Couldn’t you have just tried harder to make me feel like an absolute loser?” I mockingly pleaded.
She smiled wryly.
The van was pulling onto the grounds. I saw Rosa check her phone for a signal.
“Listen, you’re not going to get any cell signal here. But I hear that if you row out to the middle of the lake the phone might work. If you want I can row while you check your phone for a signal?” I offered with the slimmest hope she’d accept.
So began our inseparable week on the lake. I’d row us out early to the middle of the green still water. Her pink head resting on the bow, singing Pixies songs to me. We’d drink coffee from a thermos, the bottom of the boat littered with opened sugar packets.
“Where is my Mind?”
With your feet on the air
And your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head’ll collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And then you’ll ask yourself
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Way out in the water
See it swimmin’