“It’s often harder to take a pounding when you’re in stranger surroundings.”
“Could have been worse, they might have grabbed my bag with the spare keys in it.”
“And at least they didn’t get my passport and traveler’s cheques.”
“Yeah, well—that’s for sure…”
“Or god forbid, my new portrait brushes…or pill wheel…”
“Your pill whe…”
“Oy, what if those creeps had gotten the little package Josh Gravanek gave me to hold?! Don’t want to blow that one up again…”
Our crosstown retreat was conversationally spare, save for Sydney’s animated directions. She pushed on the squareback’s meagerly padded dashboard through San Francisco’s outer Sunset, directed me up Highway 1 to the dimly lit Crossover, around the dark shadowed curves of Golden Gate Park, which left us blinking in the face of oncoming headlights on By-Pass Drive all the way out past the Redwood Memorial Grove to Fulton Street’s residential congestion. That was where she pointed us not toward the downtown skyline, but straight ahead up Park Presidio Boulevard into a Gen. Douglas MacArthur tunnel, through the olive drab thick of the Presidio Army base.
I muttered concerns about getting trapped in the Golden Gate Bridge lanes as Syd guided us around the ramp on to the amber glow of Doyle Drive, the northernmost rim of San Francisco reflecting across an indigo Bay. What we were doing way up here was beyond me, but she insisted that going this extra mile or so saved us the ‘oodles’ of further time we’d lose in Civic Center traffic jams. Hence I soldiered on down Route 101, following the Richardson Avenue diagonal, scanning mirrors, red light after yellow traffic light, along Lombard Street’s neon-soaked motel row.
There Syd paused amid her hyperactive nocturnal sightseeing narrative long enough to motion us into a right turn, back southward down Van Ness Avenue, as if to square the long, scenic circle. I was busy nudging through car jams, coaxing the gas gauge, cramming my Blaupunkt radio back into its dashboard bracket, to balk when she spotted a parking place opening up just a quick left turn away on Clay Street, directly under a bright utility light—little more than a block from…here.
“But the shlubs did make off with my wallet and plastic…”
“That stinks out loud, all right…”
“Oh, and they filched my new mooie creamer, too.”
“The creamer I lifted in that Bucket’s Truck Stop, after I gave you a dime for the pay toity,” Sydney said, tapping my hand with her swizzle stick. “Damn, it was going to be the latest addition to my kitschen collection…”
Come to think of it, I did recall tapping that kidney before leaving Nevada, my road-wracked bladder soggier than a carwash chamois. Syd must have scarfed the bovine-headed creamer as soon as I passed Bucket’s first bank of slot machines on the way to the head. She had to have slipped it into her Pony Express-size purse while I waited on a couple of over-the-road Peterbilt warriors locked in the men’s room, and counted off wall shelves flush with rusty horseshoes, long-line insulators, Indian print artifacts, years old Silver State license plates, oatmeal canisters and jelly bean jars—all trimmed with chintzy orange, red and blueberry beads.
Finally coming out dripping and re-zipping, I could see her still sitting there in the red metalflaked vinyl booth, all smiley and stirring her coffee something dizzy, daydreaming out tinted jalousie windows over I-80 and the snow-capped Virginia Range. Amazing as hell that our chubby, plaster-haired cowgirl waitress didn’t notice the missing creamer as she slapped her coffee bill down on our plastic gingham covered tabletop. Instead she snapped her bubble gum at me for not ordering a chicken-in-a-basket lunch special, then waddled back over to nibbling at Bucket’s wilting salad bar. Since Sydney paid, I just played pliantly along, filling the Volks’ tank with off-brand regular for the summit climb and coast down to the coast. But that was then, and this was…now.
“I suppose I can live without Elsie the cow,” she sighed, sagging in her deck chair. “What I can’t bear is carrying on without my favorite purse.”
“So just get another one, right?”
“Don’t you see? There isn’t another purse like that one—anywhere, anyhow…”
“Gotcha,” I stared into my frosted mug, centering it on a ring-stained Kahlua coaster. “Guess I didn’t look that closely.”
We had left the squareback locked and luggage loaded, bucking the odds, hoping for the best against any further break-ins. Although having fished some of those remaining valuables out of her overnight bag, Syd claimed that this was a somewhat safer side of town, that she actually lived but a few blocks away, and that she often strolled Pacific Heights arteries like Clay Street on nights like this without fear or disfavor. Clearly, it was a beautiful Friday evening over this way, ocean winds having subsided, late-January thermometers rising, stars shimmering in vivid constellations all across the city skies.
She led me along by the elbow, proclaiming how much she had missed the bustle of Van Ness Avenue’s theaters and showrooms, the towering skyline of Russian Hill co-ops and penthouse condos up ahead. My mind even drifted away momentarily from the quick turnaround drive back to Boulder, from chugging through the winter wilds between spring-like California and the lee foothill side of the Continental Divide. At least until we turned the corner, head on into the likes of all…this.
“And there’s only one person who could craft me such a gorgeous masterpurse,” Syd continued, peeling off her down jacket, scanning about for familiar faces.
“Who might that be?” I sat there rather more disoriented and circumspect.
“James Winslow Holcomb—a dear, dearest friend of mine. He hand tooled the whole sunray ensemble. James is incredibly talented, I met him at a gallery opening when I first came to San Francisco.”
“So get him to make you another set, why don’t you,” I asked, somehow relieved that she was relating about relating to some other guy.
“Oh, he’s evolved out of his leather phase. He’s down in Big Sur now, rolphing Esalen workshops, or something. See, James Holcomb is light years ahead of everybody, a real psychic adventurer—a tall, blond Adonis built like Grand Coulee Dam—from Carmel Valley, at that…”
“He your ol’ man?”
“Don’t I wish,” she said wistfully, casting her eyes over to a corner spot. “We came here on my birthday. He gave me the purse and wallet, all gift wrapped in Chronicle pink section pages and ski-waxed twine. Then he took me to his parent’s chalet at North Lake Tahoe for the weekend…safari-rigged Land Rover, no less.”
“Sounds pretty storybook to me…” I bumped knees with her under our tiny cocktail table as I opened my sheepskin coat.
“Hardly,” she sipped unfazed, though in thinly veiled regret. “Haven’t seen or heard from him since…guess I must have been his Jewish fling.”
First thing I had noticed upon turning that corner was the curbing, not the designated zone markings evident so far, but ones painted with an indigo overcoat, stenciled SFPD emblems in lavender and amethyst. Unfathomable fluids rivered down the gutters beneath them, ground glass glistened in the sidewalk, along a block-long run of hair salons, shoe studios, resale clothing boutiques, heady smoke shops, fleshy bookstores, flower and hummus/gyros stands. But mostly came the disco throbbing clubs and bars.
Flitting in and out, dancing about us were streams of young studs, primetime players, preening older cats, Megadeath runaways on decaled skateboards—popping, snorting, passing around the clips and buds—reefer and patchoulie in the air. Sydney had bounced back admirably by then, recommending a hard-earned cordial at the hot spot of her choice. I suspected her preference was some sort of twisted joke, but decided not to give her the satisfaction, biting my tongue when she said it would do me well to check out life ‘down on the farm’.
Point being, we had matters to settle, acknowledgments to make, damages to assess, belongings to disgorge, accommodations and routing to ascertain. After days of close, cold steerage, it admittedly was time to find a neutral, if not simpatico corner in which to break the ice. Turned out the PolkStrasse haunt she had selected was down near Sacramento Street, its bamboo-framed neon signage reading, ‘The Balmy Palm’.
“Come and gone—but that’s San Francisco for you. There just aren’t that many good men around here.”
“But this joint is full of guys…” I was still trying to figure out how she could even consider retracing her first steps back here of all places after months away from the Bay.
“Real, eligible men. They’re all just the boys.”
“I’m talking about he-men, flash, not she-men,” she said, sipping her banana daiquiri through a long green plastic straw. “I love ’em to death, but they don’t exactly do it for me, if you catch my drift…”
“Uhhh, can’t say that I do…” With that, I drew deeply from my Heinekens draft, a brew a body could find about as maltly distasteful as Colorado’s Banquet Beer.
“Either that or there are too many women around this part of town…”
“Too many? I can’t see any women in here at all…”
Speaking of action, the Palms—for short—was by this hour leaning toward fully potted. It was a period café languishing between two eras: an exclamation point of time when escapism and eccentricity still prevailed—albeit with a big, bushy question mark of a future, limp with lasting changes in the wind. On balance, Palm seemed to roll with those ch-ch-changes, maintaining a classic Casablanca cure-all for terminal anxiety: pure, unadulterated resignation and abandon.
Decadence peeled off the olive green/wicker trimmed walls; ennui flickered in the cracked claret light columns at either end of a three-arch mahogany bar back. It seeped from the bottle-scarred wet bar, and dusty decanters that were jiggered vigorously into Pina Coladas, Sloe Gin Fizzes and potent Jamaican Coffees. But most of all this seamy decay rose in thick waterspouts from these tightly clustered rattan tables, sucked up into an ill-starred ceiling by eight four-blade overhead fans that sparked and shuddered in hazy asynchronous discord. A first take from the swinging plantation doorway was no less cautionary than looking into a hurricane’s bloodshot eye. No fraternal Pearl Street tavern in here, clearly more Rick’s than Rocky’s.
Sydney had led me over to this dark corner table on a fabricated terrace railed in like the aft deck of the S.S. Paradise. She figured on escaping the turgid squall of booze-laced cigarette smoke. I looked to avoid the two gaudy blades who winked and brayed at me as we passed before a drafty open window on the way further into this den of…sordidity. Damned if I wanted to take the table right next to them.
What kind of signal was that? But I settled for a fixed stare in precisely the opposite direction, bent on maintaining that this was her idea, that this Palm would not be swaying my way. Funny, army troop ships, Grafenwohr-scale target ranges shot to mind, obscure targets in the darkness with some Godzilla drill sergeant shouting, ‘night vision, night vision—if you wanna get your swingin’ dicks outta’ basic, best hit them targets whetha’ you see ’em or not!’ Then again, what a potent socio treatise could come of …this.
To wit, ever so slowly, liltingly, two olive-skinned panthers captured another nearby table, one hunched over a hand-rolled Bugler, French inhaling its flaring smoke, the clingy duet commenced to fondling one another under the candlelight. Christ, were they actually…shit, he roamed her black stretch jeans like everybody’s business right there, while the she of them popped the buttons on his baggy safari pants—only to grab suddenly at his rumpled madras lapel, the onset, presumably, of some indiscreet disagreement. She pulled him so sharply toward her that the flame singed his scar and bramble mustache. Though he gagged on his Amaretto, there was no denting her playful, drop-forged smile.
Beyond them, edgy, coked-up hitters manned and spooned in far corners, mirror-eyed port of callboys gnawed swizzle sticks at the bar: a full house at the Palm was a rendezvous with deviancy at any moment’s flirty notice. The darker the table, the murkier the prospects: Blame it on the foreign beers and tropical aperitifs. In some campier cases, blame it on the Bossa Nova, as with the pair of elder studsmen prancing and grinning away on the parquet dance floor like Martha Rays at a Polident convention—to house tracks ranging from the Velvet Underground to Pearl Harbor and the Explosions to KC and the Sunshine Band. Not for the sociological faint of heart, this…not even in the abstract.
“Looking at the bright side, it’s been a long trip. But I’m back in town, and ready for action,” she shifted, boring in on her Daiquiri. “I mean, I could be stuck in Chicago, fending off Bernard Zynich.”
“He your ol’ man?”
“Hah, doesn’t he wish,” she said, tapping her blueprint straight teeth with her swizzle straw. “I grew up with Bernie, he’s the son of my parents’ cribbage partners. They own Hirsch-Zynich Galleries in Evanston, and have been displaying my work since I was in junior high. Everybody’s been trying to get us together even longer than that…figuring we were a perfect match.”
“Sounds serious to me…”
“Serious? Bernard is slow death by suffocation. He’s short and stocky and I’m like, his object d’ art. He’s never been anywhere. The only thing he’s sure of is that he’ll take over the gallery some day. He’s the perfect Jewish boitshik. His every waking hour is geared to just that, and it still scares the hell out of him. Bet he’s waiting for me in Chicago right now, ready to propose.”
“So he’s the one you’re leaving in ruins, huh—like, after the Adonis tooler?”
“My parents thought I was on my way there from Florida,” she smiled mischievously. “Thank god Lorraine’s and Josh’s invites came in the mail my roommate here forwarded to me. So as soon as I got to the Tampa airport, I started running back and forth between the ticket counters—agents thought I was nuts. Finally changed my mind and itinerary, from Chicago to Denver, connecting flights at O’Hare.”
“Wow, drama…on the lamb and everything…” Hell, why’d she have to be laying all this on me, and on what little was left of my dime?
“Bernard’s probably calling Florida and San Francisco every fifteen minutes right now—I’m his life’s goal, his Venus d’ Milo and Guggenheim grant, all rolled into one—and he’s nothing if not persistent. But if there’s one thing I have more trouble with than death and boredom it’s suffocation. Don’t get me wrong, he means well, but he smothers me with his worship trip. I used to put up with him because he’s really kinda funny. But I can’t marry the shlemiel, he gets to driving me up the wall back there.”
“Totally…understandable…” Mighty full of herself, I thought, as she siphoned off my relational reserve tank. Guess she figured me for a safe harbor. Poor little artist, suffers so…can’t hang on to the man she wanted, can’t shake those who won’t let go.
“Sooo, you might say I’m in between men at the moment…there, that’s what you get for poking around.”
“Didn’t know that I was…” Seemed I was learning more than I wanted here, sooner than reasonably expected. Melissa once said that Sydney feinted and jabbed at anyone who started getting too close. Yet here she was, on the ropes and singing like yesterday’s contender. It was flattering, unnerving—I reflected on Moon telling me many cheeky anecdotes involving her former sister-in-law as we explored ‘Waif and Grain’ before the cabin’s fireplace one blizzard night. She was always so self-effacing about her portrait. Gotta call her, first thing before I hit the road back home.
With little immediate hope of conversational detente, my eyes again drifted off, trolling the undertow of this baldly queerest of cabarets. Distant, earthy—exotic looks, erotic moves, subtropical, faraway places, escapist sailing away—that I could not deny, nor that I’d ever been any place so appalling, at the same time so appealing. The Balmy Palm had a tropical air that even the night’s re-stiffening, grassy breezes couldn’t shake from its limbs. Clothes horse latitudes comprised aloha shirts, safari shorts, festive draw-string beach pants and tire-soled huaraches—all brazenly loose on skin taut and tanned, hot flashes of zirconium buckles, ear gear, copious layered chains.
Cheek to cheek, pockets swelling, fused at the hips, grunt, grope and grind: close-cropped items stretched the parameters, rustled The Palm with typhoon force, clutching buns, rubbing thighs, reading the next guy’s partner with long, naked leers, lots of flying flaps and flares.
Loner idols just danced with themselves, thoroughly lost in the moment, as if the music itself didn’t matter by now, could have been Mantovani or Don Ho, Zappa or Manilow, so long as it moved them at deafening pitch. They were stopping only by the munchie bar to hose down with Dos Equis and Mai Tais. Close those front windows, and you had St. Lucia in the spring, the Keys, Fire Island over Labor Day, Papeete all year round.
The sweep of a waitress’s floral sarong soon carried me off across the bar’s sand-padded main floor as she filled an order for two Blue Moons. Syd’s first thought was Planter’s Punch, until she recalled Curacao being James Holcomb’s favorite. The stacked blond waitress was a sight for smoke-strained eyes, all right—from most angles a real woman, any woman other than the Palm’s fauxmale clientele and this suddenly moony-eyed cargo here draining what little remained of my composure. But I lost the waitress mid room, in the thick cigarette contrails rising to the club’s dark, starry ceiling.
Whether The Palm itself was coconut, date, Royal or Canary seemed beside the point; how any tree could survive in here was anybody’s miasmic guess. What mattered were the length of its gushing trunk and fanlike leaves, the dead-on fullness of its talipot skirts. Hot on the tail of their sultry blond token waitress, so bossy and genderally bearded, my eyes quickly jumped to a faded South Seas mural that projected an entire side wall into 1920s New Guinea. I panned to the veranda, a pink pastel sky backlighting beach huts and palmyra palms that danced like dandelions in early May.
Stratocumulus mounds tufted the sunset, soaking up vapid contrails of an incoming steamer. The air was warm and heavy, mangoes sweetening on scattered trees. This clinking, tinkling—was it wind chimes, ships bells, coins pitched on a broiling sidewalk? No, it was nearer than that, no farther than that…no, both. This sassier of Palm’s two waitresses shoved a pair of stainless steel sherbet cups before us, gavelling one with a spoon—mine strawberry, hers tangerine—making us pay dearly, expediently out of my wafer-thin billfold.
“I knew this place would blow you way,” Syd boasted. “I mean, did you ever…”
“Never, not even in my wildest…” I searched for a rejoinder, but there was so little I could muster to say. Instead, I fixed on a far side wall, above a festering shipwreck of a foredeck bordered with interlaced bamboo shoots. Off center, out of kilter, hung a sepia-tone blow-up of the gold rush steamship Central America, a sidewheeler that sank in a hurricane in 1857. Not only did it carry scores of San Franciscans, but a multi-million dollar payload of gold bricks and double eagles—the stuff of vast fortunes and those who made them, buried 8,000 feet deep off the coast of South Carolina. Beside that was a photo composite of a mushroom cloud over Bikini’s Atolls, the Enola Gay superimposed, leaning the other way.
“Well, take your medicine, Farmer John, see how another half lives.”
“Not exactly easy to swallow,” I muttered into my sherbet cup, anxiously avoiding any possible stares. The only medicine needed here was a Dramamine tab or two, what with some sea queasiness setting in. “Guess I’m not quite ready for a scene like this.”
“What, you expected farmhands? Come on, flash, get your head out of the boonies.”
“Just a little stuffy in here,” I coughed, “maybe we should be moving on…”
“Stuffy? I call it real. The midwest, WASPy Colorado, now that’s stuffy. Wait, you’ve got to check this out…”
A hawkish bartender in yellow sweat pants and Kona Hawaiian shirtwaist suddenly offed the jukebox switch, clipping Bowie’s ‘Hang On To Yourself’ number faster than P.G.&E. unplugged overdue accounts. He then completely doused Palm’s house lights, so that a foil-wrapped spot haloed the club’s small stage, framed in bamboo slats and thatched, seashell-laced palmetto fronds. Dead center stood a flat black Boesendorfer upright; into that milky circle skulked Darna Karl.
Even the alabaster-cheeked knockout and his grabby escort snapped to rapt attention from their têt-a-table next to us. Darna was a lanky clothes pole redhead with closet hanger shoulders propping up a bone-tight orchid gown, which dusted the tops of her size 12 pumps. That lone spot kindled the silverflake in her awkwardly large shoes, blowing them even further out of proportion—snowshoes on Kareem awkward—as she lurched toward her stool.
She one-handed a cognac bottle from the bartender, never once pulling her other fingers from the alto piano keys. Her personal drumroll persisted as she spun down on the matching black stool, wedging the Courvoisier bottle between last night’s snifters. She scratched her right calf, running loose, frost-white nylons up to the kneecap, then planted those gleaming shoes on her bass pedals.
Already in place above the keyboard were a half-carton of Reidsville-grade Pall Malls, a Kaiser-Fraser hubcap ashtray and several disposable lighters. Atop the piano were a karafe of pink carnations and five specimen bottles designated for the nickel, dime, quarter-on-up donations that kept her in smokes and cognac. Darna nodded and mumbled incoherently to the room, her Mary Kay red-tipped butt dropping another hot ash into her charred lap as it bobbed between full, cold-sore lips. But the sign above her said everything: ‘Can’t you saps read? My name is Darna. I play anything but requests’. And so there was no overlooking the notice, she’d nailed it between the melon breasts of a Gauginesque maiden muralled along the back wall: the girl with the fruit basket on her head—to match the waxed bananas, pineapples and papaya collecting dust in a piano top basket. Handsome, wholesome, and then some.
Darna Karl had no cleavage to speak of; many of the beater gym rats seated at stage-side tables had more. But the chanteuse bared beaucoup eyeliner, rouge and mascara troweled on cheekbone deep, and could still do a scratch-throaty number on the full popular songbook. She blew three smoke rings into the spotlight haze, transforming it into a huge conical umbrella. A lusty belt of cognac and she rasped into ‘Stormy Weather’. Ashes flickering, cognac dripping—Darna flowed like a Wurlitzer once she got rolling, from ‘Misty’ to ‘Summertime’ to ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’.
Before long, dewey-eyed stiffs stumbled up to fill he snifters, light her smokes, line her jars—not that she’d acknowledge them with so much as a nod. If this cross between Johnny Ray and Anita O’Day had little time for requests, she had even less for lip service, whatever the pleasure or proposition, instead sneering to the room’s delight as she jammed that Courvoisier bottle between her legs.
“Isn’t she amazing,” Syd beamed, with parts awe and halting admiration. “James told me she’s been here for like, at least a half-dozen years.”
“Looks like she’s been everywhere a little too long,” I said, waving more smoke away. “Ready to set sail?”
“Word is she used to play the Fairmont, the Top of the Mark,” Syd sat pat. “She’s a lot younger than she looks…was a Julliard prodigy or something.”
“Must have been many cognacs ago…”
“Guess it’s all downhill from Nob Hill,” she cracked, through a wry yet slightly nervous smile. “I’ve painted this tableau in my head so many times. Just cringe at the thought of actually doing it, though.”
“Because she sorta freaks me out. ’Cause here’s this super talented person and she’s down the chutes, and I don’t know why…”
“You mean why it couldn’t happen to you?”
“Why it couldn’t happen to anybody,” she said, leaning forward.
“Maybe it can, but only if you let it,” I said dismissively, eyeing the bouncer-I.D. clamor at Palm’s swinging doors. “Just stay the course, right? No reason to freak…”
“Whew, I can feel her voice right down to my clit,” she blurted, at a fleeting moment between numbers. Once Darna gained a head of steam, there were no breaks—nothing was going to Shanghai her standards hit parade. “Can’t you?”
“Me? Question is, can…she…”
The marvelous Ms. Karl was a quart low on Courvoisier, two butts shy of a full hubcap, and specimen jars ahead when Sydney claimed she could no longer be held accountable for her own erogenous zones; so we decamped, and pounded sand toward the shore. That parting shot of Darna, nose to the ivories, moaning ‘All Of Me’ through a half-lit Pall Mall, smoke snaking over her flaming hair, torched singer that she was, burned like a branding iron into my memory as Syd led us through a maze of tables and the Palm’s latecomer-jammed doorway. Curiously, I thought oh, to have my cameras and some Tri-X film for the ASA pushing once she medleyed into ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’.
“So, how’d that shake your tree, flash,” Sydney poked my shoulder as we hit the doors.
“Pretty strong stuff,” I wheezed, catching a snootful of Maui Wowie just outside.
“Damn straight, it’s good for what males you…
Care for more?
Chapter 16. A stroll through the depths leads them to the Heights—although there, matters prove to be far from pacific…
“Smooth landings can come with some rougher patches, buster.”
“And purple…it’s got some of that in it…”
“Yes, purple! And these amazing red and orange-like rays streaming out of a radiant sun on the horizon.”
“Sun, got it—purple and sun.”
“Oy, he had such an incredible way with sun rays. Never seen anything like it.”
Back then, once Nevada had finally ended, the blinding beauty began. California conceded a little borderline spillover—the lesser third of Lake Tahoe, some lower range forested hills—but otherwise gerryrigged the topographical splendor like a Carolina Congressional seat. Before long, drab, middling mountains thrust dramatically, frosted skyward. Stubborn gray overcast turned baccarat blue. Tall pine thickened and ran indelibly emerald. Dull snowpack suddenly sparkled like granulated sugar. Everything else just sped up and gained attitude.
Snorting Trans Ams, 280-Zs and Turbo Carreras blew past my balky Volkswagen Squareback in tight formation, racing-striped lemmings with ski racks, loaded for Squaw Valley and Boreal. The Truckee River gushed quinine clear alongside, over eel-smooth boulders, under felled tree trunks and melting snow flows, meandering north and south as below as Interstate-80 viaducted up with the blue jays through Tahoe National Forest.
By Truckee itself, I had surrendered to the bus lane, waving off pesky Rabbits and Pintos, struggling to keep pace with wagging U-Hauls and the freight train plowing along a far mountainside rail shaft left standing from the Gold Rush days. Relief had come momentarily at the state Agricultural Inspection Station, where we spotted that Oakland HVAC van being strip-searched while Sydney sacrificed two overripe Florida mangos to the uniformed produce guards.
Wiser drivers than I hunkered along I-80’s narrow, stormfenced shoulders, drifts choking orange ‘dipsticks’ up the their red reflectors, thick and slick from daily thawing then refreezing. Snow monkeys strapped on tire chains at the base of craggy, steeply canyoned Sierra walls. Cars with far better traction dodged shot patterns of rocky sediment cut loose by crosswinds and concurrently freezing and melting snows, by waterfalls pounding down green-gray rock channels to either side.
The squareback rather more faltered than fishtailed, tractor-trailers blasting relentlessly as they locked us into dead heats upwards of 5,000 feet—me double clutching and downshifting, Syd coaxing, rocking forward like a baited quail. Eventually, we rose above streaked window glass, frozen extremities and isolated cloud pockets, up to heavenly wraparound ranges and white-capped Sierra lakes.
“So, missy, where was this?”
“I told you, out at Ocean Beach.”
“No, I mean, where was it…”
“Right on the front seat. Honestly, what a perfect way to end such an exhausting trip. You getting all this down?”
Fuel injectors sputtering, gas pedal slammed, the Volks bucked northerly alpen crosswinds above 6,000 feet as we wound around Donner Lake, its ripples reflecting the frosted peaks and alabaster crevices that sealed it off from greater turbulence. Upwards of 7k, the winds were relentless, battering twisted pines, tossing stone rubble and bull boulders across the slow lanes like so much rocksalt. I dodged the slides by bumper car veers and turns, falling into a dead heat with a three-trailer Intermountain Express, the both of us downshifting full throttle to maintain strains of forward momentum.
I was silently cursing Syd and all her baggage when she pointed out the majestic mountaintop vistas up and downrange, to a road sign reading 7,239 feet above sea level. She marveled at the pioneers who had rope hoisted and lowered wagons and all over whatever pass they could scout out and surmount—whatever it took to make their weary way into the paradise called California. Just thinking about that, and towel wiping clear the windshield, had me working up a powerful appetite, to be sure.
Atop Donner Summit, a historical plaque hashed up any sudden hunger pangs in short order. I noted that the stranded Donner Party had originated in Springfield, Illinois. Sydney countered that two-thirds of the women survived, only one-third of the men. I mentioned as how they’d neatly butchered their cannibalized kin; she said that one Sarah Fosdick had watched her husband die, his heart roasted on a stick. From there, everything was a refluxed, gut-thumping downhill rush, with whitewater rapids patched into the scenario for some extra-sensory saturation. I-80’s six-percent downgrade wound us past ice streaming mountainsides, backed by dense stands of gnarled birch and wintergreen valleys, where ghostly pioneers still circled their battered Conestogas.
A frigid yet slushy draft jetted further up through the floorboards with every snow buried milemarker and drifting curve. Sugar Bowl, Soda Springs, Emigrant Gap, Dutch Flat exits blurred into an ear-popping, wheel-grabbing brakefest goosed on by the airhorn blasts of that now stampeding Intermountain Express. It blew the squareback off altogether, left me with a snootful of diesel fumes, before plowing three trailers deep onto a designated runaway lane, hatches flapping open, cases of house paint graffiti spraying across the scattering snows.
“Let’s see, leather with purple, front seat, Ocean Beach. Yep, think we’ve got it covered…”
“S’cuse me?! What do you expect to find with just that,” Sydney said presently, pounding on the San Francisco Police precinct countertop. “Listen, officer, it was my absolute favorite handbag ensemble. I had all my everything in there…”
“Do you really expect to find anything no matter what I write down,” asked a pudgy, preoccupied Sunset District station desk sergeant. “It’s probably washing out to sea in a storm drain by now.”
“With your cheesy description,” she huffed, rolling her eyes my way, “who’d know the difference, even if it was?!”
Still, I couldn’t have helped but warm up to Syd’s initial California enthusiasm. Her nostrils fogged the streaky windshield as she blew kisses wild-eyed to a roll call of providential sightings: the first towering redwoods of Placer County, the red ore-rich foothills above Gold Run, that first lone palm tree outside Auburn. Below 1,500 feet, skies cleared, windows and roadways thawed amidst a time-lapse seasonal shift. Bougainvillea lined the freeway, Sierra earthtones brightened to Sacramento’s soft-white and pastels, palm trees ganged Kona thick, everything not yet paved either blooming or lushly green.
San Joaquin Valley’s furrowed black flats and Syd’s FM sing along soon delivered me unto a dreamy ether space of springtime California. Candied fruit bowl frappes at the Nut Tree primed us for a rolling feast of small label vineyards, of pear, plum and apple orchards, which enveloped I-80 well up through the verdant Holsteined hills of the Coastal Range. But the green-on-green truck farms outside Vacaville gradually gave way to the tank farms of Vallejo. I grew uneasy with quickening traffic, towering power lines and overall East Bay sprawl. By the Carquinez Bridge, there seemed no turning back at all. Sealing things was the disco taunt Sydney dialed and belted to: ‘Shame, shame on you if you can’t pass through…’
“Got your phone number here in the report,” sighed the desk sergeant, lowering his reading glasses, rubbing the bridge of his blotchy red, vascularized nose. “If anything turns up, we’ll be in touch…”
“I can’t wait for that…I’m a busy person. How do you expect me to…”
“Look, missy—we’re doing all we can,” he said, tossing her crime report onto the In pile.
“Hah! I’ll bet,” she squared off, glaring at him, up there behind the blue and gold-crested bench. “And just what am I supposed to do in the meantime?!”
“This is Everybody’s Favorite City, ain’t it? Go enjoy the hell outta the place. Oh, and you might wanna be callin’ in your credit cards…”
When we had finally passed down toward San Francisco Bay, the churning, windshield-flooding expanse ringed from Mount Tamalpais south to San Bruno Mountain, back around to the Diablo Range. Traffic had swirled into I-80 from all directions, Berkeley and Oakland ripped by, marginally recognizable mind-sets on some progressive third world tour. Breezing along the Eastshore Freeway, I caught a first broad view of The City—a fearfully jeweled crown bobbing atop all that water, trivializing everything that had come before.
The Bay span cantilevered us into the Treasure Island tunnel, an amber-tiled fallopian tube from which we emerged mid bridge. San Francisco zeotroped through the suspension cables, unfurling over its storied hills, awe-inspiring far beyond its physical scale. Tightly clustered downtown highrises glowed golden against a nectarine sky, waterfront lights refracting in iridescent rays about the ferry and freighter cross-hatched Bay—all so much more dazzling than the fog town I had recalled from the previous Thanksgiving weekend’s impulsive spin.
Sydney had pointed me onto one of the pretzeled upper peninsula freeways, spurring me rib by rib as we raced the sunset across town, timed traffic lights ushering us up over steep, compact hills, along the colorfully Victorian-lined Panhandle. I dodged around right-turners and double-parked vans, backfired on to JFK Drive past the lush gardens, groomed meadows—the pools, palm groves and bike paths—of Golden Gate Park. She was recounting a nearby buffalo pasture as I spun out onto the Great Highway, just as a flaming beachball sun sank beyond Ocean Beach, out on the perfectly linear Pacific horizon.
Syd shot from the Volks, coaxing me toward The Esplanade to narrate this perfect introduction from Land’s End. In breathless bursts, she celebrated our long overdue arrival, pointed out Seal Rocks, the Beach Chalet and Murphy’s Windmill, framing this fiery marine twilight as if her easel and palette were at hand. In all candor, I was momentarily entranced by the ocean, the sunset, the sudden promise of a totally foreign place: Not confining like a craggy mountain front to be scaled, but the level, cinema-scopic infinity of the sea.
Still, aping scattered couples, the surf-and-sand pasted children, I steadied myself against a seawall in the bracing wind, silently whisking away the cool, salty ocean spray. Once grains dislodged Syd’s contacts, she beckoned me back to the car for her eyeglasses and boar’s bristle hairbrush, promenade street lights cutting into the settling darkness as we dashed through clotted traffic to the median parking strip. There we found the squareback’s shotgun-side door slim-jimmied open, her hand-tooled leather purse and matching wallet gone with the late, carmine embering light of day.
“Think we should have mentioned my radio?” I now opened the steel-reinforced front door of S.F.P.D.’s Western Station, bringing up my Blaupunkt AM-FM, which was ripped halfway out from under the dashboard. Dangling by several yellow wires and a stubborn black antenna cable, it looked to have been left behind by car looters beating a hasty escape.
“What’s the point, they didn’t get your radio,” Syd snapped, zipping up her ski jacket, straightening her wrinkled vermilion slacks as onshore winds whipped more powerfully across Sunset District avenues.
“Kind of a downer, huh?”
“No, still an upper,”she said, suddenly putting on a happy face, wrapping the arm of my sheepskin coat in the deepening darkness. “San Francisco is always an upper, and don’t you forget it. So let’s go, flash, I’ll really show you what’s up…”
Care for more? Chapter 15. Polking around across
town, a scene heretofore unseen, coming face to face with the local ‘farming’ community…
“A safe bet on the surface may net myriad hazards deeper down.”
“I want it back.”
“Sure, I totally understand where you’re coming from. It’s just a basic surface manifestation of what you perceive to be her impertinence and ingratitude, but…”
“But nothing, tell that little bitch to spin on it. I want my belt buckle!”
Back then, this had proved to be a drab, Bloody Mary of a Lovelock morning early on, the first indication of which lay at the throwaway Bud-strewn doorstep of neighboring 5B. Right off, Sydney had attempted to break the deafening gloom by japing that she was washing her hands of me for her own damn good. Western Nevada’s rugged highway landscape soon degenerated into a slough of pre-fab tracts, sprawling trailer parks and auto graveyards, a sud-African township sort of wasteland scattered road signs had designated Sparks.
Shadowing all that was Reno, its high-rise hotel towers disappearing against the mountainous overcast like stacked coinage alongside some nickel slots, muting the lurid everglow of reinforced concrete strongboxes emblazoned Sahara, Circus-Circus and Sierra Sal’s. Bonanza III sized up as the fattest come-on breakfast spread in the MGM Grand canyon of downtown casinos—even though it displayed signage warning patrons to duck under the blackjack tables, out of the line of gunfire, in the event sudden disagreements broke out. Two-dollar Eggs Benedict hastily washed down, Sydney and I emerged from B-III’s blazing, carnival-lit foyer to find a not dissimilarly hostile wager had been placed by this rudely familiar van.
“Knew I’d catch up with you jerk-offs before long,” raged the HVAC contractor, Raider’s cap sailing, butt crack galore. He had wedged his van behind the squareback on a nearby side street of chili parlors and pawnshops, in front of a mid-block parking lot filled with rent-a-cars, fleet loaners and San Joaquin Valley excursion buses. “My buckle…now!”
“Hey, what about my sunglasses?” She menaced the contractor with a plastic cow’s-head creamer she had lifted from the Bonanza buffet table, as was her compulsion. “And what about my honor?!”
“Yah, you gonna stick up for the little lady or what?” Bed rolled against the parking lot’s chainlink fencing were four hole cards and a queen kicker—a mere token of Reno’s discards, migrant gamblers who had thumbed in from Vegas with the odds at their backs, but stalled flat when the warm Ripple and incorrigible casino advantage slapped them down to sprinklings of tent encampments all about town.
“No buckle, no shades,” the Raider fan sneered, twisting her Vuarnet frames to the cracking point. “Psychobabble this…”
“Look, you’ve got your position; she’s got her position,” I sputtered, still flustered from the night before. I guided Syd briskly into the car, wherein she wasted little time downing the passenger window. “So let’s all of us cool off and discuss this like rational human beings, shall we—find ourselves a measure of common ground?”
“Don’t give me rational, pussy face,” the contractor lurched toward the car and me. “Just give me the goddamn buckle.”
“Shit, let’s kick his sorry ass back to Oakland,” said the tallest, bulkiest of the brood, hurling away shared piles of heisted table clothes and hotel blankets, revealing a flush of stained double-knits and shredded shirtjacs, as he and his fellow rounders rose groggily to the occasion.
“There you go, Sir Galahad,” Syd pounded the door with her creamer, “now you’re talking’”
“You bet, sweetheart,” the wildest card moved on the contractor with a gaping, tobacco-stained grin, spitting yellow phlegm and chunky wine, hotel toiletries and place settings jangling from the patch pockets of a grimy beige leisure suit. His partners shored up his flanks in a bum’s rush of Bally’s caps and tangled, rabidly toothless glares. The queen mother just stayed hunkered down to crop in loose change and casino chips day-touring bettors tossed into her trashed roulette wheel.
“Awright, quit fuckin’ around and gimme my…” The contractor screamed, stopping cold as the low-rollers swarmed him.
“My pleasure,” Syd pulled the gleaming Super Bowl XI souvenir buckle from her purse, tossing it to the rag lady, who proceeded to stash it under her gyroscoping wheel. “There, rationalize that.”
“OK for you, honey” the Black Holey Raider spit, cornered five feet from his open van door, snapping her sunglasses at the nose bridge. “I’ll be measuring your asses down the road…”
“Christ, what were you thinking,” I retreated around into the squareback altogether, cranking it over amid the dust of sudden scuffling. “First Denver just cheated his team out of the NFL playoffs with a goal-line fumble, now this. Talk about Orange Crushed—he’ll ambush us, I just know…”
“That’s what I’ve got you to protect me for, isn’t it,” she asked, motioning me to tail the taxi idling in front of us out into traffic. “Like, maybe you can understand him to death.”
“It’s called conflict management, all right? Was just trying to defuse the situation.” I sped past pink and white instant wedding chapels named Cupid’s Nest and Blushing Bride, then even quicker off-the-rack divorce dens. “Trouble is, I haven’t exactly come across anything that unmanageable in Boulder.”
“Welcome to the real world, flash.” Syd drifted off into long blocks of dime casinos and honeymoon motels, towered over by mega-billboards for Don Rickles, Flip Wilson, and the John Davidson Revue. “That’s the kind of people you’ll run into everywhere out here…’cause you’re not in namby-pamby land anymore.”
“Well, I know one thing.” The squareback merged fitfully onto I-80 West, paring through a dense spread of liquor shacks, truck stops, trailer courts and low-rent casinos engulfing greater Reno’s environs. Its all-hours squalor gradually played out across westernmost Nevada’s drab gray hills, to a scattering of hermitic strongholds bedizened with longhorn skulls, mortar-crusted range rocks and skeletal metal sculpture contorted into grotesquely personal gestalten. “We don’t need to be buying off lowlifes to get you back home in one piece…”
“Tell it to my Vuarnets,” she shook her plastic Holstein at me to press her case. “Really…I resent the sexist implications of your sudden macho attitude. Especially when you weren’t all that macho to begin with.”
“Maybe I resent the implications of your harum-scarum routine,” I floored the wagon up I-80’s Sierra backside toward Verdi, wincing at the windshield slush from a passing Mercedes SEL, wiping non-dairy spray from my chin as a sapphire blue Jaguar saloon cut us off. “The truth is, I can’t stand derelicts like that.”
“Hah! But wait a minute, you’re a sociologist. I thought people like you were supposed to help derelicts like that!” Syd squinted through lifting cloud cover to the promise of snow white and evergreen foothills, the Truckee River surging in alongside. “No wonder everybody says social science is the pits of academia.”
“What? I can’t help it, all right? I hate their filth, their binges—their rotting goddamn mouths. Jeez, why the hell would you want to encourage them,” my voice raised, the Volks already struggling, as platinum Turbo Carrera blew too closely by. “Believe me, I’ve got no plans to get tangled up with such lost-cause grimeballs in any way, shape or form.”
With that, she tossed her creamer and sleeping bag against the tailgate door, then flipped the Silver State a singular goodbye. “Good lord, I’ve got to get you to San Francisco.”
“Stray from a chosen path at your peril, lest unforeseen influences take hold.”
Back then, Sydney directed me along neon arrows to the largest and lowest number on Lovelock’s motel row: a screaming nine-dollar overnight with space heater and optional soft-core porn. I kept the squareback revving while she negotiated for what purported to be the Rodeo Arms Motor Lodge’s last available unit, a week-long cattle auction now hitting town. Second to the end on Rodeo’s eastern wing, 6B melded that bovine essence with ethyl fumes from the Two Stiffs Selling Gas station next door. A damp-seamed tank of furnace oil blocked most reflective fallout from the $9 sign, and everything else about 6B but the door.
“There you go, now which room’s mine?” I dragged her valise and heaviest suitcase into the coldly single room.
“Which one’s yours,” she chuckled, as she hustled the storm and windowless wood doors closed behind me. “This is it, flash. You think I’m wasting my hard-earned gas money on two dumpy rooms? Really, the way this trip’s been going, we’ll probably need a transmission overhaul by Sacramento.”
“Huh?! Nooo way…” I gazed around the oversize closet as soon as she hit a wild palomino lamp on the night stand: Plenty of vinyl and plastic phlox, a closed-circuit Motorola suspended from the ceiling—19-inch provocateur to the junior double bed jammed against the back walls, just below a framed parchment of the Rodeo’s house commandments. “I’ll be out sleeping in the car.”
“Brrr, get your tush back in here, will you please,” she said, through the twang of ripped screening as I bolted out the doors. “My Chanel has got to be better than seeping fuel oil.”
“Look, nothing personal,” I shouted, over the gear wail of a downshifting Bekins mover, watching her fussily open and re-zip her down jacket. “I’d just feel more comfortable…”
“Oh, grow up,” she squeezed halfway into the bathroom, as if maneuvering into tumble-dried panty hose, combing out her tangled blond hair—long and flossy tresses compared to Melissa’s luxuriant brunette jungle. “We’ve already spent the night together in the car, haven’t we? Did anything uncomfortable happen in the car?!”
“Well, no…but,” I shut the door back behind me and spotted a house phone beside the bed. “I’d best call Moon.”
“Wonderful, Festus the manager will be thrilled to hear we’re riding double in here.”
“You don’t understand,” I stammered. “Under the circumstances, I just think it…apropos.”
“Apropos,” she scowled, means testing the bed with her tight, steel-belted radial behind. “Well, I think it’s an insult—to Moon and me. We’re family, get it? Family! Anyway, I thought you just talked to her in Willup.”
“Uh, not exactly,” I said, shoulder blades flat against the door. “In fact, all I got was a message that wasn’t even for me, but a kind of…neighbor who’s gravitated around of late— something about a party. I’ll be damned if I know what…”
“Can’t imagine…maybe it was a work thing. Or maybe dear Melissa’s dabbling in local lore.”
“Huh?! How can you say a thing like that…”
No telling what the Rodeo’s premium suites had to offer, but 6B gave me recall, wall to wall. The same grainy plaster, a far-too-familiar corner heater lobbing lukewarm sprinkles against an arctic sea: All Lovelock lacked were the dirty yellow chest-high drifts. I never anticipated that that long, sickening New Year’s haul some years before would ever repeat on me. Yet here it was, anchovies one morning after the fact—stale, awful Cheetos and beef stew by the can in that grim New Jersey Turnpike motel. Crash-landed in Pennsauken, suckling up to Roberta’s rolling waistlines, hurling Dinty Moore’s entrails across the bed sheets with a noggin full of snow-blunted dismay. My head hadn’t felt this icy hot and helium light since that warped east coast drive-a-thon earlier on. And I surely had no more stomach for it now.
“Juust kidding, yeesh…” Sydney pulled back the discolored bedding, then took the pillows to task. “Well, TV anyone?”
“C’mon, dammit! Family or no family, this isn’t what my relationship is all about.”
“Oh, don’t flatter yourself…” She peeled down to a blue sleeveless body sock, then line bored under the covers. “The sooner we turn in, the sooner you get me back to California.”
An overstocked cattle truck stampeded up Business 80, steers moaning in a crush of ribs and hooves, the Rodeo Arms trembling down to its box springs until a gasoline tanker counter-rumbled along. On the other hand, it could have been my chilblains and high-beam glaucoma, or the increased fluttering in my lower alimentary canal. I peered evasively about this walk-in cooler; however much it smacked of Jersey, she was clearly no Roberta. I hedged and sighed and stroked a two-day growth, feeling raw and torn as my undershirts, refracting her curious glare. Damn, if she didn’t know all too well I couldn’t doze upright another night. Even more galling was that what I saw as some monumental fidelity test, she could so easily dismiss as simple rest.
“Good god, either I’m totally repulsive…or Moon has you whipped something fierce.”
“Hey, come on, it’s not like you’re repulsive or…”
“Oh, that’s a relief,” she rolled over toward a framed rotogravure of Lovelock’s nightlife in a flap of Hereford brown covers and horsefeather pillows. “Well, stay in your clunker, sleep in the bathtub, for all I care. I’m just trying to help things along.”
“Je-sus…” I locked the doors behind me, then cleaved into the bathroom to dispense with some sugar and caffeine. There really was nothing to this; don’t flatter yourself, just like she said. I could hear her humming under the scraping of the bathroom ceiling fan, which unleashed a barrage of suddenly cherished imagery in the varicose mirror. Melissa baking banana bread, Melissa by the fire sipping Celestial tea, Moon over mountain views of July Fourth fireworks up and down the Front Range: Where the hell was she? What fucking party?! A flush of the toilet, and the images swirled coriolically away. I punched at two corroded rubber machines, then killed the light, comforted by the realization that there was nothing Sydney could possibly see in the stubbled face I’d just left in the half-cracked mirror.
“O the Sisters of Mercy they are not departed or gone…”
“Aww, don’t be singing that,” I edged into a room dimmed to the pink glow of a water-stained lampshade. “Why must you be…”
“I don’t know, just thought it apropos…”
“The hell…” I deployed night vision as best I could to flesh out her blanketed form: an old army trick—backstabbing, home-wrecking army—duty rostering, field stripping my marriage away. Curious how Sydney and Melissa shaped up so differently, though more or less the same size. Moon was soft and renaissance rounded, that rose petal skin, all that succorous cushioning in a shapely compact form. Covers aside, Sydney was firm and toned like Celeste Wylie, like a designer label marathon trainer. With Moon’s face and a little more Faith, she might have been under contract to Paramount Studios.
“So tell me about Leonard Cohen,” she tracked my approach by the linoleum-dulled clunk of petrified boots. “Soon as you get out of those revolting clothes.”
“Right,” I sighed, peeling down reluctantly from jeans and chamois shirt to a pitted CU gym top and worn-through Looms. “After you tell me about that Utah tantrum over your sunglasses.”
“Sisters of Mercy they are not departed or gone. They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on…” She burrowed singing face-first toward the wall as I tumbled in, mattress caving like an aqueduct, pushing us together, center spread. “You first…”
“Enough, for Christsake!” I turned away from her as though we had been carrying on like this for years. “No big thing, OK? It just dredges up Fayetteville, North Carolina. I was a married draftee. Cassie and I lived off post with two cars, yet—our place sort of became Fort Bragg’s artsy anti-war central. Maybe it was the conflicting pressures, Maybe it was the bad pay, bad formations—but mainly my bad haircuts. So the holidays came, and we decided to split. We made the surprise announcement at our New Year’s Eve bash. She fled at midnight with this Cat Stevens-kinda gypsy to St. Augustine, Florida—went a little crazy like that sometimes… think it had to do with her being adopted”
“Hmm, fuzzy parentage? Say no more…”
“That and the fact that she finally got around to telling me she had had an abortion when she was a freshman in high school. Anyway, a bunch of us headed up to New York. Roberta played an old ‘Suzanne’ tape all the way through Virginia. Every time ‘Sisters of Mercy’ or ‘So Long, Marianne’ came on, I cried my eyes out. The plan was non-stop driving shifts, but we got so wasted, we had to lay over in Jersey—a hole sort of like…this. Then a black guy, Cornelius, got everybody wrecked, and things were all over the map, sexwise.”
“Hey, not me—I just sat there, bawlin’ and passing out. When we finally got to Darrell’s writer friend Wilson Trescott’s loft, we all got gun-mugged by teenage junkies on his second floor landing… midmorning, 12th Street and Avenue B. I never want to go through anything like that again—worst night of my life. But why am I telling you this,” I flopped back over, drilling an optical hole through 6B’s plaster-cracked ceiling. “Moon doesn’t even know.”
“But what about your marriage? Two people can’t end things just like that…”
“We did.” I sensed uneasiness, as if the room seemed somehow cheaper than it already was. “I shipped out to Europe, did the divorce papers long distance. She had some hotshot feminist lawyer, pro bono…but I didn’t want anything from her, anyway. Only began hearing from her again when the gypsy ran off. That’s when she finally admitted she knew I’d never meant to lay a hand on her.”
“Well, no kids, no harm, I guess…”
“Not that I’ve even known of…”
“My, how romantic…so much for the holy vows of matrimony.”
Tremors from 5B portended a late-night caucus of the shorthorn and bullwhip delegation, regrouping to bid up some numbers. What sounded to be a small posse of ranchers busted through its door with cases of clinking long necks, bouncing off walls like penned brahmas, cranking up the country and piped-in TV.
“Sooo, what about Utah,” I asked nervously, over the crumbling of drywall and wailing of Willie and the boys.
“Say again,” she shifted, as if searching her memory bank for men she’d ever known actually bald-face crying. Closest she seemed to get was Martin Kavalla, or Lester when he was all of eight years old.
“Your shades, remember?” I felt exposed, like tainted shellfish. “C’mon, we had a deal going here! You’ve been digging everything out of me, and giving nothing in return…”
“Alright, already…here’s the…deal. It wasn’t so much the sunglasses,” she said sleepily, oblivious to the shattering of beer bottles and coughing rodeo hoots next door. “Besides, I got his Super Bowl buckle, stuffed it in my purse while he was busy fiddling with his mirrors. It’s what the creep did when he pulled ahead of your car that really burned me. The pig bastard ran his grubby hand right down my pants.”
“He what?!” Figured as much, the sleazeball seemed the type. I was unsure whether to feign territorial outrage in such unfamiliar territory, or plain and simple indignation. “Well, he didn’t exactly force you to ride with him, you know…I mean, if you’re talking personal responsibility and all that.”
“Oh, so you’re saying it was my fault. He had a real heater, which is more than your junker does…”
“Yeah, and lucky for you he didn’t use it.”
“OK, flash,” she rolled back over quicker than a keno ball out the tumbler, plunging her small, steely hand through an ample tear in my shorts. “Tell me whose fault this is…”
I felt her frostbitten fingers grab directly for my scrotum with all the tactical authority of an occupying force. She squeezed tightly, almost triumphantly, ripping my underwear to the seams, a sudden burning testicular ache compelling me to grunt for terms. Turf seized, she slid her glaze-nailed fingertips along my coarsening scrotal sack, smooth as a spatula, then rode the blood rush up my throbbing penal artery. Strumming her fingers, cupping her palm, Sydney tickled and teased the full length of my lightening response.
I otherwise stiffened in flat-out adrenal shock, numb to rumbling cattle trucks, squeaking bedsprings, the vibrato-framed rotogravure. Blinded by blinking gas signs and lip red neon arrows, I drowned in the sum fragrance of Chanel No.5 and leaking fuel oil, caught here in the throes of downtown Lovelock, rather as embarrassed as aroused.
I soon surrendered dog-tired to 5B’s roughshod Merle Haggard and crashing throwaway Buds, Syd quickening her power stroke, ‘Sisters of Mercy’ humming right along. Nodding, fading—call Moon, stall Moon—breach of promise, if not grave alienation of affection: The only thing between me and a painfully welcome night’s rest was the meaning of all this ‘flash’ crap.
Quite predictably, the answer came to me…just like that.
“The slightest hint of breathing room can escape you once personal contours start closing in.”
Back then, what was gained in gas money was lost in light of day. Sydney and I picked up some apples, powdered Donettes and chocolate milk at the IGA, then chugged out of Willup ever so warily, negotiating its strip mine of chuckwagon diners, ranchero motels and low-octane service stations with high-test prices—common highwaymen lying in wait, divvying the interstate take. Once we passed a slab cemetery of surface crypts climbing its boot hill, Willup gave way to darkening semi-desert, with dust fed winds soon kicking in. This business loop ambush merged back onto I-80 just beyond Keno Bill’s, tapering from there into twin split-lane ribbons, which tailed off into some 400 miles of time-drag topography that collided head-on with one’s pioneer urge to press westward.
“Hell of a game, craps,” I groped for some face-saving opener that straddled clear resentment and modest appreciation for her easing the downward pressure on our travel dollars.
“Whatever works,” Sydney sniffed, cratering the skin of her mealy McIntosh, all fingers and thumbs. “My other passion is Baccarat. It’s so fast, so continental…so chemin de fer. Like, crystal salons overlooking the Plage de la Croisette—I just love the dynamic. But you know what I mean. You’ve been over there…I saw your photos.”
“Yeah, been there, but not there…not even close.”
At best, central Nevada was an undue course of cole slaw between the sirloin tips and prime rib of western America. Beowawe, Willup’s poor relation several miles downroad, slowly set the table for further reflection and reassessment: mine on what this venture was costing phone wise; Syd’s more than likely on how it stacked up against airfare. Trailings of the Shoshone Range fed alluvially to the basin bottom, wizened hills that pulled like undertow at this gray, spackled sky. Beneath them, a stubborn sheet of snow daubed broccoli crown sagebrush, barren rock formations and liver-spotted plateaus. Beyond I-80, the only perceptible movement involved white-frosted tumbleweed careening off range fences, or huge coiled copperheads dead eyeing ground hogs, squeezing out the last bit of sun to warm their outcroppings.
Barely easing 80’s tedium was a succession of road service gambling ghettos fronting as actual towns. Valmy, Galconda, Mill City, Winnemucca: All seemed to sneak onto the horizon under cover of low-profile mountain ranges, gaudy speed bumps tipping their hands with a prop wash of soaring gas signs, junked pick-ups, storm-torn house trailers and propane tanks tossed about wind-trashed pastures like rolls of discarded bar coasters. The towering neon signage even leached out the gold-baby-golden glow of Battle Mountain.
“Such a waste,” Sydney hiked up the sleeping bag, as if envisioning the Great Basin from a shade-drawn seat at 32,000 feet.
“I’m serious, there must be something more you want out of life,” she began rifling through my glove box, mostly maps and greasy rags. “You could be doing so much better than this…”
“Better than what?”
“Than waiting for some eggheads to determine your future. Than crapping out in Nevada and calling poor Moon flat broke, that’s what. She deserves a damn sight more…”
“Me?! You’re the…I…anyway, I can’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“I’ll give you a hundred and forty-three reasons why.”
Beyond the ground rock trailer parks and abandoned Sinclair stations, a night fallen I-80 reverted to white-striped sashes across endless square miles of barb-fenced rangeland. My headlights strained through buckshot highway signs, which pointed to networks of narrow gravel turnout roads tailing off toward skillet shallow valleys and stunted background hills. Well shy of Imlay, the void became so overwhelming one’s imagination ran wild: Mule-size jackalopes grazing the scrub brush; frosted tumbleweed careening off white triangular cattle guards that conjured a surreptitious range war on a Sergio Leone scale; giant Cephalopods and Vampire Squid battling ancient octopi and Ichthyosaurs in a long-vanished Triassic sea, its vast bed now little more than dead space for kraken fossils and burning visions down the pike.
“Say, how about some tunes?” I plied the dashboard radio, spooked enough already by Moon’s misrouted message. I flipped past local country stations, continuing to track the slow lane, a natural zoo of gophers, weasels and varietal vermin playing chicken with the squareback’s front wheels from the Brillo brush lining I-80’s outer shoulder. Midway down the dial, the Blaupunkt went clear channel, pulling in sundown static snippets of AM powerhouses on the skip from Del Rio to L.A., deep-freeze warnings from Casper and Calgary, a Boise superhits seque into ‘Blues For Baby And Me’.
“There, a little ol’ traveling music…Gon-na go west to the sea,” Syd sang. “It’s not George Benson, but Elton’ll do.”
“Yeah, except too bad he’s turned into a butt farmer.”
“Beg your pardon…”
“You know, like an official size and weight tail gunner.” I coaxed the radio’s skip signals with diminishing returns.
“Say that where we’re going, and you’ll know from tail gunning, first hand,” she spouted, tearing back into the snack bag, stuffing a Donette in my face.
“C’mon, it was just a figure of speech” I mumbled. “I could have called him a…”
“Really, where is this coming from? I’ll have you know, some of my dearest friends are…tail gunners!”
“That right,” I stiffened, crumbs, powder flaking down to my jeans. “Not that it’s any of my business or any…”
“What an incredibly retarded thing to say. This—from a sociologist, yet!” She commandeered the radio. “Maybe we’d better tune you into one of those redneck stations, while we’re at it.”
“Jeesh, it’s common vernacular…” Figures, ’hag and a bitch. “Talk about no sense of humor…”
“Hmph, Mr. Enlightenment here,” she slapped at the radio’s fuzzy speaker, and the cold air blowing in all around it. “Does Moon know you talk like this?”
“Guess we’ll have to call her and find out…” I clicked the Blaupunkt off altogether. A creamy fourth-quarter moon had somewhat brightened the vast indigo sky, betraying stray wolves and coyotes chasing wild mice through twisted fencing, behind sagging, stripped-out gold mine shacks and Rorschach rock pilings. Dispatched just as abruptly was the roadway romanticism of Taupin and John.
“That won’t be necessary,” Sydney said, reconsidering out of the blue. She tracked a shooting comet on its glidepath over Star Peak, which delivered her wistfully up to the wingtip lights of a westbound 747. This whole thing must have lifted Lester’s stock significantly, and probably even did wonders for some bozo named Bernard. “Just spare me the homophobia, will you please? Like Daddo says, everybody’s got a little prejudice down in us somewhere. That for most people, it lies dormant for a lifetime. But if it’s triggered somehow, latent bigotry can seep out real ugly like.”
“Well, would that we could render a quantitative analysis of that…”
“So do it, prof—but are you talking about the prejudice or the bile?”
Past Rye Patch Reservoir, I-80 slimmed back down by two lanes and a median. There had been other two-way stretches since Wendover, yet this seemed the longest, and most foreboding. Mangled road signs and piercing yellow flashers marked the construction detours as temporary, but rust and dry rot spoke like tree rings. Soon the squareback’s misaligned headlamps ignited marble eyes all over the sagebrush. Oncoming high beams vectored toward us, searing our own, blinding me to my three-gauge instrument cluster.
Exploratory passes around slower taillights met with blinking parries by opposing semi-trailers doing the same. Before long, white line fever broke into a siege of grill-splat consumption, shadowy desert varmints of all shapes and hoof-paw configurations feeding the shoulder pathology. I could scarcely tell whether they were nuclear permutations from a game preserve to the south of us, or walking Darwinian fossils from the dead lava beds to the north.
“Reclining Faith,” said Sydney, apparently less intimidated by encroaching wildlife than fascinated with the contour of the hills.
“Reclining what,” I asked, the dark roar of a Utah-bound 18-wheeler throttling past my ear.
“That mountain over there,” she pointed toward a rolling formation road signs labeled the Trinity Range. “It’s so perfectly elliptical and jelled, the top’s a nipple all aroused. The way that moonlight’s hitting it makes me think of my mother’s left breast, like when she’s kicking back on the lounger.”
“Your…mother…” I braked sharply behind a weaving horse trailer, then grabbed for the chocolate milk—still cold as everything else in this forced-air freezer. “On a lounger…”
“Sure, she still has an incredible bosom—large, beautiful papaya—uppies, no less. God, I could kill her that she didn’t pass them on to me. You should have seen her when she was my age. But then you will, once we get to San Francisco.”
“Sorry?” I could have sworn I had just spotted Gable out there ropin’, rustlin’ Misfits and Norma Jean. As a diversion, I recalled reading a magazine expose piece on all the wild horses roaming across Nevada and stuff, about how this one old woman led a battle against heavy-handed BLM roundups. Yeah, bring that up; change the subject all right…too…late…
“I’ve got a full photo spread Daddo took of her when they were just dating,” she said, relieving me of the hardened milk carton. “They’re all over my walls, along with some sketches I did in art school. She was my first figure study. Fact is, Faith is my best friend on earth—we tell each other absolutely everything.”
“Christ, I can’t even imagine,” I squinted at the dimming instrument cluster, then fiddled with the radio anew—imagination, curiosity all aroused. What on earth possessed her to bring up such a thing? “I’d be like seeing my own mother…”
“Aahhh, don’t think so,” she smiled, craning over her shoulder, still marveling at the mound. “But I do happen to know your tastes run to big-breasted women. I know scads of interesting things about you…”
“Yeah? For instance…”
“That you’ve also got some sort of thing for Leonard Cohen…and that you go totally psycho sometimes, and take it out on your dog.”
“Aww, you don’t know…squat.” I squelched the radio static one last time, cursing Moon, rubbing my eyes, clinging to road reflectors, seeing double everything along the yellow lines.
“I know you better than you’ll ever know, flash,” she tapped my right hand. “Like, who else sings ‘Sisters of Mercy’?”
“W-w-wait, Moon told you about New Year’s, too?!”
“Course, that’s what happens when you leave us hens alone.”
Just as the shadows and apparitions most closed in, when an increasingly clouded moon doused the desert underbrush and turned the Trinitys and Buffalo Mountain into bleak, faceless forms, some distant lights began scrolling up on the black horizon. Red blinking antennae and water towers in turn sparked a pink-orange-purple phosphorescent glow: the 24-hour neon aura of Nevada’s next gas and gambling trap.
“Coffee…gotta do a little coffee.” My noggin bounced off the red vinyl headrest, and I bowed lead-eyed before a shrine of 100-foot oil signs. “And thaw my feet…”
“Coffee, nothing…we’re calling it a night.”
“No way,” I picked up on a mileage-exit sign for Sulphur and Tungsten. “Fifteen minutes in this rest stop, and I’m ready to roll again.”
“My treat, already. Where in bloody blazes are we?”
“Signs say Lovelock,” I grappled with a figure study of the hypothetical sleeping configuration. “Bet the rooms are rip-off city…”
“Even if you gain a seat at the table, you may find that the tables are turned.”
“Tell her I’m broke in Willup…”
“And that Lawson’s out busting cokeheads. That it’s $142.50 and I barely have it, and I don’t want Ms. Rembrandt here to know. And tell her I don’t like where this is heading one bit…”
“Hit me again.”
“Sure, Randy, is it? Oh, wait. I have a message for you from Melissa, too. Everything’s going according to plan. And as soon as she’s finished working this awards luncheon, she wants to talk to you about the part…”
Back then, I had shot out of Bonneville like Challenger I, wishing that our land speed record were toppling as precipitously as my miles per gallon. Gunning up from the Salt Flats, I felt for several vicarious moments the wild abandon of Mickey Thompson, the death-wish recklessness of Ohio Art Arfons’ ‘Green Monster’ jet car, of Craig ‘Spirit of America’ Breedlove at 600 m.p.h. Sydney was not nearly so inspired, however—and the squareback wasn’t buying it at all. First, its fuel line knuckled. Soon the injector nozzles clogged up; then the fuel pump burst and froze.
After blowing smoke so valiantly across the Nevada border, we were suddenly limping and sputtering on three fouled cylinders west of Wendover—Syd riding me the entire way to Palisade. We finally hit the wall outside Willup, shutting the Volks off altogether at a main drag gas station/casinette framed by an all-hours grain and gun shop and a boarded-over Western Tire. After a 100-mile overnight parts trip to Elko, the nearest Nevada outlet with an electric fuel pump in stock, I killed some down time here with sucker blackjack and this desperation call back to Boulder. “Ouch, you mean Ken…”
“No, I think she specifically said Randy, I’m pretty sure.”
“Fine, forget about it! Damn, how can I be losing on some other guy’s hand…” CLICK. I had been bleeding red and white chips ever since returning on the Elko bus. I’d stand pat hand after hand, waiting for a suede-fringed cowgirl dealer to pull a long overdue break and push. Probability theory, linear regression, law of averages, plain and simple luck of the draw: No dice, gambler’s fallacy, nothing seemed to work. Meanwhile, a hot streak of novice card-counters passed stool to stool, uncannily insuring soft hands, late surrendering hard. I just sat there with nary a clue, picking at old frayed green felt amid fan belt pulleys and tune-up kits, hitting too often on ten-value upcards, holding on fives and nines, as Wild Card Annie’s mechanic husband ran up a heavy repair tap next door. I finally resorted to betting on the stiff to my immediate left, not that it yielded any more of a pay-off.
“Cleaned your clock, did they,” Syd soon met up with me midway between Grifter Gas’s gaming tables and the nearby public phones.
“Yeah, yeah,” I groaned, “gotta settle up next door…”
“Already did—all $142.50. Put it on my Gold Card.”
“Really wish you hadn’t done that,” I returned to the table, picking up my depleted chip pile, pushing away one last losing draw.
“Oh, like I’m supposed to wait here until a nit like you delivers?”
For her part, Sydney’s plan had apparently been to Mastercard into a marginally decent motel room, to crease sheets and defrost her extremities through this pit stop at the Willup Motor Court. But she eventually caught fire in another casino next door—at a stingy, double-zero sort of roulette wheel geared to draining tourist drive-bys and relieving Willup’s seniors of their COLAs and disability disbursements with bankable regularity. She broke house rhythm with a silk-and-ivory panache gleaned from San Remo, doubling up on the corners, hedging by the dozens and columns. After cashing out, she rode her blazing hand down here to Grifter’s to spring the car.
“I can’t believe you don’t carry any plastic,” she said, as we slipped between emphysemic Annie’s keno tables and a long rank of front-loaded slots.
“Credit cards? I don’t even have any credit—only overdue loans.” I negotiated floor displays of anti-freeze and multigrade oil, opening twin steel doors for her into the repair garage. “But hey, that doesn’t mean I…Moon and I won’t repay you right off. I’ve seen to it she already knows…I mean, I could probably fire off a money gram right this very minute.”
“You just talked to Moon,” she asked, some quarter slots behind her firing chain-reaction whistles and sirens, making a dowdy former saddle stitcher’s day.
“Uh, not exactly, but…” I was still wondering how even a snow brain like Regina could confuse names like Ken and…Randy.”
“My, busy little fingers, haven’t we…”
With that, she directed me out of Grifter’s fully gassed and lubed, back to The Busted Bronco: Willup’s largest family-style casino, billboards for which had been plastered like jumbo Burma Shave signs as far back as Silver Zone Pass. The Bronco shared a large corrugated steel shed with the business end of a Gamble’s catalog store and day-night IGA. Its coffee shop let to a roll-your-own art gallery of Doc Holliday, King Fisher, Mysterious Dave Mather and Calamity Jane—pretty as watercolor wanted posters—interhung with velvet cattle ropers from the Remington school. Trimmed in homebred horsehide and wagon wheels, the gallery opened forth to the teeming rawhide casino itself. Therein, Syd herded me over to table number two.
“All right, what’s your sign?”
“Green—twenty five, can’t you read? Press it…” Sydney said, nudging my elbow, shortly after we settled in with her fresh stack of chips. “You going to make your point, or not…”
“I’m trying, believe me, I’m trying…” One last shot for the road, she’d prodded, leading me from the coffee shop’s enormous stuffed white mustang to the heavier of Bronco’s action.
“Twenty on the hard four,” shouted a retired range rider over his Early Times.
“Back line,” Sydney shouted, adroitly slidehanding a major portion of her stack. “Double down…”
“Hands up, gentleman…lady…”
Players wedged in around the craps table like porkers at the trough—riding the grinders, laying last-second hop, whirl and horn bets as if I actually knew my point from a waiting number. The boxman knew better, so did table three’s dealer and stickman. The latter slid a fresh tray of cubes toward me with a pick-any-two sneer and nod. “OK, high-stakes, rip ‘em good…”
“Yes, roll with authority, speed,” Sydney said, thrumming her remaining chips. “This one gets us to Treasure Island.”
“Twenty-five bucks—totally insane,” I blew my cupped left hand unconvincingly before letting fly off the backboard.
“It’s my money you’re betting, flash,” she said, upon release. “And I happen to have faith in you.”
“Seven misses,” the stickman barked instantly, his dealer cropping my bet away, plus most of the table, with the exception of Syd’s and that of one snickering old wrangler around the bend—the sort who might start shotgun sniping from the rooftops if his luck ran any worse.
“Terrifique,” she smiled, hauling in a new load of chips.
“Terrific?! I just lost us twenty-five more,” I said, as the dice tray moved one shooter down amid a clockwise chorus of groans. “And how the hell did you…”
“By betting the backline, weren’t you paying attention?” She scooped up her two colorful stacks, motioning to the few whites I could still call my own. “Grab those, before they take them for another half-ass bet…”
“The don’t-pass line,” she aimed me toward the cashier. “I bet fifty you wouldn’t make your point.”
“You bet against me?!”
“Pass-miss, for-against—what’s the diff? We won, didn’t we? Enough gas money to get us to Golden Gate Park.”
“But how could you…”
“After seeing you at blackjack, it seemed like better odds,” she cashed out at the window, finishing off a rum-touched Pepsi into the gallery. “I learned that little trick in Europe. Could have played it any number of ways—free odds, big eights–Daddo says that I’ve a great head for numbers—for an artist, anyway. But of course my favorite action’s the come-don’t come…”
“Yeah, that’s just great.” I grabbed some house mints, then fumed through The Busted Bronco’s front doors. “You still pegged me for a loser.”
“So what, that cowboy geezer did, too” she waxed, pulling up along side. “Point is, you and I were a real team in there…”
“Be wary of a westward trip, lest you trip over stones far too hip.”
Remnants of an earlier ice age began filling the squareback’s forward windows as we pressed westward along I-80, the southernmost of over 2,000 square miles of perhaps the most brackish water on earth. The Great Salt Lake swelled in short order to within inches of the well-leveed roadbed, seasonably vaporizing fresh mountain stream water into a corrosive mineral brine that left its chalky basin ring for miles around. This was all that remained of prehistoric Lake Bonneville, a vast inland sea, which once extended as far as Nevada and Idaho, reduced through post-glacial isolation to some six trillion stagnant tons of sulphur-stinking ice watery salt. These days, it was Deseret’s Riviera.
“Tell you one thing, Moon’s the gutsiest woman I’ve ever known,” I said then, somewhat the personal epiphany—slipping this in, making it plain. “Kindest, too.”
“So put her up for a Medal of Honor, already,” Sydney replied, from the depths of her sleeping bag. “I realize full well Moon’s always been incredible, even with my brother.”
“What?! I hear she was a total wreck with Lester…to the bitter end. She was still an emotional basket case when I met her…”
The lake’s Monte Carlo languished on a distant eastshore salt lick, an abandoned, largely gutted pleasure Palace—once a Coney Island of the West—now teetering on the end of an undulant boardwalk that long ago led to far better times. Casualty of some zealous after-hours hellfire and damnation, it was currently beset by rotted, long-listing sailboats that couldn’t have sunk in this water had they been the Bismarck or Andrea Doria. One charred, battered funhouse, ghostly remnants of its roller coaster, and a gaping slat loose pier: Save for patches of roadside service, here was the end of western civilization as Utah construed it for the next hundred miles or more.
“Now, wait a minute. I’m the first to admit Lester’s a jerk-off…I mean, now that he’s beached with my folks in Florida, they’ll probably never get him to leave. He’s even more of a klutz than my ol’ beau, Bernard. But he didn’t do anything to Melissa, OK? I guess, in his own dumb way, he only did what he thought he had to do for himself at the time. Turned out to be the mistake of his life—maybe hers, too. But whatever misery Moon’s suffered since then, she’s heaped totally upon herself…”
“That’s not her story. She says she worked her tail off to help build Blintzberg’s. Many’s a night she’s cried how she did all the prep and ordering while he was out schmoozing the parties. Then suddenly, he didn’t have any time for her at all.”
“It’s called networking, flash…the only way anybody makes it in the cut-throat catering business.”
“You make it by making it with the customers?! Sometimes when Moon’s down and moody, she still refers to her nemesis as sweet little Janis with the hot cross buns…”
The windshield began clouding, side windows were already fogged over in the colliding heat and cold. Sydney wiped clean a crescent with her pink angora mitten; straining eyes right to catch specs of movement, any faint traces of wild buffalo and black-bellied plovers on the distant tip of Antelope, Salt Lake’s largest island. She settled for flocking geese, sandpipers and brine flies until I wiped all of that away with broad, mannerless sweeps of a Wylie-monogrammed purple towel.
“Point is, dearest Melissa knew all about Lester when she married him,” Syd bristled at the distraction, more at having to defend her brother. “Besides, he says she drove him to it, kept trying to change him—like that ever works. He says he wanted a marriage and Moon mostly wanted a partnership—probably could plug anybody into that. She was always worried about losing the business or her home; she ended up losing both.”
“Yeah, your brother saw to that when he walked her through the divorce. But selling their business out from under here, and putting the proceeds right down on 20 acres near the Smokies…to this day, she hasn’t gotten over that one.”
“Think he has? Janis deserted him after two months on the farm.”
Outward of Magna, the lake paled to a white on gray on tripe monochrome that defied all dimension and time. Breaking cloud cover was to sandbars as snow banks were to shrimp-pelleted beaches and salt marshes in this rising sun-blanched continuum, which spread far beyond a spinal midlake causeway toward the surrounding Promontory and Hogup Mountains. For Syd’s part, the windows now could have iced up all around. “Anyway, I’ve told poor Moon myself she was nuts to let Lester off so easy. I’d have nailed his skinny little keister to the barn.”
“You know she doesn’t have it in her to do anything like that,” I resented having to rehash her brother, at all. “Lester knew it, too. No wonder she ended up with zilch when he cashed it in…talk about irresponsible.”
“Oy, what about Moon’s responsibility…to herself?! At some point, a person has to look after numero uno in this world. Daddo’s taught us that since we were little kids. Anyway, how do you think they got launched in the first place? My parents did everything they possibly could to help make that marriage work. And they’ve got the cancelled checks to prove it.”
“I wouldn’t know. She just said it was Lester’s money.”
“Lester’s money,” Sydney scoffed. “They’ve always adored her, like another me—if not more. The whole thing tears them up to this day. And it does Moon, too. I don’t care what she tells you. Given all that’s happened over the years, we’re still the only real family she’s ever had.”
“Yeah, well, it makes me no never mind. I just know when my marriage bombed, the last people I wanted to see were her folks.”
Steam rose from the dead, shallow water like window voile, swirling with drifted snow to further peroxide the low background hills. Claw tracks along Salt Lake’s thin shoreline mudflats seemed magnified in their unchallenged isolation, as if this were one last province where the Pleistocene reigned.
“But that’s pretty sure not to happen in this case,” I continued, overshooting a rusted fastback Marlin. “Moon thinks you and your parents are the greatest, too.”
“Uh-huh, but her man always comes first. Like with this trip—I know she wants it to be for your sake as much as mine—maybe open you some new doors. Is that your thinking?”
“My thinking? Damned if I know,” I drifted. “Especially after the ol’ Sosh faculty squeeze play—and then talking to Lawson…”
A Triassic mood-set was soon dispelled by the sobering Lakeside Mountain range and dull roar from a Wyoming-bound ore train slicing Salt Lake along the Lucin-Ogden causeway. These dismal wind-worn hills sponged in the lake’s southwestern reaches, shadowing mixed shoals of terns, herons and cormorants growing fat on a diet of brine shrimp and grub flies—the only life worth living in waters bordering on double-digit sodium chloride.
“What about him?”
“He thinks I should be up building on a piece of land or something, instead of wasting my time doing…this…”
“Oh, like just subdivide off brain-dead onto some quarter acre to breed.”
“Huh? No, he just meant, you know, settle down…”
“In good old lilywhite Boulder…”
Beyond the otherwise dead interior sea, Utah’s greatness turned to dust. If nothing else, the steamy farina water masked the desert’s barren floor, hinting like a fan dancer that there at least might have been something more fruitful just below. The Lakeside Range demonstrated with the bluntness of a vice raid that this bleakness knew no bounds.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, no-thing,” she sighed. “Maybe you just need a little more cultural diversity, that’s all.”
“Hey, I’m as diverse and liberal as the next guy. I’m a sosh major, OK?”
“Yeesh, I can’t believe you’re still thinking like such a…student.”
Interstate 80’s unwavering westward lanes seemed to hit bottom just outside Low, a sandblown pit stop that looked out on this vast parsley sprigged chalk garden barely cloaked in a fresh skin of snow, which the salt was largely eating away upon contact. Rimming the flat, glossy sand was an acne-scarred ridge of mountains, rotting tyrannosaurus teeth, casting a Plutonic pellicle over a firing range landscape long frozen in natural neglect. More mesmerizing yet were the closer distractions, as in counting the telegraph poles and barbed wire fence stakes hugging the shoulders. Then came the deep, desperate skid marks, slicing and angling into bloody, feathered decay—picked over by crows big as dromedaries—my forehead soon dropping to within several oily hairs of the Volks’s steering wheel.
As we approached the Salt Flats themselves, Syd found me dozing off altogether, to where she couldn’t tell whether the squareback was balking again or my foot was slipping off the gas. “Hey, pull over,” she said, “this is something we’ve just got to do.”
She shed the sleeping bag like so much snakeskin, rolling out the car door before I could slide to a full halt along the breakdown lane. Head falling to horn ring, I glimpsed her bounding out onto the hoary Bonneville lakebed as if Aldrin or Armstrong on Apollo 11, her disco boots going anti-gravity as she beckoned me. “Come on,” she shouted, “you can’t see anything in there!”
The periwinkle sun now lit up this crusty sand like Zambonied stadium ice—steaming snow patches, shadowing craters, weed pods and wheel ruts into an abraded span of wasted terrain—which only riveted drive-by attention to the rocks. Abhorring nature’s vacuum, sensory starved interstate travelers had long taken to rearranging clumped rubble and sediment into a few choice words, creating a debris-mail message center that spoke volumes about the boredom logged on this long psychological toll road. I followed her, between conscious lapses, out the corner of my eye. Blond waves flouncing, red ski jacket flapping in the winter wind: She scurried from note to note, pilfering gitrock letters from ‘Busting Butt for Bakersfield’, heisting sandstone serifs from ‘Vicky Vagina from North Carolina’, barely denting the literal acres of stone drivel that defaced western Utah like graffiti in fresh cement.
“What’s to see,” I grabbed my sheepskin jacket, spun out the driver’s door into the teeth of an onrushing mail truck. Righting myself, I tread lightly onto the chalkboard, its half-frozen sand crunching like Styrofoam beneath my frigid hiking boots.
“Here, I want to have a word with you,” she beamed, side kicking surplus dolomite, directing me through dense scrawls of lewd limericks and senseless shorthand.
“Dyb,” I scraped sand out of my eyes. “What’s this?”
“It’s, like, Yiddish,” she took pride in authorship, quickly composing more letters of piecemeal breccia and adamant. “And you’ll want to follow along, flash. People say I’m damn near psychic about these things.”
“Really…well. I got my fill of that nonsense over Thanksgiving.”
“So I’ve heard,” she smirked, “I want to hear all about that…”
“Oh, it was nothing, totally absurd,” I spilled unexpectedly with little prior restraint, sidearm skimming excess verbiage. “Blew Boulder for the long weekend to clear my head, took 80 west all the way to Frisco, winding up on Broadway near those old beatnik places. Soon as I parked, this guy stuck a flyer for some nearby astrology center under my windshield wiper. It started raining like crazy, so I ducked upstairs.”
“You mean North Beach…” Syd scurried about for formative stones, slapping my hand as I cocked to throw away more.
“I guess. Anyway, the rest was too bizarre to go into…”
“Sure, Pattern on the Trestleboard.” She stooped to round off a descender on the word she was fashioning in stones. “A sociologist should know these things.”
“Yeah, gotcha,” I spelled and counted letters under my breath. “Anyway, right then a rocksalt voice thunders out from behind two Malaysian screens about this Richard guy’s straying from his lesson plan. I peek around the black screens, and there’s this shriveled old woman perched atop a winged wicker throne, with twisting prisms, crystals and rainbow arches overhead. Her unraveled wig kept creeping up her forehead as she frowned, exposing her own matted hair. She had these wire-rimmed bifocals dangling off her right ear, and her bright red lipstick smeared to the left. but when she started talking, I sat down on her lumpy ottoman and listened up…”
“That so,” Syd final kerned her word, which gradually took on the heavy dullness of lunar basalts as the sun ducked behind fleeting mélanges of blue-gray clouds. “Listened, to what?”
“Some happy horseshit about Saturn, this whole spiel about how it’s the second largest planet in the solar system, and that Galileo first discovered it has four icy rings, the two big outer ones split by a 2,200 mile gap called Cassini’s Division. She rattled on that Saturn makes one complete revolution around the sun every 29.458 years—that’s only three times in a person’s life. She said it also takes that long to pass through all the signs of the Zodiac. Which means it takes 29 years or so to return to exactly where it was the moment you were born. After a nasty coughing jag, she warned that Saturn Return can end up good or bad, depending on whether a person’s prepared to pass from childhood to adulthood—like in my case, whether I was ready to become a man at 29.”
“Well,” Sydney mocked, “are you?”
“Give me a break…anyway, I’m laughing that off when she grabs my knee and says I’d better pay heed, because my first bout with the ringed one was layin’ for me around the bend. That it happens to everybody, and most people don’t have a clue what hit them. And how some horrible things can happen when you get to 29, not to mention 58, or god forbid, 87—just follow the news. She carries on about how Saturn forces you to reflect and challenges all your assumptions. Then she has the gall to soak me $20. I go, what kind of scam is this?! The whole deal weirded me out, so I paid up and got my ass right the hell back on the road home.”
“There, that about does it,” Sydney kicked an errant comma across some free verse from Thoreau. “Check that out…”
“Dybbuk, what the hell’s de-book?”
“You could look it up sometime” she proofread carefully. “It’s a term I heard my bubbie say once, about Lester—comes to mind for some reason when I think of you.”
“Uh, right. Now, what say we just go…” Cloud cover thickened, the chilling westerlies picked up and eraser dusted the Flats. “This stoneyard is giving me eyestrain.”
“OK—but I can’t believe you didn’t stop here before,” she shivered, walking me back toward the car, stepping gingerly between multi-color rock gardens of tired Lightfoot lyrics and biblical notations, into the second and third stanzas of ‘Ode To The End Of The Earth’.
“Drove through at night, that’s why…all blurred out on Mountain Dew.” I looked back at a sand devil swirling like a dark wooden top over her creation, until she tugged at my jacket to reclimb the shoulder toward the car. “Question is, how did you see it…don’t tell me you rode a Greyhound…”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, hair brushing the rose in her cheeks, gesturing for me to open her door. “Daddo drove…”
“Making for the open road, differing doors can creak open, manifesting a much heavier load.”
“Dope? You’re telling me your Mr. Rock Solid was dealing his way through law school?”
“Lawson was a tight end at UCLA with a blown-out knee, all right? His undergrad scholarship had gone up in smoke, and he wasn’t going back to Nebraska for anything. So now he’s up in Center Creek, busting cokeheads all over Lassiter County…and he’s still a good friend. Damn, I’ve gotta free up these pedals…”
“Tight end, my tush—great, just a big dumb football player. Some friends you’ve got…and what exactly are you doing down there?”
The wages of disinformation had begun consuming us over blueberry buckwheats and red-pepper poached eggs in some fringe anti-Christian café. Small talk bounded from covert phone calls to my selectively recalled saga over the Divide. Sydney answered this positive spin of mine with a breakfast polemic that continued on out Salt Lake City’s T-square predictable side streets, well beyond its flat, tree-patchy, snow melting environs to where drive-thru liquor marts met the fairgrounds and quick-sale motels. Little else of consequence was said back onto Interstate 80, where incoming tri-jetliners strafed over on approach to Salt Lake International’s 35-North, drawing Syd’s dissonant sighs and muttered cravings for airline food. Thereabouts she pulled the sleeping bag back around her ski sweater, scrunching up, bracing her knees against the dashboard for a long drive west with the conviction that whatever I was up to was not likely to generate any more heat.
“Yeah, well, Moon for one happens to think Lawson Bennaker is aces, too.” I yanked back and forth on the compact’s pedal cluster, one eye on the highway, as we neared an industrial park construction site beyond the airport. Right when it appeared, and I had freed my brake pedal, the accelerator sunk to the floor. “Damn, now it’s stuck.”
“Hmph, I’ll just bet that’s what Moon thinks…look out!!!”
One of the site’s gravel haulers had gathered a head of steam up some makeshift access road for its ramp run onto the interstate, spitting snow, hitting the shoulder at roughly the same time my squareback stampeded that way. The grossly mismatched vehicles converged on I-80’s breakdown lane like cornet and Sousaphone players at a Rosebowl halftime show. I swerved sharply, sidling up parallel to the blaring dump truck for an instant, then bounding desperately toward the median strip, a gaper’s clot of startled traffic braking several car lengths behind. The trucker peeled off nimbly rightward, powershifting down 80 West with angry horns, leaving my stalling Volks to rollerskate onto an inner shoulder, along a slushy slick backwash of leaking landfill.
“You OK,” I heaved, clutching the steering wheel as my car ground to a halt and died, its load of Sydney’s baggage shifting, then resettling sharply back and forth.
“Magnifique,” Sydney wriggled upright in her seat like protozoa in a Petri dish, just far enough to straighten her hair and black leotards. “Now, I’ll thank you to get me to the airport.”
“Well, at least my throttle cable’s loosening up,” I goosed the gas pedal while avoiding the passing stares of surging traffic. “Say what?!”
“I said I want you to drop me back at the airport.” She twisted the rearview mirror toward the passenger seat, licking traces of cherry red lipstick off her fine front teeth. “You don’t think I’m going another mile in this deathtrap, do you?”
“Sure, fine,” I cranked the wagon, glancing over my shoulder, buckwheat heartburn setting in. “That’s the way you want it, you wrestle all your crap into the terminal. Far as I’m concerned, I can’t wait to phone Moon and get back to Boulder…”
“Moon—yes…phone…Moon,” Syd paused. She followed my glance aft wagon to her scattered luggage as the last standing suitcase toppled in the sidedraft of a passing Greyhound. Then she poked my shoulder, suddenly bursting into a smile. “Got-cha! I was just jo-king…”
“I don’t see what’s so damn funny.” I fuel injected the engine, pressure tested the brakes.
“All that academia’s zapped your sense of humor or what?” She twisted the mirror toward me once again, tapping my knee, then slithered back down into the sleep bag. “C’mon, let’s quite spinning our wheels here and get rolling again…”
“What say we stick with airport plan…” Suddenly I hated this. And I wasn’t much into her act either. That I knew—intuitively, intellectually—her thermal reactor temperament and gyroscopic ways; it roiled up like grease-fried sausage. I even hated myself for being here with her, then hated myself more for baggin’ on her so fast—damn, where was this all headed? Wasatch snow peaks and Temple Square shadowed my side mirrors as I accelerated onto I-80, to the heavy horn of an onrushing Monte Carlo. I did want to call Melissa and ask her straight out how she could get me into this. Better yet, how did sister superior here wheedle Moon into getting me into this?
I picked that sore all the way out past the low-lying Stansbury Mountains, backdrop to the dingy quarries and salt plants west of Salt Lake City, a thicket of tall, pencil-thin smokestacks coughing anthracite gray billows into an already hazy sky. Red pepper, blueberry syrup: the whole thing left a dry, brackish taste in my mouth. Still, I pressed ahead in silence on Melissa’s behalf, fidgeting with the squareback’s balky gas linkage, stealing an occasional glance at this bindle of headaches rustling beside me, drawing up into the fetal mode. So help me, I came this very close to reaching over and full-speed shoving her out the door.
“Why don’t you just kick it into cruise control,” her voice muffled through alternating layers of rayon and ruffled feathers. “It’s a straight shot from here to Nevada…thing seems to have a mind of its own, anyway…a whole lot more than a heater.”
“Cruise control? Don’t press your…” I bit hard and retreated into the rearview mirrors. “Think it’ll be OK now…”
“Better be. You have my precious life in your hands,” she re-braced her knees against the glove box. “Broadsiding through the Rockies was bad enough, but that last little move was too much, even for me…”
“You knew about the spinout up by Steamboat? But you were snoring worse than my father does about then.”
“I can snore with my eyes open,” she said, snaking her hands up out of the Frostline bag toward her brow. “Can even turn my eyelids inside out and bend my fingers over the tops of my knuckles. I can do all sorts of twisted things…” Whatever else, she acted as though she knew this terrain like the back of her hand. Dead flat, runway straight: just jam a broom handle through the steering column and brick down the gas. Strange part was she knew Melissa knew the basic terrain, as well—throw friends together, stir in the stock. Yet school had let out, and here we all were. Curiouser and curiouser: As Brigham Young’s Deseret dissolved in her door mirror, this seemed to placate yet perturb her no end.
Faced with her pink underlids and bloodshot sclera, I hastily averted toward the sooty salt piles, the snowy, butchered hills that tapered down by steam shoveled gradients into the broad abject emptiness of Great Salt Lake Basin. Syd responded by drawing up the strings of her sleeping bag. With each mile marker, sniffs of acknowledgement met with nodding resignation. Things she didn’t want to talk about sideswiped things I didn’t want to hear, but something had to give, so I plowed through the impasse. “Hey, I’ve seen worse.”
“That some sort of compliment?”
“No, I mean spinouts, close calls…like, with Moon. When we first caravanned out to Boulder from Chicago, I was leading us along I-70 in this heap; she was pulling a U-Haul with her Toyota. Halfway through Kansas, we hit this hellaceous ice storm—about four inches thick, glowing in the road lights. But Moon was going along great, flashing me with her brights…”
“What, no his-and-her CB radios,” she resurfaced, from the crew neck up.
“Right, roger that,” I snipped, resisting her resistance, then signaled to pass a laboring potash hauler with the care and deliberation due this half-thawed stretch of interstate. “Anyway, we were crawling along, cross winds pushing us lane to lane. Before I know it, some semis are roaring by, hemming us in. Soon as the last one blows past, I check my mirrors, and she’s jackknifing in the backdraft. All of a sudden, her left rear snow tire shoots off…whole wheel bounced across the median strip in front of an oncoming motor home. I was sure the trailer was going to flip, but she steered the whole rig under control somehow, then skated off to the side. I pulled over, chased the wheel while she dug out her tools and jacked up the Toyota—fully loaded, yet. It was incredible, she did the whole damn pit stop herself…she can be amazing that way…”
“I know better. Melissa is more like a little nestling in this world, a precious hummingbird who needs protection above all,” she replied, surveying the littoral landscape up ahead. “That what you want to be, Kenneth—her full-time father protector?”
“Naw, that’s not the Moon I know.”
“Hmph, call that great?”
“That…lake,” she idly pointed through the wing vent, burying her nose. “When next I open my eyes, make this be Tahoe…”
“Crossing a higher rubicon may bring saints in creeps’ clothing…”
“Listen, guys do things with guys. Women do things with women…know what I’m sayin’?”
“S-sure, I think so…but what’s your point?”
“That women might do things with the guys sometimes. But I’m telling you, guys just don’t do things with women. And what about Moon, how is she…”
“I’m doing this for Moon. A direct personal favor. She owes me big-time this time, Lawson, I’ll tell you that.”
Back then, Boulder’s bank thermometers had dropped steadily, a three-point barometric swing greasing the atmospheric slide. The midnight blizzard eventually muscled its way over the Front Range like a high hurdler chasing endorsements—erasing roads, cramming down fissures and canyons, drubbing solar collectors, ripping entire rooftops off houses far into the valley before delivering the vast unspent bulk of its arctic throw weight upon the Kansas and Nebraska plains. Boulder calcified in the space of a 3 a.m. toss and turn. Stapleton Airport closed quicker yet, prompting Sydney to phone coldly from Lorraine’s: ‘’Morning, shmorning…what are we going to do about this?!’’, as if my groggy cognitive powers extended any farther than the cabin’s snow-caulked window panes.
Wouldn’t fly in such weather if Her Life depended on it, she concluded. But apparently it did—and she had to get back—simple as that. We haggled knee-deep over the details, from Chautauqua Park to the priceless split-level aeries she kept appraising upon climbing Flagstaff hill. Melissa finally had to break the deadlock via patched together conference call, marooned as she was at the Coach Light Inn, out there on the Longmont Diagonal, with mountain skies brooding anew.
‘’Greyhound?! It’s Sydney,’’ Moon insisted, as if sipping cocoa, shmearing bagels at The Sink, or munching carrot sticks in the Cabin there with us. ‘’She’s family, remember? So pack up her stuff in your car—and leave poor Seamus be in his doghouse. You’ve got nothing better to do around here right now, anyway. Make nice and behave yourself, Kenny—maybe some more road time will do you some good. And call me the minute you get to San Francisco.’’ Therein she left things flowing, but not before godspeeding Sydney with a qualified verbal wink and nod.
“Awww, why didn’t you stay put and get to real work, for shitsake—scrape something together around here like everybody else. Think about it, Herbert. A guy has to build his nest first, and then the birds’ll always come flocking. I know. I’ve been out there.
“What, birds? I’m giving her a lift…just a few days, max,” I said. “Fact is, I don’t want to be doing this at all, Lawson. But it’s way beyond that, believe me.” The hour-plus it took me to load Sydney’s cargo had paid off in greatly enhanced traction down the road: none too insignificant a factor, given the refreezing turnpike plow path into Denver. She yawned near Larimer Square that she had pulled a telephonic all-nighter with Faith across the time zones—and that if any city could put her to sleep, this be it. She then wrapped herself in my downfill sleeping bag, leaving a wake-up call for anywhere west of the Bay Bridge toll plaza.
At first I was beside myself—humming, revving, prodding her with AM oldies, honking fraternally to the snow-laden big rigs hauling slabbed beef to Denver packing houses. Still, Sydney’s deep sleep had proved more remedial by the mile, snuffing any static when Interstate 70 headwinds blew us all but back to Rocky Flats, or when my slushy misread of the Route 40 turn-off led to the Stanley Slide Path at 11,000 feet and gusty avalanche whiteout of Berthoud Pass.
She snored brazenly away as I pressed into blinding storm columns stacked up along the Continental Divide, then broadslid around a backcountry switchback between Tabernash and Steamboat Springs. Long ultradian down rhythms even laid her out through my free skid in Wasatch side winds below Parley’s Summit, rear view mirrors filled with the airhorn glare of a gaining Freightliner. If only her REM waves could have carried us beyond the Wally Basom Memorial Rest Area.
“I dunno, Herbert…don’t hear from your for aeons. Then you call me collect like this, from Plygville, yet.”
“Uh, sorry about the damn Tabernacle music…really, Lawson, been meaning to touch base. Anyway, we’re not talking major bankroll, just a little friendly back up. See, I blew this pressure sensor coming through Emigration Gap. Now I’m down to basic gas money, and Moon’s tapped out ‘til mid-month. Something else goes, I’ll be planting a mailbox in front of the thing.
The rest area had claimed to overlook Salt Lake basin. But with the zero pre-dawn cloud ceiling, I could scarcely tell. I’d sputtered into Basom Memorial heavy of lids—eyes swelling, ears popping, feet freezing as I parked and collapsed over the steering wheel. Just then, Sydney unzipped the sleeping bag to periscope steaming cars, fuming semi’s, the icy ten-foot stalactites dripping from visitor center rooflines, no suspension bridge in sight. With that, she laid claim to the driver’s seat, but the choking Volks wouldn’t restart for anything, not even Her.
Kicking free of the patched green sleeping bag, she had lit out for aid, first pounding on the van next door. A bearish HVAC contractor in an Oakland Raiders cap and jacket offered to push start the wagon, if only I’d come to. Sydney saw to that with a vengeance, then vamped her way into the escort van—jouncing, clapping to stereo country all warm and cushy as the truck passed my lurching squareback down a steep, winding grade to Salt Lake City. She was clearly pleased with her little hustle, until the Raider fanatic motioned me with linebacker eyes to follow his snowy wake spray toward a downtown repair garage, then looked to prove handier than she had bargained for by possibly running a clammy end-around into her leotards.
“So what about that artist you’re carting around?”
“Gold-plated pain in the ass. Still, I can’t ask her to pay. Guy can’t do a thing like that, right?”
“Yeah, you’re regular aces, Herbert. But Utah, the San Francisco Gay Area with some feminist fatale—damn, where’s it all headed?”
“C’mon, can I count on you? A little friendly backup, just in case. I mean, don’t leave me beholden to this one…”
Sydney had bolted from the dented, duct-taped van as soon as we reached a foreign repair shop off State Street, screaming something awful about karmic kickbacks and paybacks. I offered the Oakland-bound contractor an obligatory fiver, but she wouldn’t hear of it, refusing to discuss the matter until after a decent breakfast, if at all. Before she could rescue her new custom Vuarnet sunglasses, the Raider faithful had fishtailed away, snow splattering us several short blocks from Temple Square.
“Backup, Herbert…deep backup…”
“Positively last gasp, Lawson.” This ensuing phone call was pure spur-of-the-moment, a little personal AAA, long-distance reassurance that my disoriented flyer westward was cleared by ground control. Lawson Bennaker had been that since the early days in immigrant landing, orienting Moon and me to Boulder even as he himself grappled with moving away—specifically to an up-country deputy sheriff’s badge after four times failing the Colorado bar exam. “I swear, I’ll even send you a postcard.”
“Save us the quarter.” CLICK.
“Morning, sir, may we help you find your way,” smiled a matched set of peach fuzzy young Mormon cadets in shiny black suits, as I folded open the glass and aluminum door. Steadfastly beaming, the baggy duo pinned me half in, half out of the phone booth. They were but two of myriad walkie-talkie cadre patrolling the walled-in compound, skulking about sacred gardens, behind larger-than-life statues of founder Joseph Smith and the Latter-Day Saint who performed the real miracles: Brigham Young. “Did you know Lord Jesus is thy savior?”
The booth stood alone between a visitor center and the six-spired Temple itself. It was plainly targeted for ongoing surveillance by the post-missionary god squad as they assembled tour groups near Eagle Gate, or whisked naysayers and spiritual infidels off the South Temple grounds. I averted the cadets’s probing stares by tracing this incessant choir music to the Tabernacle’s 11,000-pipe organ and sanctified silver dome. “Please, sir, will you be joining our tour?”
“So, what’s this about,” Sydney sprang from the nearby visitor center, almost as quickly as from that van, her critical fascination with its aggrandizing Christian murals and dioramas having apparently crumbled under the cumulative weight of their biblical theme.
“Was, uh, calling a friend of mine,” I muttered, just bleary and unshaven enough to fear banishment out of hand. “Then these two…”
“What…friend,” she parted the cadets with a wave of some color brochures and reprints from ‘The Book’ and ‘Doctrine and Covenants’. “Honestly, only in a place like Utah. I’ve seen all I want to see. Now I know why I never stopped in before. Can’t even get a decent soda around here without getting a local sponsor and signing your life away. ”
“Ah, excuse us,” I said, with audible relief, following Syd along scrubbed, snow-cleared walkways out the medieval Eagle Gate, the cadets devoutly sniffing our trail. “Anyhow, Lord Jesus didn’t much save Gary Gillmore from a Utah firing squad last year, now did he?”
“I’m so used to being where people look so young,” she said over her shoulder, morning fresh from ablutions in the center’s convenience, fully reassembled and realigned. “Here, even the teenyboppers look like cretins. Must be the sacred underwear, and those loopy drop-rim eyeglasses that they wear.”
“Awww, they’re all just a bunch of sour Scots,” I said, as we left Temple Square altogether, not least its pious, gray-blazered Orrins buzzing around, hatching their persecuted little plots. Two elder guides delivered us over toward the Church’s soaring steel-and-concrete monuments to Mormon abstinence and enterprise. Deacons and disciples alike had been passing the golden plates ever since Brigham Young’s tormented converts first lugged their handcarts over the mountains, to where most of downtown was now under title, with plenty more highrises and shopping malls in the divining stage. The guides eagerly ushered us out of Mormon Central—grinning, blessing, still hauling the hod—the more weary among them cursing under already liquored breath. “And I know all about sour Scots…the single malt, gaudy tartans and sour, lumpy haggis.”
“This whole scene is so pretentious, and with the proselytizing—not even the true biblical faith, don’t you think?”
“Me? I couldn’t (even) say. Religion doesn’t do much for me nowadays,” I dodged.
“You mean you’re a faith heel agnostic, or what…”
“No, just a little suspension of misbelief,” I said, peering over to massive library-like building across Temple Square from the cathedrals. “Though I hear they’re finally admitting blacks this year. And they’re supposed to be good with the whole genealogy thing.”
“Hmph can’t see the forest for the family trees, plus they have this nasty habit of proxy baptizing Holocaust victims. But catch this…” Sydney began reading from a reprint as we headed for the Church-owned State Street Garage. “’Men are that they might have joy.’ You know what that means: women, plenty of them. This Smith guy said God himself told him to do harems…and it still goes on around here and Colorado City to this day with all these plain ugly jack Mormons. No wonder they call themselves, ‘More, man’. The whole Utah scene’s so incredibly racist and sexist.”
“Damn, my car better be ready…”
“Intriguing concept, though,” She tossed the handouts into a Tabernacle Choir-sponsored trash can. “People over a hundred years ago building this whole religion thing around that.”
(Know more/know less. Ditto to the preceding chapter. Again, read now or need later.) ____________________
“Saturn comes a callin’, bearing take and give, its re-entry aiming to hit you where you live.”
“What was that you were saying, Moon?”
“I said, he’s been such a yo-yo lately. It’s getting so it’s about all I can do to keep him in the middle of his ups and downs. Sometimes, I think his grad school gig is the only thing that keeps him from coming unglued. And it’s only gotten worse since his birthday…”
“Really,” Sydney asked, back at Melissa’s kitchen table, leafing through ‘The Joy of Cooking’, pulled randomly from that overhead bookshelf. “So, how old is he?”
“Just turned 29,” Moon answered, over the steam kettle whistle for some milder Celestial tea. “Around that time, he was getting so hyper, said he just wanted to hit the road, drive until his head cleared. It was Thanksgiving break, and I remembered what you wrote me last year about that astrologer who did your charts. So I told him, go to San Francisco or someplace, and see a psychic about it, or something—couldn’t hurt…all I knew was he was about to drive me up the wall around here.”
“Ah, Saturn Return—the Big 2-9. Crossroads time—that, I’ve heard plenty about, ’cause you know, we’re not that far away from it ourselves,” Syd glanced up to a small framed color photograph of a close-cropped familiar face in civvies, leaning against the famed Abbey Road stone wall. “Anyway, good thing I was out of town. So did he go do it?”
“Wouldn’t say, even if he did,” Melissa poured two fresh cups of Mellow Mint, then spun back to her chipped tile counter tops as though they were prep tables at the Hotel Boulderado. “The sad part is, I had figured our relationship was secure enough for the New Year’s thing. I figured he figured it, too.”
“Not to mention Celeste and Jimbo…”
“Don’t remind me. I mean, we were all adults, and everything. I thought Kenny and I were of like mind that trust and sharing are the most important ingredients in keeping two people together, growing stronger…as long as the relationship is built on love.” Moon momentarily diverted to putter with the kitchen branch of her domesticated jungle. “Really, I’ve prided myself on that with him—particularly after the fiasco with Lester.”
“Oy, Lester,” Sydney sifted through some post-holiday bakery from an old Coke tray Moon had already set out in the center of the round kitchen table “He joined us in Florida, you know…coming down from the farm to grace us with his presence. Now there’s a real basket case for you. I’m almost ashamed to admit the shlub’s my brother…but he is my brother, no matter what, so…”
“Well, he’s not for me anymore…” Moon busily pruned a thicket of onion bulbs, avocado starters and hothouse tomatoes, rooted in a rusting kitschy collection of rusting cocoa and coffee tins. “Much as I miss you and your parents, I’m not at all interested in double jeopardy, especially with Lester Mendel…”
“I told him I might see you, Moon. He asked me to wish you well, and tell you that he still cares very much. Says he might even try to call you sometime, yadda, yadda, yadda…”
“Wouldn’t want to hear it if he did,” Melissa said sharply, now making for the refrigerator on kitchen cruise control, wiping her hands on her blue daffodil-print peasant dress. She opened the brown enameled icebox, her crocheted sleigh and Kringle decorations slipsliding on their door magnets with the sudden centrifugal force.
“I suppose,” Sydney sighed, plucking away at some messy fruitcake with her hot pink nails. “I just still can’t see what really happened to you two—how the hell he let you get away. For that matter, neither can Faith—it eats her up inside, like a major loss in the family.” She dwelled for a spell on the cluttered fertility of the kitchen—inventive yet organically practical— much like her mother’s at home (so Moon always told me, anyway), domestic skillsets Faith would never let her ever-so-gifted daughter deign to pursue.
“That’s because you never saw the shout-a-thons,” Melissa pulled out a scuffed Tupperware container and Saran-wrapped plate of chopped vegetables. “Much as I miss you and your folks, I’d never want to go through that again.”
“You’re still family, Moon,” Sydney insisted, downing a thin sliver of prune Danish, then rising to rinse out her tea mug in the web-cracked porcelain sink. “Remember what Faith always says, ‘water seeks its own level…’”
“I know, I know…‘and people should be so wise.’” Moon arranged a platter of pre-chopped broccoli and carrot sticks into neat concentric circles, topped with some overripe cherry tomatoes.
“Trouble is, who knows who’s on the level anymore.” Syd then moved on the refrigerator herself, reaching in for a glass of apple juice, sizing up some Pearl Lager and a cluster of tin foiled remains.
“I just know I’ve got a nice thing going right here.” Moon dipped back into the fridge, pulling out the tin foiled wads. She peeled back their silver wrappings, revealing various trimmed swads and slices of broiled prime rib, New York cut and filet mignon. All were courtesy of the Coach Light Inn; she smuggled them home nightly, like a mother redbreast feeding her nest. “No matter what I say, more often than not, he can be so sweet and grounded. It’s something you can get real hooked on…”
“Hmph, sounds pretty saccharine to me.”
“But it’s not just me. Kenny’s had his fill of relationship combustion, too.” Everything else on Melissa’s daily menu she either stewed, baked, or cultivated herself—not to mention her pantry stash of canned preserves. Truth be told, she’d been covering rent, holding this household together by wits and grit longer than she dared recall. “He even still got into it with his ex, Cassie, when she called him Christmas Eve.”
“His ex still calls him,” Sydney sipped her unfiltered juice, glancing out the rear kitchen window toward the northbound lay of foothills—tapering winter-worn serrations stretching to greet a mounded cumulonimbus cloud formation brooding down by way of the Arapahoe timberline. “And you put up with that?”
“It’s not my place not to. At least he and I understand each other about these things. He’d feel the same about anybody in my past. Besides, she’s no threat, believe me. In fact, I answered the phone, and she’s sort of real uptight and needy, sounded like a kid crying in the background. Then Kenny got on the phone and ripped right into her—yelling to never call him again, hanging up—washed his hands of her, just like that, didn’t want to hear a word she said. Took me a whole plate of raspberry Madeleines to settle him down.” Having diced the steak cuts and dished out a finger bowl of soy tahini, Melissa beckoned Sydney back into the front room.
“Incredible…he’s damn lucky you’re such a great cook…” It was all Syd could do to slam shut the refrigerator door, and follow Moon and her fresh platter into the parlor.
“But I’m just as lucky,” she gently set her snack plate onto the shaky legged coffee table between the fireplace and sofa, flashing the blue stone and polished pewter setting on her left ring finger. “All along, he’s been doing the same thing for me. Look, he even gave me this star sapphire beauty. Sometimes he seems to good to be true.”
“Yeah, well—I’ll have to take your word on that,” Sydney said tartly, again floored, befuddled by that Christmas tree, but then looking beyond it out the cabin’s lee side window case, to the Setter out there barking in the yard. “But what is with your dog?”
“Oh, he’s always cranky the day after a bath. Actually, Seamus is more Kenny’s than mine. I’m still basically a cat person…me and Pags.” She shooed her big, fat tabby off the sofa. “I like to rag Kenny than an Irish Setter is a subconscious manifestation of the flaming Celtic beauty he lusts for in his heart of hearts…”
“That what he is, Irish? Sydney plopping lotus-like on the sofa, marveling at the platter before her, dipping a carrot stick into the tahini. “Catholic, too, I suppose…”
“Only part way–I think his father’s, like, Scotch…” Melissa instead leaned over to the fireplace, rolling up some yellowing sections of the Daily Camera newspaper, cramming them around and under the smoldering fireplace log.
“As in boozer hound, huh?”
“Tsk, his dad has had a little problem in the past, but…”
“Well, I guess that explains the whole Christmas shmear, anyway. “Moon, Moon, I don’t mean to intervene, but when did you get off on this tangent, exactly—nice little Chicago Jewish girl like yourself?”
“Truth is, I’ve had enough nice Jewish boys to last me a lifetime,” Melissa said, while no doubt trying to sort through some alien stirrings she felt at the bar mitzvah readings, not being a religious person, not in the least. “Besides, I’ve got a lot invested in Kenny now…and it’s getting a little late in the game to be nit-picking around. I’ve got to make this one work…”
“Sure, but maybe you’ve invested too much…just like with Lester.”
“It’s not like that, at all.” She eased over to re-stoke the fireplace, then ignited two frankincented mantle candles. “Kenny doesn’t try to control me like your brother did. If anything, he gives me too much leash…”
“Do tell,” Syd leered, nimbly loosening the top buttons of her sweater. “Now that, I want to hear about…god almighty, what is banging out there?”
“His tail…cute, huh?” Melissa described an 18-inch black plastic length of plumbing pipe wagging where Seamus’s tail should have been. It was a cast—more a splint—drilled full of holes like a machine gun muzzle, shielding the tail from everything a frenetic Irish Setter might whack it against, but mostly to prevent him from chomping it off. Thin strips of mercurochromed cloth suspended the tail inside this tube like the hub of a bicycle wheel, though Seamus made a habit of contrarily biting them away.
“The vet had to shave his feathering when he set the tail,” she added, turning her attention to a giraffe-necked sprinkler on the corner windowsill. “It’s broken in two places: cracked coccygeal vertebrae and crushed hemal arches, something like that. The pooch nearly lost 20 inches of the most beautiful flowing tail I’ve ever seen. By the time we got to Blaine Clinic, it was drooping like a funeral hanky—gangrene had nearly set in…”
“How bizarre, a dog with his own tailpipe…too bad it doesn’t come with a muffler.” Sydney turned away to peer out the cabin’s front windows, taking in the foothills, caught swivel headed once again by the Flatirons’s white granite slabs, jutting out like pitched anvils from the leading edge of the range. “Moon, dogs just don’t break their tails—this much, I know…”
“It was an accident, a couple of weeks before Christmas,” she doted momentarily over a string of tender ivy cuttings in planters she’d crafted of pottery and macramé, hanging from ceiling hooks over bricked-up bookcases and a pair of re-stuffed chairs. “Kenny called me at work, totally hysterical. He said they had been wrestling around out front. He picked Seamus up and body slammed him…guess the dog came straight down on the tail—snappo.”
“Snappo? Great, now you’re telling me Mr. Sweet Understanding beats up his dog.”
This, coupled with another unavoidable reconsideration of Melissa’s Christmas tree—all-American fairytale, from the Bethlehem star topping down to the stable scene base, from the hand-made wreath and all those miniature angels to the blasted nativity figurines amid layers of tinseled, popcorn-strung flocking: Where was it all headed, for godsakes? She then focused on Moon, and could scarcely imagine what Faith would make of her beloved ‘daughter-in-arms’ now, much less later on.
“Tsk, it was just some harmless rough-housing. He’s not like that at all,” Melissa proceeded to follow her standard watering route, from filigree to rubber tree to wisteria and sunflowers. “If anything, maybe I’ve used too much tenderizer on him. Made everything a little too laid-back, for a little too long. He might have to get out there in the world pretty soon, but he seems so skittish…Kenny’s not much of a go-getter for his age, or planner aheader. I’m even a bit antsy about it myself—don’t know what he needs more, a doctorate or a good boot in the tuckus. But that’s our job isn’t it? Let them be men.”
“Here, use my platforms…do a little disco number on him.” Sydney smirked and pointed to her well-polished deer leather boots.
“You know what’s kinda funny,” Melissa set aside the sprinkler. She began chewing what passed for her nails, then tugged at the ash brown wavelets along her temple, revealing a not insubstantially hairy underarm. “The vet said he started the plastic pipe technique when a rancher called him out to treat one of his prized bulls. I really shouldn’t be talking like this, but the bull somehow managed to fracture his…you know, shvontz. So Seamus’s tail has become kind of a running joke around here because Kenny is not exactly chopped liver that way himself. I tell him, see what’ll happen if you don’t shape up?”
“Sooo, big in the boxers, is he? Not like my little pisher of a brother,” Sydney cackled, ruefully concluding that Melissa was even more resourceful now than when toting Lester’s load. “That’s what this is all about…you went and got yourself a John Holmes…”
“Tsk, honestly…” Moon blushed, tying back the fullness of her hair, which seemed to comprise at least half of her body weight, food fetish or no. “Actually, he’s into Jockeys, and pretty self-conscious about it. He once told me how Cassie was a 37DD and hated them because of the special-order bras and how they got in the way of everything. Said sometimes he knows exactly how she felt.”
“Well, that’s certainly not my personal problem, you can ask Faith,” Syd lamented. “So he’s hung and doesn’t strut it? What are you trying to say, dear Kenny’s going gay boy?”
“Don’t be silly! He just happens to have a scattershot kind of sex drive, with the studying, and all,” Melissa spouted, caught with a fistful of tahinied cauliflower by the ringing of the phone. “And, like, lately he sometimes doesn’t last all that long, you know?”
“Ah-hah, Flash Gordon, huh? Well, that’s even worse than a pisher,” Sydney stared off into some recent fleeting pleasure. Still, she kept returning to the far wall photos: mounted halftones and color aspects of Napoli’s arching Porta Capuana, the Kappelbrucke Bridge in Lucerne, pyramided wine casks in Bad Durkheim. “Mark one for the Aspen neurologist.”
“On the other hand, when he does, I’m sore for days,” Melissa smiled, rushing for the side room study. “But e-nough about me. I want to hear all about your jet-setter doctors and tycoons…or at least about Bernard. Be right back…”
“Pu-lease, don’t ask…it was just another romantic flame-out. My clock’s still running, same as yours.” Syd tracked her, numerous other color photos leading her gaze about the living room like landing lights, not least the time exposures of Martigues and Montmartre. At the same time, hill-bent sunlight now skewed in upon ‘Waif and Grain’ from just above Flagstaff Summit, igniting her signed portrait of Melissa, even more starkly headstrong, brown hair unfurling Godiva-like to her waist. At any rate, Sydney’s erstwhile wedding gift was now the fulcrum to an otherwise tidy, garage sale-variety décor. Guess that’s how she saw it, as damn well the painting should be. “And as for Bernard, that one has all the excitement of a rabbi-arranged marriage.”
“Unbelievable,” Melissa hissed, dropping the phone, waving her Xeroxed work schedule in frustration. “That was the restaurant. Regina, our other hostess? She called in with the downhill flu—three-day variety. I have to pull double shifts through the rest of the weekend…starting in half an hour. We’ll just have to finish catching up Monday, or so.”
“Moon, dear, I have to be getting back to San Francisco by then.” Syd slumped against study’s doorway, gearing for her final approach to the coast. Up to her lymph nodes in poinsettia white Christmas, she glanced over her left shoulder, and there was more: a hand-held color streaking of candlelight carolers in Trafalgar Square, a night time-exposure of the Heidelberg Castle. Nothing spectacular, nothing she hadn’t seen before. She probably just didn’t expect to see it here. “Where did you get all these photographs?”
“Oh, they’re Kenny’s,” Melissa said in passing, a magenta streak through the kitchen into the rear bedroom and back again, clock radio blaring, her mind likely racing to re-order her immediate priorities. “Took them when he was in the army over there, but he doesn’t do that much anymore…he pretty much leaves the creativity to me. Tsk, he will really wig himself out by tomorrow night if I’m not around here. Besides, I’ve been thinking about a little attitune-up party for him, hoped you could stay…”
“Sorry, dahling, California calls,” Sydney reassessed the varied continental shots, visibly comparing them to her portrait—no contest—ultimately returning to Trafalgar, sight straightening its regal blue-matted frame before floating her way aft cabin to the bathroom, pausing at the kitchen porch door for a read on the darkening skies. “Nature does, too.”
“That unctuous job—the last time Regina pulled this, she was stranded up at Winter Park for a week,” Melissa shivered, palm pressing her hostess uniform on the kitchen table. “You know the weatherman says a real monster is headed our way…”
“No lie,” Syd flushed, returning to the kitchen door, distracted by Seamus’s latest flare-up and the station wagon backfiring its way into the cabin’s unshovelled driveway. She smoothed out, rebuttoned her alpine sweater, before securing the flap clasp of her tooled leather purse. “I think I hear him now.”
“No, I mean a storm,” Melissa rushed to open the living room door, hangered green and brown uniform in hand, greeting the lone figure hulking across the front yard. “Kenny, Regina did it again. I’ve got to get over to the restaurant right away. Help us get Syd’s luggage out of my car, then maybe you can show her around town…”
“Aww, Moon, I’ve really got a lot to sift through here,” I lugged a boxful of texts and papers into the study, a manila envelope flying off the top.
“I understand totally,” Sydney picked up the letter marked G.I. bill, handing it to me once I dumped the box onto the side room floor. “I’ve got to get over to Lorraine’s, anyway.”
“He’ll run you over, anytime you’re ready,” Melissa donned her pea coat, kissing my chin. “Won’t you, Kenny…” Already she was being escorted off the porch by a cold, stiff wind now roller bearing down over the foothills.
“I guess,” I turned to Sydney, though not exactly seeing her eye to eye. “Uh, you’re flying out, right? Might want to call and reconfirm…”
“No need. I have this incredible travel agent in San Francisco. She cast my whole itinerary in stone. Reserved and pre-boarded all the way, on real airlines, not like that puddle jumper I got stuck on out of Aspen.”
“You know best, Ms Worldbeater, just flow with it.” Melissa blew here a kiss. “Kenny, her bags…”
“All I’m saying is Stapleton can freeze up in a heartbeat when the weather gets like this.” I crammed the VA envelope back into the file box.
“Not to worry, flash,” Sydney smiled, grabbing her ski jacket, motioning out toward Melissa’s car. “Like Moon says, let’s just flow with it.”
Know more/know less. (While what follows could be construed as hearsay, there is more to this account than that. For now, no point going into how what was said here can be recounted. Suffice to say it rings transcript true. Otherwise, much of the filled-in backdrop is easily surmised.So, Saturn these pages now, or you’ll surely Return to them later…)
“I’d heard about their Hollywood Hills spread, but this…”
“God, California, Telluride—I can’t even imagine. And to think Josh used to hustle around for spare weed…”
“Really, if I knew he’d be that kind of catch. I mean, he was such a zithead nebish in high school,” Sydney huffed, seated at the kitchen table, randomly clicking the snap buttons of her embroidered pink alpine sweater and hand-pressing her side pockets, then tugging at a snow-white turtleneck under that. “Anyway, it was just too close a call altogether. And I’m getting way too old for this drek.”
“Tsk, I saw on the news it was an inferno up there,” Melissa replied over her shoulder, stirring a ladle there by the stove. “Did everybody finally get out alive, or…”
“Who knows? Oh, this one little tootsie went totally manic, tried to push her way out a plate glass window. Caught a chunk up the length of her arm—just missed her ulnar artery, but she bled like it had sliced it right through…”
“Oy, don’t ask me. Luckily, Josh had invited some of his L.A. doctor pals—all these freaky orthodontists, uro-proctologists and maxillofacial reconstructionists—a stretch limo full of those. They all kept kibitzing, ‘check out the flexor digitorum, man.’ ‘Pack off her flexor Longus Pollicis,’ like that. You know me—I finally pulled this Westwood neurologist hunk aside to translate. Ulnar and radial arteries…instant death…that’s what he said, anyway—before hitting on me to ski out the week in his Aspen condo.”
Back then, (pardon my interruption) holiday excesses were evidently coming home to roost. With the le’chayims and mazel tovs behind them, and the shnecken almost gone, Sydney and Melissa played catch-up all the way back to our cabin. Syd’s autumnal pilgrimage to the Jeu de Palme and Firenze, her post-Hanukkah ennui on Florida’s Gulf Coast sand: She painted a landscape of worldly lassitude that drove her back westward out of sheer social deprivation.
“I even called Josh and his bimbo wife, Gret-chen to wish them happy holidays,” she explained. “He said, come up and join us New Year’s Eve for a little get-together. It was either that or shmoozing my parents’ vacation friends. How was I to know?”
Sydney allowed as how one of those stretch limos scooped her up at the local airstrip, then caravaned to upside Telluride, a buckskin hostess dispensing cordials and four-channel demo acetates from the console bar. Gravanek’s Rockies getaway turned out to be a 1,200 acre mountaintop ranch, the little gathering a conclave of the current Midwest-to-Malibu rock music axis and its professional retinue that place set into the hundreds. Seemed that in the short time Sydney had lost touch with her geeky old school irritant, Josh had parlayed his stable of heartland mush-rock tavern acts into major record deals and a refurbished seven-building compound with working stables, luxury bunkhouses, one serious open-beamed banquet lodge and two 24-track studio barns. He’d branded it Das Kapital, and his marquee horses all recorded there now, not to mention much of L.A.’s twangy cause celebrities and some British pop-chart heavies too bloated to mention.
She recalled ruefully how Josh had cast aside a Wharton MBA and his father’s Chicagoland paint store chain for a world of illicit music, illegal substances and nefarious associations; and how he’d double-barreled his father with the news, at his wedding reception, to that goyeh, yet. Still, here he was, cutting the checks, calling the tune: silver platters of rarebit and venison, Taittinger’s by the magnum opus to wash it down.
“But at midnight, it all blew up in his smug, bearded face,” she added. “An ammo dump or something—machine guns, the works—out behind the stables. Turns out Josh had a posse of paranoid roadies dealing coke on the side. Nothing he’d dirty his hands with, of course—he just scooped his off the top. Word went around they torched the thing over divies and back pay. All I know is the buildings went up one after another, while the Jilters—his bad-boy hair band, no less—kept playing their greatest hits with a stage full of swirling floods and pelting strobes, timed to overhead footage of their east coast tour.
“By this time, the lodge is total panic, tootsie’s silicone bleeding to death, mounting this grade-A tirade at the gutless producers and A&R types running right over her to get away. Before long, Josh jumped onstage, totally crushed—like when I dumped him at the Ravinia Festival—trying to calm everybody down, while his next act, the Contusions started in on some heavy metal. Nothing you could really dance to, of course…but I kept thinking how easily this could have all been mine. That’s when the neurologist piled me and my things into one of the escaping limos with some groupies—which proceeded to spin out in the snow and nearly get broadsided by a volunteer fire truck. I glanced back, and a third of Das Kapital was like ‘Gone With The Wind.’ Took me a whole week in Aspen refusing to ski to settle down. And there was no way I was going to follow him to Newport Beach,” she sputtered, gesticulating our of her deep sweater pockets, animated forearms collapsing like empty sleeves across the table. “So tell me, what did you guys do?”
“Whew, I guess not a whole heckuva lot,” Melissa slackened.
By comparison, what was there to tell? Christmas had been a takeback, at best—wrong colors altogether and a few too many sizes too small. Heretofore, Moon and I had both flown to Chicago for the holidays: I went home and did Xmas as best I could; she went home and…didn’t. But this time, we stayed in Boulder, final exams and all. Melissa quipped she knew there was trouble when the tree lights kept blowing cabin fuses. Thereafter, it was a yule of cool courtesy, an emotional impasse uneasily bridging this awkward spiritual gulf neither of us had ever quite experienced before.
Admittedly, I spent as much energy fashioning a black hole in our holiday wonderland as she did struggling to fill it. She strung her hand-spun stoneware decorations, slaved over her plum pudding and kidney pie; I locked away in the small study with my class notes. She’d call friends to spread holiday cheer; I’d call home, then sulk—determined to be at least as miserable as I knew I’d made my ailing mother by not coming in. Melissa hummed Christmas carols and breathed spontaneity into prearranged presents—determined to at last leap the breach between candles and crèche, which had apparently pained her every December, long as she could remember.
“Well, our Christmas was sort of interesting…a little too much turkey and tryptophan, maybe,” she said, once again tending to her stovetop.
“Christmas tree, decorations,” Sydney asked indignantly, pausing to take in the kitchen with a curiously smitten shake of the head, admiring the culinary arsenal on display. She then fixed again on her sorta sister, stirring honey into her freshly poured cup of Red Zinger tea. “What about Hanukkah—‘Dreidel, driedel, I made it out of clay’—and the Menorah lightings? Christmas…Moon, we’ve just got to talk.”
Clearly, this kitchen was Melissa’s true milieu. Tangled among the copious ivy undergrowth were wall racks of copperware, baking pans, cutlery, chopblocks and gourmet gadgets galore carried over from her Lester days. Cramped though it was, she’d made room for an ingratiating corner nook draped in cherry blossom wallpaper. Above the round oak table where she now busily unfoiled some of her cranberry-banana bread was a clear lacquered maple bookshelf lined with Spirulina, ‘Diet For A Small Planet’ and sundry whole grain and vegetarian tomes, leaving little doubt food groups loomed largest in the personal pie chart she labeled creativity.
Sydney lingered over the cluttered fertility of this sky-bright kitchen—so inventive yet organically practical—much like Faith’s at home. Her mother and a long motherless Melissa had viscerally connected that way from the start, as though they were devoted homemakers-in-arms, the one thing she repined she and Faith might never be. “Sooo, you were saying about Christmas?”
“It was nothing compared to New Years,” Melissa sighed. She fanned some viscid sliced bread into a neat semi-circle on the tea tray between them, then ushered Sydney into the living room. Once there, she set the tray down on a wobbly coffee table, then embraced her guest firmly, playing her back ribs like a cithara. “But let’s not…oh, hell, you know you’re the only person I could ever really share this stuff with. You and Faith will always be my saving grace. I miss that about you, Syd…”
“Awww, me, too. And we’ll always be there for you through this. You know that.” Slightly taller, firmer of form, Sydney sealed her sentiment with a caressing of her erstwhile in-law’s behind. “Love your ring, too…”
“Whew,” Melissa said, contacts set afloat in her welling, full moon eyes. She proceeded to light some newspaper beneath a half-gone Presto-log while Sydney soaked in the front windows’ sunny, smothering Flatirons tableau. “Oh, and I got it from Kenny for Christma…for the holidays…bluish-black star sapphire in a pewter setting—very special, one of a kind.”
“Especially for a one of a kind like you,” Sydney mused, eyes drifting to the corner fireplace, focusing on her painting, ‘Waif and Grain’. “Mounted above the mantle, yet. I’m so flattered I’m getting goosebumps. Either that, or I’m freezing to death…”
“That was, um, Kenny’s idea,” Melissa topped off their teacups, then seated herself on the tamil throw covered sofa, undercurling her print skirt-wrapped legs. She quickly began nibbling on some mismatched pastry scraps, heavy on the fudge. “He even said it deserved center stage. Here, sit down, this will warm us until the fire gets going.”
“He said that,” Sydney sight straightened the portrait’s frame, color critiqueing the natural illumination of her acrylics and oils. ‘Waif’ cried out for more muted lighting, she seemed to chafe, joining Moon on the sofa. As if at least her work had assumed its mantle of domination, as damn well it should. “So…you were saying about New Year’s…”
“Where to begin,” Melissa swallowed a bakalava morsel and tapped Syd’s knee. “When we first came to Boulder from Chicago, the only place we could find that would take pets were these boxy apartment complexes east of town—‘immigrant landing’. Jim and Celeste soon moved in next door with their cocoa Lab. Everybody became pretty good friends—even the animules. Then, about the time Jim finished a history doctorate, his grandfather died…he’d founded some big Boston shipping company, or something. So they put part of Jim’s inheritance toward an overgrown A-frame on a dog-leg mining claim up by Ward—just before I found this place. Celeste quit the law library and sailed all her Tupperware out the apartment windows. Been up there with their hippie slaves, redoing the place ever since.”
“Wait, you found this cabin all by your lonesome? Little go along, get along Moon?” Sydney cupped and blew the steam from a heavy, hand-spun tea mug, noticing some makeshift Tupperware planters on the windowsills.
“Rode by one day, on the way to my crafts studio, saw this packed-up U-Haul out front,” Melissa picked at some cranberry-banana. “The landlady moved to Idaho, is just happy to have tenants she can trust. I put down a deposit, right then and there…sometimes I picture us actually buying the place from her.”
“Finally taking charge, girl! Just like when I found my little San Francisco place…on the way to the gym, that is.”
“I suppose…any-hew, our first looksee at their new house was New Year’s Eve…I couldn’t wait. Naturally, it turned cold as blazes, must have been 70 m.p.h. crosswinds blowing snow all over the roads. But we finally got up there, going about three m.p.h., looking for an A-frame. Only now it was an M-frame. They’d added on this whole new space, with huge chalet windows looking upon the Peak-to-Peak Highway. Celeste and Jim greeted us in matching purple silk jumpsuits—monogrammed yet. Inside, their place is beautiful stained wood, with all these…tetragonal and scalene triangle windows and skylights, they said. Here, we’re in jeans and sweaters, toting potluck zucchini salad and legume-mushroom casserole, but they’re doing this elegant Scandian-style rack-of-lamb dinner—fancy wines, crystal, and everything. I felt like I should have been serving them, not sitting there watching the deer and snowshoe hares chase by.”
“Oy, stop with the selling yourself short, will you,” Sydney warmed up to the fire and flaky sweet pastry. And kiss the ground you weren’t watching scrawny adolescent rock groups wrapped in boa constrictors like I was…”
“Well, I wouldn’t be too sure. After dinner and some cognac, we all went into their new…cedar-lined salon, they call it…all kinds of abstract sculpture and custom-framed nature prints. Celeste fluffed a bunch of oversized floor pillows and afghans around the circular fireplace while Jim lit up this huge leaded glass ceiling mural they’d commissioned—like, recreating the sunset Gunnison meadow where he first proposed to her. Sooo, we got into that for awhile, and Celeste started in how preppy predictable Jim is, and how oddly predictable Kenny could be. She’s from Santa Barbara, and has always been able to ride Kenny pretty good, because she’s a bit taller than he is, plus a cross between Farrah Fawcett and Elke Sommer.
“A little wine here, little weed there, and before you know it, Jim pipes in his jazz collection. This is where it starts getting strange. Just before midnight, we all went down to see the sauna lounge. Soon as this Mel Davis music came on—Spain something—they got into a pagan dance ritual, slithering out of their satin—all of it. They’re contorting around in matching G-strings with the Wylie family crest and ermine trim. Then they beckon us with them into the sauna, on these long velvet-like cushions. Jim hugged me, and Celeste wheeled in a silver cart of champagne and trim white lines. Tsk, I like to have died,” Melissa cringed. “I mean, they were always such button-down homey types. But, well, the setting was so loosey-goosey, and I never thought Jim was that boring…scrawny, maybe…then Celeste moved on Kenny, looping a towel around his neck.”
“Miles Davis…Sketches of Spain will do that to you every time,” Sydney sighed, unbuttoning her sweater some, revealing more of the tight black leotards she had worn since Aspen, an après-ski variation that clashed so distinctively with her brown leather calf-high boots. She then lost herself for a moment in a side wall photograph of Baden-Baden’s Roman baths. “And all I got was juvenile, played-out rock ‘n’ roll, and some weird little package from Josh Gravanek to schlepp back to San Francisco as a special favor to an old friend…”
“Well, for an awkward moment, everybody sort of scoped everybody else out, like we were getting ready to jump out of a plane, or something. I looked over at Kenny, his eyes were down to his chin. Honestly, compared to me, Celeste is Suzanne Somers. So Jim is massaging my shoulders, and I decide to kick off my clogs. Celeste still has Kenny lassoed with her towel, dancing him around the sauna.
“But this time, she predicted wrong. Kenny exploded, pulled the towel away and threw it to the floor. Never seen him like that; it was all so mortifying! Then he grabbed me, knocked over the champagne cart, mumbling like a madman, something about sisters of mercy…I don’t know to this day. Jim and Celeste absolutely freaked! They scrambled into their purple robes…Jim sputtering on about the Bronco’s Orange Crush defense, trying to talk Kenny down. Instead, he dragged me out to the car, screaming about how perverted they were. I’m apologizing every step of the way—we were supposed to stay over, for godsakes. I’ll never forget them standing at the front door with their Lab, Spoofles, meekly waving their purple towels…still haven’t worked up the nerve to call…”
“So what was it? The coke…”
“Didn’t do any,” Melissa poured more Zinger from a chunky stoneware teapot with tiny glazed Cheshire cats bounding handle to spout. “He has a hard enough time with coffee. Oh, and the wind was really blasting on the way down. I finally snapped the tension by asking him point- blank what the big problem was, and where he got off manhandling the Wylies that way…”
“Manhandle the Wylies?! What about embarrassing you…” Sydney grabbed and shook her by the arm. “Still always exhaling more than you inhale, aren’t you…never a sliver of a thought for yourself!”
“Tsk, whatever…he raged on about how he wasn’t free enough for this, couldn’t compete with that. I told him that was his problem, not theirs—that the whole thing was just a little horsing around among good friends. And if he couldn’t handle it after all this time, he had a lot more growing up to do than I thought. About then, the snow was kicking up real good, and he slid off a switchback into a three-foot gully. Must have been four-thirty before a Blazer came by with running lights to winch us free…I could have sworn I spotted a bobcat and some brown bears closing in. Not a word of this to anybody, swear?! He’d positively brain me…”
“Moon—swear, already, but he’d have to go through me first,” Sydney’s eyes strayed to the side wall once more, to a long-lens compression of olive groves, against the ossifying lava trails of Mt. Etna. “What kind of putz are you tangled up with anyway? What was his problem?!”
“Putz—honestly. Anyhow, the next day, he was atoning like crazy, blaming it on finals burnout. I don’t totally buy that, but…”
“Men! Give them half a chance, they’ll ruin everything…”
“Saturn forces you to finally cut all this childish crap and man the boat.”
“When Thou sendest him away, Thou dost contend with him.”
“This is a blessing before he reads the Haftarah…”
“Blessed oh Lord, our God…Who has relieved us of responsibility for this boy.”
“Says right here in the program. See, the Haftarah follows the Torah…the Torah’s the Law in our world.”
As best I can recollect how this all went, Sydney Mendel had blown in from Telluride via Aspen well behind schedule, the trailing wind of an abrupt change in weather that had dusted the Rockies’ Front Range with two to four more inches of overnight powder, and snarled Stapleton Airport traffic for miles and hours. My charge—with Melissa’s backseat guidance—was to return the three of us to Boulder via U.S.36 before the morning slid away. Syd’s excess luggage strained baggage claim. Her mood ranged from stormy to frantic to rapt, depending upon stop-and-go progress toward her special visitational surprise: a distant cousin’s only son’s bar mitzvah, which the partially plowed turnpike delivered us unto with precious few minutes to spare. My last best hope had been to sit by with the Toyota’s motor running, these holy recitations drowned out by some old eight-track Buddy Miles. But there would be no such salvation, Sydney being Moon’s former sister-in-law, it being Melissa’s car.
“I’m still trying to figure out what’s that black thing all strapped around the kid’s head and arms,” I muttered, shifting bun to bun on the polished wooden bench. “Let alone looking around for the Stations of the Cross in here.”
“Tsk, crucifix?! What rock have you been living under, professor,” Sydney replied. “And that thing’s his prayer tefillin. Wearing it and reading from the Torah’s all part of how he officially becomes a man…”
“Hey, sorry…but it’s not like I’ve ever been in one of these places before. I mean it’s not exactly my area of expertise.”
Sydney’s special surprise had taken us to Boulder’s then southeastern fringe at the time, just a trifle downlimb on the local ecclesiastical tree, quantitatively speaking, from bead-crunching Catholics like me. El-Bethel was a small, white brick solid temple standing its relatively level ground amid a rolling mesa crop of protestant prim ranch houses and mid-rise college dorms, several blocks removed from turnpike’s end. Inside, El-Bethel exuded an air of solemn strength and implacable unity greatly beyond its physical dimension—a synagogue growing stronger and fuller, more resolute by the day, devoted to casting a much larger imprint on the community at large.
Pews, window coverings, walls and woodwork were uniformly beige, shades of a junior high school auditorium or so. Yet singularly radiant was the pulpit-crowning Ark—a broad, miter-arched, inlaid gold repository harboring the Law of Tefillin, its outer surface venerating God’s kinship and the Exodus from Egypt in colorful mosaic panels. Before the Ark and a tall brass menorah stood El-Bethel’s teddy bearish, sparsely bearded rabbi, and a pubescently fleshy youth who had just wrestled mightily with, and read from, the Torah scroll, one arm all but tied to his side.
“This is a happy day for me, the happiest day of my life,” Aaron Kavalla closed a hand-tooled Haftarah cover, smiling toward the community cantor just finishing ‘AvodatHakodesh’. Once Rabbi Hirshhorn had handed Aaron his kiddush cup, the bar mitzvah boy stepped bashfully beside the red velvet-draped bimah to unfold a yellow tablet sheet and spread it across a small podium.
“He’s a rat,” Sydney hissed. “That’s what he is.”
“I have now passed from the world of childhood to manhood. I can bear the holy burden of our religion,” Aaron read from scribbled notes, fussing with his leather tefillin straps and prayer boxes as his eyes repeatedly searched the synagogue, row by row.
“If the bastard had any decency, he’d be by his kid’s side…” She whispered her running commentary between Melissa’s and my shoulders, leaning in from one pew removed. “Martin Kavalla could be here giving the Father’s Blessing. But the creep never took responsibility for his son in the first place. That’s why he doesn’t have the balls to show up now.”
“What parents do for their children is more important than all things else,” young Aaron choked up, tugging at his Hershey brown suit and the white silk tallis shawl tasseled about his shoulders. He smiled toward his beaming mother—seated front row, center—then zeroed in on the motionless rear doors. “I think the most fitting reward and token of gratitude I can offer is to fulfill this commandment: To honor thy mother and…thy…father…”
“What makes it even worse is the putz won’t cut the cord and give Lorraine the divorce she’s been begging for since he ran out. So he’s, like, making an agunah out of her because it’s the same as if he won’t give her a get.”
“Gotcha,” I nodded and tsked toward Moon, as if I actually knew what this unfamiliar life force was talking about.
“It’s tragic, that’s what it is.” Sydney clearly was still grating over the bumper thumper that had backed us up near Broomfield. “Here Aaron’s struggling to become a man,” she said, as the congregation rose to bestow its collective Jewish blessing. “With such a miserable weakling excuse for a father figure.”
“Man? The kid’s what, thirteen,” I said out the corner of my mouth, sneaking my own peek at those temple doors, then an uneasily silent Melissa.
“Shhh, now he’s removing the tefillin…”Syd grabbed my shoulder sternly, as though she had known me long enough to know I should have known better.
I didn’t know from Moses. The entire morning had been a spiritual occlusion—a tie-knotting, tire-spinning race against the mortal plane that landed me three rows away from sacred ritual so foreign to what little I had retained of my Herbert family religion, I was still groping for missalettes and kneeling pads more than halfway through the Torah.
Sydney stifled me once more when the rabbi began extricating young Kavalla from his prayer tefillin. I sat coldly mystified throughout the unwinding of those black leather spiral wraps up his forearm, those slender coils from the teen’s left palm and middle finger, the meticulous final removal of tiny parchment-bearing phlylacteries from his left bicep and forehead, then their gently replacement into a plum velvet pouch.
By the time Aaron shed his tallis and gold-laced yarmulke, I was likening Syd’s shoulder grab to divine intervention, wisdom and insight imparted through a Burning Bush. That much, I granted her, but not in so many words.
“Aaron specifically requested to do the orthodox tefillin thing, just to prove that he could,” she smiled. “Isn’t this a fantastically creative religion? So sure footed and innovatively challenging—yet so simple, beautiful…simply beautiful! Don’t you think it’s simply beautiful, Moon?”
“I don’t know, on a certain level, I suppose,” Melissa allowed, muffling her response. “If that’s your spiritual bag…but it’s been a while…”
“Can we start the kiddush now,” young Kavalla grinned, leading the rabbi down El-Bethel’s center aisle. With that, his mother and the small congregation rushed to congratulate him.
“Kiddush,” I asked, holding pat for some direction.
“Banquet,” Moon said discreetly. She looped my arm as we followed Sydney closely out the synagogue doors. “You know, the reception….”
“What…you’ve never told me about these things…”
“Inspirational, positively inspirational,” Syd zipped up her cardinal red ski jacket as we turned down a long canopied corridor, open on one side to chilling foothill winds, which led to the temple’s satellite reception hall. “He’ll turn out good, that one—his mother’s seeing to it. Not like his lecher old man…”
“So, where is this Martin guy,” I pulled straight, earlobe-length hair out of my snowblown eyes.
“Tsk, Houston’s what I’ve heard,” Melissa cinched her sand tan wool dress-up coat tightly about her narrow waist. “I’m sure he has his reasons…”
“Rats don’t have reasons,” Sydney snapped, as we squeezed through the hall’s compact doorway. Her cheeks flushed brightly under her rouge as she glanced quizzically at Moon. “Only excuses…”
The kiddush gatherers filed in along two rows of folding metal tables, some pausing to resorb Hanukkah candles and festive bunting that still filled wide expanses of the hall’s okra-tile and acoustic paneled cinderblock walls. Simply set, buffet style, the table stretched to a three cross-table spread of catered nosh before a modest assembly stage, centerpieced with a huge cut glass bowl of sparkling punch, small ceramic menorahs to either side. This is to where my eyes drifted, as the casual, relatively youthful congregation pressed Aaron Kavalla’s flesh in the receiving line.
“What I meant, Syd,” Melissa said softly, “is that a lot of time has passed…”
“Sorry, a man just doesn’t desert his loved ones,” Sydney stepped in front of me to make her point. “Especially not to chase some floozie half his age. It’s beyond me how Lorraine has managed. She had to move out here from Evanston just to get through it all.”
“She’s got to be one tough lady,” Moon led me nearer to the man of honor, within whiffing distance of the nosh, seemingly still floored, small world-wise, that the Mendels had other family living in Boulder. “Maybe a little too tough.”
“Oh, on Martin—poor baby,” Sydney huffed. “As if a woman can be too tough these days.”
“Uh, is that stuff for anybody,” I asked, as anxious to butt out of this conversation as I was to hit those tables before everything had been spread too thin. A forward third of the line was already poring over fat platters of Nova lox and holishkes; deep dishes of whitefish and cucumber salad; asides of shav, challah, gefilte kishka and kashenvarnishkes; a sweet finish of Lokshenkugel, rugalach, plus assorted blintzes and varenikehs. I knew not what to make of any of this. Then again, I hadn’t eaten anything since Stapleton’s B-Concourse vending machines.
“I’m only saying these things are usually more complicated than they appear,” Melissa said.
“Not when it comes to marriage,” Sydney dug into her down jacket for Aaron’s bar mitzvah cards. “That’s where the complications end…like they should have with Lester…”
“Now, now—let’s not start that,” Moon backstepped to let Sydney lead the way toward the Kavallas with a silver embossed money holder, upping the ante on a small booty of gift talmuds and fountain pens. “But you know better than anyone that I speak from experience here…”
“Aaron, you little mensch you,” Sydney interrupted, tweaking the bar mitzvah boy’s cheek, then embracing her long-lost cousin. “Lor-raine, you must be so proud…”
“Sydney dear, you did make it in,” Lorraine Ridich-Kavalla smiled, a plain, rather zaftik brunette in motherly pink and pearls. “Faith called and said you were stranded in some avalanche or….”
“Not quite, but she and Daddo apologize to death for the no-show. Florida’s just so ridiculously far away,” Sydney pulled out and handed them two silver embossed money holders. “You recall Melissa, don’t you? Turns out she’s been living right here in Boulder, too. This is her…friend.”
“Of course,” Lorraine smiled, Aaron tapping his foot impatiently beside her to a soundtrack of Dan Fogelberg, now crooning, ‘Part of the Plan’. “Melissa dear, we’ve never heard from you or…”
“Lester’s not in Colorado, Lorraine,” Sydney abruptly ushered Moon and me toward the buffet. “You know him, he’ll never cross the Mississippi…”
“If you don’t mind, I’m headin’ for the eats,” I shook Aaron’s hand damply and nodded toward the platters. I also craved a moment to digest this first full morning’s rasher of Melissa’s spiritual sister, her artsy world-beating genius role model goddess of freedom and light, this high-speed chase in ski togs with the cinnamon midwinter tan.
Fighting off some fresh-brewed acidity, I went whole hog for the spread—sampling some kreplach and knishes, piling on the safely familiar fare: a plateful of corned beef, deviled eggs and spinach squares, a little lemon-honey cake and two shmears of prune strudel. I loaded up on punch, then spotted Moon staking out three chairs directly across from seats reserved for Lorraine and Aaron’s bobbeh. A few breathless swallows of sparkling loganberry, and I was already searching for the doors.
“Just look at them,” Sydney sighed, joining Melissa, seating her to her left. “And tell me Martin Kavalla isn’t a cubic putz for running off.”
“Cube…damn.” I angled up to rejoin them, sensing an opening, my plate folded over like a pocket pita. “Moon, that reminds me I promised the dean’s office I’d finalize class evaluations and clear out my cubicle before Monday.”
“Kenny, we just…”
“Really,” Sydney added, flapping her napkin. “It’s Saturday.”
“No choice, Dean Cross is busting my noogies as it is,” I figured all of us could stand a digestive break. At least over on campus, I could rebury myself in eminently more recognizable terrain. “Besides, I’m sure you two have plenty to talk about…”
“But the car…you’ve barely eaten,” said Melissa. “You know how you get when…”
“Keep it here. I’ll hitch over for my clunker, down this as I go,” I brush kissed her hair blossom-scented hair, then buttoned my gray corduroy sport coat. “So, not to worry. I’ll see you guys later at the house, OK? Say, how about I get you two some punch and stuff before…”
“We’ll manage,” Sydney replied frostily. “By all means, leave the gals to their hen party.”
“The influence of Saturn is the most lasting and malignant of all planets. Mars may be compared to a fever… while Saturn resembles a temblor, a consumption”
Degrees of effort, degrees of elevation: Seething resentment fanned into throbbing parietal rage as I tore up Broadway, ears ringing high mass over snowmelt-surging Boulder Creek, past priced-out storefronts once home to carobesque, ideologically pristine little haunts I seldom frequented yet somehow sorely missed. Where the hell was the old Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics when a body needed it? I turned heedlessly up Arapahoe—cranking down windows, Seamus banging rock-hard against the station wagon’s rear sidewall, then ricocheting up to the driver’s seat, what with the rear jumpseat being habitually folded under.
“Get back there, dogmeat!” I veered suddenly curbside, before a humming realty office, smack where my favorite grainy co-op used to be. I head locked the face-licking Setter, twisting Seamus’s neck, biting the dog’s crusted left ear, drawing a blood spray before thrusting his howling 45-pound frame rearward against the tailgate. “Get back there,” I screamed, “go makin’ a horse’s ass out of me…”
Seamus whimpered painfully, but stayed the distance—Irish Setters being crazy, not stupid. This morning had started routinely enough: I’d taken him up for some sunrise exercise, past the Turnpike vista point before school—cutting it close, but with the knowledge that any resulting time press schedule-wise paled by comparison with a Setter 24 hours unrun. The plan was to cruise along a gravel ridge road overlooking Boulder Valley and its full Rocky Mountain backdrop, albeit with the nagging notion that I could have stood some jogging myself.
The dog would eat my squareback’s dust at a 25 m.p.h. clip, sprinting himself silly enough to be essentially comatose until morning next. Except for today, of all days, the Setter strayed. Just as I slowed, calling him in—zam, he was off into a horse pasture, rolling around in a dung heap, rubbing it in real good—ears, feathering, everywhere. And I’d just scrubbed him down day two days before.
I had toweled Seamus off some, but didn’t have enough time to take him home. Thus I was forced to leave him stew in the student parking lot, vent windows cracked. Still, a couple of hours really fried everything, with that sun-broiled little McKyle’s’ pit stop only magnifying the Squareback’s equine stink. There had been no escaping it. Even amid Cross’s questions, Seamus was this long titian blur across my field of vision, mad dog bounding over the hilltops, tail dragging sorely between his legs: Fractured coccygeal vertebrae, fifth caudal segment, crushing hemal arches, chipping the articular and mammillary processes, vet’s bill painful all the more.
I’d even shamefully, disjointedly blurted that sorry diagnosis between Spearman’s rho and Kendall’s tau. So now I shuddered, slapping fiercely at my right temple, then cut left up 7th Street, well into the foothills—this endearingly grubstake corner of old Boulder roughly mountain cradled from Chautauqua and Baseline north to the deep, damp slit into Boulder Canyon. Tight, cottage-lined streets stuffed their way up against the greenbelt like a throw rug beneath a drafty door. From there up, the foothills and Front Range reigned au naturel, making these heaped together little houses precious far beyond their material worth.
Snow lingered long on University Hill’s upper- most streets, drifted into leaf-packed gullies and trail beds, tufted between wind-gnarled trees and bushes coolly shaded by the Front Range wall, thrusting abruptly skyward a short block or so away. This near the greenbelt, small was beautiful by public decree: cabins, squatter shacks, in some cases, glorified sheds were being restored, contemporized, only modestly built out as space and City Hall permitted. You yielded to bounds established when these odd lots were pick-ax mining claims; the pay-off was a backyard of lodgepole pine and snow-capped splendor stretching to Rifle and Durango.
While this climb cleared my sinuses, the ringing wouldn’t cease, my whole head blowing up like Jiffy Pop. A sharp pain crackled across my forehead—cranial muscles tightening with torque wrench force, fronto-insular cortex pressure—sudden shakes and tremors I had never, ever felt before. Plowing through jellied snowmelt, I notched each street and bell toll incrementally deeper into the steering wheel, until my thumbnails bruised and knuckles ached and the top of my head began steaming like the sun off rushing neighborhood creeklets.
All because I couldn’t seem to reconcile revolving grudges about the unevenness of my playing field: merit vs. moneyclip, the monetocracy always trumped—about out-of-state Porsche roadsters, ‘Happiness Is Owning The Means Of Production’ bumperstickers, and my fetid litter box of a Volkswagen misfiring badly onto Fir Drive.
Sure as shit they were all richer, could they have been smarter, too? Much as I loved Boulder, I couldn’t shake the painful synapses up here, atop The Hill, lording over the valley and beyond. ‘Twas a privilege to live in Colorado, all right—revocable at any time. And for some reason, I was growing more and more anxious about cooling my heels in Boulder’s academic waiting room. His snout out the side vent, ears flapping in the breeze, Seamus’s incessant tail banging only steamed me that much more. What is this? This isn’t me, at least the me that’s supposed to be…
I slid to a stop in front of 519 Cliff, splashing slush and gravel toward a peak-roofed former miner’s cabin with a lazy porch swing that faced the frontal peaks like third row center in an IMAX theatre. It was Jeremiah Hapgood’splace in 1861, still said so above the door, and had taken on a tiny room or two and even tinier barn wood outbuildings over the years. The yellow-brown shake cabin had two tall, narrow window cases looking out toward Flagstaff Summit, and a crooked brick chimney sending white smoke streams up through the overhang of a 150 year-old elm tree. Seamus yelped and clawed out the nearest half-cranked car window, to the relief of all but a scattering of ground squirrels.
“Sorry about the…ouch!” I tossed the Setter some stale Milk-Bones, then hit my head on an icicle cluster dripping crystalline from the low, slanted porch roof.
“Kenny?! Oops, better go, Syd…but, oh, hearing your voice, you don’t know. Me, too…see you tomorrow. Be safe, byebs…Kenny, how’d we do?”
“I’m out,” I snapped, brushing off my clothes, as I stumbled through the front door, catching the plaited scent of musk and burned pine. “I’m blown off and sent packing…”
“Wantz to hear all about it!” Melissa ‘Moon’ Saversohn, housemate, beamed at me and dropped the phone. “Big thing is, you’re out. Now we’re reallycookin’…” She rushed toward me, small and delicate, yet strategically turned, her very presence begging preclusive embrace. But she suddenly stopped cold to crack a parlor window. “Oh, not again…I do hope you wiped your feet.”
“This morning yet, right before orals.” I stomped snow and worse onto the cabin’s hardwood floor, then motioned menacingly out to the yard. “Setters are lunatics, I tell you. And I don’t care what the vet says, he’s not doing it to mask his scent, he does it just to spite me! I could have killed him…”
“Kenny, you didn’t,” she checked the side window for signs of life, Seamus darting and digging and banging away. “Tsk, why do you still take him anywhere near those pastures? He’s a hunting dog, you know he’s gonna roll in it by nature. Whew, if you went to class like that, they probably couldn’t wait to sign you out.”
“Booted out’s more like it,” I kvetched, catching another whiff, up close and personal, as if downwind of a Porta-Potty dumper truck. “They say they haven’t made any decisions about the fall, but it turns out they have made their damn decisions—courtesy of Grammersly and Verniere.
“But you’ve been doing so well.” She angled for some safe approach, finally tiptoeing to hug and kiss me, fresh smock or no. “You say Grammersly…and who?”
“Paul Verniere,” I quick released her for closer scrutiny. “You know, at the graduate Christmas party. He says he remembers you…”
“Oooh, of course…from San Francisco, nice enough guy…”
“He’s a departmental weasel.”
“Hmm, come to think of it, I think he was kindacomin’on to me a little,” she fled back into oven-warmed kitchen, waft with the natural sweetness of scratch baking. “Sorta over-the-line strange for my tastes. Great car, though…”
“Aww, he’s aready beat it to hell,” I ripped through the morning’s mail for anything marked university business, coming up with the first notice on my student loans. “The latest is Cross has already handed him a doctoral slot, gift wrapped and guaranteed.”
“And how do we know this,” she asked, returning with a plate of maple-frosted squares.
“Verniere just told me so himself, over at McKyle’s.” I devoured two corner slices as though they were iced with Demerol. “Then he had the gall to pick my brain about orals….”
“So maybe he was just running his gums…” This, her generic term for redlining one’s mouth with the clutch quite disengaged. “ He is a semester behind you, isn’t he? And you said yourself word’s not due for another month. See, this is all in your cabanza again…”
“Yeah maybe, but I never said he was a class behind…” I gazed out upon the still snow-strated Flatirons, spirits sinking with the sun. My eye cast about the parlor at collages of framed pictures—a trail of distant continental images, with no avenue of escape.
“Um…guess he must have told me at that party,” she set aside the tray and moved toward the embering fireplace. “Anyway, didn’t we say no more laying blame on other people? New Year’s resolution? And we’ve got to get a grip on this crazy competition thing of yours. Everything’s been going along just fine, Kenny, we’ve got it socked here in eden. This is just you thinking too much. Now, how about a little celebration for once…let’s just flow with it.”
“I suppose,” I heaved hard, ringing out, as though she held her nail-nubbed finger firmly on what infrequently passed for my safety valve.
“Oh, and speaking of San Francisco, guess who you finally get to meet?” Thus relieved, she rocked back on red wool socks and beaded moccasins. Hill-bent sunlight skewed in from just above Flagstaff Summit, rose tinting the high dusty ceiling, torching a Circaean oil portrait of herself above the mantle, strikingly headstrong against a meadow of wild fescueand oleander, riding a magic mandarin orange comforter, thick brown hair spilling down winsomely to her waist.
‘Waif and Grain’ variously moved and embarrassed her to tears, as though it were a persona she’d never known, could never hope to be, a persona on loan from the heavens. It was the undeniable fulcrum to an otherwise tidy, garage sale variety décor. “She’s been upcountry skiing over the holidays…coming in tomorrow morning.”
“Moon, please, no houseguests…” To this day, I shuddered each time the painting snatched my eye. I was loath to acknowledge it—less because of style than actual substance. ‘Waif’ was someone else’s Melissa, earth mother as centerfold, a personal loan I was fully prepared to square away. Still, on occasion the unfading promise of the portrait stirred me more than the earth itself. “I’ve had enough Frisco for one day.”
“This is Sydney, remember—family,” she insisted, slide stepping toward him with the bakery tray. “She won’t be staying here, anyway. She’s got other people in Boulder, you know. In fact, she’s already planned something special for us to go to. Kenny, where are you…”
“Company’s coming,” I muttered, wolfing down another maple square, turning for the door. “Best go out and hose everything down…”
“Even Saturn’s Virtues
are dreary. And its vices are
particularly unpleasant. Because they
operate through the emotion we call fear.”
“You left the Bay Area for…Boulder?” I watched a regiment of long-suited joggers file down mall after a rally at Frank Shorter Sports, forerunners of the valley’s endorphin revolution. “Happened to take a little trip to Frisco myself, over Thanksgiving. Seemed pretty big time…sort of like the mother lode of raw empirical data.”
“Big-time hassles. I was closing in on the big 3-0, and things were closing in on me,” Paul Verniere pulled down his Aviators, wiping clean the chrome lenses. He then swept his arm around toward the campus and sloping winter peaks back-dropping every artery and building in between. “Don’t call it Frisco, and don’t kid yourself. Boulder is Walden Pond compared to there. The people and…hell, just open your eyes, man.”
Other than a sprinkling of grizzled Pearl Street mainstays, only the banks and brickface remained. Frontier storefronts still bore pioneer nameplates the likes of Boettcher, 1878 and Browning, 1890—but everything else on the mall was yesterday’s news. Walls had been sand blasted, wood beams stripped and exposed. Designer jeans and leather basked in display cases once saddled with tack and rodeo wear, common housewares had upscaled into track-lit earthly goods.
A Pearl Street where hot, dust-spitting Jimmies and Power Wagons once went axle to straight axle for cruising rights had by now been feasibility studied, climate compensated, traffic diverted, pedestrian engineered, cluster illuminated, environmentally integrated, energy efficiencied and assessed to the hilt—then swarmed over by come-latelys too new to know any different.
“C’mon, Everybody’s Favorite City?” I was taken aback by Verniere’s candor, fixing to toss back a major slug of Lucky Lager. “It seemed so worldly and incredibly alive. I mean sometimes Boulder makes me a little stir crazy.”
“Listen, San Francisco can make you certifiably crazy these days…I’m dead serious,” he spoke through another, more modest splash of Grenache, wringing the stem of his glass. “One man’s scenic romper room is another man’s rubber room with a view, 49 miles square. Trust me, it can really bite you, can suck you into situations way beyond your control.”
“Bite…suck? Jeez, I can see captivating maybe, but…”
“Besides, you’ve got it socked here, right? Great dog, righteous ol’ lady, happening little dream house up on The Hill. Me, I’m stuck out there in flatsville valley, overlooking the picturesque Crossroads loading docks.”
“Aw, you’ll work your way up there eventually. Housing’s a right of passage in this town,” I swallowed, over the roar of a snowblower casting the last slushing drifts aside. “We started out by 28th Street, too…uh, how did you know about…”
“What can I say? Guess it’s the outgoing Franco-dago in me. Must have been at the department’s Christmas party, remember? You brought your…wife…Melissa, is it? Such a nice gal, of the Hebrew persuasion? She told me all…
“Moon, my…housemate. I forgot…and the Hebrew thing I can’t say much about. I mean, it hardy ever comes up.”
“Forgot? Maybe you were too busy hitting on Grammersly…”
“The hell…” What…stuck, I thought, flitter glancing his way. What hassles, what situations? What Hebrew persuasion? Something about this guy didn’t jibe. He was a little too open, a little too closed–a little too needy, a little too set–a little too youthful, a little too old. In some untoward way, I wanted to hear more about Paul Verniere, I just didn’t want to hear it from him. Why Sosh? Why here? Why was this guy reading Camus and Dos Passos, when he could have been hung up on Garp and Castenada like everybody else around town? And what was he hiding in all those damn pockets? “Anyway, nothing’s socked now that my program’s over. Cross and Terrent were really noncommittal about my doctoral acceptance. How did they put it? ‘No such determinations had yet been made regarding any of our candidates.’ Just before Grammersly came up with her ‘extinguish’ crack. This is so totally out of nowhere, I don’t even begin to know what’s next. God forbid—downtown Denver—maybe some internship or miserable counseling center.”
“Wow, actually go out and take on the ills of society. What a methodology…”
Across Broadway, long, lazy wooden benches stretched sidewalk-to-sidewalk, hedge rowing a half-block of barren flowerbeds and saplings smack down center mall, where dueling traffic used to be. It was now prime resting ground for the over studious undergrads and understudied laggards soaking in the cabin fever-breaking mood of the day. Kick back and explore the people exploring the gran criterion bike shop, organic bakery/smoothies bar, the sheepskin fleecers and synthetic jazz clubs.
Everybody high and trail-mixed and colorfully down filled, spacewalking along the snowy mountain background, reaching a dreamy state of happathy, seeking out mythical Morkins behind every young Green Ash and Linden tree—as if such creatures ever actually landed east of Studio City, California. Still, I found myself pining for old shitkicking, pool-shooting Art ‘n’ Arnie’s up there on the corner—a cowboy dive any tenderfoot could get himself honorably snookered in—before some Chicago pizza franchise booted their rowdy asses up to Nederland and Ward.
“Anyway, without the Ph.D. program, there’s nothing much around here for me,” I added, before downing my Lucky in earnest. “It’s like teaching…get your credentials and work construction. I didn’t sweat out a master’s to nail tarpaper.”
“Aww, hang in there, it’s well worth the wait. My mother’s always told me a good education can buy you things, or freedom from things.” An upstart breeze must have stirred my essence, prompting him to back an arm’s length from the table. “Although I must say it makes me glad I’m locked in for this fall.”
“Got that right…wait a minute, I thought you’re graduating this spring…”
“Yes, finishing out the master’s I started at San Francisco State,” Verniere said, hands now free to gesticulate, boxing things neatly as he spoke. “I’m talking about doctoral.”
“How the hell can you have a lock on that? Nobody…”
“Grammersly told me so, at the Christmas party…she said she’d already discussed it with Cross.”
“No way,” I spouted, snatching my Lucky bottle. “Just this morning they said…”
“Who knows,” Verniere asked, with a sweep of his arm. “Maybe you should have been hitting on her…”
“Oh, right. Next you’ll be telling me they’ve already granted you an assistantship.” I nervously drained my longneck brew.
“Don’t need it,” he smiled, shaking out his cutback curly black hair, a serpentine ring setting glistening in the sun. “A little granny family trust is there so long as I use if for self improvement. My job’s the GPA…ready for another suds there?”
“Uh, no thanks,” I pushed my bottle away, barely stifling the ire. Hmph, another damn trust buster. “Well, that’s just great for you…terrific…”
“Yessir, fresh new intellectual horizons—besides, gotta stay here in mountopia, nested with all the adoring young chickadoos, right? Honestly, if Roman Polanski can jake it and skate,” Verdiere beckoned the waitress, who had patrolled their corner like a minesweeper since the opening round. “Mellow out, Herbert, I’ll get two more going here.”
“No, really—I’d better go…got some errands,” I compared my timing to Boulder Bank’s pedestal clock. Either it was striking at twenty after the hour, or this little reality check was all of a sudden compression ringing, ear to ear.
“I hear you,” he replied quizzically, gently tapping the waitress’s hipbone as she squeezed between tables, full tray. “Listen, we’ll do this again real soon, hey? Maybe you can fill me in on the orals portion while it’s still fresh. I mean, did they cover Path Analysis or Epistemological Curvilinearity, or…you know. I’ve got it coming up in June, and all…and you are the teachers’ pet rock, aren’t you?”
“In my dreams. But I really don’t hang out much on Pearl Street anymore…” I rose, striving to keep civil distance from the Margarita party one table down. No such luck. My cavalier wave caught that pivoting waitress squarely across her Golden Buffaloes, which sent her tray sailing, gimlets, and all. More startled than she, I centrifugally crashed the neighboring party, specifically their refilled pitcher.
“Hey, real smooth, jerk-off!” A McKyle’s’ regular of ranch-hand proportions rose like a Trident missile launcher, glaring at me, blotting Margarita from his butterscotch leather sport coat with the overhang of a white linen tablecloth.
“Sorry…aww Christ…” I dabbed his shoulder with some Kahlua cocktail napkins.
“Suit yourself, Herbert,” snapped Verniere, backing his chair further away from all the drips. “Whew, where have you been, anyway?!”
“My goddamn dog,” I muttered, righting stemware, helping the waitress apply more napkin compresses to the frosted party of four.
“Dog?” He sniffed. “That’s horse manure, if you ask me. And here I was, going to take you for a spin in my Targa.”
“A long story…guess it’s the tipsy Scotcho-mick in me.” I sponged at my own checkered plaid flannel and jeans, then vaulted over McKyle’s’ wall into the path of a custodial crew changing clustered glass-globed streetlights. “Uh, sorry… Hey, catch you later, Paul, OK? And thanks for the brew.”
“Sure, Herbert, sorry about that,” Venire sneered, waving his right, jade-ringed hand—narrow, porous face nay shaking behind those cold, reflective shades. “CU down the road…”
“Saturn, gem of the universe, the Ferrari of planets:
A spongy hydrogen ball over 740 million miles out
there—large enough to hold 750 Earths, light enough
to float on water. Behold the mathematical perfection
of its rings, the operatic static between them as they span
165,000 miles, magneto-radiating 150 feet icy thick. And
that’s not the half of it, sonny boy…” Dame ThorniaDeWilde
Boulder, Colorado: 1978
A Parallel Re-universe.
I didn’t see this coming, even though she said it would.
But oh, no—not here, not yet: I’d ventured downtown to bemoan, bemingle, lose it like some stress-tested lab rat in the crowd—just not this way, at all.
“C’mon, you’re not that busy, Herbert. Haul it on over here…”
“Yeah…all right. In a sec…” With that, I pulled a clumsy Ford and Chevy move over a thigh-high railing.
Back then, seeing a guy like him right now was giving the lye to tired eyes. Sure, judgment day happened to fall amid one of those balmy January storm breaks, about which eastern slope Colorado had always kept so mum. Four to six inches of fresh powder one day, mostly gone by the next: The latest soft snowpack had already melted across much of Boulder Valley, these lower elevations currently being strafed by warm Chinook winds. Shallow drifts dissolved from the foothills and Chautauqua like carbonated foam, barely clinging to the Flatirons’ lower facing and lee shadows for purely seasonal effect.
Such garnishing was no match for the mile-high sun, a cerulean cellophane brilliance that radiated clear over the Continental Divide, generating the very same giddy, fissionable Rocky Mountain energy so exalted in verse and song. By this time, everybody in Boulder had grown to hate Denver for the unwanted attention—the singer, that is. Tried-and-true Boulderites never could much bear the city all along.
Still, not more than an hour or so before, though seemingly aeons ago, I had staggered out of red tile-roofed Ketchum Hall, angling across campus past Old Main, the University of Colorado’s revered brick Victorian pioneer cornerstone, sloshing through snowmelt, dodging busy ground squirrels and white tufts that fell feather light from the bare branches of birch and elms.
My earliest impression of the school was, take the Rockies away, and you had every other State. But before long, I couldn’t have taken to the mountainside campus more if it had been Cambridge with a mountain view. I felt especially so on days this crisp, this clean—mild mid-winter days better spent outdoors than in—best frozen forever in place and time. Reason enough why I went woozy at any hint of budget cuts or faculty ambivalence. Then again, it might have just been the altitude, or that I had stayed too breathlessly long in my car.
“There, sit yourself down, my man…”
“Uh, careful, Paul, you may not want to get too close…my headache might be catching.”
The only real headache of consequence in the late-70s Boulder Valley I had just steered through was rampant, problematical growth. As Denver sprawled up the Route 36 corridor, breathing room between the two cities narrowed to where local space vigilantes had all but circled their welcome wagons at the Turnpike’s summit rim. Greenbelts tightened, building permits abated, sewer and gas caps were locked down. Federally funded research centers monitored the atmosphere from their hillside labs, environmental activists blizzarded the valley with hellish impact statements.
A bitter bumper sticker backlash pitted native against nouveau-native against newcomer—the battle cry, ‘Think Globally, Act Neighborly’ giving way to the NIMBYism, ‘Get In, Get Yours—Then Baby, Bar The Door’. Despite everything, still they came, from every direction, settling up and down the Front Range. By now, even a sociologist on the make like myself struggled to keep up with all the changes, much less the turbo coupes and full-dress 4x4s blowing workaday pick-ups and station wagons better than mine off area roads.
For what once was the hippest little college town on the underground/counter-culture trail between Mad City and Berzerkely was now a univerCity being Morked and Mindified in network primetime, coast to coast, and trending toward irretrievably, commercially cutesy. Boulder’s founders turned over in their Pioneer cemetery graves as modest brick and frame cottages and bungalows burst out all over with skylights, barn wood dormers and rainbow leaded-glass lofts, turning over and over again at mile-high multiples.
With old Boulder thus engaged, most resource-rich newbies pushed new Boulder’s upper limits northward and into wild, mining-claimed, combustible mountain canyons, the rest just spread eastward across the valley, coalescing with Lafayette and Longmont. But nowhere was Boulder’s new frontier more evident than in the dead center heart of town.
“Nonsense, don’t be so schizo…”
“No, I’m serious,” I said, having just coasted beer-bound into an alley spot off Spruce street, in the cool shadow of a simple blue frame house that had been reconfigured into this fave little feminist restaurant with by-reservation-only cuisine. Near enough to Pearl Street, I figured, near enough to Nancy’s dumpster so that no one would pin that ungodly odor on my car. “So, what’re you reading there?”
“Just about the cranking up of protest rallies and demonstrations in Qum, Iran now, for Godsakes. The Middle East, man, that’s important business over there,” Verniere said, dog earing a page corner, closing his Harper’s magazine. “If it weren’t for the oil, they ought to blow the whole place up.”
“Just keep gas prices down. That’s all that really matters…”
Along with the local cowboys and common townsfolk went such quaint notions as covered wagon coffee shops and musty dry goods stores. So the planning commission and a bandwagon of downtown boosters went high concept: Pearl Street as playground. I had scurried up Boulder’s new kiosked, landscaped, red bricked-over main drag past Aquarian bookstores, goose down outfitters, wood-carving galleries and backcountry bookstores—some four blocks overall, short on everyday mercantile practicality, long on yogurt and Rocky Road. Serious shoppers fled to crossroads centers; everybody else came here to juggle and gawk.
“Well, today’s the big day, am I right?” The latter was what Paul R. Verniere was up to, having emerged from the dark recessed doorway of a hardware provisions store turned watering hole, wine glass in hand.
“How’s that,” I asked stiffly, drawing up to a low wall framing McKyle’s’ brimming sidewalk patio. Verniere had made me uneasy since fall-term registration, when he snapped up the last late-morning Social Stratification Proseminar seat. Even now, standing there all loose and wiry in those tailored twill bush pants and well-travelled leather bombadier jacket, he and every stitch about him begged one question or another: Like how he was a year or so older, yet a little bit baccalaureately behind even me, or why he seemed to be evading or escaping something. Which is perhaps why I thought about this curious fellow grad student rather routinely—Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 8:05.
“You know, the O.K. Corral,” he moved quickly to nail down a front corner table, overlooking a bare honey-locust sapling and some snowy flower crocks. “Orals and all…”
“Don’t wanna talk about it…” I vaulted the patio wall, grabbing a seat, averting to survey the scene. Some people said I looked less like a grade grunt than a point guard, but you couldn’t tell it by me.
The Pearl Street Mall had been something of a spectacle right from the ceremonial ribbon cut—grand local theatre in an increasingly theatrical town. Shakespearean fencing, storefront rappellers, tribal bellydancers, carpet skiing, flag-bearing fan dancers: today, the show went on, albeit minus the ranchero and harabe hoofers, but numbing just the same. This Friday afternoon, the parade consisted mostly of post-holiday bargain hunters sidestepping student malingerers bagging finals, who drifted around ski helots between free lifts to Eldora or Copper Mountain.
“C’mon, how did it go?” Verniere beckoned a blonde pony-tailed waitress in an overstretched CU sweatshirt. “Another Grenache, hon, and whatever for my friend here. Just run me the tab…”
“Beer—anything but Coors,” I said, in the wake of her zero-tolerance 501s. Sniffing about for more orders, she was already trolling back under McKyle’s’ logo-emblazoned patio awning to the bar.
“Interest you in grabbing her by the Buffalo horns, hey,” Verniere asked slyly, as he tabled his Mastercard. “I could see jumping her bones, all right, latch onto those flotation devices…”
“Yeah well, I’m not really much for the water.”
“Anyway, word’s had it in the faculty lounge that today is orals day,” Verniere pressed, rays glazing off the chest of his orange Tubes top as he set his wine glass atop a tattered Foreign Affairs Quarterly. “So, what’s the scoop…”
“You wanna know,” I erupted, “you really wanna know?!”
McKyle’s tucked narrowly between a crystal/fossils bookstore gallery and a brand new Falafel Phil’s, its SRO patio positioned favorably for a mall-against-the-mountains scenario that made for marathon tabs. After a wintry week of storms, a day this perfect fairly vindicated the whole controversial downtown concept. Strolling folkies even set a melic, placidly uterine subtone to it all.
“OK, you’ve got it.” Hardly becalmed in the least, I grabbed my Lucky Lager from her tray as the waitress swayed by, then licked the head out of my mustache on the down draft. “Ketchum’s second floor was like a Star Chamber, all right? They’re grilling me on Data Analysis for must have been two hours…”
“Really—like what,” Verniere sipped intently.
“You know, the heavy statistics and stuff,” I vented, though guarding, filtering out the specifics and details. “Multivariate Factor Analysis, Logistic Regression—putting me through the wringer on Correlation Coefficients, Probit Analysis—everything from Pearsonian r to Kendall’s tau. It was brutal, almost like academic mind control or something. And I’m just not that into mind control, you know?”
“Who is, right? But I’ll wager a sawbuck you did just fine…”
“Are you kidding?” Lucky loosening my tongue, I proceeded to describe how my grand design on academic tenure had been reduced to random purges. Tracking error, warped disk: Frantic cramming and desperate all-nighters had only left me with a weakened beam. The three-chair sociology faculty committee had in turn left me with the impression that they had recently examined far too many substandard deviations from the mean. After a while, it got so I started drifting intellectually toward the lone seminar room window, fixing out on a narrow clip of the snow-veiled Flatirons, all but busting out of the chamber altogether.
“C’mon, it couldn’t have been all that bad, could it?”
“Who knows? The way Professor Cross was grilling me, clearing his throat at painful intervals…” That would have been Wallford Cross, Ph.D., a slight, Cream-of-Wheat Skinnerian who had levered into a department chairmanship via the National Science Foundation pipeline. “It was gradual torment…he finally suggested I ‘go forth in the world and…distinguish myself’. Can you believe that?”
“What about Terrent?”
“Ol’ Uncle Emlen? Forget about it…” Even Blanchard Professor of Applied Sociology, EmlenTerrent, my advisor and best post-graduate hope, had sniffed and shifted in his rumpled tweed and cords, seemingly far better prepped for a mid-year champagne luncheon at the faculty club. “The three of them had already snapped shut their folio cases by the time I stood up. They couldn’t get out of the room fast enough…”
“So maybe it was pro forma, probably means you’re a shoe-in,” Verniere said. “Sounds to me like your imagination is working overtime…”
“Oh, yeah? Then when I tripped over their newly endowed chair, Helen Grammersly said, ‘that was distinguish yourself, not extinguish’. All the way out, I’m tryin’ to figure how I’d gone in there with all the answers, and come out with a ton of questions.” Truth was, that very flood of questions haunted me down Ketchum’s hardwood hallways, as I scored each nick and telltale scar from preceding student bodies whose operose methodology yielded a similarly null hypothesis. I’d whistled past a front lobby bulletin board as high on horizons as it was low on real-world opportunities: thumbtacked full of travel here, study there—apply now, not to worry about applying it later. But as Dr. Terrent always said, everything came in time, degrees of effort in positive correlation with degrees of elevation. I chewed on that and half a stale, pocketed Milk-Bone all the way across the quad. “Extinguish, my ass—who the hell does she think she…”
“Ah, well, Grammersly’s doctorate is from Berkeley,” Verniere scoffed, tossing back a goodly portion of his second wine—not exactly Starsky, he , but no Jeff Goldblum either. “Everybody’s a smart ass there. I know, was a Cal undergrad myself.”
“I don’t care where she’s from. No snotty skirt’s gonna…wait a minute, you’re from Berkeley? I thought…”
“Crazier yet, San Francisco,” he toasted, “why do you think I came out here?”