Bill McLaughlin was born in the later half of the last century. He has worked as a freelance journalist and independent radio producer. After...read more spending more than a decade as an itinerant writer and gardener, living and traveling in a 1973 VW camper bus, he now homesteads in upstate New York where he hauls water, chops wood, and ponders the Rights of Nature, late frosts, and black flies.
RAY STUMBLED FROM THE BUS, squinting in the midday light. Inside the station he received directions to the corporate park. Across the road he found a diner and treated himself to a large breakfast; his first full meal in two days. He ordered eggs over easy with whole wheat toast, home fries and a short stack of pancakes. He ate slowly, savoring each bite. He sopped up the bright yellow yolks with the triangular ends of his toast, which were dripping with jam. His pancakes sat in a pool of syrup, crowned with globes of rich butter, slowly melting. The steaming cakes offered only the slightest resistance to his knife and fork. His potatoes mingled with bits of fresh green pepper and onions. The outside edges were browned and crisp, the white flesh inside, smooth and warm.
Breakfast was his favorite meal. Ray would often order breakfast for dinner or lunch. Even at fancy restaurants, Ray couldn't resist a gourmet omelet. Liz would fume. She couldn't understand how he could choose eggs, no matter how ingeniously prepared, over savory sauces, succulent meats and seafood or exotic vegetables, crisp and lightly seasoned. But Ray was a breakfast guy and she long ago gave up trying.
The waitress, an older woman with soft gray curls tucked neatly under a web of fine netting, tacked endearing terms onto every sentence.
“Here ya go, sweetie. How's everything, darlin'? Y'all need more coffee, sugar?”
Normally, Ray would have been embarrassed at such silly and superficial affection. But this morning he believed in this woman. He imagined himself in her kitchen. They were friends really, they just hadn't formally met. Afterwards, instead of paying a check, he would do her dishes, perhaps perform some chore around the house. Then they would sit on the porch with cool drinks and reminisce about the people they knew, the changes life had brought them over the years. They would laugh at stories told long ago and told again. Her southern drawl, thick as his pancake syrup, smoothed him over, took the edge off the tortuous bus ride, nourished him more than the food he ate.
When he finished, the mechanical clang of the cash register cleared away the illusion and he found himself outside, walking east along a busy four-lane highway on the outskirts of Asheville, thinking of cigarettes. He left the highway about two hours later and began following the smooth black toxic asphalt roadway that led past the monotonous clutter of corporate glass and steel sitting recessed on empty, waveless emerald seas. Occasionally a large boulder or elder tree remained to adorn a too-familiar logo. Finally, Ray found the sign that matched his phone bill. He stood outside the office building unsure of what he really intended to do. Each step toward the entrance took him by degrees from his old life and led him slowly, inevitably, toward the new. He entered and found himself in a large sunny lobby, a jungle of fichus and rubber trees. Windows, perhaps fifty feet high, surrounded him, bathing him in a cool, filtered light. He walked to the gleaming mahogany reception desk in the center of the lobby and was greeted cheerily by a young woman. She gave Ray a pleasant smile as she retrieved a strand of straight black hair that had caught on her handless phone set.
“Can I help you?”
Ray was silent. This was not the face he had expected. This was not the voice on the bill. The in-voice; the cold, aggressive voice.
Finally Ray answered her.
“No. No thanks. I just need to do something.”
Ray moved to the sitting area. He sat on the richly upholstered couch. On the center of the table, among the glossy corporate propaganda, he emptied the large glass dish containing wrapped mints. He removed the phone bill, now damp and mangled, from his back pocket. From his shirt pocket he took out his lighter. He held the invoice over the candy dish as the yellow flame licked at the paper. It warmed, then browned; it burst into flames, first orangey-red then blue and green. Wavy streaks of purple leapt up as he carefully laid the burning Final Notice in the plate. Satisfied, Ray walked to the door and stepped through the solid glass portal back into honest light. He was dizzy with weightlessness, his body rebounding from years of compression.
“Now,” he thought, “Now I can begin.”
An hour later, Ray was still sitting on the curb on Cesar Chavez Drive sucking a peppermint. No cops had come, no security people. Nothing around, just the small, sad-looking young maples stuck in the ground like toothpicks, neatly arranged by some anal landscaper. Suddenly he noticed the girl, the receptionist, was standing over him.
“Do you need a ride somewhere?”
Fiona was from British Columbia. She had come to Asheville with a boyfriend who had since left her for a hike up the coast. She got a job at the Biltmore. Got fired for having too much attitude and too little aptitude for kissing the abundantly ample, well-rounded butts of wealthy tourists.
“Man, you're the first interesting thing that's happened to me in six months,” she told him.
“Christ. You probably think I'm off my head. You don't have to be nice to me. I know what I'm doing... what I've done.”
“What are you still sitting here for?”
“I'm waiting to get arrested.”
“Arrested? Are you kidding? They're not gonna arrest you, man. We had a guy in here last week throwing baby powder around the lobby, screaming, 'You fuckin' sonsabitches. Y'all got the amtrax now, you bastards!' He had a big manila envelope filled with the stuff, just taking fistfuls out and tossing it in the air. The funny thing was, in like one minute, he was covered in it—the whole place smelled like a nursery. Him they arrested. You've got no worries, dude.”
Now he noticed her for the first time; her black hair, nutmeg skin, dark eyes: a northern girl. Alert, Nordic eyes like pulsing stars in the winter sky. Eyes made for catching the flutter of a hawk's wing or the mercurial quiver of a pine marten beneath freshly fallen snow. Without words, she spoke of split wood and running sap, searing coals and the deep, sweet peace of midnight sweats. Those solemn eyes and steady hands only hinted at the broad current that ran beneath her surface; a secret river flowing through a stale and stagnant landscape. Standing there with Ray, she transformed the curbs and streets and lawns. The spindly red maples became ancient elders, the predictable grass turned to wildflower prairies thick with caribou moss and lichens, the pavement shrank until it was no more than a thin black line dividing the wild from the civil.
But there was a sadness also. A sadness born of the fluorescent, make-believe jungle; of eyes wounded by the false blue light; trapped for months in that sterile space without rain or wind or clouds. A box where the temperature never changes, the light never dims, and where no living being can ever feel at home. She sits there—for money—with her Nordic eyes and asks, “Can I help you?” And everyone is satisfied.
Downtown, on the top floor of a three-story brick walk-up, they sat in her studio eating home-made pizza. Her apartment was so sparsely furnished, it seemed to Ray that she had not yet moved in or was at that moment nearly moved out. He said so and she reminded him of his former life, just two days old; reminded him of all the possessions he willingly abandoned for a cramped and dirty seat on the Greyhound.
In the center of the large room was a potter's wheel. The hardwood floor was covered with slivers and shards. Earth-colored cups and bowls rose around them like a relief map of a lumpy lunar surface. They sat on bean bag cushions, eating and talking.
“Why are you doing this? Being so nice to me?”
“Hey, I'm a traveler too. Just not right now. Don't worry, you'll get a chance to give it back. Just don't ask for more than you need and you'll get it. I promise you. And once you get it, make sure you give it away.”
Ray looked at her with a million questions building behind his brown eyes. The corners of his mouth curled like question marks. She sensed his confusion.
“I know it sounds freaky but it's true. You just need to throw yourself out there. Think of it like a river. You need to find your way into the center of the stream. If you hang on to the shore, grabbing at every tree stump and root, the current will rip you apart, bring the roiling, abandoned debris of civilization crashing down over your back, splitting your skull with the hard cold steel of ambition, competition, and greed.”
Ray opened his mouth to ask a question, but he simply stuttered. She tried again.
“There's a door out there. Behind that door are other doors leading to the wonders of this garden we live in. Children know it, and then we take it away from them. You've been here for more than 30 years and it's like you haven't ever seen it. But you remember something of it, otherwise you wouldn't be here. You're lucky. Not everyone remembers. Some suspect but they never act on it. They never re-enter the garden, never live in the moment. Thirty-three years. And what were you waiting for? Do you think it will be any worse than what you left behind? You put one foot through that door today. You know what's next.”
“But what if I want to go back?”
“Don't worry. You can—and you won't.”
“But what about you. What are you doing here—working for them if the universe is so generous, if 'the life' is so good?”
“This is where I need to be right now. I came here with Bobby because I needed to accomplish something.”
She paused and looked at him with a quiet so solemn it made him nervous.
“Ray, have you ever put your arms around a 500-year-old tree?”
“You mean am I a tree-hugger? What do you think?”
“Maybe you've never heard the sound of an army of loggers descending on an old-growth forest or witnessed the destruction after they've finished. But I have—too many times. Back in B.C. they're clear-cutting all the old ones. There are people here in Asheville that can help. I'm just a messenger. Bobby is on the trail, walking north. He thinks if he stays in the woods, keeps moving, then they can't get him. But he's wrong. See, it's not enough to just live the life, you've got to help protect the garden. That may mean doing something you don't want to do. You know, getting arrested, making money—oh yeah, or working for the fuckin' phone company!”
They laughed at the ridiculous gulf between saving ancient forests and her “Can I help yous?”
“How did you get that job at the phone company anyway? The more I know you the less likely it seems.”
“My uncle. A suit, but cool in his own way. He's a lot like you actually. He hates the bastards too. Thinks that phone service should be free, like a co-op. He says they use natural resources to make everything like the cables, the poles, the wires—resources that belong to everyone—and no one really. Then they spread their wires and poles and towers all over the Earth—and now they're even trashing space with all their satellites. Then they charge us ridiculous prices—and it's not the cost of maintaining the system, no, but to make millions in profits, stock options and golden parachutes for all those slacker executives.”
“Who said this, you or you uncle?”
“Funny Ray. I can't wait to tell him about your little bonfire in the lobby.”
“Yeah, that's probably the only way he'll find out. It's like it didn't even happen.”
“Kind of anti-climatic, huh? On the surface, it's a typical corporate reaction: silence. They hate negative publicity. They don't want to acknowledge any dissatisfaction. But watch out. Right now they're fucking with all your personal records. If you had any credit, it's gone. That lobby was full of surveillance cameras, you know. There's little digital pictures of you streaming from one corporate security desk to another. Wait, you'll be picked up somewhere in west Texas by a couple of rookie sheriffs from Podunk County with your name on a rap sheet for holding up a 7-Eleven in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Typical. If you speak truth to power you better brace yourself for a stinging retort.”
“So what's your uncle's solution?”
“Retirement. He says he's going to retire, buy a 50-foot Winnebago, cover it with solar panels and head to the Arizona desert and never be heard from again. You know, the new American Dream.”
Sensing Ray's growing frustration, Fiona gently lifted one of her bowls, holding it up for him to see. Between the transparent glaze and the clay were painted intricate renderings of tree roots and trunks, intertwined around a bold sunset alive with eagles and bears: a celebration.
“This is where I come from. Where my people have lived for thousands of years. Now they say that the forests—the old trees especially—are worth too much money for us to just live with. We're not industrious enough. 'Too stupid to know what we've got' is how they put it behind closed doors. But they're the ones who are ignorant. Their accounting software can't figure the real value of an ancient tree; there's no depreciation formula for the health of a river, the death of a species. These trees are an integral part of our culture. They're used for totems, to record our history and the important events of the people. When the trees are gone, so is the culture. Anyway, today was my last day. I start for Tofino next week. It's done and I don't regret it. I have a squat on the Sound back on Vancouver Island. With the money I made here—working part-time at the phone company and selling my pots at the Folk Art Center—I can keep fighting the timber companies for more than a year. Plus, I met so many great people here, some of them are coming up to help, others are writing about it, talking about it. It's happening. We're gonna stop them. I know it now.”
Ray saw her northern eyes fill with light. He thought he was beginning to understand, maybe not completely, not yet, but he was starting to see a world take shape, a world he had never suspected. She pulled a futon from the closet for him and he laid there on the floor amid a carpet of pot shards and porcelain chips. Across the room, she curled up on the old thrift store couch. Lying there in the dark quiet of the studio, in the shadow of the Great Smoky mountains, it seemed to him that her “good night” was sweeter, her hug truer, her kiss more tender, than any he could remember.
The next morning, Fiona and Ray walked to a small cafe downtown for breakfast. Ray had his usual. Fiona started with oatmeal but then became hungry watching Ray. They finished by splitting an order of French toast topped with strawberries and honey.
Fiona took Ray to her favorite thrift shop. Ray bought an extra shirt, a small day pack, and a wool poncho. The poncho, made in Mexico, was old and faded but of obvious quality. It had caught Fiona's eye because of its Earth colors: red sandstone and the muted blue of Mayan corn.
They spent the rest of the day poking around used book stores. At Fiona's insistence, Ray bought a tattered copy of Walden. They stopped by the Greyhound terminal where Ray bought a ticket for the night bus. Just before handing the money to the agent, Ray hesitated for a second, though unsure why. Finally, he pushed the cash under the window. Outside, Fiona held his hand as they walked back to her apartment.
“So, where to?”
“South. Key West.”
“Why Key West?”
“I don't know really. I've never been. I don't really care where I go so long as it's warm. I've never escaped winter before. Maybe I can get a job on a charter boat or do some bartending. I don't know. I just gotta move. I can't explain it. See, you have a purpose. I don't. You probably think it's pretty selfish, right? I mean just going somewhere because its warm.”
“No, I don't. You're just beginning, Ray. You'll figure it out. Just follow your instincts. Don't think about it too much. Just go.”
Back at her apartment, Fiona gathered a few things for Ray to take on the road. She gave him a brush for his hair and some peppermint soap. From an old cigar box she took out a glossy agate. The orange rock, no bigger than a fingertip, was rippled with thin waves of cream and rust under a pearly patina.
“For good luck,” she said.
Near midnight, they walked once again to the terminal. They said good-bye as the cars on the highway rushed past, oblivious to the bittersweet parting of two travelers. Ray looked back at Fiona as he put his foot on the first step. He stopped, sensing something unsaid, something undone. Fiona smiled, her eyes overflowing with the light.
“Remember, Ray, one door closes and another opens.”
Ray gave his ticket to the driver then slipped into a window seat, his new pack beside him. He watched as Fiona smiled sweetly, her hands clasped behind her back. She disappeared as the bus joined the stream of traffic. Slightly numb, he continued to stare out the window as Asheville, then the lumbering skyline of the Great Smoky mountains, then finally North Carolina itself, faded from his view into the black October sky.
He drew his poncho close against the night air and around his sudden sadness. As he thought of her and their time together, a light salty mist rose slowly within him, pinched his eyes and swept like clouds over all his thoughts.
In the middle of the night, the bus stopped for dinner breaks at places like Burger King and Wendy's. Around midnight fast food slows down. By 3 a.m. it's going so slowly that it heads into reverse and begins to decay under the pink UV lights. The grease flows like lava, determinedly escaping from the grizzle and soaking through the hopeful paper wrappers, smudging stainless countertops like wet kisses on a mirror.
Behind the counter, in front of the dehydrating food, solemnly stand the limp and laconic symbols of the 21st century service industry. Dire need finds its only answer under the cold fluorescence in an Arby's uniform at the foot of an exit ramp on I-95, or along the miles of junk food alleys stretching before and after every look-alike American town, or in a grimy inner city “express” version with barred windows and armed security guards. And the gulf between a minimum wage and a living wage grows with every order: millions underserved.
At the announcement of a “dinner break,” the bravest and most desperate riders venture in from the bus. Without sarcasm, the driver warns, “We've only got fifteen minutes. Don't linger!” As if the driver thought that the harsh light, spongy fries, rubber burgers, morose employees, and bright orange furniture were too tempting, too exhilarating for the average hound jockey to resist. Yet even these drive-in orifices were a refreshing change from the confinement and relentless ass-numbing advance of the mangy gray dog. Experienced passengers brought their own food. They rattled plastic bags for cookies, oranges, apples, corn chips, sodas, cheese and crackers. Other passengers hung around outside the bus—never too far away—psychically tethered to their leashes. Some stood as if hypnotized, listlessly kicking at the pavement with their heels. Waiting, just waiting.
Strained conversations sprouted slowly, then became noticeably louder, eventually drawing envy from the great unspoken yearning for commonality. Envy quickly turns to resentment and scorn is whispered against the talkers, bitterly uniting the non-talkers and so achieving the desired camaraderie at last. But the talk soon dies, like autumn flowers in the frost, and the largest dose of envy is directed toward the sleepers. Sleep! Oh, to sleep through the dinner breaks, smoke breaks, squealing brakes; sleep while scrunched and crunched; sleep through stops and starts, crying babies, exploding parents, snoring drunks, moaning lovers, and the tinny metallic clatter of headphones playing the nails-on-a-chalkboard vocal stylings of Lady Blah Blah at full volume. Dreamland was everyone's destination.
At the dinner break outside of Savannah, a stocky Latina in her late 40s smiled at Ray and began a quiet conversation. Yolanda had thick chestnut red hair which fixed her round face and meaty dark lips, dark like nipples, like Cuban coffee. She was tired. She told Ray that she was on her way to Jacksonville to see her daughter, grown now, with two little ones.
“You believe it? I'm a grandmother!”
But the daughter's husband was out of work and had been for too long. She was going there to help her daughter open a beauty salon. She had saved the money over the past ten months working 80 hours a week at a restaurant.
“I've been working my ass off. Triple shifts. No days off. But now that I have the money, we're gonna find a nice place for the beauty parlor. And it's gonna have a little room on the side for the babies, so she can work and have them with her.”
Ray smiled at her selflessness, a bit overwhelmed. “Wow, you've got a big heart, huh?”
“Hey, it's for my baby. What can I do? She comes first, you know.”
Ray nodded but he didn't know. He hadn't thought much about kids. Between the stress at work and the arguments at home, kids seemed like a suicide wish. They talked about it, but they had always decided to wait. When things were going badly, it was out of the question. And when things were good, they dared not change anything. Finally, they just stopped talking about it. Then they just stopped talking. Now, listening to Yolanda, Ray was relieved. He couldn't imagine working triple shifts to support a married child—with kids of her own. But Yolanda didn't think much about it as far as he could tell. It was just something that needed to be done and she did it with little thought for herself. He admired her strength, her casual attitude toward self-sacrifice. Ray thought of Fiona. He thought about what he had told her, that he had no purpose. Now he thought maybe that wasn't true. Perhaps his purpose was not as clear and distinct as saving forests or starting beauty salons. Maybe his purpose was more personal right now. Maybe it had to be unraveled rather than declared. He realized the ironic truth that when he had a job, he didn't need a purpose. But he could no longer be defined by what he did—he didn't “do” anything. He could not be defined by the house in which he lived—he didn't “live” anywhere. It was no longer possible to estimate his degree of success by comparing the property values of his neighbors. He was naked. Who he was or was becoming would now be in plain view, not obscured by symbols and icons. But his identity and purpose remained as mysterious as the lumps of protein now petrifying under the heat lamps at the Arby's just off exit 18A north of Savannah.
Twenty-four hours through Florida. That old gray dog stopped and panted in every major city and town down the I-95 spine of the sunshine state. In the early evening, Yolanda was met in Jacksonville by a drizzly rain. From his window, Ray gave her a 'thumbs-up' for luck.
As the bus made its way southward, the few remaining signs of autumn disappeared. Oaks and maples and elms were replaced by sand pines and loblollies growing like match sticks in the thin sandy soil. Occasionally the outline of a live oak could be seen throwing its ghostly moss-covered branches against the darkening horizon. Night descended and Ray spent the next eight hours in an uneasy half-sleep. He closed his eyes and listened to the other riders settle in for the evening, adjusting their seats amidst muffled coughing and the juggling of packs and travel kits and plastic bags—up to the overhead, back from the overhead, again and again. One by one the reading lamps were turned off until only a few remained. Outside, the bus was enveloped by a steady stream of headlights; tractor-trailers roared by, elaborately lit with the yellows and reds and blues of carnival rides. Exit ramps, assisted by massive billboards, bright as day, did their best to yank drivers off their course, luring them into those gaudy neon clusters of commerce with ceaselessly repeated offers of free coffee, cheap gas, slot machines, naked dancing girls, fireworks, and discount cigarettes. But the bus rolled on, oblivious to the seduction. Ray suddenly longed for his own car, for the freedom to take any exit he wanted, to pull a few slots, grab a beer and a sandwich and maybe even slip a few bucks into some sweaty, pulsating G-string—anything to break the monotony.
The rain stopped unnoticed somewhere near Daytona. Riding that blurry line between wakefulness and sleep, Ray found it difficult, sometimes impossible, to tell the difference between dreams and reality. The hum and rumble of the bus lulled him into a quiet contentment at last. He closed his eyes and saw Liz walking through the house accompanied by an older woman in her 50s, a typical middle-class American figure, spreading and rolling in all the places you would suspect. She was thoroughly tailored from her dyed auburn helmet hair to her manly blue business suit to her practical shoes. He recognized her as the loan officer from the bank. She and Liz were in the house, moving from one room to the other. In each room Liz would make a disparaging remark about Ray and the woman would laugh. Liz was holding Ray's jumble of keys in her right hand. Now they looked gigantic to him—dozens of keys—hundreds of commitments and duties and responsibilities. They hung limply from her fingers. Joan followed Liz into the kitchen.
“I can't believe that asshole. Look at this place! Look at those papers. These are all important documents. Look, they're just piled up. You can't hardly see the table!”
Liz looked over at the stove top with its pan of burnt eggs and the sink full of crusty dishes.
“What was he thinking? That someone's going to come in here and clean up after him? Maybe he figured when he ran away, that when he came back—oh, and he'll be back, believe me—that everything will be okay. Is that it? I knew if I wasn't here to pester him, to keep reminding him of what needed to be done, he would just let it all go to shit. I knew it.”
As they walked back through the living room, Liz stooped to pick up Ray's credit cards.
“Joan, is your husband like this? I mean if you left him for a few months, would he do this?”
“Sixteen years ago my husband—my first husband—left me. He just snuck away in the night while I was sleeping. I kept thinking he would come back. I couldn't believe that someone could just walk out and not look back. It defied all reason. I thought we were as happy as most. A year later I realized he wasn't coming back. I pulled myself together and started to make my life over. You're lucky Elizabeth, you're going to get this house back. You don't have anyone depending on you. I had two small kids and nothing—I mean nothing. I lost everything, except those kids.”
Liz brought in the week's newspapers that were accumulating on the front steps. In a small spiral notebook she wrote herself a reminder to cancel the paper.
“I hate that paper. It reeks of him.”
At the coffee table, Joan took out the paperwork that needed to be signed. Liz would keep the house. Her parents were going to help her make up the missed payments, the penalty, and the refinance charges. They talked as they continued inspecting the house. Liz asked Joan about her husband.
“Did you ever hear from him again?”
“Oh, about two years later I started getting these postcards. The first one was from Paris. Then Madrid, then Milan, Venice, and finally Athens. He never said much, just the usual: 'Happy as a lark...Don't be mad... blah, blah, blah.'”
“How about his kids? Didn't he ever mention them or say he wanted to see them?”
“I don't consider them his kids—neither do they. I remarried to a pretty nice guy. He has his faults but he's not a quitter. He helped me with those kids like they were his own. I was able to go back to school, finish my degree and find a real job. Good riddance to the bastards! Who needs them!”
“Elizabeth! Did you see what's in the toilet?”
“Oh no, what now?
The house now belonged to Liz. Ray's name was gone from the contract, the deed, the title, and the insurance. His car had been towed from the driveway. His other possessions sat in heaps around the house waiting for garbage day. Liz spent the rest of the afternoon scraping his name from the mailbox, replacing it with small black plastic letters of her own. She sat at the kitchen table in the dark, her face folded in her hands above the pile of documents, and quietly cried until she had expelled the last of him.
At daybreak, Ray awoke to find himself riding high above an endless expanse of turquoise water underneath a cobalt sky. The bus was barreling over a slender bridge linking two green islands of mangroves and white sand beaches. The sun, rising slowly, added its warm amber glow, illuminating and animating each wavelet as the morning winds freshened. A few gawky pelicans lumbered by, cruising just inches from the wave crests. Terns and seagulls filled the line between land and sea. The sky yawned wide and deep, the remaining glow of sunrise melted into a pan of ocean blue before turning milky white in the distance. Ray saw the sign announcing Key Largo. He thought of Bogart and Bacall, sailboats and rumrunners, key lime pie.
Two hours later the bus bounced recklessly into the depot at Key West. A brilliant sun was beating through the tinted glass. A tropical heat struck the passengers as they disembarked. The surrounding streets were jammed with cars, mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians. In the terminal, Ray received a sticky token for the men's room from the ticket agent. Inside the dreary washroom, human effluent speckled the white porcelain. Mysterious puddles shimmered on the floor in front of the urinals. Avoidance required an (obviously) rare long distance accuracy which inevitably added to the festering lagoons. The wrinkly, yellowed chart pasted above the light switch dubiously proclaimed that the facility had been cleaned and inspected as recently as.... but an umber smudge, so thick it contained a faint impression of a fingerprint, obscured the date.
Ray made his way through the crowd and followed directions to Duvall Street, the main drag and tourist strip. At one corner he came upon an old man playing a saxophone. Ray sat on a nearby doorstep and listened to the rich, round tones. The man was tall and lean, dressed in a neatly pressed white short-sleeved shirt, dark gray linen trousers and a straw skimmer that cast a purple shadow on his black skin. His saxophone case, plastered with stickers, sat open, collecting donations from passersby. Ray recognized the tune, Pennies From Heaven, a standard ballad from the 1930s. When he finished, Ray dropped a few bucks into the case before continuing down Duvall. The man courteously nodded at Ray and quickly began another song.
Around noon, Ray entered the only place he had ever heard of in Key West: Sloppy Joe's. Hemingway and other famous writers had drunk there. It was a popular hang-out for the literati and avant-garde in the 30s and 40s. Living in Key West was as close to being an ex-pat as you could get without leaving home. The Conch Republic was a tiny, belligerent isle of non-conformity: a magnet for aspiring and accomplished artists. Ray stepped inside the dark cavern, took a seat at the bar and ordered a draught of cheap beer. He stared in disbelief at the change from his ten.
“Five-seventy-five for a Bud? For that swill? Are you kidding me?”
He wasn't so much talking to the bartender as to himself. Hemingway, he thought, wouldn't be caught dead in this joint. Adding to his misery, on the big stage in front of the bar, a one-man band, complete with every electronic instrumental gadget yet invented, was howling his way through the Top-40 trash of the last four decades. Ray wondered if it were really possible that anyone—anywhere—even in Key West—ever wanted to hear Horse with No Name or Sweet Home Alabama ever again. At the beginning notes of Stairway to Heaven, Ray amused himself with a million invented tortures for the Music Man. He wondered why the sax player was on the street playing cat and mouse with the cops while this guy was in here getting paid to annoy people. Perhaps he reasoned, there was an uplifting effect to his performance, similar to what happens at a wake. In the midst of all that grief, there is also a great cheerfulness among the living—precisely because they are still alive. Nothing like a dead guy to reawaken that lust for life. Maybe people didn't mind getting ripped off in Sloppy Joe's. Subconsciously they reasoned that it could be worse—they could be condemned to a life of feigning enthusiasm for Top 40 hits and trying to sing like Billy Joel day after day. But to be fair, Ray had to note that the festively dressed yuppies sipping $15 cocktails, the drunk-by-noon college girls, and the white hairs from Wisconsin, all seemed to be enjoying themselves. After his second beer, Ray abandoned his imagined tortures and musical theories to a greater impulse: hunger. He decided an overpriced omelet with fries would be just the thing to go with his overpriced beer.
Three hours can pass quickly in a dark bar on a hot day. Ray finally stepped back onto bright Duvall with a heavy dullness in his head. Instinctively, his hand patted his back pocket for his wallet but did not find that familiar and reassuring lump. A bolt of panic flashed through him until he remembered putting the wallet into his backpack after tipping the sax player and slipping a few bills into his front pocket. He swung the pack around and found the small zippered pocket unzipped and the wallet gone. When his fifteen seconds of utter disbelief had expired, he checked his ready-cash supply which he kept, along with his driver's license, in his front pocket: thirty six dollars and change.
The wallet had contained more than eighty dollars cash, his bus pass, and his most important possession: his cash card. That one thin remainder of his previous life, the key to his treasure, his opensaysme to every ATM machine, grocery store, restaurant, and motel. Now someone else possessed his kingdom. He ran back inside the bar suspecting everyone. Now he repented his snarly attitude toward the bartender; he wished he had given him a larger tip and at the same time cursed his extravagance. He wondered where that drunk sitting next to him had vanished. He asked the bartender politely, holding back his panic as much as possible, if anyone had found a wallet. The bartender smiled coldly and shook his head. Ray could hear him as clearly as if he said it aloud: “Chump! This is Key West. Your wallet is gone!”
Ray hustled to the phone booth in the back of the bar. He closed the accordion-style glass and wood door but the music man's digitally enhanced super-deep bass and high-end titanium tweeters blasted like lasers through the quaint apparatus. He finally managed, using toll-free numbers, to reach his bank, report his card stolen and request—as soon as possible—a replacement. Because he didn't know the account number he was subjected to a exhausting barrage of personal questions including family history, recent purchases, and the amount of his last bill. Ray did not score as well as he might have. As a result, the customer service rep insisted that they could not simply mail this valuable property to him at some general delivery address but that he must pick it up in person and produce proper identification.
“But I'm traveling, I can't exactly go back to New Jersey—For chrissakes don't you get it? I don't have any money!”
The pleasant bank voice informed him that he could pick up the card at their nearest branch—one of their “partner” banks.
“Miami! How the hell am I going to get to Miami? I'm four hundred miles away in Key West!”
He was politely told that his card would be waiting for him there in twenty-four hours.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
Ray walked toward the end of Duvall and sat on the steps in front of an old church. He tried to bolster himself with the thought that he wasn't really broke. He still had his savings, he just couldn't get to it. And he would be back in the money in just two days. Suddenly, to his surprise, he felt a rush of exhilaration. He felt challenged in a way that he had never felt before. Now he was really living on the edge. His safety net was gone and he was on the street. Now, he thought, he would see where his wits would take him. He would see how he could survive without privilege or advantage. Of course, it was only temporary, but already a tiny seed had been planted and it seemed to indicate that this might just be part of a permanent cycle of plenty and poverty, the price of freedom. Unburdened from his money, Ray felt at liberty to spend his day in utter indolence. He followed the crowd toward Mallory Square and prepared to witness, along with a brace of overly-festive tourists, his first Key West sunset.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky, people began the ritual that occurs there each night. Street performers and tourists packed the small waterfront in anticipation of the brilliant sunset that sometimes occurs. The tourists were all clutching giant containers of beer and brimming plastic cocktail glasses; drunkenness was a requisite in case the sunset was a bust and in case it wasn't. Performers and vendors crowded the small space at the end of the street with their props and carts, outnumbering the tourists at first. Soon everyone was there: the Cookie Lady on her vintage bicycle, the jewelry hawkers and jugglers, hair wrappers, unicyclists, mimes, magicians, and fire eaters. Ray thought the spectacle too contrived, as if Disney was pulling the strings. He wondered where the sax player was. He left Mallory Square a few minutes after the sun had set quite ordinarily and the crowd had ceased clapping. He roamed the streets in the sheltering darkness. For dinner, he ate a falafel prepared by a greasy man at an outdoor stand. He watched the street kids—hippies, rainbows, drainbows, gutter punks, and bliss ninnies—playing their guitars, singing, dancing, and spare-changing while the cops chased them from one corner to another. He saw the clusters of prostitutes, the drug dealers with the mirrored sunglasses, heard the music of Jimmy Buffet pulsing from every tourist bar, and watched as reckless young men pointlessly raced their cars up and down Duvall. He looked in storefront windows but saw only overpriced souvenirs and T-shirts. He wandered down narrow, crooked side streets and found lush gardens bursting with bougainvillea, chickens scratching in cramped yards, and the outlines of grand old homes with fragrant porticoes and ancient porches kneeling in flowers.
Finally, Ray turned the corner and discovered a dimly lit bar wedged between an Asian grocery and a dilapidated guest house. He looked up at the neon sign and filled in the missing letters: Prospero's. In the window, a neon martini glass tilted and blinked above its scripted message: Cocktails. Ray counted his money. He had exactly twenty-six dollars and eighty-four cents. He removed a ten and placed it in his right front pocket. The rest he placed in his other front pocket. He would allot himself ten dollars for beer. The balance, he guessed, would get him on a bus to Miami in the morning. Ten dollars would keep him here till closing at 3 or 4 a.m. He would then have just a few hours to wait for the first cafe to open for coffee and breakfast. He couldn't afford a motel for the night, so he was going to rent a bar stool. A grim prospect for anyone, but Ray was now exhilarated by the challenge and wide open to the experience—any experience.
He walked in and took a seat at the bar. The bartender was in her mid-30s and pleasant. She brought him a draft of a medium dark ale for a buck-fifty. Cheered by his luck, he related his dismay at Sloppy Joe's over the price of a Budweiser. By his third beer, he was telling her about his stolen wallet.
“I'm not surprised,” she said finally. “Happens all the time. Somebody must have marked you, must have seen that wallet in your pack and waited till you hit the head.”
Gradually Ray noticed the other customers. At the far end of the bar, barely visible in cloud of cigarette smoke, were an aging biker couple. They kept Mona busy fetching drinks but said little except to themselves. Soon it became clear that they were having some relationship problems. At one point Ray heard the burly guy blast the woman. His words were slurred and his tongue was thick with alcohol.
“You're not helping me! When you do this kinda shit you're not helping. You're an obstacle! God, I got enough troubles already. I told you to leave that shit alone!”
The woman was dressed in tight black leather pants and a suede shirt with fancy bead work and tassels. At the moment, the shirt was unbuttoned exposing most of her large, unruly breasts. She gave it back to him as good as she got with a tongue as thick as his.
“What was I s'pposed to do, Willy? Tell her not to take the fuckin' money? I told you, I didn't do it. She did!”
“It don't matter, you stupid bitch. You were there. You were standin' right fuckin' there. You're just as guilty as she is.”
He cut her off with his finger pointed at her face like a gun barrel.
“You never—never—steal from a fuckin' dealer! How fucking stupid can you be?”
“But I didn't...”
“You're not helping me. I'm really trying but you're not helping me.”
She turned away from him, lit a cigarette and took a sip of her drink. He saw that he had finally hurt her. Then, in his way, he began to make it up.
“You're an obstacle,” he said again, tripping over the word. And then after a pause: “An obstacle with fuckin' great tits.”
Appeased, she dropped her head onto his shoulder and they returned to their whispering in the dark.
A man about Ray's age sat a few stools down from him. He seemed out of place, dressed neatly in a yellow knit shirt and a pair of khaki slacks and expensive Nike sweat-shop sneakers. He had short blond hair and a deep tan. He looked as if he had been playing golf all day and at this moment should be at home with his wife and three children, barbecuing on the deck and whining about the cost of filling their fleet of sport utility vehicles. Ray could tell that he had an awful crush on Mona. He was watching her every move, taking every opportunity to engage her. His annoyance was obvious each time she had to run down the bar or tend the tables in the back of the room. Once, when her fawning fan went to the washroom, she looked over at Ray and rolled her eyes. She was moving toward Ray when she spotted Willy's hand busily massaging his girlfriend's uninhibited breasts. Mona set the suddenly amorous couple straight with her surprisingly booming voice.
“Hey Candy! If anyone's goin' topless in this bar it's me, okay?”
“Sure Mona, sorry honey.”
“I know this place is a dump, but c'mon, you'll get us shut down.”
As Candy fastened the middle button of her shirt, Willy brought up his thick right arm, the length of which bore a tattoo of a rattlesnake with gaping fangs that dripped diamond drops of black venom over the back of his hand above his fist. He smiled and gave Mona a two-fingered salute from the peak of his skull cap.
Mona was tall and lean with the nicest ass Ray had seen in a long time. She had great muscle tone; her limbs were athletic, smooth, and firm. She wore a deep blue tank top without a bra and black lycra shorts. Her thin black hair ended just above her shoulders and swung loosely as she gracefully ran along the length of the bar, washing glasses, pouring drinks, and banging the cash register. A little Patsy Cline or Chuck Berry on the jukebox and she added an elaborate flourish to every move. Her voice was deep and gravelly; so deep it caused Ray to look at her closely. Her nose, especially in profile, was big for her face, but somehow it added a degree of character that he did not find displeasing. Still, there was something about her, he thought.
“Hey princess! How about another round over here?”
The call came from a table in the back corner. Ray recognized some of the buskers from Mallory Square. They sat in the dark sipping beers with sullen faces in sharp contrast to their animated street personas. They spoke in subdued tones. Ray sensed a shared feeling of relief here in this oasis, this shelter from the throngs of pushy tourists. Even he had noticed how the tourists walked the streets as if they had some regal charter in their pockets declaring that they must be entertained at all times and at any cost.
A season, two seasons, five seasons of this instilled and nurtured a disdain and contempt for anything that looked like a tourist. Despite efforts to squelch it, the contempt grew uncontrollably until it oozed from every pore, shaded every word, and strangled every joy. By the third or fourth season, it became so obvious that even some of the tourists noticed it. To some, the snarling smiles and icy stares were like full-handed slaps in the face, though most were comfortably obtuse and continued the ritual of throwing their money into fedoras and guitar cases. The most clever performers incorporated their insults into their acts. Though it helped relieve the anxiety, they eventually found that cultivating enmity resulted in a life without pleasure, an irritating but necessary symbiosis. These three were all in their first or second season, and while the contempt was not yet fully formed, it had already begun to develop a sturdy root.
Ray noticed one of them staring at him. She suddenly got up, said hello and handed Ray an inky portrait of himself drawn on the back of a cardboard beer coaster. He flushed and began to awkwardly explain he didn't have any money. The woman, who looked like a gypsy with a thick bunch of black woolly hair tied in a pony tail and wearing a gaily colored sarong with a southwest motif, put her arm around him and smiled.
“It's all right honey, I ain't putting the squeeze on ya,” she said in a kind voice as she squeezed him while Kokopeli danced around her protruding chest. With a backward jerk of her thumb she added, “Lord knows I got plenty of suckers out there for that. No, I just did ya 'cause I thought you had an interesting face. Oh, your chin's a little stubby of course, but the rest, your forehead, your nose, the distance between your eyes, everything's in harmony—with just a tinge of loss.”
“That would be my wallet,” Ray said dryly but with a smile.
Again Ray told the story of the lost wallet.
“Well shoot, y'all come over here and join us, friend. We're just counting our take, there's sure enough there for a few beers for you.”
“Thanks,” said Ray. “But I still got enough left to pay my way, but I sure wouldn't mind the company though.”
As Ray left the bar to join the group of buskers, Mona, like a baseball pitcher with a player on first, thought she saw Willy trying to steal second base again.
“Hey Willy! How about puttin' that snake back in his cage?”
Then Mona heard Candy mutter something that sounded like, “Yeah, both of them.”
Mona turned on her heels and shot a menacing look at Willy.
“You bastard! If I see that little snake of yours anywhere in here I'm gonna cleave it off and throw it in the pickled egg jar. You got that?
In the turbidity of their corner it was impossible to tell for sure, but if a 57-year-old ex-Hells Angel with three hundred square inches of tattoos, more scars than a ward full of appendectomy patients, and a junk habit carefully cultivated since the age of fifteen could be made to blush—he was.
Ray sat down, examining his portrait.
“Hey, that's pretty good. It really looks like me.”
“Yeah, Athena's all right,” said Simon, the puppeteer.
Seated at the table with Ray were Athena, Francie the Irish bagpiper, and Simon. As soon as Ray joined them, Jebediah, a tall Rastafarian accordion player marched blithely through the door and pulled up a chair at the little round table.
“Hey Rasta man! How goes the crusade?”
“Very well, Simon. You know, the accordion and Jimmy Cliff is a tremendous combination—Simon, how was the attendance at your little theater tonight? And Francie lass, how did our pied piper do?”
Francie, in her best Irish accent, filled in Jebediah and the rest of the troupe.
“Oh well now, let me see, oh yes, I believe I conned the poor beggars out of nearly one hundred dollars, give or take a farthing or two. And as me own dear mudder used to say to me before she put me in to me bed and wished the dreams of angels on me...Oh fuck, stop! don't make me do that shit anymore tonight!”
“Ah lass,” said Jebediah in his striking Rasta-Irish brogue, “Our poor Irish lass—from Schenectady, New York—must be losing her old silvery gift of gab, she must. Have you insulted the wee people, then? To be bringing this plague upon your house?”
Athena couldn't resist the brogue and turned her southern drawl northward.
“Oh, but I wish you would all stop this devlin' business. I wish you would and I wish that you—me dear rasta man, would kindly consider us all your friends and dear comrades as surely we are or at least consider us to be long enough to buy us a round and we'd all be blessin' you and hope that your soul, all rasta and dreaded as it is, will be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you're dead.”
They all laughed, even Ray, but he didn't get it. So he asked.
Francie took a long sip of her beer and explained.
“You see Ray, it's like this. When I play, I always throw in a little patter between the tunes. You know, explain the differences between the Irish pipes and the Scottish pipes. And if I was gonna play a traditional song, I would give its origin, that kind of crap. Then one night, I don't know why, I started talking with an Irish brogue—or at least my version of one. Maybe because I was thinking how much I'd like to go there, play my pipes on the moors...”
“That's Scotland, lass,” interrupted Simon.
“Yeah, whatever. Anyway, I guess it was just in my mind. So I made up a little story about how I came here from the old country—County Killarney...”
“Simon! Anyway, normally my playing and patter—in the old upstate Schenectady accent—I would take in about fifty to sixty bucks on an average night. But as soon as I became Irish, I doubled my take! They ate it up. All those cheese-heads and slow-talkers from the Midwest, normally they can squeeze sea water out of a nickel—even in Key West. But man they started throwing the dough faster then I could say, 'God bless us and save us said old Mrs. Davis.' Well, all's going well until one night who comes waltzing up Duvall but some arrogant, intellectual, pinheaded puppeteer and catches me in the act. Since then, thanks to you-know-who here, I've never heard the end of it.”
Ray innocently asked Francie if she still does the accent on the street.
“Fuckin' eh I do! Now I'm just waiting for an old boyfriend or high school teacher to show up one night. That'll be another story for Simon's wicked tongue, no doubt.”
“Yeah, but what if somebody who's really from Ireland hears you?”
“Oh shit, it happens all the time. They're so cool about it. Funny too, they usually give me the biggest tips. I think they consider it a compliment or something.”
Satisfied, and hurting from too much laughing, Ray returned to his beer. He stared in amazement—not just at the assortment of characters—but all around the table the instruments of their trade made an impressive collection. Athena's easel and crayon boxes, her frames of partially completed portraits and charcoal sketches spread out from her chair in a sprawling radius. Ray noticed that she never stopped doodling the whole time. Francie's pipes sat lumpy and deflated, like a sleeping octopus. Simon's puppet theater took up the most space. Made of large pieces of thin plywood, it cleverly folded and could be rolled on wheels around the streets. It was painted with bright colors with swirls of flowers and stars and rainbows. When it was unfolded, he hid inside and manipulated the hand puppets from below the stage. Handmade scenery and props, colored lights, and his charming little people made the plays seem real. His puppets told simple stories, many taken from fables and fairy tales. He also wrote many of the productions himself, sometimes spending days toiling over a pad and pencil trying to write plays for his little theater that would amuse both children and their money-bearing parents.
“Hey Simon, what's your latest play about?,” asked Athena, who was watching Simon scribbling in his notebook.
“Well,” said Simon, pleased at the interest, “It's about a modern-day Johnny Appleseed. The main character, a man, a vagabond, in his middle-years, roams the countryside planting trees. But not just apple trees, but plums and peaches and pear trees also. He plants wild grapes in wooded lanes and sometimes, where he thinks it would make people happy, he plants wildflowers like periwinkles and narcissi. He travels from village to village and slowly, over the years, through his diligence and sacrifice, transforms many barren landscapes into fruitful groves and colorful meadows. But the people become suspicious of the man. They can't understand why someone would plant trees and flowers in places where he owns no farm or even lives for a time. Because the man is different and so free with what he has, he makes the villagers nervous. Soon rumors start to spread and, as you might guess, one night some villagers attack his camp in the woods and beat him, throw his seed into the fire, and drive him away wounded and crying with pain.”
Simon sat back in his chair to see if he had captured their interest.
“Well? Go on, Simon! That's not the end, is it?” asked Francie. Satisfied, Simon continued.
“In the play, the story is told by an old villager to his granddaughter. They're sitting in the shade of a peach tree in a lovely glade on the edge of luxurious meadow of columbine and lady's slippers. At the end of his story, the old man tells the girl to climb up into the tree and pick some ripe peaches for her mother. As the two walk back to the village, their chins dripping with the sweet juice, the old man smiles as he watches the girl carefully plant their peach pits in a little clearing near some bluebells. 'There grandfather,' she says with great satisfaction, 'Now you and I will always have plenty of peaches—and I'd like to see someone try and beat me for planting those trees!' Then suddenly, from the corner of his eye, the old man sees a shadow emerge from the forest's edge. He starts toward the girl but he's too...
Simon falters, checks his notes and apologizes to the group.
“Well, you see it's not quite done, I don't know yet what ..”
“...Ah Simon, you just want to torture us! You want us to beg you for more,” said Athena. The others all agreed and went back to their beers, ignoring Simon's chuckling apology.
When the juke box stopped, Jebediah went to the back of the bar and opened the ancient upright piano. For ten minutes he played Liszt and Scarlatti and Hayden. No one spoke, not even Candy or Willy. Jebediah's massive frame bent over the keys, completely obscuring the instrument. As he played, Francie explained that Jebediah had been a child prodigy. But he never fit in with the tux and tails crowd and gave it up to serve Jah, get smoked out every day, and live on the street. But he loved that music. His reverence for the old masters was obvious as he filled the dingy bar with cascades of swift arpeggios and intricate harmonies. When he finished, he walked back to the table and slung his accordion over his shoulder.
“C'mon Francie. How about a duet.”
Francie assembled her drones and together they played a melancholy version of Prelude to a Kiss. To Ray's amazement, they played it right out the door. Everyone in the bar remained silent as they listened to the sounds of the accordion and the Irish bagpipes grow faint; slowly absorbed by the thick tropical air as the couple made their way down the deserted street.
“Well,” said Athena, “I know a cue when I hear it. See y'all tomorrow!”
Simon, who was still busy scribbling, began gathering his things.
“Where are you going to go, Ray?”
“I don't know. I'll probably just wander around till dawn. I'll get some coffee and something to eat later. I've got to get to Miami tomorrow—I mean today.”
“I wish I could help you but I live with three roommates and we've already got some of their friends taking up most of the floor space. They'd kill me if I brought back someone else. I'm sorry 'cause you're okay.—Hey, maybe Mona can help you.”
Mona, ever vigilant, was ready for this.
“You know Simon, I promised myself I wasn't gonna pick up any more strays.”
Ray was feeling like someone in need and he didn't like it.
“Hey, thanks anyway but I'm not going to impose on any of you. I'm fine all by myself. I didn't tell you the wallet story for sympathy, you know. I just thought it was...”
“Oh, be quiet Ray,” interrupted Mona.
“It's no big deal. You can crash on my couch. I don't want you gettin' picked up for vagrancy—not after leaving here—you might give the place a bad name!”
They all laughed and Ray gave in. But there was something else, though, that persuaded him. Something about Mona had intrigued him.
“Don't worry honey, it's all right. I was figuring on it three hours ago when I first heard your story. Just don't be expecting something luxurious. I live in the back room here.”
Soon the bar was empty. Willy and Candy were the last to stumble out. Ray helped Mona wash out the glasses. He swept the floor and mopped behind the bar. A sense of anticipation enlivened his every movement. Mona locked the door, set the alarm, and put out the lights. She grabbed two beers and unlocked the door that led to her apartment. As they walked in, she brushed up against him.
“You know, right?, she asked.
”Yeah, I know,“ he answered, his voice nearly failing him.
Inside the tidy apartment, Mona collapsed on the coach, kicked off her shoes, and told Ray to make himself at home. She pointed to the back door across the room.
“You can use that in the morning. You won't have to go through the bar and mess with the alarm. Just be quiet, all right? I don't like to get up before noon if I can help it.”
“Hey, I really appreciate what you're doing...”
Mona interrupted him, swinging her feet around to his lap.
“Hey would you mind? God, my feet take a beating. It's the absolute worst part of this whole gig!”
He rubbed her feet as she told him her story; her life from Midwest to Key West. Her conservative family that since disowned her; the frustrations in college—the discovery—the coming out—she told him all of it. The straight job, the double life, the times she wanted to kill herself. Too many times. Finally, she said, she woke up one night in a sweat and knew what she had to do. Ray felt an overwhelming affection for her. He finished her feet and then moving close to her, placed his hands, warm and full, on the back of her neck.
A man's blood rushes from one head to the other. They say that is why he is capable of such meager rational thought precisely when he needs it most. Those little red corpuscles desert him as reliably as snow birds from Minnesota head for Texas after Christmas.
Ray had always considered himself a liberal thinker. He was, after all, an editor and a writer, a man who had previously made his living crafting words. And just because newspaper writing can be the most degenerate of the form, it is still, he often reasoned, writing; a creative act, a manifestation of a liberal and free-thinking mind. But he was not gay, he was sure of that. He had never wanted to have sex with a man. Yes, there were incidents when he was a boy, but every man had gone through that: the touching; the curiosity. Mona was touching him in all the right places. He hardened under her caresses. Yes, Mona was feminine in the important ways: she was sensual, erotic, and knowing; her strong features, her sturdy breasts, tall and skinny. Beautiful. Yes, Mona was a woman. She wasn't soft, but solid. He didn't know what to expect. He ran his hand over her flat stomach, pressed his face against her breasts as he gently ran his fingers along her leg toward her thigh. She gently placed his hand between her legs. Her penis was soft; her balls, small and tight.
“You don't have to do anything,” she whispered in his ear. “I'm pre-op. Pumped full of hormones. I can get about as stiff as a plate of spaghetti. Just relax.”
She squeezed him hard; held him firmly in her hand. Ray abandoned his remaining inhibitions. His rational mind began to shut down as the blood raced from Minnesota to Texas. He knew only that he was enveloped in an eroticism whose intensity he had never known, not in his teens, not even with Liz. It was as if he was twelve again, masturbating for the first time. Finally, she put her mouth on him. He felt a sudden surge of freedom, racing, like his seed, for the light, releasing him from the great constriction. He came in spasms that rippled through him until every muscle melted into a warm, buoyant sea of utter contentment.
“Go to sleep, baby,” she whispered and kissed him tenderly on the mouth.
He lay there thinking that he had attained a new level of pleasure known only perhaps to tantric practitioners or those rare Buddhist monks of whom it is said can achieve multiple orgasms because they have trained themselves not to ejaculate, a feat only dreamed of by ordinary men. Distinguished company indeed, and even if he didn't quite reach the heights of those masters, he was at least giving it a damn good shot.
In the morning he awoke alone on the couch. He dressed quickly and left through the back door as quietly as he could. On the street again, the morning light filtered through the palms and gilded the red and purple bougainvillea. He headed back to Duvall searching for coffee and trying not to think too much.
August Cotton awoke early as usual. The sun pierced his bedroom blinds, shooting triangles of morning light against clean, white walls. Outside, a raucous chorus of juncos and parrots informed him that the day had begun in earnest. August, in his late 60s, was a man of habit. He proceeded with his morning routine in a calm and orderly manner. He did not rush and he did not waiver. He had a sensible breakfast of grits and coffee, orange juice and toast. He followed his meal with one of his three daily allotted cigarettes. He sat in the kitchen slowly smoking, savoring the warm toasted flavor and pleasant roughness in his throat. The kitchen ritual completed, he shuffled back to the bedroom and began dressing. He put on a clean pressed button-down Oxford cotton shirt, white with thin pink stripes, and carefully tied an indigo blue bow tie. He stepped into a pair of slate gray linen slacks sharply creased. Finally, black sturdy shoes and a straw skimmer bounded his six-foot frame. As he dressed, the alarm clock radio circulated bits of classical music interspersed between commercials, weather, traffic, more commercials, and news. From a cut glass dish on his dresser, August scooped up his car keys, some change, and a pack of gum. He paused, as usual, to look at the framed photos behind the dish. They were Polaroids from the 50s and 60s, faded now, turning blue and grainy in their dull brass frames, giving the subjects—a middle-aged couple and a soldier boy—a ghostly cast. Another photo, recently taken, stood out from the others. She was perhaps thirty and held a smiling boy of no more than seven on her lap.
In the narrow driveway wedged between two miniature clapboard houses, August removed a gray cotton duck tarp which covered his car. He folded it in large, loose squares and placed it neatly on the back stairs. In one smooth, uninterrupted motion he bent his lanky frame into the front seat of the old Rambler, turned the key and pumped the gas, pushed the “reverse” button, and he was gone.
Ray planted his right foot on the long white line stretching north and stuck out his thumb. Cars flew by, some gave him the finger, most ignored him. He thought about how this narrow stripe of paint ran all the way to the foggy shores of Maine. He wondered if anyone had ever walked it. He momentarily entertained the notion but gave it up as the morning sun began to get serious, coaxing beads of sweat from his skin. After about an hour, Ray turned his attention to the ragged wedge of weeds and garbage between the highway and the impenetrable border of palmettos and swamp. Here, on the side of the road, was the telling refuse, the colorful and variegated jetsam from the Great American Road Trip. To those with time to notice, the litter told the story of the slow and inevitable decline from that daring adventure to common commuter drudgery.
Ray tried to guess the occupants of a car by what they threw from the window. He came to fancy himself fairly adept at the game. For instance, three sets of MacDonald's burger and fry wrappers plus six cans of Busch Lite meant four redneck blue collar workers on their way back from lunch. Taco Bell wrappers mixed with rolling paper packets indicated a car full of 17-year-olds at 2 a.m. Full containers of soda or burgers with a single bite missing said 'toddlers.' The diapers spoke for themselves. Then there was the universal trash. Just in the first mile that morning, Ray found an astounding diversity of detritus. He made a mental list: four broken bungee cords of varying lengths; two Coney Island whitefish; an empty pack of Captain Black pipe tobacco; Barbie's left arm; six butane lighters (various colors, two thoroughly squashed, two empty, one broken, and one in fine condition which he put in his pocket). One tin of Skoal Menthol Long-Cut Chew Tobacco, one empty Irish Spring deodorant stick, a container of McCormick's Oregano (half-full but sopping wet), and an unredeemable pair of Fruit of the Loom men's briefs. There were uncountable pieces of shredded truck tire, some wide and thick with the tread still intact; others, long and stringy and more than a foot long. He also found a cracked Black Sabbath cd, a wide assortment of splintered and leaking disposable ball point pens, and two broken cassettes with their tape tails skipping in the breeze and adorning the vegetation like rusted tinsel. These were leavings of our modern world, he thought. Yes, and he was becoming the Margaret Mead of Highway One. He made up a title for himself: Urban Anthropologist Specializing in Fossil Fuel Transportation and its Primary Effects Upon the Peripheral Flora and Fauna.
Nearly two hours of thumbing and ridiculous smiling failed to transport Ray any closer to Miami. He cursed his fate and the nine dollar deficit that kept him off the bus. The ticket agent had informed him that his travel pass was a bearer document and could not be replaced. “Didn't you read the fine print?” he was asked. He tried to forget the ensuing argument at the ticket counter but the words, “Then you shouldn't have lost it,” kept echoing through his skull like a fuzzy bus terminal announcement. His mind drifted as the expectation of a ride gradually evaporated.
“I can't believe I'm fuckin' hitchhiking! For chrissakes, I feel like a kid—like a bum. What the hell am I doing here?”