This 25,000-word post exists because someone asked a question.
I like writing about my time as a drifter among the Navajo, Zuni and Hispanic of New Mexico, but someone wondered how a New England Yankee, who had not the slightest desire to go to such a place, wound up in such a place. This began as a reply, which I intended to be a short explanation.
There are some life-changing events you don’t see are life-changing at the time. Later on, using twenty-twenty hindsight, the same event holds an import that slugs you in the jaw. We wonder how we could have been so blind.
We are surrounded by powers we fail to recognize. Even an atheist is subject to the reactions of rebounding Karma, and those who in some way ask for the Creator’s help get an additional Shepherd’s crook prodding their ribs, but we often tend to be oblivious of these nudges as they move us and shape us, and then an amnesia dulls recall later. For this reason I advise all young writers to keep a diary. (Handwritten; that no hacker can digitally snoop into.)
I’ve been looking through the yellowing pages of notebooks I kept during my time as a drifter, and I simply have to shake my head at how blind I was. I was too busy reeling from one affront to my dignity to the next affront to my dignity, to attend much to the perfect timing of the affronts. However I did have a strange sense of humor, and did pause to note down the delicious irony of many of the incredibly inconvenient annoyances.
It would be nice if life would stop, and give a person time to evaluate what the last mistake was teaching, but life does not give one time, which tends to lead to the next mistake.
I was stubborn, when it came to demanding time to assess experience. I followed the rule, “Once burned, twice shy”. After I was burned I wanted to think hard, identify what had burned me, so I could shy away from it in the future. But the future came too fast, before I had time to think. Because I hadn’t had time to think, I’d get burned again.
I had a softhearted mother, who allowed me to move into her basement to think about how I had been burned, but people sneer when you live with Mom; it burned me to be such a weeny. Also, even the nicest Mom can burn a man, if she is imperfect, and my Mom must have been imperfect if she made the likes of me. Eventually even the bomb shelter of a Mom’s cellar can burn to a degree where it has the heat of hell, and then a man must depart the safety of Mom’s and enter a world which never gives one time to think.
I always liked the line in the Eagle’s song “Lying Eyes” that goes, “Every form of refuge has it’s price.” I knew about the price one pays because I was always seeking new and innovative ways to work as little as possible, pay rent as seldom as possible, mooch free meals as often as possible, and avoid all sermons, because I wanted time to think. I did quite well except when it came to avoiding sermons. People were always trying to “help” me by giving advice I didn’t want to hear. (I would have preferred money).
It seemed to me that no one wanted to talk about the things I wanted to talk about, which made me feel lonely. One way to escape the loneliness was sing your heart out in a shower to a mysterious audience which was much more appreciative than people in real life, or to write poems to that same mysterious Listener. However that only expressed my heart. It didn’t deal with the heartless, pragmatic intellectual arguments, which was what I wanted to think about, but no one wanted to talk about.
My way of escaping that intellectual loneliness was to create characters in a story who did talk about the things I wanted to talk about. Considering the subjects my characters talked about were the very subjects that people I knew didn’t want to talk about, it seems obvious that people I knew would want even less to read about such subjects. Few could withstand even the introductory paragraphs . I therefore spent a long time in a world of my own, scribbling unpublishable stuff which I alone found intelligible.
When people asked what I was doing, I said I was “writing a novel”. When they asked me what the novel was about, I could make their eyes glaze over fairly swiftly with my explanations. My explanations often lacked clarity because I myself didn’t have any idea what “it” was about. “It” refused to stick to the subject, even when I was attempting to “finish” “it”. “It” had an extraordinary ability to sidetrack and backtrack. When I attempted to write a synopsis, the synopsis would become longer than the novel.
I exasperated the kindest and most tolerant of people, who attempted to tell me I needed to simplify, and who then saw me promptly become more complex. No advise worked. Any advise burned me, for it set off a cynical nag in my head who sneered at imperfections in my most eloquent paragraphs, whereupon I’d need time to think up an “improved” answer. “Improvements” always involved writing additions, and for a long time I seldom edited by shortening. When people told me I couldn’t possibly write in such a manner, I’d point out Balzac’s propensity to expand upon even the publisher’s proofs of his works:
At this point even the kindest people would point out there was a difference between Balzac and myself. Balzac was wildly successful and I was not. He made money and I did not. He could afford to be eccentric. I could not.
I didn’t see why people had to be so money-minded. They would respond they didn’t need to be so money-minded, but I did, because they were not going to allow me to sleep on their couch, or in their garage, or in my car in their driveway, any longer. I needed to either get a patron, or get a job.
Being pitched out into the street hurt, but for me it was just another burn to think about. Rather than decreasing the urge to write it increased it. The less I could afford a desk to write at, the more urgent my craving to write became. I was obsessive, compulsive, and people didn’t know what to do with me, which is why they pitched me into the street.
Eventually I discovered you can only ask so much of friends. It may be true that “ones reach should exceed ones grasp”, but there is such a thing as “a mooch too far”. Deep wells can run dry. Even if you don’t run out of friends because you have the better sort of friends, your friends can run out of patience. I was so persistent with my asking that not only friends ran out of patience; even family ran out of patience.
I was downright indignant. How dare they run out of patience!? I had no thankfulness nor appreciation for what they had to put up with, when they put up with me. Instead I just got angry and thought, “I’ll show them. They’ll be sorry, when I’m famous.”
In some ways being faced by the limits of what a poet can ask of fellow men and women did not make me better, but rather made me worse. Rather than writing less I wrote harder. Rather than one pot of coffee I drank two; rather than smoking forty cigarettes I smoked fifty; rather than a few beers I drank a few six-packs. I remember one time dropping to my knees and pounding the carpet with my fist shouting, “I will! I will write this down!” This sort of extreme behavior does become expensive, but that didn’t stop me. To really teach them all a lesson, I’d even get a job.
When I got a job my better friends would begin winking at each other and giving each other knowing nudges, thinking that their “tough-love” was bearing fruit, and that I was showing signs of becoming sensible and practical. But I was no dunce. I could see through all the silent, wink-wink, nudge-nudge stuff. I found it infuriating. Had they no idea that they were trying to kill me? Did they not know that to make a poet work a steady job would be the death of poetry? What sort of friends were they? If I loved them, I really needed to teach them a lesson.
In essence, if they were going to throw tough-love at me, I’d throw tougher-love right back in their faces. And in many ways that is exactly what I did.
It seems obvious, using twenty-twenty hindsight, that this situation was headed for a unhappy ending, as such escalation cannot go on forever before a sort of nuclear winter occurs. In actual fact such a situation tends to go through all sorts of meandering perambulations, involving making-up and breaking-up, promotions and demotions, getting hired and getting fired, but the sitcom soap-opera is generally a downward spiral, if one is truly a mad poet. After all, to be a mad poet is to take offence when the world demands sanity.
But truly, when I came right down to it, the world had little business preaching to me about sanity, for the world was utterly bonkers. The lunatics were running the asylum, and hypocrisy was king. Even if they never listened to me, they should at least practice what they preached, but instead I saw some horrible behavior.
I’ll save all the juicy details for a story I’ll someday write called, “California”. To put it all in a nutshell, it was a time full of nice people yet was hell on earth, for the likes of me. The Eagles song “Hotel California” was roughly what I experienced. (Considering the song was a hit five years before I arrived there , I should have been forewarned.)
The only good that came out of the hell of being a poet midst what seemed (to me) to be California’s antithesis of poetry was “The Novel That Never Was”. It was a repository for my thought, and a church-like sanctuary I could flee to, and an excuse for times I wanted to retreat from making money, for my novel “might” make a fortune “when it was finished.”
I was actually cynical about the idea of any money coming from writing a novel, perhaps influenced by a somewhat sardonic Beatle’s hit I heard many times every day, for weeks on end, at age thirteen. In fact the hit song may have gravely embittered my world-view. It always seemed a reminder not to take myself too seriously, as a writer, when I heard “Paperback Writer” as a “golden oldie”, years later.
In essence, the hope of making money with my writing was a sort of trick to keep myself going, like hanging an apple in front of a reluctant and overburdened donkey, to keep it plodding forward. At times, when I saw something inspiring, I really believed others might like to see it, (if not pay for it), but then what I experienced was like asking a girl for a dance and seeing her shake her head, or only nod with a most pained expression.
Considering there was so little encouragement, writing was a sort of negative affliction, like an addiction. The question then becomes, what did I get out of it? Was it merely escapism, like the high of a heroin addict? There were some striking similarities. When people pointed out the similarities they sometimes had the voice of Satan, reasonable and oily, and I battled my deepest despairs. I fought back, but couldn’t say what I was fighting (and writing) for. I can remember pacing around talking to God, saying, “I just don’t know what to do, Lord. I just don’t know what to do.”
Though I went to no church, and was not very obedient to what I thought I knew God commanded, I dare say I must have done something right, for the ways life burned me seemed to herd me in a way a shepherd might herd sheep. Of course, at the time I would have deeply resented it if anyone called me a sheep. Sheep are very dumb animals. I felt I was radical and defiant and very smart.
In the story called “California” (which I hope to someday write) I’ll describe how I was “faithful but unfortunate” (the motto on Winston Churchill’s coat of arms) and how “doing the right thing was never the rewarding thing” (my personal motto for that time.) For now I’ll have to give a brief example.
I had started working for a young landscaper, (only 26-years-old, while I was thirty), and decided to impress him with how hard I could work. One morning he left me with a chainsaw, ladder, shovel and pickax, and said my job was to cut down a forty-foot-tall pine tree, cut and split the logs, and remove the stump. I was very strong at that time, and the work I did that day was a feat of strength. When my young boss returned at the end of the day the wood was split and stacked and the large stump had been dug up and removed. Unbeknownst to me, my boss had told the lady who owned the property that the job would take a week, and had charged her accordingly. I could see he was displeased, but all he said was, “You work too hard.” Then he left me weeding the borders of a flowerbed as he went to speak with the lady. As I worked they came walking back, and he was charming her in the way landscapers charm rich, beautiful, blond women, when the woman is the customer and always correct.
I was watching them, although facing away, for the flowerbed was below a picture window that inadvertently acted as a mirror. As they neared me the beautiful blond lost her train of thought in mid sentence, and her eyes focused on my back and shoulders. I was working with my shirt off. Then she seemed to awake to her obvious gawking, and she smiled at my employer and frankly stated, “Your employee has a strong back.”
My boss did not look entirely pleased, perhaps because he was physically a bit stringy, but he attempted to remain composed, stating so I could hear, “Yes, he has a strong back…”, but then he continued, silently mouthing words, while twirling a finger beside his head, “…But a weak mind.” He was utterly unaware I was watching in the picture window, and could lip-read.
The woman did not look entirely pleased, and recoiled slightly. As she looked away she looked into into the picture window, and our eyes met. As our eyes met my boss noticed her change in expression, and he followed her gaze into the picture window. There was then an extremely embarrassing silence as reflected eyes met reflected eyes, and then she hurried one way to answer the phone and he hurried the other way to recover his dignity. I weeded, and chuckled to myself, “What a great scene for a novel!”
I had an evening to reflect, for my young boss left early without talking to me. It occurred to me that my hard work might have accidentally torpedoed his attempt to assert his own superiority. He did seem the sort of boss that assumes being boss automatically indicates superiority, and, though I had only worked for him a week, he had spent a lot of that week hinting that I might be wise to convert to (insert religion of your choice), stating converting might make me become a better person, (and by innuendo suggesting he was the better person).
I actually liked chatting about religions, but think I hurt his feelings, for rather than proving he was a better person I had accidentally proved he was a jerk. But jerks didn’t bother me, for I knew I was a jerk as well, and I didn’t take offence.
He showed no inclination to talk about the event the next morning, and I was willing to let bygones be bygones, and was friendly and cheerful, though he seemed a bit grouchy.
I later gathered he was not as willing to let bygones be bygones, for my job the next day was to clear a lot of leafless brush. He knew, but neglected to tell me, that the brush was poison oak. By the following morning I had a rash over three quarters of my body. This perhaps demonstrates that followers of (insert religion of your choice) do get the last laugh, but I did not have the slightest desire to convert. My rash was so severe I could not work, but, between hot, soapy showers, I was able to sit at my typewriter and insert a new, despicable character into the plot of “The Novel That Never Was.”
I hope you notice that in the above episode I did the right thing, which was to work hard, but it was not the rewarding thing. This was only one of many episodes, and enables me to identify in some ways with heroin addicts. Addicts go through detox, rehab, and wind up back on heroin. I would get a job, and do good, and wind up back working on “The Novel That Never Was.”
My friends grew tired of my excuses. I suppose from their perspective their exasperation was understandable. They had felt a faint hope when I left my typewriter and got a Real Job, but when I returned to the typewriter with seventy-five percent of my body covered with a disgusting rash only a week later they felt like ripping out their hair. In fact I know one fellow who now, at age seventy-two, has thinning hair, and I think most of the thinning occurred thirty-five years ago, when I lived with him. As is often the case with heroin addicts, a day came when my excuses were not good enough.
It is a sad thing to realize you have used up your allotment of worldly compassion. It’s like when an academic’s grant runs out, or a writer has burned through his advance, but in my case my patrons were unwilling patrons. My future novel “California” will involve descriptions of pathetic, fawning attempts I made to win back favor from frowning faces, but I was like a heroin addict who promises to be good without quitting his addiction. All pleading only makes the frowns firmer.
Finally I was down to sleeping on the kitchen-livingroom floor of my last unwilling patron, who was a soul so gentle and so kind he simply didn’t have the heart to throw me out. The abode was a shack in a so-called “surfer slum” in Capitola, California, and was basically two small rooms: A bedroom with a bathroom off of it, and a kitchen-livingroom which I was turning into a mess that stank of stale beer and cigarettes, as I’d again become utterly engrossed in “The Novel That Never Was.” One table in a corner held my typewriter midst overflowing ashtrays and empty coffee cups and unwashed dishes and heaps of paper. Finally even my gentle host couldn’t stand it, and he came marching into the shack one midday to lay down the law.
Laying-down-the-law was completely out of character for the gentle man. I got the feeling he had practiced his speech many times before a mirror to get it down right, but he was a bad actor. He basically stated, “This place is a filthy mess and stinks and I want it cleaned up right now.” To emphasize how serious he was he had planned to pound down his fist, but when he got to that part of his speech he realized there were dirty dishes all over the kitchen counter and no place to slam down his fist. He had to hesitate and search before he found a place to pound, which completely spoiled the effect. To avoid breaking crockery his pounded fist was more like a tap between dishes, but I got the message, as he wheeled and marched out the door.
I was horrified that I had driven this kind man to behave in a manner that was so obviously out of character. Immediately I began sweeping and scrubbing, though it took a while to find any soap and cleanser. I took rugs outside and beat them over a fence and scrubbed all the linoleum and aired all the curtains in the sunshine and washed every dish and put them where they belonged. I even sorted my papers. When my host returned, a bit drunk, that evening, he looked around in astonishment, and then a pleased look filled his face. Sometimes it pays to thump your fist. But when he looked at me he saw my eyes had a far-away look, and he shook his head slightly and walked away into his bedroom without a word. He could tell by my dazed eyes I was back into “The Novel That Never Was”, and things would soon be a mess again. I was a hopeless case.
What he didn’t know was that while cleaning up the books and arranging them neatly on a shelf I’d come across some obscure works by Mark Twain, involving the “Mental Telegraphy” described in this letter he wrote:
Hartford, Conn., October 4, 1884.
DEAR SIR, — I should be very glad to be made a Member of the Society for Psychical Research; for Thought-transference, as you call it, or mental telegraphy as I have been in the habit of calling it, has been a very strong interest with me for the past nine or ten years. I have grown so accustomed to considering that all my powerful impulses come to me from somebody else, that I often feel like a mere amanuensis when I sit down to write a letter under the coercion of a strong impulse; I consider that that other person is supplying the thoughts to me, and that I am merely writing from dictation. And I consider that when that other person does not supply me with the thoughts, he has supplied me with the impulse anyway; I never seem to have any impulses of my own. Still, may be I get even by unconsciously furnishing other people with impulses.
I have reaped an advantage from these years of constant observation. For instance when I am suddenly and strongly moved to write a letter or inquiry, I generally don’t write it — because I know that that other person is at that moment writing to tell me the thing I wanted to know, — I have moved him or he has moved me, I don’t know which, — but anyway I don’t need to write, and so I save my labour. Of course I sometimes act upon my impulse without stopping to think. My cigars come to me from 1,200 miles away. A few days ago, — September 30th, — it suddenly, and very warmly occurred to me that an order made three weeks ago for cigars had as yet, for some unaccountable reason, received no attention. I immediately telegraphed to inquire what the matter was. At least I wrote the telegram and was about to send it down town, when the thought occurred to me, “This isn’t necessary, they are doing something about the cigars now — this impulse has travelled to me 1,200 miles in half a second.”
As I finished writing the above sentence a servant intruded here to say, “The cigars have arrived, and we haven’t any money downstairs to pay the expressage.” This is October 4th, — you see how serene my confidence was. The bill for the cigars arrived October 2nd, dated September 30th — I knew perfectly well they were doing something about the cigars that day, or I shouldn’t have had that strong impulse to wire an inquiry.
So, by depending upon the trustworthiness of the mental telegraph, and refraining from using the electric one, I save 50 cents — for the poor. [I am the poor.]
Companion instances to this have happened in my experience so frequently in the past nine years, that I could pour them out upon you to utter weariness. I have been saved the writing of many and many a letter by refusing to obey these strong impulses. I always knew the other fellow was sitting down to write when I got the impulse — so what could be the sense in both of us writing the same thing? People are always marvelling because their letters “cross” each other. If they would but squelch the impulse to write, there would not be any crossing, because only the other fellow would write. I am politely making an exception in your case; you have mentally telegraphed me to write, possibly, and I sit down at once and do it, without any shirking.
I began a chapter upon “Mental Telegraphy” in May, 1878, and added a a paragraph to it now and then during two or three years; but I have never published it, because I judged that people would only laugh at it and think I was joking. I long ago decided to not publish it at all; but I have the old MS. by me yet, and I notice one thought in it which may be worth mentioning — to this effect: In my own case it has often been demonstrated that people can have crystal-clear mental communication with each other over vast distances. Doubtless to be able to do this the two minds have to be in a peculiarly favourable condition for the moment. Very well, then, why shouldn’t some scientist find it possible to invent a way to create this condition of rapport between two minds, at will? Then we should drop the slow and cumbersome telephone and say, “Connect me with the brain of the chief of police at Peking.” We shouldn’t need to know the man’s language; we should communicate by thought only, and say in a couple of minutes what couldn’t be inflated into words in an hour and a-half. Telephones, telegraphs and words are too slow for this age; we must get something that is faster. — Truly yours,
S. L. CLEMENS.
P.S. — I do not mark this “private,” there being nothing furtive about it or any misstatements in it. I wish you could have given me a call. It would have been a most welcome pleasure to me.
– letter to William Barrett, published in Journal of Society for Psychical Research, Oct. 1884, pp. 166-167.
To me it seemed that finding this work by Mark Twain was a rare case where doing the right thing was the rewarding thing, for house-cleaning had led to a wonderful discovery. My friends, however, did not feel my discovery was wonderful at all. It was bad enough that I wrote when I should be working a Real Job, claiming it was “art”. Now I also was claiming it was “Psychical Research.”
But Mark Twain’s observations about what he called “Mental Telegraphy”, [which he published in Harper’s Weekly, (as “Mental Telegraphy, A Manuscript With A History”; December 1891, and “Mental Telegraphy Again”; September 1895)] were an affirmation of things I had observed, but had never spoken out loud because I feared being called crazy.
Or, to be more precise, I didn’t fear being called crazy, for being crazy was a requirement of being a true Mad Poet; what I feared was being institutionalized. My father had spent time in an institution, and he stated that institutions were dangerous and evil places: Just as “houses of correction” seldom corrected and did much to teach young criminals crime, mental institutions furthered madness. Nor would it be the happy madness of ecstasy, which poets seek; it would be the sheer agony of isolation and lonesomeness.
Writing, by its very nature, involves isolation and a degree of loneliness. It is difficult to concentrate in a crowd. It makes matters worse when there is no compensating acclamation for the finished product, and instead one’s writing earns disapproval and tough-love. I felt marginalized, and was angry about it, yet at the same time had a deep craving for love.
It is likely it was due to my craving for love that many of the “coincidences” (which I felt might be signs of psychic contacts) I had noticed involved women. For example, I might be basing a character in “The Novel That Never Was” on a girl I knew as a teenager, and be picturing her vividly as I wrote, and the phone would then ring, and it would be that very woman, who I hadn’t spoken with in a decade.
Right at this time I was confronted by a peculiar “coincidence” that deeply troubled me. I had a number of “ex” girlfriends who still liked me, though they had concluded I was a hopeless case and not husband-material. I’d exchange letters with them on rare occasions, catching up on the news, and I confess I entertained the faint (but dimming) hope that one of these women might decide I was worth it, even if I was a hopeless case. They drifted through my mind quite often, and I used to joke I had a “harem in my head”.
I tended to write such “exes” far more often than they wrote me. Usually my post office box was empty, (unless it held a rejection slip). Understandably I sometimes let long periods of time pass before checking to see if I had mail, and one time, after a long period, I checked my box and found two letters from two women. The two women didn’t know each other and lived states apart, but the letters were basically describing the same dream. In the dream they each were swimming with me in a warm sea with beautiful clouds in the sky, and laughing about the sheer joy of the experience.
I found this very troubling because I didn’t believe a man should have more than one wife, and I was very prudish (for those times) about having sex before marriage. When I read the first letter I was quite happy, as it seemed there might be some hope of a soul-mate appearing from my past and ending my loneliness, but when I read the second letter I felt like I had somehow committed a bizarre form of adultery without my conscious knowledge, in my dreams.
I needed time to think, but, as always, I had no time. I had used up the patience of even my gentlest, kindest friend. He didn’t throw me out into the street; he simply packed up and moved out himself, stating “the rent is $400.00 and will be due at the end of the month, and I won’t be paying it.”
That got my attention. Minimum wage at that time was $3.35/hour, or $134.00/week, and even if I found work, after taxes were deducted I’d have money for rent but not food. I couldn’t bail on the apartment because I’d completely run out of other friends who’d let me move in and mooch. Anyway, I was mad at everyone, and going to teach them all a lesson. The time had come to “hustle.”
The next few months were a blear. I worked three jobs, worked on “The Novel That Never Was”, and conducted experiments to see if I could develop my powers of “mental telegraphy.” I very much liked the idea of developing psychic power, because I was so powerless in other areas.
The three jobs were scooping ice-cream in an obscure corner of a K-mart, making doughnuts from midnight until dawn, and working at a fast food place cooking burgers and fries. All three employers made employees wait between two and three weeks before paying the first check, and it was touch and go for a while, staying fed. I’ll skip around ten good stories about how I stayed fed, (I’ll include them in “California”), and instead focus on a specific setting where I did much of my research on “mental telegraphy”.
The setting was the burger joint, which typically hired teenagers. I had no problem getting a job there, because I had a good reputation; I had worked there earlier. (The 25-year-old manager confessed that initially he never would have hired an “old” 30-year-old drifter, but allowed his then-girlfriend, the assistant manager, to hire me so she would “learn not to hire that sort”. He laughed that the irony then was that, though I turned out to not to be “that sort”, his girlfriend did turn out to be “that sort.”) In any case, I had worked hard and had given two week’s notice before I left, the first time I worked there, and therefore the manager was glad to have me back. It turned out he was having trouble finding strong, male employees.
I immediately noticed there were far more teen aged girls at the place than there had formerly been. Formerly there had been an equal number of teen aged boys, which kept the girls occupied, but now the teen aged boys were running off to work at the start-ups of some boom involving newfangled things called “computers”. Apparently the pay was better, whether you worked at the actual start-ups, or for the construction companies building the computer factories, which were springing up like mushrooms. The result was that all the teen aged girls had no teen aged boys to keep them occupied, and I found myself in delightful danger.
I have already confessed I was a prude, but must now also confess I was terribly tempted. When I myself was a teenager only a few teen aged girls were beautiful, but somehow by the time I was thirty-one they had all greatly improved. Also at that (pre-AIDS) time California parents had a sloppy and confused concept of morality, which meant that their daughters were hopelessly inappropriate. I think one thing that saved me was that most teen aged girls are not very good at the art of seduction. When they tried, I had to turn away and pretend to cough to avoid laughing through my nose, (which might have hurt their feelings terribly).
Although I would have had to have been sexually active at age fourteen to be their fathers, I decided it was best if I became a father-figure, and managed to keep this facade from crumbling. It wasn’t easy. I recall one lavishly endowed blond girl asked me, “Do you feel a hug has to be sexual?” and when I responded, “No”, she hugged me. Thereafter, every day when I arrived, I got that hug. And that was only one girl out of fifteen. The situation was likely bad for my health.
As a father-figure, (or perhaps big-brother-figure), I found myself the unwilling psychologist offering guidance to around ten of the fifteen girls. Back then a psychologist made $60.00/hour, but I made $3.35. There were times I dealt with all ten girls in an hour, and should have made $600.00. Or more, for there were four bewildered young men midst the chaos of that kitchen, also asking me advise.
Fortunately the booming local-economy caused by the start-up of the computer-age kept us all very busy. We never had idle hands for the devil to make a playground out of.
At one point a price-war with nearby burger joints lowered the price of the smallest burger to 37 cents, and this meant big, burly construction workers, who ordinarily would buy two doubled versions of the biggest burger, would saunter in and buy twelve small burgers and then depart popping burgers like cookies into their mouths. Preparing for this onslaught of appetite meant that just before lunch we had to start cranking out small burgers, creating a mountain of wrapped, little burgers in the warming-rack by noon, yet fifteen minutes later the mountain was gone, and we were still cranking out little burgers as fast as we could.
It was in the frantic chaos of this overheated kitchen that I conducted experiments and made observations concerning “mental telegraphy”. These involved two areas.
The first (and most scientifically verifiable) area involved filling orders before the order came in. This phenomenon occurred with many workers, and happened so often it attracted little wonder. I suppose it could be called “coincidence”, but I noted it all the same. It sometimes involved a “special order” burger, but usually involved the rarely-ordered chicken or fish sandwiches, which were prepared in the same hot grease that sizzled huge amounts of french fries.
There was a company-commandment which stated that fish or chicken sandwiches should never be prepared beforehand, for they were wrapped and put up on the warming rack with a time-stamp, and if they were not purchased within fifteen minutes they were thrown away in the “wastage” bucket. Too much wastage got you in trouble, yet the company-commandment was broken with impunity, with very little wastage, though no one could explain why there wasn’t wastage. Workers merely obeyed a “hunch”, a bit like a successful gambler at a roulette wheel.
As it happened to me on numerous occasions I can describe it: I’d be frantically frying strainer after strainer of potatoes, sometimes four at once, attempting to keep up with the lunchtime demand for french fries, and all of a sudden I would have the inclination to fry two fish patties and a chicken patty. I followed the inclination, and then, just as the patties were done, the order came over the speaker from the front, “Twelve small burgers; thirteen small cheeseburgers, twenty-eight small fries, two fish sandwiches, and a chicken sandwich.”
The second area was less scientifically-verifiable. It involved the fact that, just because teenagers are frantically busy, it doesn’t mean they have no time to flirt. (I became convinced California teenagers would flirt even in the middle of an earthquake.) This in turn involved an uncanny ability I noticed many teen aged girls had even when I myself was a teenager: The over-development of peripheral vision. A girl could be looking to your left when her focus was actually on you. This utterly mystified teen aged boys, but it didn’t mystify me. What mystified me was when the same awareness happened in a hot kitchen, when the girl would have had to have eyes that looked out of the back of her head.
There were many small examples of this within the frantic craziness of a rush, some involving tangible things such as ketchup bottles being handed to you before you asked, but others involving all sorts of wordless glances: Angry, sad, bitter, forgiving, consoling, loving. There was banter and bursts of laughter going on at the same time, but it was the unspoken stuff that I was most sensitive to and fascinated by. In some ways it was like a silent soap opera, but it was being played in fast-motion with the silent voices sped up until they sounded like chipmunks. Keeping track of all the relationships was like juggling an impossible number of balls; each of the fifteen girls and four boys had eighteen relationships. (Nineteen, if you included me.)
By the time I walked home my mind was a whirl. Having one or two teen aged daughters involves one in enough emotional drama for most men. However I had fifteen daughters (and four sons). I had a lot to think about.
When I sunk in a chair at my desk in my surfer shack I might have a few hours before I had to hurry off to scoop ice cream or make doughnuts, and I’d bravely start working on “The Novel That Never Was.” But I noticed something odd. The novel suddenly had fifteen new female characters and four new male characters.
Obviously real-life-experience was leaking into my creative life. This might be healthy in small doses, but I was experiencing an overdose. It might be healthy to have a single beloved drifting through your imagination, but fifteen girls was far too many. I didn’t have a harem in my head; I had a herd. My writing, which formerly had merely been incomprehensible to others, deteriorated swiftly into fragmented confusion which was becoming incomprehensible even to me. The herd of damsels in my skull could stampede.
In retrospect I think I was undergoing a mild nervous breakdown, but I was more aware of what was happening to me than most people are, as they go nuts. For one thing, I knew a lot of psychobabble and could define certain symptoms as “stress”, and for another thing I knew enough New Age nonsense to define other symptoms as “psychic.” Thirdly, I could feel a certain pride about how troubled the waters of my mind were, because, after all, one requirement of being a mad poet is to display insanity.
When you go mad there are certain people you tend to be mad at. In my case I was mad at the friends had who dished out tough-love, because they felt my working a Real Job would ground me in reality and make me more sensible. This did not seem to be happening in any way, shape or form.
I was also mad at California, for there seemed no way any responsible society would allow a mad poet to be a father-figure for fifteen girls. A good father wouldn’t approve of his daughter running around with a rock star, even if a rock star was rich and famous, and I most definitely wasn’t rich and famous. Yet California fathers seemed to be a bunch of men running away from their responsibility. I hardly ever met a California father who was born there. Most were from somewhere else, and were running away from that other place, whether it was Mexico or the East Coast. Yet they called me the escapist.
Lastly, I was mad about being made spiritual against my will. I didn’t want to be chaste. I wanted a wife, and to have sex four times a night if I chose. To have to be a pure father-figure for fifteen nubile teenagers was like fasting while working in a delicatessen.
But perhaps this extreme spiritual discipline opened spiritual doors. After all, the reason some gave for fasting and purity and avoiding meat and doing certain sorts of Yoga was supposedly to close the mind to carnal focusing, which would allow the mind to open to highfalutin stuff. Not that I could ever be bothered to do Yoga. I wanted cigarettes, coffee and beer, and to write. But now I was becoming vegetarian because I could barely afford food at all (and the burger joint would would fire employees who snitched burgers), ( I did snitch doughnuts and ice cream at the other two jobs). In any case, odd incidents of “mental telegraphy” became more common, and unnerving. I tried to blame the symptoms on too much sugar from ice-cream and doughnuts, but it was unnerving all the same.
The details will appear in “California”, if I ever write it, but to cut a long story short I’ll again describe a single situation.
Among the fifteen girls whom I was father-figure for were two lovely sisters, who seemingly disobeyed what I saw as a California maxim. As I understood it, the maxim stated that a woman should delay marriage (but not sex), and should not have a baby until she was smart enough, and old enough, to be a grandmother. But these two sisters dared be politically incorrect by wanting to have babies and start families right away, and were looking for a good man. Both saw me as a good man, (though a bit old), and I confess I was tempted, which made the two sisters competitive and jealous of each other, (which I enjoyed) but also made two of the young men at the burger joint jealous of me, (which I did not enjoy).
The two young men were also “old men” for the society of that burger joint, for one was twenty and the other was twenty-three (and had just gotten out of the army), but they saw me as ancient and wise at thirty-one, and, despite being my rivals, they were naive enough to question and listen to me. If I had been an evil man I could have exploited the situation, but instead I directed traffic midst the chaos, and the two young men eventually wound up engaged to the two young women, as I wound up as lonely as ever.
The thing about this soap opera, (which took numerous episodes to conclude), that slightly unnerved me was that I spoke little with the sisters, beyond superficial banter. Much communication was wordless: Eyes that beamed; lips that pouted, all conducted midst the frantic preparation of burgers and fries. At times I felt I was communing with two psychic, young witches. It was uncanny.
It was also exhausting. The fact of the matter was no man should do what I did without support. I felt I deserved getting my shoulders rubbed and home-cooked meals, but instead arrived home to dead silence, sat down at my lonesome desk, and looked off into imaginative swirling.
I couldn’t write; the wellsprings of my writing seemed dried to a trickle; mostly I stared at the wall and thought.
I reread what I’d written, and noticed the setting of “The Novel That Never Was” had increasingly morphed into an antithesis of California: People in a fictional small town who stayed in the same place and worked out their problems rather than running away from them; people who worked to look deep, rather than skipping over the surface like a flat stone; people who sought the brilliance of understanding, using it to melt away the shadows of superficiality. The developing plot increasingly portrayed a Norman Rockwell nostalgia; life as I wished it would be; not life as it was; and in many ways my creation was becoming a repository for all my heartache. Despite working in a crowd I felt achingly alone.
As I sat and stared at the wall the world of “mental telegraphy” increasingly seemed like a place where minds contacted minds in a manner that wasn’t all peaches and cream. It seemed a sort of combat, even a battlefield, conducted in a world polite people didn’t even admit existed. Each time I advanced an idea which was not politically correct, (for example, the idea it was normal and natural for a twenty-three-year-old man to marry a nineteen-year-old woman, and a twenty-year-old man to marry a eighteen-year-old woman), I felt like I was herding pigs through Mecca. Californians may have nodded and smirked polite smiles when I spoke, but their eyes seemed to glitter with malice. I felt I was at war with California, and imagined California knew it. It was not a battle to be fought all alone.
Of course I had God, and as I stared at the wall He heard a fair amount of my grumbling. It seemed to me He might have written a better plot for the novel of my life. Yet I knew I wasn’t suppose to complain. After all, “omniscience” suggests God is infinitely smart, which in turn suggests He knows what he is doing. I just wished He would tell me what the plan was.
It did seem a bit nervy for a flea like myself to offer the Creator suggestions about how to create, but, as incredible as it seemed, I felt He noticed and listened to every flea. After all, faith does tend to have its roots in a person feeling they are noticed by the Creator. One is an atheist until God stops the entire creation, in a manner of speaking, to attend to the griping child that happens to be an atheist who is ripe and ready to become a believer. It is then that some “coincidence” occurs, some butterfly swerves from its path to alight on the tip of ones nose, which, better than any intellectual argument, convinces the sane atheist there is reason for the madness of belief. And, if a butterfly could be diverted one time, why not again?
Again it seemed nervy to ask for multiple miracles. In theory once God has halted creation to prove to you He exists, your faith is suppose to thereafter withstand all tests. However, although I attended no church, I could recall that when I was in first grade they still began schooldays with the 23rd Psalm, and that dim memory suggested to me that, if “the Lord is my shepherd,” He would not be nice to a lamb only once, and then abandon the lamb to the wolves; theoretically His care should involve more than a single example of compassion. It should involve my being coddled a bit, but I didn’t feel coddled at all. Even God seemed to be joining the rest of California, and doling out tough-love.
The episodes of “mental telegraphy” no longer seemed all that miraculous to me. I was weary of fighting on a battlefield polite people didn’t admit existed. If you asked a polite person, “How are you today?” they would say “Fine”, even when it was an obvious lie. Then, when they would politely reply by rote, “And how are you?” you would be called “impolite” if you stated, “Me? I’m amazed you can say you are fine when your wife just ran off with the lesbian who trains your horses.” To be honest in this manner was incorrect and rude. You were suppose to live in a sort of denial.
I now think much of what I thought was “mental telegraphy” was not the slightest bit psychic. There is nothing particularly psychic about noticing a fellow’s wife ran off with his horse trainer. However, when you are the only fellow who is audacious enough to state a truth which even a child can see, and everyone else is in denial, it can appear you have powers others lack. Others are captured by their denial, and wear the blinders of California correctness, but you are too stupid to be correct, and you escape the chains and blinders of Hollywood by obeying a simple-minded thing called honesty.
The problem was that California correctness was so exasperatingly logical, about the wisdom of its chains.
For example, through research beginning in 1968, I had seen (for myself) that marijuana was more closely related to hallucinogens than to mere stimulants, but, when I tried to share what I had learned, I could only produce psychobabble: “Marijuana robs the long-term memory of the energy necessary to condense scattered recall into greater gestalts.” This profundity would earn me blank looks, and also the stupid response, “Hey man, marijuana is less harmful than beer.” It mattered not a whit I’d studied for a decade and a half, and was able to compare how my brain worked on the stuff with how much better it functioned after a decade off the stuff. At parties I’d wind up excluded from the cozy intimacy of the joint-sharing circle, and felt scorned. So I’d retreat to “The Novel That Never Was”. Suddenly the plot would involve a new character, a herbalist, who would appear from the woods, with a long gray beard, and explain in a patient and reasonable way to pot-head teenagers that, if Beethoven had smoked marijuana, his 9th symphony would have sounded exactly like his 1st, because his long-term memory could never manage to make greater gestalts. But, though such scribbling may have had some effect in the invisible landscape of “Mental telegraphy”, no one wanted to read it.
I got so exasperated about being marginalized in this manner that, at one party, I decided the hell with it. Though I knew it would be detrimental to the spiritual progress possible in my future, using my fleshy brain, I joined the intimate, joint-smoking circle and sucked my first marijuana cigarette in a decade. Then, robbing my future of inspiration for inspiration in the present, higher than a kite, I delivered what was likely an amazing discourse on why marijuana is more harmful than beer. I remember everyone was nodding, and saying “wow!” and “far out!”, but no one (including me) could remember a thing about what was so amazing, the next day. I had achieved nothing but my own downfall.
There was no winning, in my war with California. As I sat in my shack in the surfer slum, looking at the wall, and then at the clock, and then wearily arising to go make doughnuts, it occurred to me California was winning. The tough love was wearing me down, grinding me into the dirt which California worms called sanity. But what could I do?
It seemed obvious I couldn’t go on working three jobs, so it seemed I’d better apply for work at one of the start-up computer businesses, even though I felt computers were stupid. (I had my reasons, which now, thirty-four years later, are becoming apparent. It basically involved society clambering out onto a frail limb, certain the limb was sturdy.) But what could I do? Everyone else was doing it, and when in California you should do what Californians do. Tough love was herding me like all the other sheep.
I recall one computer-place I applied to was up in the mountains in a place called “Scott’s Valley”. It seemed to be a community of lumberjacks, with a sawmill, and now a computer factory. I recall some of the other fellows applying for work were big, burly fellows with plaid shirts. They were highly skilled at cutting enormous redwoods, and I was highly skilled at being a mad poet, but we were all pretending we were deeply interested in some new thing called “a hard drive.” None of us had a clue what “a hard drive” was. We were interested in “a higher hourly wage”, but we were all nodding and attempting to look knowledgeable, as an extremely optimistic fellow interviewed us en mass.
In my usual manner I was being a sort of skeptical Sherlock Holmes, and thought I detected a reason for the man’s extreme optimism. It did not take “mental telegraphy” to note a trace of white powder by his left nostril. Into my my mind came the humorous maxim, “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you have too much money.”
In any case, the fellow assured us we were as good as already hired, because the company could not produce “hard drives” fast enough. After dwelling briefly on how we would be educated about what a “hard drive” was, the fellow soared off into delusions of grandeur, explaining how Microsoft was on its knees, pleading that this little company produce more and better “hard drives”, and therefore we would be joining a company that could push even Microsoft around.
An alarm went off in my mind. Though I am an optimist by nature, a pessimist reared its head, and I had a feeling that this little company would soon be on its knees before Microsoft, ( if it didn’t cut back on the cocaine). Rather than hiring they would be laying people off. But I offered no advice. I smiled and nodded, hoping to triple my hourly wage.
At this point something odd happened. I assume alarms went off in heaven. God and my guardian angels knew that, if my mad-poet brains became involved with computers, you could kiss poetry good-bye. I would be sucked into the cynical subject of “computer code.” I would be seduced, because code paid and poetry didn’t. I would have no time for assonance, alliteration, rhythm and rhyme, sonnets would never be written, “The Novel That Never Was” would never be furthered, because I would be busy becoming rich, and perhaps live in a mansion and have a beautiful, blond wife, as my mind became absorbed and engrossed in trivial strings of data; I would have joined the madmen dealing with the intricate details of leading humanity out onto a frail and precarious branch. “Computer code” was every bit as fascinating as the mathematics Bach used to write great fugues, but it made no music, because it had no heart.
But where had having a heart ever gotten me? Flipping sizzling doughnuts in hot fat at three AM? I felt reduced to mere wiggling fingers reaching up for light and air from black, California quicksand. I was exhausted. My tough-love wasn’t tough enough to fight back against the wickedness of California’s.
The land was doomed. Everyone knew California was going to fall into the sea, but I supposed we all have to go some day; I might as well study computers and get rich and watch the wildfires and mud slides and race riots from my mansion in the mountains.
I drempt I saw the Reaper come
And stand above the city’s glare.
It was sunset. The sky was brass
Made dull with soot; a chimney’s flare
Of oily flames flapped just above
The rolling sun and seemed to say
No night would come, but grayness came
Above the flame….perhaps the gray
Came from the flame….but huge above
Both chimney and the setting sun
The Reaper stood. He calmly looked
Down on the streets as fishermen
Look down at trout they haven’t hooked,
And then he drew his huge scythe back.
He didn’t yell “fore!” yet the men
On the streets below seemed to know
He was above. Cars coughed, and then
Cars snarled and screamed through the streets;
The rush hour was on….Decade
Followed decade, and drum beats
Pounded ever faster. Men bought
Every insurance there was,
Invested in old gold hat racks,
And men did all this because
They sensed the Reaper stood above.
The one flaring chimney became
One hundred, and both black night
And grim winter fled the bright flame,
But the Reaper grew ever huger,
And his scythe drew back to the moon
And then began down like thunder
None heard but all sensed. I did not
Want to dream any longer.
The harder men tried to anchor peace
Down to the firm ground the stronger
The silent whistling thunder
Of the descending scythe became,
Which made men work so incredibly hard
They destroyed themselves in flame.
On one hand it seemed I should bail out on California, yet on the other hand “The Novel That Never Was” was all about not running away from problems. Yet there was a third hand, which was that California seemed built by people running away from problems and based upon the quaky earth of running away. So would I be running away? Or would I be running away from running away, which, as a double negative, equaled staying?
Obviously I needed time to think, which was what people got mad at me for taking. But I couldn’t help it. Then, if I let thinking leak into working, I’d burn the doughnuts, and earn anger for that, which was something else to think about.
During my brief time off between jobs I wandered down to the shore to look out over the Pacific. The dratted ocean was keeping me from running away any further west, but I dreamed that out there, past the sunset, there must be some island where I could live on coconuts and fish, without a job, and type at my typewriter to my heart’s content.
The problem then would be loneliness. I’d tried running away before, and living like a hermit in the hills, and found I became ingrown and mentally shriveled. I needed companionship. I either needed to meet some Polynesian woman out on the island, preferably topless and in a grass skirt, or I needed to meet some woman who owned a yacht and felt poetry was very important. I looked up and down the beach, but no such women were in sight. I looked at my watch, and it was time to flip burgers. I felt trapped, one lemming among many lemmings headed for a cliff.
It seemed time for God to stop the universe and intervene in my life with some compassionate miracle, but of course it was ungrateful to think in such a manner. He knew what He was doing and I most definitely did not.
As I flipped burgers I thought maybe my problem was my craving for companionship. Being chaste was suppose to make one detached from sex, but having fifteen nubile teenagers and various “exes” parading around in my skull made me feel more like a lecher, obsessing on sex. At age thirty-one it seemed high time for me to realize marriage just wasn’t in the cards for me. After all, the Christ said, “Leave all and follow Me,” and “leaving all” meant leaving all.
I wrinkled my nose and served fries with a look of such fierce disdain that one of the teenagers asked me if they’d done something wrong, and I hastily apologized, and said I was just remembering something unpleasant from long ago. That wasn’t entirely true, for the unpleasantness was in the present as well: To have any hope seemed an exercise in self-torture. I’d had a recent dream where a voice said, “The one you are waiting for is coming”, but that dream just made me hope, and then nothing came of it. To hope was to hurt, and what use was that? Even worse, to hope was to hanker, and hankering seemed more Wicca than Christ-like. The entire business of “mental telegraphy” seemed lewd and polluted and gross.
After my shift flipping burgers I didn’t have to look ahead to a shift flipping doughnuts, as I had a rare night off. In fact I didn’t have work anywhere for a whole thirty-six hours. It seemed a great luxury, and after catching up on my sleep I planned to sit at my desk and enjoy actually having some time to think. But the next morning, just as I finished my first coffee and was getting engrossed in chain-smoking and rereading, there came a knock at my door. Swearing softly to myself, I assumed it was the dratted Jehovah’s Witnesses again.
When I opened the door I was confronted by a beautiful woman standing in a pool of morning sunshine, her brown hair lit by the low sun behind her like a halo of gold. As she met my eyes tears began running down her cheeks, and she spoke my name.
I resisted the urge to say, “Who the hell are you”, and tried to remember. She did look familiar, and then it came to me: An acquaintance; the daughter of friends of my mother; not anyone who should be looking at me with such devotion. I hugged her, partly because she was opening her arms as if it was expected, and invited her in, and we had coffee. Then, among other things, I learned I wasn’t a mad poet. I was a superhero.
It was a bit like a dream to sit having coffee with a beautiful woman who remembered things I had done in the past in a positive manner. It was like whiplash, compared to the tough-love I’d been getting from my friends, who looked at my dedication to art with disdain. Rather than seeing my deeds in the worst possible light, everything I did was invested with glamour.
One thing that enhanced my resume was the fact I was five years older than her, and this made me a glorious figure in her childhood. Where I might remember her as a scrawny little squirt, she remembered me as a looming, laughing presence, bopping into her life at odd intervals, and always saving the day.
One time, when she was quite small, her mother had visited mine, and the little girl had somehow managed to lock herself into an upstairs bathroom of our old, Victorian house, which had old, Victorian locks that were difficult for a five-year-old to manage. The situation swiftly escalated into a full fledged panic. The hysteria seemed silly to a ten-year-old like myself, for I knew that upstairs bathroom could be accessed by a disused laundry chute. While the concerned mothers attempted to console the screaming girl through the locked door, I headed downstairs, removed a few shelves from a downstairs kitchen cabinet, and scooted up the chute. When my head popped up in a corner of the bathroom it seemed a sort of miracle to the little girl. I unlocked the door and accepted the praise of the mothers outside as my due, but largely the situation seemed a lot of fuss and bother about nothing. The scrawny little girl didn’t impress me as being particularly smart, if she couldn’t even unlock a door, but to her I was a superhero. I think I symbolized an angelic rescuer, who miraculously appears out of the blue when you are trapped.
During summers my family visited hers up in Canada, way out in cornfields, and there too she struck me as trapped. Her family was (insert religion of your choice), and freedom seemed disallowed, especially for girls. I must have seemed wonderfully free, for I didn’t even have to go to church on Sundays, was allowed to believe in dinosaurs, and boyishly insisted that God (and the United States) were all about freedom.
My reputation as a free man was only enhanced when at the age of fifteen I hitchhiked up through Canada, and dropped by. (The world was far safer in 1968, and hitchhiking was allowed.) Even back then I was a moocher, but people seemed far gladder to have me as a house guest, (likely because I didn’t smoke, drink, or stay long.)
Actually my secret reason for choosing to hitchhike to cornfields far off the beaten path was a pretty farm-girl, who lived down the road. That farm-girl saw me as a glamorous foreigner and smiled at me, while girls in my hometown did neither, and I saw this as a good reason to hitchhike five hundred miles. I certainly didn’t go all that way to impress a gangley little girl. But once I arrived I hadn’t a clue how to arrange any meetings with the farm-girl, so I was stuck with being a polite house guest, which involved doing a few things with the gangley little girl, such as going fishing. Unbeknownst to me, these were rare holidays for the child, for her father worked very hard at a machine shop and had no time for fishing with his daughter. So this furthered my superhero image.
Meanwhile romantic progress was slow, with the farm-girl who lived down the street. First, I was very shy, and second, I had to hitchhike five hundred miles. I was seventeen before I finally got the nerve to go swimming with her in a farm-pond out in the cornfields. She agreed that swimming on the hottest day of the summer sounded like a good idea, but the way she agreed and smiled almost sprawled me backwards into a seated position in the corn.
Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately), intruders spoiled the romance. We could not successfully arrange this romantic rendezvous, because little brats tagged along. The farm-girl had two little brothers following her, and I had a gangley twelve-year-old girl and her little sister trailing me. Despite the interference, I did manage to swim with the farm-girl, and the brief swim was the sort of harmless moment in time which old men look back upon fondly. The sky was very blue, her teeth were very white when she smiled, and drops of clear water sparkled in her long eyelashes.
I have always wondered if one of the farm-girl’s younger brothers, seeing how she and I were smiling at each other, didn’t decide her virtue was at stake, and that drastic action was needed. For some reason he deemed it necessary to grab a gangley twelve-year-old who didn’t know how to swim, and who didn’t dare wade deeper than her ankles, and to drag her out into waist-deep water.
The gangley girl’s screaming went from extremely annoying past downright distracting to requiring immediate action. Though the water by the shore was only waist-deep, the clay bottom was slippery, and she couldn’t get to her feet. She was floundering and choking, so I swam over, waded up to her, and helped her up. That should have been enough, but she was wracked by sobs and wouldn’t stop crying. I tried to console, but finally had to hoist her up to my shoulders and take her back home through the corn fields, gangley legs around my neck and sobbing torso hunched over my head like a hood.
As soon as I deposited her in her mother’s comforting arms I hustled back through all the corn, but the pond was deserted. Never has a lone bullfrog sounded so mournful. I muttered curses about the inconvenience of gangley little girls, but God works in mysterious ways. I may not have thought highly of her, but in the eyes of the gangley girl I was a hero who had saved her from drowning,
Now it was fourteen years later and she wasn’t gangley any more. Nor was she bound by any church’s rules and regulations. Her family had gone through a lot in the 1970’s, including renouncing (insert religion of your choice). Faith, in her eyes, was oppressive. She was refreshed through escaping the austerity of spiritual discipline, but had discovered that freedom exposed her to all sorts of bad people. She wanted to escape the bad people, and even sought the shelter of marriage, but discovered “every form of refuge has its price.” She decided she wasn’t willing to pay that price, told her husband it was over, and just took off, hitchhiking across the continent looking for a superhero she could have faith in. And that was me.
It seemed a novel idea: That anyone could have faith in me. I certainly seemed to have lost the faith of even my most patient friends, and didn’t have much faith in myself, either. Not that I’d ever been very secure, but I’d had faith in whatever “it” was I was trying to write about. “It” was not anything as almighty as God, but something more like the radiance of God, an effluence of light, like a colored cloud at sunset; not the sun itself, but uplifting and enlightening all the same. And “it” still seemed worthy, but my weariness made me feel like I was trying to draw a sunset using charcoal. I had little faith in the effectiveness of my efforts. Now my drab and gray discouragement was dazzled away by the blazing extravagance of infatuation.
I of course laughingly dismissed the idea I was a superhero, but apparently my modesty was exactly the sort of modesty a superhero would display; her admiring smile only widened.
I’ll admit I likely should have fought off the pleasure I felt, but it seemed better to be a pacifist. Even as we finished the coffee she arose and, still chatting, washed the cups and a few other dishes; I couldn’t remember the last time someone had washed a dish for me, though I myself had labored long hours and through oceans of suds as a dishwasher. What could be the harm of turning the tables a bit?
Although she was scornful of the religion she had renounced, she retained some habits. She wasn’t a suffragette who disdains housecleaning because they have been spoiled and don’t know how to do it; the way she pottered about the kitchen showed domestic service was second nature to her.
She opened my refrigerator and critically scanned its nigh emptiness with an appraising eye. It held six eggs, a half quart of milk, half a stick of of butter, a bottle of ketchup, and stale cinnamon-raisin doughnuts. Without asking, she began clattering about preparing me breakfast. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had done that for me, either.
At some point she asked me if my shack had a bathroom. I gestured towards the bedroom doorway, and she vanished for a while. While she was gone I walked over to my typewriter, reread some gloom, and then pinched myself to make sure I was awake. Then, when I myself had to use the bathroom later, I noticed my bed was made.
I’ll admit I felt some vague sense of apprehension when she referred to me as “master”, but she was obviously worn out from her travels. I told her to forget the breakfast dishes, but she insisted on doing them. Only then would she lay down on my bed, on top of the covers, and soon she was softly snoring. I went to my typewriter, but couldn’t think of a word to write. All I could do is look at the wall, which was lit by indirect sunshine and looked far brighter than usual.
Eventually I looked back to page 121B4 in “The Novel That Never Was”. It described the protagonist struggling to resist a beautiful woman, and how it was “difficult” remaining pure. After rereading and chain-smoking, and decided to add page 121B4a, I swiftly became engrossed, and was making such a racket typing away at page 121B4g that I did not hear my house guest arise and come up behind me. She began massaging my shoulders as if that was the most natural thing to do. I paused my typing, and considered replacing the word “difficult” with “impossible.”
We did manage to remain pure for a while. I think we lasted 36 hours.
My life became entirely different. The only things that remained the same were my friends, who all became, if anything, more critical than ever. It seemed to ruin their tough-love to have me get love that wasn’t tough, and I imagined they were bitter about my abrupt and unexpected happiness. I basically told them all to go get screwed. I was in the la-la land described in the old Percy Sledge song.
When a man loves a woman
Can’t keep his mind on nothing else
He’ll trade the world
For the good thing he’s found
If she’s bad he can’t see it
She can do no wrong
Turn his back on his best friend
If he put her down
For the most part I felt the doubters had shifted from tough-love to green envy. None encouraged me. They all had things to say such as, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Not a single one quoted Henry Ford, “If you say you can, or say you can’t, you’re right.”
The one doubter who got through to me was a good neighbor in the surfer slum, who was crashing from the heavens of a fling of his own, and who simply stated, “If she left her husband then she can leave you.” Something about his sad assurance slightly unnerved me.
It spoils the plot for me to admit he was right, however I had two months in heaven, and I’m from the north, and am used to summers that only last two months. A lot can be accomplished in those two months that feeds the barren ten.
Not that I had changed my ideas about one-night-stands and short-term-relationships being destructive. During the thirty-six hours we remained pure we talked at length about the foolishness of thinking marriage had anything to do with church or state, and how priests and politicians should butt out of people’s private lives, and I stressed that when two people committed to each other the commitment should be 100%, with no room for doubt. She had smiled and nodded, because it is easy to be 100% committed to a superhero. What I should have asked her is whether the commitment can remain 100% once you realize the superhero isn’t so super, or whether you can claim the contract is null and void because you were tricked into signing under false pretenses. In any case, we exchanged rings. We couldn’t afford gold so we made them out of rawhide. As far as I was concerned, she was my common-law wife. Her happiness was more important than my own.
While I was definitely in la-la land, and while my friends were in some ways correct to roll their eyes and call me madder than ever, there was an objective part of me that sat back and took notes about the amazing changes I was undergoing. After all, one doesn’t want to feel like a puppet, completely controlled by their circumstances. Some people simply behave as they are told; when people call them a dog they behave like a dog and when people call them a superhero they behave like a superhero. I had resisted the negative labeling when it seemed that all called me a lazy moocher, and now I resisted thinking I was marvelous when I was called a superhero, (though I’ll admit the resistance was feeble at times, because I truly did feel marvelous).
One change that hit me like a ton of bricks was the decent of a profound tranquility. The herd of teenagers and “exes” in my head completely vanished, as did all sorts of “mental telegraphy”. I supposed this was caused by the door in my mind, which I accidentally pried open by being celibate, being slammed shut. (Also she started working with me at the burger place, and with her extra pay we could afford meat.) However I enjoyed becoming less “psychic”, because the racket in my head ceased. Silence is golden, and better for the brain than Valium.
In this tranquility I became shockingly (to my friends) practical and pragmatic. Although it may be selfish to attend to only one woman, and not fifteen teenagers, it greatly simplifies matters, and leaves a vast part of the mind free to attend to things other than drama.
I noticed popular music became suddenly dull. It no longer spoke to me. When I listened, I noted most of such music involved longing for love, with the longing ranging through a rainbow from red rage to blue sorrow. All such music was behind me and in the past tense, for I now had what everyone wanted.
Another large part of my brain had been committed to rebutting my friend’s tough-love, which tended to argue “you will never get what you want unless you obey us.” How stupid their arguments appeared, now that I had what everyone wanted. I refused to waste my time arguing with them any longer, and that freed up another acreage of my mind. All my rebuttals of their Californian tough-love went silent, for rebuttals were unnecessary, and the silence was golden.
In my newfound tranquility it was quite easy to plan the next 40 years. It was a good plan, and could have worked, (but for obvious reasons I likely shouldn’t talk far beyond the following two months).
The goal was to escape California, and get to a Polynesian Island. We agreed about this, but lacked transport. Therefore we needed to amass funds. My plan was for us to work at a computer start-up and live frugally in a surfer slum, but she suggested there might be a better way, as she “knew people who knew people”.
This piqued my curiosity, and I asked what her connections were. They impressed me, for one offered immediate escape from California, and the other offered money for my writing. It seemed too good to be true, and was. In such situations one should always “Trust but verify.” Instead I nodded, and told her to look into it, trusting her completely.
Her first idea involved working on a ranch in New Mexico. It would pay far less than computer start-ups would pay, but, with no rent, we would actually save more. I liked the idea of learning how to ride a horse outdoors in beautiful scenery. I didn’t like the idea of learning about “hard drives” and “computer code” indoors under florescent lighting. New Mexico became part of our plan.
The second involved a publisher in Toronto. This excited me, for it is a “break” for any writer to actually know someone in the business of publishing. To submit an “unsolicited” work is a bit like a serf requesting an audience with the Czar. Often your work is sent back without anyone bothering to look at it. (I knew this, for I had cynically sent works with little hairs of rubber cement that would be broken if anyone bothered lift the title page and read the first paragraph. My efforts were placed back into the stamped, self-addressed envelopes (which those cheap bastards insisted I include, though they could afford stamps and I couldn’t), without anyone making the effort to read them. To me this proved those rich bastards could afford to pay a poor drone to send back manuscripts without reading the first page, but couldn’t pay attention to me or any of the other mad poets who sweated blood to submit hard work. Those publishers at least should have had the honesty to say, “Do not submit unless we ask you to submit,” but that would have made them look like the privileged royalists they were. The communities of mad poets recognized what inbred, royalist hemophiliacs publishers were, [though some editors claimed to be non-royalist capitalists and some editors claimed to be non-royalist socialists]. Consequently it was generally recognized, “It’s not what you know; it is who you know,” and therefore many young writers stopped paying attention to writing, and payed more attention to getting-to-know-an-editor.)
The idea that “The Novel That Never Was” might be looked at by an actual editor had a remarkable effect. It drastically shrank the novel.
This seemed odd, because all my prior efforts to get people to look at it had only made it get longer. But those readers only read a part, sometimes only a paragraph, and when readers didn’t “get it”, (or “got it” but didn’t approve), I felt I hadn’t explained enough, and wrote more, to explain what they didn’t “get”.
In many cases it was obvious the reason they didn’t “get it” was that they were incapable retards; some Californians were blatant dunces, like the German royalty who legend states criticized Mozart for writing music with “too many notes”, because inept royalty’s handfuls of thumbs could not play Mozart’s music. But in other cases the criticism made me aware I myself didn’t understand why a character behaved the way they did. This resulted in my writing sidetracks and flashbacks, seeking answers. The plot would grind to a halt, as a character launched into long soliloquies about what grandfathers had heard from their grandfathers. At times I’d even stop writing to study history books, for history was more important than getting to the climax of the story, which struck some readers as all foreplay without ever an orgasm.
Now I suddenly found myself throwing away all the sidetracks and backtracks, and keeping only the answers. As a rough guess, I’d say I threw a thousand pages away.
I probably threw some delicious stuff away, if you are interested in oyster stew. But I wanted to throw away all the slimy glop and keep only the pearls, to make a pearl necklace. What was remarkable to me was that I was able to do it. My mind was working in a completely different way. I was even able to write a synopsis of the tale, when we got a letter from the editor in Toronto requesting one. I wrote it and my new wife corrected the spelling and typed it out. Then it was mailed, with a return address in New Mexico.
I gave notice at all my jobs and checked the oil and tire pressure of my tiny, old Toyota and sold everything I could sell at a yard sale. I threw the rest of my stuff away, except for seven cardboard boxes, which held all I owned, including “The Novel That Never Was.”
Then I said good-bye to my friends and family. It was basically “good-bye forever”. I doubted they’d visit Polynesia. But they shouldn’t be sad. If they didn’t like me then they should be happy they didn’t have to put up with me any more. I was happy I didn’t have to put up with them, though I did face a final flurry of worry, as I left.
There were things I had neglected to do, but my wife and I were fed up with a world that was more interested in stumbling blocks than in clearing the path. Both church and state were nothing but an obstacle, and we both felt that if you tried to obey all their nitpicking rules you’d never get anywhere.
For example, she, being from Canada, was suppose to fill out all sorts of forms to work at the burger joint in the United States, but we didn’t bother. It would have taken months, and she only needed to work for six weeks. So we just said the hell with it, and made up a social security number, and she worked as an illegal alien. We figured that by the time they caught on to us we’d be in Polynesia.
In like manner my car still had Maine plates from 1975. For years I’d been able to update the plates by getting a little sticker through the mail. Also Maine was one of the last states that had driving licences without a photo on them. Lastly, legality in Maine was far cheaper than the states I wandered through, and I felt those states had a lot of nerve requiring me to pay for a new licence and registration when I was only passing through. They sure didn’t pay unemployment when I got fired from jobs, just passing through. In any case, I had remained quasi-legal until 1984, when Maine stopped mailing me stickers, and also stated I had to get a newfangled licence with a photo. So I was now a criminal. But we’d only be Bonnie and Clyde until we reached Polynesia. Once there we planned to find a beach free of bureaucrats.
The one bureaucratic thing I did attend to involved getting a passport. (It is interesting to look at the serene, confident and healthy face portrayed on that passport, and compare it to the gaunt and haggard face from the New Mexico driving licence I got three months later.)
Though I think we were correct to feel the bureaucrats of both the church and the state are all too often more concerned with preventing than assisting, I now can see there were things I myself should have hesitated at, and looked into more deeply. But that assumes one has time to think. I was responding without time to think.
Among the many things I didn’t do right, one thing I did do right was to, (rather quietly, desperately and secretly), throw myself at the feet of God and apologize.
Why was my prayer secret? My prayer was secret because my new wife tended to scowl at the mention of God, as she’d had such awful experiences with religion.
My wife stated we should put our faith in our love. To me love was the same thing as God, but I didn’t press the issue, because I preferred her smiling and nodding, to her scowling. But it made me nervous not to press the issue, because I figured God would notice my failure to praise Him and to shout of His glory from the rooftops. I’d read somewhere that if you are embarrassed about God then God will be embarrassed about you. I prayed to God to forgive me, and promised I’d “press the issue” as soon as He safely got us to Polynesia.
What was the issue? The issue was that if you exclude God from love then all you are left with is human fallibility. Human love may see the divinity in their partner, and think their partner is a superhero, but sooner or later they will see their partner face a sort of kryptonite, and superman will become a weenie and fall flat on his face. It is this kryptonite that dooms us to losing faith in ourselves and our partners, and it is then we most need perfect Love and a true Superman; IE: God. (In other words, a successful marriage requires three, not two.)
Perhaps God gently expressed His disapproval over being excluded, for I saw my new wife unexpectedly exposed as something less than superwoman, just before we left. Her imperfections didn’t trouble me all that much, because, after all, I’d always been older and she’d only recently graduated (in my opinion) from being a gangley squirt. But I was troubled by something I never had time to think about. It had something to do with expecting too much from her, and disdaining God. And it almost seemed that God wanted me to be well aware that, unlike He, she was imperfect.
We faced an onslaught of doubters attempting to talk us out of Polynesia. Why they thought it was helpful to attempt to derail us was beyond me. What is so bad about tropical islands? What is so bad about palm trees dropping lunch in the sand with a thump? What is so bad about fishing off a coral reef for dinner, rather than eating at a fast food joint? What is so bad about no heating bills and no air conditioning bills? What is so bad about a minimalist life, with no electricity but no landlord, no government, and no preachy church?
Yet everyone seemed dedicated to talking us out of our effort, under the guise of making sure we had considered every worry and “ironed out all the details”. I even had a family member fly in from far away. And though there was an attempt to wish us well, it was with an incredulity which hinted at the oily voice of Satan. I didn’t blame my common-law wife for cracking under the duress, and flinching towards unwise relief.
The first breach of discipline involved the fact we were not suppose to blow money by going out. Our budget was frugal and strict. However frugality fights freedom, and I’d have to preach, “Freedom isn’t free” when we felt the urge to go out. But my wife hated the religion-like restraint, and demanded escape from chains using lots of clever arguments of the “all-work-and-no-play-makes-Jack-a-dull-boy” sort. I knew all the arguments, because I’d used them as excuses for writing, and I knew all the counter-arguments, for my friends spoke them when hitting me with tough-love. In the end I decided we could afford one night out.
The night out involved driving to Santa Cruz and riding a huge and primitive roller coaster. She got such joy out of the wild freedom of being whipped about and jerked up and down that I felt the infringement upon our budget was well worth it. But then she said “let’s do it again!” After the fifth ride the green tint of my skin should have been proof I was no superman, but perhaps she felt I was displaying a superhuman concern for budgets, when I said a sixth ride was unwise.
The second breach of discipline involved a friend who thought it would be helpful, on one of the final nights I was away working at the doughnut shop, to show up after midnight when my common-law wife was home alone, with a bag of cocaine to share. I felt she should have refused his generosity, but she felt that would have been rude. When I arrived home from the shop at dawn she confessed he had dropped by, and asked me to forgive her, pointing at a line of white powder on the counter she had saved for me, as if saving it for me was redemption. The situation made me feel as queasy as a roller coaster, but I forgave her because I knew she was under duress and was flinching towards unwise relief. To show her I forgave her I snorted the cocaine, even though I didn’t much like the stuff, and deemed coffee superior.
(My one serious experiment with cocaine was due to the fact I had read that Robert Lewis Stephenson wrote “Jekyll and Hyde” when a doctor prescribed cocaine when he was suffering a high fever. He produced the rough draft swiftly, only taking a day or two, but when his wife criticized his effort he threw it into the fire in a fit of temper, stomped off, and rewrote the epic we now read, by the next morning.
Stephenson’s experience was attractive to me, because “The Novel That Never Was” was taking a lot longer. My novel insisted upon going into sidetracks and flashbacks, and refused to be done. I wondered if cocaine might give me miraculous powers, and I might make amazing progress over a single night. I could not afford the stuff, but a friend helped me, and I snorted a considerable amount of cocaine during a twenty-four hour period, being a mad poet when I should have been working a Real Job.
What I discovered is cocaine doesn’t work, for minds like mine. Rather than brilliant it made me dull. I did seem to avoid some sidetracks and flashbacks, but that was not helpful, because I just obsessed on one particular flashback, which got boring. It was as if I became myopic and lost all my peripheral vision. At the end of this experiment I could only conclude that some people find relief in having their minds narrowed down like tweezers. But my mind was different. I needed a broader view, and peripheral vision, to see the elephant in the room, and I knew tweezers are useless when dealing with an elephant.)
In any case I made it clear to my wife cocaine was not a wise option, especially for people on a reduced budget, but she said it hadn’t cost us a cent so we shouldn’t worry. Still, apprehension stirred in the back of my brain and stomach.
The third breach of discipline involved the fact my wife had achieved a great victory over weakness. Once she had feared water, and only dared wade ankle-deep because she didn’t know how to swim. However part of her escape from religion involved refusing to be imprisoned by terror, and one thing she did was to learn how to swim. It gave her great joy to defeat what had once terrified her, and to swim with her was to witness a person experiencing what I can only describe as ecstasy.
I felt no such ecstasy swimming in California, for that far north the water was too cold. It was even colder than Maine. The surfers wore wet-suits. I might plunge briefly into the water on a hot day, but I didn’t stay in long, for my body had no fat and I’d chill quickly. Mostly I liked to lay in the hot sand and watch others.
One day we managed to free ourselves from drudgery long enough to walk to the shore, and I dove briefly into the icy water, and then sat in the sand enjoying watching her ecstatic smile as she stayed in longer. Then I became concerned as she swam through the inshore surf and out farther. It occurred to me that she had no idea how cold the water actually was, and how great the danger of hypothermia was. I stood up and waved for her to come in, but she didn’t seem to see, and instead turned to swim out even further.
I came to an instant decision and ran into the surf to swim out to her and tell her to come back, but once I had battled through the surf I couldn’t see her. The water felt like laying in a tub of crushed ice; my skin was burning. I swam further and further out, looking around from the top of each wave, but still couldn’t see her. A horrible, haunted feeling was growing in my gut, and I was muttering, “Oh God, don’t let it end like this.” Then I spotted her, around a hundred yards up the long blue line of a wave, being lifted up, still smiling up at the sky, and then waving happily at me as I swam towards her yelling. Her face only changed to concern as I drew close, and she saw how stern I was. I said, “This water is too cold. Hypothermia. Get back to shore.”
Swimming back to shore probably didn’t take that long, but felt like a long, aching ordeal to me, and I barely made it. As we staggered up onto the sand we both were shivering uncontrollably. The sand was hot away from the water, but we couldn’t stop shivering. I said we should walk home for some hot coffee. As we limped over the hot tar she gradually stopped shivering, but I couldn’t stop. As we got back she heated up some coffee and I got into the shower with the water as hot as I cold stand. It was bizarre to shiver in a hot shower, but I felt cold to my core; only my skin got hot. I only stopped shivering as I drank the hot coffee, and even then I still felt cold and had goosebumps.
This should have been proof I was not a superhero, because superheros don’t shiver. But I suppose I may have again saved her life; the danger seemed a lot realer than when I helped her stand up in waist-deep water in Canada, when she was a gangley girl. But what stuck me was how oblivious she was that she was in danger.
I felt perhaps she was equally oblivious of the danger of our drive to New Mexico. While we both were in la-la land, at times her disdain of church and state seemed like a disdain of other laws, like the law of gravity. I felt that, if we were going to scorn the law like Bonnie and Clyde, we should at least respect the law enough to take steps to avoid it. As much as possible I planned to drive at night, when my illegal Maine plates would be less conspicuous.
Finally the day for our departure arrived, and we left. I was glad to leave all the doubters behind, but had doubts of my own. I silently prayed a lot as we drove into the twilight, her head on my shoulder. Our plan was to rest at a friend-of-a-friend she had just east of LA, and then continue on from there to the ranch in New Mexico.
We passed through LA after dark, and, even late at night, the traffic was terrible. It might have even been worse than day-time’s, for during rush hour it is bumper-to-bumper but slow, while at midnight it was bumper-to-bumper at breakneck speed. All I wanted to do was get though the hell of an endless expanse of city.
Surely midst the facelessness of such vast and inexcusable urbanization there are some spiritual neighborhoods, and even churches of loving people. However it seemed to me they must be the exception to the rule. ,For the most part such a city seemed to me like a cancer, an uncontrolled growth abhorring what was healthy. Most didn’t even know their neighbors. They were faceless because they preferred having no face. They couldn’t face having one.
As my tinny and tiny Toyota screamed through the night like an enraged sewing machine, all I wanted to do was get my love, now snugly asleep on my lap, safely through the heart of what we were escaping: California.
As I negotiated the traffic, and the switches from one freeway to the next freeway, I saw in all directions a vast plateau of lights people didn’t turn off when they went to bed. They didn’t turn the lights off because they couldn’t trust. It was a world utterly wrong, and utterly different from Norman Rockwell’s small towns, or Polynesian Islands.
To keep myself awake I sipped at a big thermos of coffee, and sketched out epic poems and trilogies I’d someday write. I was a good all-night driver, for I have the sort of brain that can stay busy and not fall asleep. I recall I was inventing a city like LA ruled by three witches, but was struggling to name the third witch. The first witch was based on Greed, and the second on Lust. But the third? Then I hit upon the idea of laziness. For, when you are running away, there is something you do not want to face, and even when it takes far more energy to avoid-facing than it would take to face, you are manifesting a sort of laziness by avoiding. Or “Sloth”, as they called it back in medieval times.
Next I had to figure out the physical characteristics of this witch of Sloth. She, being a witch, had to be ugly, but what sort of bends should her warty nose have? And it was as I was sketching this witch in my imagination, and we began to head east and climb out of LA, that the engine made a sound as if it was exploding.
It went from a quiet screaming, like a deranged sewing machine, to a PAH-FOOM like a bomb, followed by a sort of GNAH that went on and on, amazingly loud. I heard metalic clanks under the car and saw some sparks on the road in the rear view mirror. I think I did a good job decelerating from 75 mph and finding my way from the passing lane to the breakdown lane in the insane traffic. Once we had stopped I cut the engine and looked under the car with a flashlight, and saw no fluid dripping. Next I restarted the car, and, as it idled with a more subdued form of GNAH, I looked again. Vastly relieved, I saw we had blown out a portion of the exhaust pipe between the engine and the muffler. The noise would be a nuisance, but the car would run. I even joked: Because my tiny Toyota had only a 1200cc engine, it was the same as a Harley Davidson Sportster motorcycle, and we could pretend we were bikers in black leather. We accellerated with a deafening roar and headed uphill through LA, heading west, going GNAH.
My wife didn’t get the joke. I don’t blame her for not liking being woken that way. But I think she awoke in another way as well. She realized I wasn’t a superhero. Why? Because, for just a moment there, as the car made a horrible noise and swerved through speeding traffic to the breakdown lane, she saw me exposed to kryptonite. My heart was in my throat and my language contained expletives I should have deleted. I understood all too clearly I was with an illegal-alien wife in an illegal car that held everything I owned in the middle of LA in the middle of the night. I think I did rather well, given the circumstances, but perhaps a true superhero never allows such circumstances to happen. I can honestly say my wife never really smiled lovingly at me again.
Of course I dismissed it as a “mood” at first. It is hard to smile in a Toyota that sounds like a Harley. But, as we drove west, following directions to the friend-of-a-friends, I noticed that, after we took a ramp off the freeway, we abruptly were climbing into a quiet and privileged neighborhood, where Toyota’s that sound like Harley’s are not welcome at 3:00 AM. And when we arrived at a small mansion and a man walked out I suddenly recognized our host as a friend of my mother’s, who I’d met a few times as a boy. It was my wife’s uncle.
I think the uncle did quite well, but his lips were tightly pressed, and I had the sense he did not approve of his niece ditching her first husband to run off to Polynesia with a buffoon. He was very kind to offer us a place to sleep, but I had the sense nothing I said was anything he felt was worth listening to; I could have been talking Swahili. For my part, I felt my wife should have warned me that the friend-of-friend was not exactly an ally. Though exhausted, I did not sleep well.
Daylight revealed we were in a very posh neighborhood. I had coffee on a patio overlooking the flatness of LA from on high. It was not what I expected. I’d expected a friend-of-friend’s abode would be in some surfer-slum or artist’s-slum or some other slum where I fit in. I did not fit in, on this particular patio, but I attempted to look like a wealthy novelist writing a best seller, sipping coffee and scribbling into a notebook (that now has yellowing pages). Meanwhile I could not help but note my host only talked to me in a most uncomprehending way, and did not take me aside to give me any tough-love. Instead he did something rather rude. He took my wife aside. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.
After a late start we did escape LA, which I hoped might improve my wife’s mood. It didn’t. I blamed her uncle’s advise, which she didn’t want to talk about, and also blamed our car’s non-stop “GNAH”. It was four hours and around 200 miles even before we crossed into Arizona. In an attempt to please her I detoured north to peer into the Grand Canyon. It was a waste of time. The smiles I treasured were withheld. The Grand Canyon only delayed us, so we didn’t make it to the ranch, and stayed in a KOA campground in Gallup, New Mexico. In the morning we would take a road south to the ranch, down towards the Zuni Reservation.
The distances we crossed were huge. It was 400 miles just crossing Arizona, even without the detour to the Grand Canyon. I could see that people from “back east” or Europe couldn’t fully comprehend what it is like to drive long periods of time and still be in the same place. They especially couldn’t comprehend enduring such drives in a Toyota going “GNAH.”
The desert struck me as ravishingly beautiful. The summer rains had been generous, and the desert bloomed. It also was surprisingly green, and the way the green contrasted with red, orange, yellow and peach-colored stone was beyond beauty. As I attempted to be poetic the only ugly thing was my wife. It was increasingly obvious I was no longer on her list of superheroes. I blamed the constant “GNAH” noise, though I was not sure it was the noise that was giving me a headache.
At last we turned off onto a well-graded gravel drive and drove around a mile up a long slow slope, to a house that was not what I expected. I expected stockades and rough-hewed sheds and perhaps a rambling ranch house of logs with a stove-pipe chimney. This house was elegant with patios around the sides and big sliding glass doors. Glancing about I did not see a cow or horse in sight. The view was amazing, and the silence was awesome, especially after the deafening days in a muffler-less car.
There was no one there to meet us, which seemed odd, but my wife looked cranky about it, and contributed to the silence. I felt she had some explaining to do, but nothing I said seemed able to start a conversation; all my words fell strangely flat; I felt like a comedian bombing-out before a scowling crowd; for example, after peering in through a sliding glass door at modern furniture with shiny chrome, I said, “Well, apparently the price of of cows is pretty high.” This earned me a look of disgust. I sighed and decided we both could use some time to recover from the drive, and retrieved my notebook from the car and then sat on a stranger’s patio, looking out over the beautiful desert.
As a lifelong moocher I was fairly good at making myself at home on other people’s porches, but something seemed very different. I didn’t exactly feel I was trespassing, but that I was being carefully watched by something that was absolutely huge, beyond enormous. This watcher was different from the three witches I fantasized in the night skies of LA. I felt like I should be very respectful. Then I rubbed my road-weary eyes. Where were these thoughts coming from? I was too tired; it was stress talking. I tried to focus on something more pragmatic, like the geology of a layer of cream-colored limestone capping red sandstone forty miles away. Then, much closer, I saw a cloud of dust and heard, small in the huge silence, the faint sound of a truck.
The truck gradually approached until, jouncing and bouncing, it pulled up beside my puny car. The truck was muddy up to its driver-side window, well above my Toyota’s roof. A big, blond man got out and looked down at my car, more in amazement than in contempt, and he then noticed me and my wife on the porch. He waved and walked over to us with enormous strides, and casually spoke to my wife, “Your aunt and uncle are off on vacation; you’re welcome to stay where you stayed before. They’ll be back next week.”
I gave her a glance. Another uncle? This was not what I envisioned.
She obviously didn’t want to talk about it, and we carried our bags into a beautiful guestroom with a spectacular view, where she lay down to rest, as I went out to talk to the huge ranch hand. He deserves a name, so I’ll call him “Norse”, for he struck me as a Westernized Viking, or else a Cowboy without a drawl. He was tall, clear-faced, kind, didn’t smoke or drink, and made me feel inferior without trying. He would have been accepted for a try-out in the National Football League no questions asked, and walked with such huge strides that I had to trot to keep up with him. Though I am six feet tall he made me feel as puny as my car. I attempted to sound casual, as I asked questions and got answers which were somewhat devastating, as he casually loaded hundred-fifty-pound coils of fencing into to the back of his huge pick-up, like they were cardboard.
He didn’t know what my wife was talking about. There was no opening for me to be a hand at the ranch. Perhaps she was talking about so-and-so at the next ranch over, four miles off, over there towards that mesa, though so-and-so needed a baby-sitter more than he needed a hand. He’d drive me over tomorrow and we could ask. He added, as if excusing his own generosity, that my car would never make it through the muddy ruts.
My wife had more explaining to do, but a nap didn’t improve her mood. When I tried to gently bring up our predicament I somehow found myself sidetracked into a petty discussion about whether the absent rancher was her uncle or not. Apparently an uncle’s wife’s sister’s husband was not an uncle. And we seemed to be rapidly descending into a quibble about whether or not only a moron would say it was wrong to describe such a non-uncle as a “friend-of-a-friend”.
Back when I was a bachelor I had always rolled my eyes when I saw my married friends involved in gruesomely uncomfortable quarrels with their wives; now they seemed a lot more reasonable. But I supposed this was merely our first quarrel, and we’d get through it, yet it sure was unadulterated misery. My stomach hurt. I couldn’t understand why my wife didn’t even try to be nice. I myself tried, attempting to change the subject to the spectacular view, but she found fault with my appreciation. She said she didn’t see why I had to ruin everything with geology, when geology didn’t even exist. She was reverting to (insert religion of your choice) and stating dinosaurs were a lie. Why did I have to spoil a perfectly good view with science? Couldn’t I just leave it alone?
I said I’d try, and then just looked at her, dumbfounded. It seemed incredible that such a beautiful woman could look so ugly. Why did she wrinkle her nose like that? Even the way she sat seemed intentionally uncomfortable. She was twisted into a hunch with her knees beside her ears, and looked strangely like the personification of an itch.
Again I didn’t sleep well.
The next morning Norse made a phone call, and then drove us to the adjoining ranch. The ride was great fun, as when we hit muddy sections of road Norse would gun the engine and we became a sort of speedboat, and he had a definite Cowboy grin. Horses may have given way to trucks, and rode to road, but a Cowboy was still a Cowboy.
As we churned up from the muck and drove a dry section of driveway up to the ranch house I saw this was much more like an old fashioned ranch. There were no picture windows or chrome in sight. But the rancher shook his head. He had no need of a ranch hand. But he did need my wife. He had children, and his own wife had died.
Arriving back at the first ranch I felt my wife had more explaining to do than ever. I had left three jobs for no job whatsoever. How was this going to get us to Polynesia? Rather than answering my question my wife said she had missed her period. Rather than thinking that this failed to answer my question, I felt it explained everything. I became tender and surprisingly, (for a misled man with no job), sympathetic. I said we needed to become very practical (which might make some readers laugh) and that we should, before we did anything too drastic, make sure she actually was pregnant. This necessitated the purchase of a newfangled “pregnancy test” from the nearest drug store. Norse informed me I’d have to drive all the way back to Gallup, an hour north. I hopped in my car and, with a loud GNAH, set off to purchase the kit.
I drove in a daze, and the drive took longer than my wife approved of, for besides a pregnancy kit, it seemed that, as a potential father, it might be a good thing to look for a job. Even more than a job, I craved cigarettes, and I pulled over at a tiny market in the middle of nowhere, not much more than a shack. Besides asking for cigarettes I asked for a job, and, because the old fellow running the lonesome market had long stretches of time to wait between customers, and was garrulous, I’d smoked a fifth of the pack before I left.
He was not reassuring. He stated he could not hire me; he could barely afford to hire himself and was thinking of closing his store. The problem was Hippies. Folk used to be able to drive ninety minutes east-northeast and make big bucks at the Uranium mines in Grants, but anti-nuke Hippies had wrecked that, and now people had to pack up and leave, or else starve. Hippies didn’t understand that to close a mine didn’t just hurt the owner, it hurt all the workers and all the little bars and markets like his. It even hurt the ranchers and Indians. He made a joke of this. He said Hippies thought Indians would like them, for putting so-called “Nature” before Uranium, but what they did was take away fat paychecks and give Indians unemployment, so Indians thought Hippies sucked.
When I inquired about jobs on ranches, the fellow gave me far too much information. He was too willing, in my humble opinion, to gossip. He shattered my naive assumption that ranches were a Norman Rockwell reality, untouched by California. Instead he spoke of the good old days, before the Hippy nonsense of wife-swapping afflicted the ranches. The 1970’s were hard on the ranches, like everywhere else. The old shopkeeper did not approve, and spoke of his disapproval in a manner that pricked my conscience.
My conscience was pricked because besides gossiping about husbands who swapped wives, he gossiped disapprovingly about wives who swapped husbands. That was too close to home, for me. But what was even worse was when the garrulous old shopkeeper described a rancher who, hurt by the swapping, took a stand against the swapping, and became a preacher of (insert religion of your choice). As he spoke I was stunned, realizing this good preacher was my wife’s uncle, who I had never met, but whose ranch I was staying at.
My face must have worn a strange expression, for the shopkeeper stopped talking. I was thinking, “A preacher? Her uncle’s a preacher? And I’m committing adultery with his niece? And we’re running away to have a baby in Polynesia?” I excused myself and walked out to my car in a daze. A classic comment from Oliver and Hardy drifted through my mind.
No man likes to admit he has miscalculated, but my journey to Polynesia was not beginning as I planned. However a man must play the hand he is dealt, and I was not ready to fold. After all, no great endeavor would ever be achieved if one allowed a few piffling details to make one a quitter. As I started up my car with a GNAH and pulled away from the tiny market I was glad to see a young Indian man hitchhiking ahead. The world might be cruel to me, but that didn’t mean I had to be cruel in return. In fact it seemed a sort of defiance to be kind, so I pulled over to pick him up.
I apologized for the noise, and he shouted back “I’m used to loud cars,” flashing me a very white smile. I liked him immediately, perhaps because it had been several days since I’d been smiled at, and we shouted to and fro like old friends as we drove through the beautiful desert. When we got to the turn-off where he asked to be dropped off I said I might as well drive him up to his house, and we headed up a road of bright red dirt between vivid green pinyon pines. I was nervous we’d be stopped by mud, but the road stuck to the high and dry ground, dipping and rolling, with the car always tipping left or right and never level, for mile after mile. Finally we rounded a sharp curve to a lone hogan, small but with lots of laundry on the line outside. The young man hopped out, and said “you are a very kind man,” and, with a modest inclination of my head, I backed around and headed back out the incredibly beautiful dirt track, digesting all the information the cheerful young man had shared as we shouted.
He said work was hard to find, and this was the good season. Once the tourists left things would really get rough. Unemployment was the rule and not the exception. And yes, pregnant women could be difficult. But that might not be the only reason she was bitchy. Tourists were not used to being up at an altitude of 8000 feet. They lost their minds a lot. If we’d just come from the seaside we might be losing our minds for a while. I shouldn’t let it bother me. He’d noticed the same thing when he got out of the Army, and came home. You would only be crazy for a couple weeks, and then your blood would thicken up. Gallup was a thousand feet lower but tourists lost their minds there, too. I should check in at the unemployment office to the left on the road into town. They were not much help in the office, but I might meet other guys looking for work there, who might know where the construction sites were and the spot labor was.
I did not spot the unemployment office as I drove into Gallup. I was looking for a gigantic bureaucratic edifice, when I should have been looking for a small, squat structure made of white sheet metal. The Registry of Motor Vehicles was the same; I should have been looking for a building not much larger than an over-sized trailor, but was looking for a vast Californian cathedral-to-inefficiency, full of lines of people waiting impatiently for bored tellers behind plastic counters. Gallup in 1984 had a long way to go to catch up, in terms of bureaucratic wastefulness.
I really knew I was in a different world when a police car pulled up behind me at a traffic light on old route 66 in downtown Gallup. I thought that the officer might notice that the little sticker on my 1975 Maine plates only updated my plates to 1983, and not to 1984. Sudden sweat trickled down my back. Then I noticed the pick-up in front of me did not even bother with having plates. To my astonishment I noticed the same was true for another pick-up in the lane next to me. I then spotted a third plate-less pick-up parked on the road-side.
I inquired about the phenomenon of trucks without licence plates at the drugstore, which was very modern and did have pregnancy tests. The clerk was an old Hispanic lady who looked me up and down in an appraising way, when she saw I was buying a pregnancy test. Her eyes came to rest on the rawhide ring on my ring finger, and she definitely disapproved, so it seemed good to change the subject to pick-up trucks. She also disapproved of scoff-laws, but informed me that the “Indio” resented “Anglos” coming into their land and making up a bunch of bossy rules, but the police were too busy with drunks to bother with petty infractions such as missing licence plates. I tried to make my eyes very round and innocent, nodding and agreeing that rules were only there to protect people from consequences, and should be obeyed. The old lady glanced at me with a knowing smile, patted the back of my hand, and handed me the pregnancy test. As I left I decided maybe she only scowled because maybe she needed glasses.
I actually thought it was a good sign that people in Gallup didn’t come down too hard on people who didn’t dot every bureaucratic “i” and cross every bureaucratic “t”, and thought my wife might be glad to get this news when I got back to the ranch. She was not. Nor was she the slightest bit interested in hearing that people went crazy when they went from sea-level to 8000 feet. Instead she shot me a look as if she was saying, “Are you calling me crazy?” I decided the best thing to do would be to shut up, and have her take the pregnancy test.
It was negative. When I told her the results she grinned. A grin is very different from a smile, sometimes. A smile holds love, but a grin can be sheer selfishness. As she grinned she looked up at me and our eyes met, and then she quickly looked away. She did not want to talk about it.
Things that are quite obvious to me now were not at all obvious to me then. I could not understand. I was incredulous. How could this woman, who so recently saw me as a superhero, now behave as if the sight of me made her skin crawl? What had I done that was so different?
Because I couldn’t talk to her I sat down on the patio with the unbelievably beautiful view, and the overpowering silence, and the sense someone huge was watching, and “expressed myself” into my notebook.
The yellowing pages do not show the scribbles of a very calm nor rational man. I was very angry about the way my honeymoon was turning into hell, and was grasping at straws like a drowning man. I was seeking a cause, a reason, but this turned into fierce blaming. In a most inarticulate manner I blurted rage at all uncles, ranchers and especially preachers, despite the fact I’d never really talked to any of them.
I was especially irate that the uncle-preacher had such a nice house. I was no chump, and know you don’t get rich herding sheep or cattle in a desert. On a dry year 2000 acres can barely support 50 steer. I understood the Indians only eked by herding sheep in a most minimalist manner, which was how I planned to eke by, on coconuts and fish on a Polynesian Island. Indians were good, in terms of minimalism, but to own a house with picture windows and chrome furniture involved bigger bucks. Where was the money coming from?
It did not take delicate inquiries to learn the answer from Norse; he was perfectly frank and unashamed of the reality: Ranchers did not get rich, or even get by, on the profit from their ranches. Such profits were too small, and modern trucks could not be fed hay like horses in the old days. People who could afford ranches were either were spoiled royalist children with big trust-funds, or made millions elsewhere, as was the case with Hollywood movie-stars, or they had a side job. Norse informed me the uncle-preacher’s side job was to sell farmers equipment. He owned a parking lot, full of tractors and combines and all sorts of other stuff, down in Gallup.
As I “expressed myself” in my notebook I showered contempt on my kindly host, who I had never met. He was not living off the land. He was living off selling tractors to Navajo, but the Navajo were not able to afford tractors with what they made, living off the land. The Navajo could only afford the tractors due to far-off tax-payers who made government hand-outs possible. In other words the wealth was all an illusion, a scam, wherein dirt-poor Navajo and dirt-poor ranchers mooched off taxpayers, reaping what they did not sow.
The above paragraph adroitly and succinctly summarizes something which, 34 years ago, was inarticulate. It wasn’t even close to the tip of my tongue. Instead I blurted rage on paper at a host I’d never met. It’s embarrassing to read it now, but was honest.
I think I was in a state of extreme defensiveness. I was afraid the treasure of my life, my wife, was comparing me to ranchers and I was coming up a distant second, and therefore the thing to do was to rip them to shreds. It may not have made much sense, but it did “express myself”, and actually felt good.
We slept as far apart as it is possible to sleep, in the same bed. I thought I’d have trouble sleeping again, but exhaustion hit me like a hammer,
I hoped things would look different in the morning. They did. They looked worse. My wife was not the only one repenting over the haste of our marriage.
I did not like the way she looked at me. The fizzling of infatuation is a two-edged sword, in that the face of the person who once was infatuated shifts from admiring to critical, and, while an adoring face is adorable, a highly critical face is ugly as sin. I wondered over my own blindness. How was it I had never noticed how completely repulsive she looked?
Fortunately my first cup of coffee has a side effect of kicking my sense of humor into effect. It struck me as sort of funny that, while some women wear make-up, making an effort to hide their ugliness, my wife, who didn’t wear make-up, seemed to be making such an effort to be ugly. When the thought made me smile she saw the smile and got nastier, snapping “what are you smiling at”, which made it even harder not to laugh.
She seemed to be trying to pick a fight with me, and I thought I should not go there. Some sexist stereotype kicked in, and I thought the woman is suppose to be emotional and irrational, while the man remains a tower of strength. As long as the effect of the first coffee lasted, the more she was crabby the more I would be cheerful.
But one effect of altitude-sickness is that nothing works quite the same. It feels like the wine is watered down, and the cigarettes are all low-tar-and-nicotine, so you look at them and wonder if they really hold tobacco or are actually dried cabbage leaves. Your body is short on a crucial thing, called oxygen, (which is closely related to the energy or “prana” of certain yogic breathing exercises). Altitude effects even the ambition and optimism many receive from their first cup of coffee. This seemed a great pity to me, for my wife’s crabbiness seemed to require ten cups of coffee, down around a thousand feet below sea-level, on the shores of the Dead Sea.
An example of how she would pick a fight involved me cheerfully describing the young hitchhiker I’d learned about altitude sickness from, the day before. Almost as if she knew it would rub my fur the wrong way, she said Indians were not good people, describing some sullen Cree she had a bad experience with in Canada. At a lower altitude I might have been more curious, and sensitively asked about the reasons for her dislike, in the manner a caring psychologist might inquire about the trauma that formed opinions. But such responses seemed strangely difficult at 8000 feet. I myself needed only to look in my own notebook and I could see myself badmouthing my host as a person who exploited both Indians and American Taxpayers, though I had never met the man. Instead of responding like a caring psychologist I simply sat with my jaw gaping, amazed.
Into my mind’s eye drifted various Shakespearean shrews, especially Lady Macbeth, who was full of bravado when urging her husband to commit murder, but who completely fell apart when she saw the actual blood, resulting in the famous, “Out, damn spot,” speech. In like manner my wife had been big on my renouncing friends and family and California, and making a fresh start, but when push came to shove she was backsliding to friends and family, and uncles, and even the preachers she had seemed so contemptuous of.
I figured it might be a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, but that puts the man in the role of standing his ground and supplying the will power. If we were ever going to make it to paradise in Polynesia I was going to have to be tough and unswayed by discouragement. But it wouldn’t be easy, for my wife was so swayed by second thoughts that she seemed increasingly dead-set on discouraging me from the first thoughts. As infatuation fizzled, so did all our plans and dreams.
I needed time to think, which I did not get. It seemed the story of my life, and the reason for going to Polynesia. In fact, the very sight of me writing now seemed to make my wife’s skin crawl. Even the songs I hummed to myself annoyed her, for example, a snatch of Jimi Hendrix:
He cries “Oh, girl, you must be mad
What happened to the sweet love you and me had?”
Against the door he leans and starts a scene
And his tears fall and burn the garden green.
And so castles made of sand fall into the sea, eventually…
(It may sound silly, but she objected to me humming because it interrupted her concentration on a a maudlin song about an old boyfriend she was listening to on the rancher’s stereo).
When she found me so constantly objectionable I gave up on countering her bitching with cheer, and instead said we obviously both were suffering, and needed to have a serious talk. But before I could talk I needed to think, or I would just be lashing out thoughtlessly at her. Because she objected to me rambling across a sheet of paper, I was going to ramble across the beautiful countryside. Did she care to come? No? Well, I needed to go, but I’d be back. If she wanted to look at the rawness of my emotion she was welcome to look through my notebook while I was gone. Then I wheeled away and walked off into the beautiful desert.
It was a wonderful and very long hike, well over ten miles but less than twenty, (which I thought little of walking, at that age.) To be honest, as I strode my thinking dwelt little on my wife, which is one advantage of rambling across a countryside rather than a page.
I could feel my shortness of breath at that altitude, but had the attitude that the fastest way to acclimatize was to push myself and work up a good sweat. It was like I had a hangover, and wanted to get over it quickly by shoveling coal into a blast furnace. I tested myself and put myself in danger, scaling cliffs without the politically correct equipment. It was like I wanted to prove I was a man, after my wife made me feel so far beneath superhero status.
It was a glorious and ravishing landscape, and it was an indescribable relief to get into it, rather than just seeing it dazzle from afar, from a patio, midst the camel-straw pettiness of a marital spat. Mile followed mile, glory after glory, relief after relief. The entire time I could not shake the strange sensation something big was watching me.
After around two hours I chanced upon a chip of Anasazi pottery, bright red with black zigzags painted on it. I thought this was wonderful, and pocketed it as a rarity. But as I clambered up a rubble slope I saw more and more chips, some red and some a silver gray, until it seemed I was in an Anasazi dump. Then I looked up a cliff of silvery rose and pink, and wondered what lay on top. After a difficult climb I discovered the ruins of a huge, circular kiva. It was amazing, and I clambered down into it, full of awe and curiosity about all the work that went into stacking the stone, and curiosity about what it was for, and curiosity about what happened to the builders.
As I crouched, examining the stacking of the stone with interest (for I’d built stone walls back in New England), I suddenly heard a voice bluster, “Hey! You! Didn’t you see the sign?” I looked up and saw a man in a ranger uniform. Apparently I had trespassed into some sort of park.
I climbed up the wall to talk to the ranger. It was fairly obvious he was in the right and I was in the wrong, and the bluster in his voice seemed meant to intimidate, but he wasn’t very intimidating. In fact he was about as able to intimidate me as I was able to intimidate the big ranch-hand Norse. I was a good six inches taller, and he was very slender. If he wasn’t a 98-pound-weakling he was close. To top it off, he wore wire-rimmed glasses, like he should be a clerk and not a ranger. My imaginative mind immediately concluded he got the job because he knew the right people in some university anthropology department, and not because he fit the definition of ranger. A true ranger would wear revolvers and be a man who could deal with a sweaty, ignorant trespasser like myself. This ranger quailed slightly when I came clambering up like King Kong up the Empire State Building, and said, “Sign? What sign?”
I immediately felt very sorry for the man, but could not comply with his breathless request that I stay within the roped paths that led to the parking lot. I apologized and explained I had no car and would have to return the way I came. Then, despite his bleating objections, I walked around the circle of the kiva to the edge of a cliff, gave him a little and (I hope) friendly wave, and vanished off the edge. My last vision of the little man was of him standing with his eyes wide and his mouth agape and his spread palms just off his hips.
This episode seemed very funny to me, and a perfect example of being an outlaw and renegade in the late-twentieth-century. In the late-nineteenth-century I surely would have been seen as more of a sissy. I could not help laugh to myself, and thought my wife might smile to hear about my adventure.
She didn’t. She had read my notebook, and told me to see the comments she had put in the margins.
I have the yellowing pages to this day, and her handwriting is lovely cursive as mine is scribbling, and her comments are sane as I am raving. She displays the complete incapacity to understand the reason for the raving, (the “method in the madness”), that a stuffy schoolmarm would, before an irate ten-year-old boy. The only difference is that she likely thought more highly of a ten-year-old. With amazing clarity she points out what I already knew, for example that I had never met our host, and likely shouldn’t be judging him. She was utterly missing my “self expression.”
There are few experiences worse than to, in a sense, “bare your breast” to another, and rather than understanding to be totally misunderstood. It is part of the “suffering of a poet”, but in the 34 years since I’ve realized poets don’t own exclusive rights to such suffering. It is the daily fare of quite ordinary people, who grow numb to such treatment and expect nothing better.
I do expect better. I expect better from myself. I expect better from you. Because we are better than that.
In 1984 I was a lot less able to argue the specifics of this dynamic than I now have become, but I had been a writer fifteen years, and was more skilled with experiencing rejection than many are. At the very least, I didn’t merely become numb and expect nothing better. And this was especially true with my wife.
The time had come to have it out with her. Was she for me, or was she against me? The preachers quote Jesus, who said one cannot serve two masters. My wife had said she was leaving all, but now was definitely backsliding to uncles and to what we were supposedly renouncing and leaving behind. Was she with me, or was she abandoning ship?
I felt she was getting sly and slippery and tricky with her logic. If she could leave her first husband behind for a higher truth, why shouldn’t she leave me behind for the same higher truth? The problem with such lack of loyalty is that it makes you fickle, and prone to the flaming and fading of infatuation. If there was some higher truth she was following, shouldn’t it be stated? Even if she hated religion, shouldn’t truth have a capital “T” and be spelled “Truth”? Even if she was an atheist, shouldn’t there be a thing more lasting than infatuation, which one could commit to?
It was for that reason I had stressed, during the first 36 hours when we were still pure, the importance of “100% commitment”. I made it quite clear I would not be involved unless this criterion was met. Our marriage might scorn church and state, but it would not scorn the rock-like faith we would have in each other. We would be proof of the power of love.
And now I confronted my wife with the commitment we had made. It didn’t matter that infatuation had faded. It didn’t matter that we had been exposed to kryptonite and saw our superhuman status reduced to weenie status. We would remain loyal and steadfast and keep the faith we had in our love.
My wife disagreed. She said she had decided that it was her job to get me out of California, and she had completed her job. She was done with me. Incredulous, I blurted, “But you said you were 100% committed!” She put on a rather snide expression and replied, “Well, maybe I was 100% committed then, but now I am not 100% committed any more.”
To my astonishment, a hand then appeared and smacked her on the cheek. I looked down, equally astonished to see the hand was attached to my own arm. I then looked up, treble-astonished to see she looked triumphant. Abashed and ashamed, I arose to apologize, but my ex-wife jumped up and ran away. I pursued across the patio and around the corner of the house, where I found her clinging to Norse. She looked up at him appealing, tearfully pointing back at me, and cried, “He hit me!”
This is one of the top ten worst moments of my life, but at the same time it struck me as being so utterly stupid I thought, “Can’t use this in a novel. Too ridiculous.”
Norse was amazing. He carefully and tenderly examined her cheek, and commented, “There is no bruising,” and then looked at me. What could I say? I said, with a sort of writhing shrug, “I totally lost it.” Then Norse politely backed out of the final Act-Five-Scene-Five, of our asinine soap opera.
It seemed to me she had already ended things, but also that I should make some sort of official statement. I walked to the bedroom, got my bag, and, as I left, paused to tell my ex, “If you are not 100% committed then I shouldn’t be here. We need to separate until you change your mind.” Then I walked to my tiny Toyota and it went GNAH, and I drove down the long driveway through the silver sagebrush, with some huge thing watching me.
When Truth first met the Faithful One
Sweet Truth had sighs to say:
“I feel that now our love will last
Forever and a day.”
The Faithful One enchanted was.
Truth caused his soul to thrill,
And all that he could reply to her
Was, “Yes. Oh yes, it will.”
But Truth could never tell a lie
And so there came a Day
When she broke Faith by telling him
“My Love feels gone away.”
The Faithful One was shattered
And groaned this in his woe,
“If love has gone please tell me where
For there I have to go.” (1984)
I suppose I could end my tale with, “And that is how I came to sit in a campground in the middle of nowhere,” but that really wouldn’t explain why I continued to work so diligently on “The Novel That Never Was.”
I entertained the old-fashioned belief that, while it may be a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, a man’s promises are binding. I knew this was actually the law in some states; a woman can back out of a promise to marry but a man faces legal repercussions if he breaks his word. This didn’t seem particularly unfair to me, because the woman bears the baby and the man doesn’t. It also occurred to me that the newfangled pregnancy-tests were not 100% reliable. Therefore I should stick around and be there for her even if she wasn’t there for me, at least long enough to see whether her waistline expanded.
I was very responsible, for a mad poet, hustling work and saving money. I continued to work on “The Novel That Never Was”, because a letter might come from Toronto any day, and if there was a baby we’d need extra money. When the weather got cold I moved from the campground to the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup and rented a nice room. She never visited, but from time to time I’d visit her out on ranches as she bounced about. At no time did she show any interest in serious reconciliation. When I asked her if reconciliation was even possible, she said, “Oh well, I suppose anything is possible,” which gave me a small crumb of hope.
The only music I could get on my cheap transistor radio was country music, which I thought I didn’t like, but which I found interesting when forced to listen to it over and over again. I was surprised when its melancholy actually began to speak to me. After a while I thought I might give writing a mournful country song a try:
Been a while since I missed
Like I’m missing tonight.
Though the beer’s really good
And the band is all right
And a gal with intent’s
To the left of my sight
I don’t meet her eye.
I don’t even try.
Been a while since I missed like I’m missing tonight.
I’m missing the chance
To dance and then score;
To smile and smile broader
And walk out the door
With warm at my elbow;
A warmth I adore;
And she is right there
But hell if I care.
Been a while since I missed like I’m missing tonight.
My table is empty
But there is a chair
And easy as drinking
You could be there.
The chair-leg would scrape.
You’d hide in your hair,
Look up, and say “Hi”
In a sort of a sigh.
Been a while since I missed like I’m missing tonight. (1984)
Eventually I became acquainted with the ranchers I had badmouthed in my notebook. They were actually gruff but kindly men, who likely saw me as a bit pathetic, but also as loyal and long-suffering and even, at times, amazing, for I could reach their houses in my absurd little car. (When I reached rutted sections of road I’d just turn off the road and navigate through the sagebrush until I was past the rutted section, and could return to the road again.) My stubborn persistence must have impressed one fellow, for he mentioned he might have some work for me in a month, in the spring. When I asked my ex if she would mind, if I worked there, she said she wouldn’t mind because she’d be gone. A short time later I heard she had headed off to a relative who lived in Denver. I never saw her again.
At about the same time a forwarded letter came to my post-office box in Gallup. It was from the publisher in Toronto. They said they published math books, so my work wasn’t really what they were looking for.
At this point I had no hopes left. In a sense I had left all for Love, and because I had left everything I had nothing. I wasn’t really attempting to renounce the world and be holy, and to be honest I had been lustful, committed adultery, and was ungrateful and angry towards those who attempted to help me with tough-love, but, in a backwards and bumbling manner, I had obeyed the Lord’s request to “leave all and follow Me”, because I had done what I had done for Love. Not that I was happy about it:
I think I am going to die soon.
I see a skull’s face in the full moon
And high in the sky hear a mad loon
Luting a lonely and sad tune.
Why am I frightened of leaving?
I won’t leave anyone grieving.
Why am I staying here groaning?
Life’s just a way of postponing.
Someone, please some-
Ask me to stay. (1984)
At this point some might wonder why I didn’t go creeping back to California with my tail between my legs and beg for forgiveness. Quite honestly the thought never occurred to me. It wasn’t due to pride, for I had little of that left. It may have simply been because I was too busy staying alive to plan any long trips.
But also I was curious about what lay ahead. Even though I had renounced the world in a selfish way, I had done it. And, according various scriptures, because I had renounced the world I should see some “coincidences” occur. If “the Lord was my shepherd” I should not be left to rot and become bleached bones in the sand like a dead lamb. On Sundays the country station had churchy music, and I heard it sung, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto thee. Alleluia.”
Well, maybe I didn’t seek God first. I sought a grass hut in Polynesia, and a babe to share it with, first. But I didn’t get the grass hut and lost the babe, so all I really had left was God. So God was now first. I had been nudged and prodded like a recalcitrant ram to the proper pasture, by an unseen shepherd…..so where was the green grass? Did I deserve any, considering I was not exactly an aspiring saint, seeking all the right things for all the right reasons, and instead was a mad poet? Would I see “all these things be added unto thee?”
As my mind entered this wondering mode “The Novel That Never Was” started to get longer again, for it actually never was a thing meant to be finished. It was like a gymnasium to work out in, where I could develop mental muscles, and as such was more like an activity, like skipping rope or hammering away at a punching bag, than it was a work that would ever sit in a frame like a completed picture. (Also, late on lonely nights, it perhaps became a battlefield in the strange landscape of “mental telegraphy”.)
I did see many wonderful things over the following four years, as I drifted about the desert, which is why I enjoy looking back and remembering, and writing about what reflection reveals. I felt like a black sheep under the care of an incredibly kind Shepherd. But this is the end of the tale of how I came to be there.