Barn Tavern (Part Two)

If you don’t want to feel completely lost, please read part one.

Barn Tavern

“You can answer that if you need to,” she says.

Pete puts the phone on the bar top.  “No.  It’s ok.”  He wishes Roxanne would put her hand back on his leg, but she’s focused on her drink, taking exploratory sips.  A true novice.

“So, I’m here from out of town,” she says.  “Milwaukee to be exact.  I’ve been stuck at a trade conference all day.  I really don’t want to go back to my hotel room and sit there by myself, you know, watching Law and Order all night.  So, how does dancing sound?”

“Sounds good, but I’m not much of a dancer.  Bad leg.”

“We don’t have to dance.”  She puts her hand back on his knee.

He wants her right now, and as she massages his knee he remembers Janie Whitlock and how she let him put his hand up her shirt when they were sixteen and passionate about everything that didn’t involve school.  He didn’t ask.  He just did it because it felt right.  He had approached from behind and wrapped his arms around her waist.  Her body relaxed and her head went limp as it tilted back and slightly to the side.  He kissed her neck while his hands climbed up her body her closer and then he had both hands under her bra massaging her breasts.  Maybe that’s not exactly how it happened, the sights and sounds blurred by time, but he knows he remembers the feeling just right.

“I had an accident a few years back,” he tells Roxanne.  “Ran into a tree trying to avoid a plastic bag floating across the road.  I thought it was a dog.  I get around good now, but dancing’s asking a bit much.  But I am proud to say the bag is fine.”

Roxanne laughs.  She swivels her stool until she’s completely facing him.  Her drink is empty.  So is his bottle of beer.  He has a two-fisted hold on it even as it’s sandwiched between his legs.

“Let’s order something fun,” she says.

He orders her a Long Island iced tea and a beer for himself.

“Beer is boring,” she says.

But it’s cheaper.  “I’m a man of the bottle, remember?”  He does some mental mathematics, which is considerably tougher now after his sixth beer.  He wonders how he’s going to pull it off, the bill.  The phone vibrates again. He’s not so hopeful this time.  It’s a text from his wife.  It reads, “I took $40 from your wallet.  Nicole needed it 4 school.  Home soon?” 

Roxanne rotates to face the bar again as the bartender prepares her drink.

“That bag bankrupted me,” Pete says to regain her attention.

“I bet.”

“No, really.  I had to file for bankruptcy.  I was between jobs.  No insurance.  All my credit cards, gone.  Do you know what it’s like to have absolutely nothing?”

Roxanne leans into him and says softly, “You always have something.”

He can see down her blouse.  She’s about an 8.  He hopes he’ll get a better look, but the bartender ruins the moment by sliding the drinks under their noses.  She leans back in her stool.

Pete says, “I used to be a middle linebacker.  I was good.  Played a little in college.  I was quick when I had my legs at full strength.  But I quit when my uncle died.  Kind of a second father to me.  Cancer.”   Why is he talking about this?  “I still miss him.”

She puts a hand on his shoulder, which makes him want to cry.

“You know, this place really used to be a barn,” Pete says.

“Really?”

He imagines what it would be like with Roxanne, putting his arms around her and kissing her neck and crawling his hands over her skin.  “Like real animals.  My friend Janie had horses.  We’d ride them—there was nothing around here back then.  It was real peaceful.  But that was a long time ago.  She used to train horses.  Thoroughbreds.”

“You’re not that old.”

“No, I’m not.  But with this gimpy leg I sure feel like it.”  He’s blowing it, he knows.

She leans back.  “I’m sorry.  I really am.  I’m sure it’s tough.”

She’s not smiling anymore and he wishes he could bring it back, wishes that she would lean forward again and give him another eyeful.  What will it take for her to invite him back to her hotel room?  They both finish off their drinks.

“Another round?” he asks.

She thinks about it.  “Sure, but this one’s on me.  I insist.”  She tosses her credit card on the bar.

Pete gets another text message.  This one’s from Rick: “Sorry dude cant bail u out this time.”

Nearby, a spirited game of darts is underway, the intensity ratcheted up by a stern looking man with a brown crewcut and gray sideburns.  The man’s berating his younger opponent for not taking the game more seriously.

Pete’s phone vibrates again, but he doesn’t look at it because he feels like he’s neglecting Roxanne.  “Enough about me,” he says to her.  “What about you?”

She swivels back to him.  “What do you want to know?”

“You said you’re here for some kind of conference.  What do you do?”

“Plastic.”

“Bottles?”

“Credit cards.  I work for a bank.  We’re starting—”

“Banks.  That’s twisted.  My business scars your foot while yours basically guts me.”  The beer is going down much faster now.

“It’s just a job for me.  To pay the bills.  It’s nothing personal.  I don’t even like my job.”

“My job’s really pretty pointless.  I mean, I show up, but come on, do they really think I can tell if things are going good better than a computer can?  I supervise a system so automated I’m the only live person left.  Nobody notices when I’m there.  No one cares if I’m not.  I bet you have no idea what that’s like.”

“I do.”

“I’ve gotta piss.”  He’s been putting off his trip to the bathroom mainly because he doesn’t want Roxanne to see him walk, fearing that she might attribute his stagger to drunkenness rather than just a bum leg.  Or vice versa.  He’s true too drunk to tell what he’s really afraid of.  But he can’t hold it.  He also can’t resist taking the opportunity to look at his phone.  Another text from his wife: I like it when you’re here.  I like it when you’re here on time.  He trips on the leg of a stool at the far end of the bar and twizzles on his good leg, coming out of his spin without falling only by collapsing onto the foosball table.  There’s no going back, he thinks.

He has to forge a path to the restroom by squeezing between sweaty bodies until he reaches a clearing near the dart boards.  He pauses to let the more fiery of the competitors toss a triple twenty.  Pete remembers the days when the guys used to call him “Mr. Max” because of his ability to nail the triple twenties and score frequent maximums.  Pete sees a possibility.

…to be continued

Barn Tavern

Barn Tavern

Pete swirls the last swallow of beer remaining in the bottle.  He’s done with this place.  Even though it’s got the same name, the bar isn’t the same under the new ownership.  The Barn Tavern used to be a barn, but now the haystacks framing the doorway and the scarecrow painfully pinned to the wall, its legs straddling the dartboard, are more like offensive jokes at the expense of the building’s heritage.  The new owners have also changed the sign outside, capitalizing the “N” in “barn” and setting it slightly askew so that it looks like Bar ‘N’ Tavern, which is redundant and stupid and leads Pete to think there’s no way this place is going to last more than a few months.

“This place really used to be a barn,” Pete informs the bartender whose shaggy beard doesn’t even begin to hide his youth.

“That’s what they say.”  The bartender’s arms are shaved so that the Dylan verse tattooed on each forearm is clearly legible.  His right arm says, “behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain” while the left counters with “he not busy being born is busy dying.”

“No, really,” Pete insists.  “I grew up around here.  Me and Janie Whitlock used to make out back there where the restrooms are.  She used to train Thoroughbreds.”

The bartender smiles and nods before quickly turning his attention to the pair of young women who are seated a couple stools down.  Pete doesn’t like this new bartender.  He’s too young and probably thinks the ink on his arms marks him as a deep thinker.  And, to top it off, he’s effectively ended Pete’s night, having slid the totaled tab under Pete’s nose just a few minutes before.

The 10 p.m. crowd, consisting mostly of guests from the new hotel just down the road, has replaced the regulars.  Pete’s ready to go.  He pulls out his wallet and is stunned when he finds it empty, the forty dollars he withdrew from the bank last Friday, gone.  He searches the slits and pockets of his wallet, pulling out receipts, coupons and free membership cards that clutter it.  No cash.  He panics.

In an extended moment of pathetic desperation, he totals the value of the coupons.  A buy-one-get-one-free deal at IHOP.  At least a seven dollar value.  Five dollars off a full service car wash.  Three dollars off a large bucket of golf balls at Shady Oaks Driving Range.  A forty-cent-off coupon on a twelve-pack of toilet paper.  Everyone needs toilet paper.  A coupon for two free tacos, whose value is increased by the “no purchase necessary” clause advertised in bold letters.  In total, his fifteen dollars and forty cents worth of coupons might be a fair exchange for his ten-dollar tab.  He’s almost seriously considering offering this when he notices the bartender and the two women staring at him, sharing little giggles.  Pete quickly folds the coupons and stuffs them back into the wallet.  A stupid idea.  And what the hell happened to his forty dollars?

He pulls out his phone and is in the middle of sending a pleading text message to his buddy Ray when a woman seats herself on the stool next to his.  She wears glasses.  Pete digs chicks with glasses.  The woman is taking in the ambiance of the place, and he hopes her eyes will eventually settle on him.

When they do, he says, “Hey.  I’m Pete.”

“I’m Roxanne.”

“Really?  You’re the third Roxanne I’ve met today!”  She’s only the first Roxanne he’s met in the past month, but he’s put a lot of thought into this line while toiling through boredom at the plant.  The genius of it is that the woman is immediately grouped in with two other nondescript women, and motivated by the prideful desire to stand out above the unremarkable Roxannes, she’ll try to impress him.  Eventually she’ll rationalize that she’s doing this because she likes him.  This plan has worked a thousand times in his imagination.

She smiles.  “I bet I’m the best Roxanne you’ll ever meet.”

He takes the last swig of his beer then smiles.  “We’ll see.”

She scans the liquor bottles lining the shelves.  “I don’t know what to get,” she says.  “I’m not someone who usually comes to bars.”

“And I’m not someone who usually leaves bars.”

She laughs.  “So what would you recommend for a novice like me?”

“Well, do you want something smooth and fruity or something strong and hard that will put you on your back?”

“Stop!” she says cutely.  She touches his arm, which causes the hair on it to stand up and his body to tense.

He waves to the bartender.  “Get this lady a Cape Cod,” he calls out.

The bartender comes over.  “Sure thing.  Same tab?” the bearded bartender asks.

Now Pete’s screwed.  He knows it.  “Yeah.  You can put it on my tab.”

“So, Mr. Pete,” says Roxanne, looking completely invested, “what do you do besides never leaving bars?”

“I’m a man of the bottle.  Seriously.  I’m a manager at a bottle plant.”  This isn’t completely untrue.  What he manages is to remove the defective bottles from the line.  Actually, the machine does that automatically, but he has to supervise it and make sure the machine, which operates at the precision of something like 1/1000 mm, is properly sorting the good bottles from the bad ones.  Basically, his job is not needed and he keeps it only because when the bottle plant opened here a few years ago, the company promised the city it would maintain a certain number of employees in exchange for even more lucrative tax breaks.  But really, if he calls in sick, no one fills his spot.  He’s been sick a lot this year.

“So, what exactly do you do there besides down a few when no one’s looking?” she asks.

The bartender slides her drink in front of her.

“We make the bottle, not the booze.”  He lifts his empty beer bottle for her to inspect.  “You see this.  This is glass.  It is one-hundred percent reusable and doesn’t decompose.  You can’t say that about plastic or anything else.”

She crosses her legs.  She has nice ones, he thinks.  He also thinks she’s being flirtatious until she takes off her sandal and shows him the long scar on the inside of her right foot.  “I got this from a stepping on a broken bottle.”

“That’s quite a scar.  Thanks for showing it to me.”

She blushes.  “Sorry about that.  It’s not something I usually show people.  But since you mentioned your connection to bottles…”

The bartender brings him another Budweiser.  He must have misinterpreted Pete’s raising of the bottle for Roxanne to inspect as a request for another.  Pete’s really got to do something about this issue of a tab.

“There are other parts of me that make up for the parts that are scarred,”  Roxanne says, breaking a silence that was gaining momentum.

“We’re all scarred in one way or another,” he says, thinking he’ll sound deep and empathetic, but the words feel cold and hollow.

She excuses herself to go the bathroom.  Pete takes the opportunity to pull out his cell phone and send a flurry of text messages to loyal friends who might be able to rescue him by coming to the bar and covering his tab.

When Roxanne walks back from the restroom, she seems more lustrous, and Pete’s trying to figure out what exactly she did to herself.  She walks with confidence, he notices.  He stuffs his phone into his pocket.

She puts her hand on his leg to brace herself as she climbs onto her stool, but she leaves it there even after she’s seated.

“Do you like to dance?” she asks.

Before he can answer, his phone vibrates.

“You’re buzzing.  Maybe that means we should go.”  She laughs nervously.

We?  He nonchalantly pulls out his phone.  He hopes it’s Ray, Juan, or even Tony replying to his texts.  It’s not.  It’s his wife.

click to continue reading

I Confess. I Cheated.

cheat

You’re in school taking the most important and hardest class you’ll ever take.  There’s a lot of pressure because if you make an A you’ll be guaranteed a job.  A B might get you the job depending on how everyone else in the class does.  But you’re pretty confident because you’ve worked harder than your classmates.

First test you make a B.  A few of your classmates make Cs and Ds but the majority make As, and you wonder how they did that.  Soon, you hear that one of your classmates has a copy of all the semester’s tests, obtained perhaps by cleverly hacking into the professor’s computer.  The ones who are cheating ask if you’d like to come over and “study” with them for the next test.  You decline because you don’t want to be a cheater.

You study more than you did for the last test because you know you have to just to keep up.  You end up with a B plus.  They make As again.  They’re contacted by job recruiters.  You are not.  Even some of the ones who made Cs and Ds on the first test are now making As, moving you closer to the bottom of the pack.  You’d like to tell on them, but you have no proof.  Besides, that would really tick off the whole group, and they pretty much detest you anyway for your goody-two-shoes routine.

You do what you have to.  You join them.  You make your A.  You get the job.  You’re financially independent and so happy about that.  You get married and have kids, whose piano and tennis lessons you can pay for thanks to that good job.  Your family is happy.  No regrets.  You and your college buddies laugh about that class years later.

Now you’ve got this great job in a tight economy.  Again, you’re working your butt off, eating lunches at your desk, never taking sick days or personal days, yet the productivity of your co-workers is surpassing your own.  You know they’re cutting corners, backdating documents, shredding customer complaints and doing what they can to stay a step ahead of the curve.  One misstep and they could be fired.  They know that.  You know that.  At the same time, you know that management tacitly condones this behavior as long as they don’t make an obvious blunder that forces management’s hand.  You have a family and hate taking risks especially when it comes down to your livelihood.  However, you wonder that if you can’t keep up with the pack and their inflated numbers, you might lose your job.   You give up vacations, work on holidays, extend your work week to eighty hours just to do what your co-workers claim they do in a forty hour week.  You have your integrity.  You keep up this pace for twenty years, put your kids through college, watch them have families of their own, and finally you retire.

When you look back, you wonder what it would have been like to spend just a little more time with your kids?  You regret not spending more, because when it comes down to it, isn’t the family the most important thing?  You feel bitter at the rest of the world who seems happier than you with fewer wrinkles around the eyes.  They never faced the consequences of their misdeeds.  Or were they really misdeeds?  You wonder if making three follow up calls and fibbing on the required fourth would have made that much of a difference.

We face these kinds of tough decisions every day, sometimes without even considering the moral and ethical significance.  Cheating and getting ahead is the easy decision.  Choosing not to cheat is the tough one.  However, cheating does, after all, imply getting a competitive advantage.  What if you are at a competitive disadvantage if you don’t cheat because everybody else is?  It’s easy to justify it in our own heads when we are pursuing our goals to be successful and respected.

Let’s be honest.  What we all want is to be successful.  Society puts pressure on us to be successful.  In our culture, success is measured by the acquisition of things.  A businessman who nets one million dollars is more successful than one who nets a hundred thousand dollars.  No one asks to compare their bookkeeping or business practices.  An NBA superstar who has five championship rings is more successful than one who doesn’t have any.  Even successful parents are ones who produce successful children, children who are able to obtain a lot of things and money.  Sometimes we need to see ourselves as successful.

It’s time for me to come clean.  I am a Scrabble cheater when it comes to games played on my mobile device.  At first I just played against a friend at work against whom I racked up a record of twenty wins and no losses.  I branched out and began playing other players online.  I’d lose a few games here and there, but I was much more serious about the game than ninety-five percent of the other people that I played, so that in itself gave me an advantage.  There was one guy I liked to play.  We’d have close games but I’d win about eighty percent of the time.  Then his average score suddenly shot up by sixty points.  I’d been playing long enough to know the difference between making good use of the board and pulling insane words out of nowhere, and not just crazy two or three-letter goofy words like ZO and ZA that every Scrabble player with a hundred games under his belt begins to know.  These were words like ALUNITES or HODJAS or ORIGAN (no, not “origin” or “Oregon” but “origan”, in botany, another name for marjoram).  I didn’t want to directly accuse him of cheating but I sent him a message that said, “Are you a Muslim botanist and chemist?” to which he replied, “No.  Someone just played these words against me once, and I remembered them.”

Whatever.  I knew he was cheating.  It’s easy to hop onto the internet and use an anagram solver, and no one on the other side can ever prove it.  He started beating me.  It made me mad.  I watched my win/loss record fall below ninety percent, not that it really matters since no one but me ever looks at it.

So then, I started doing it, using the anagram solvers.  I started to beat him again.  And it felt good.   I didn’t feel guilty about it.  If that’s the way he wants to play, that’s the way I’ll play, I told myself.

The point of all this is not to suggest that cheating is the proper way to go but merely how easy it is to justify to ourselves that not only is cheating the better way but also the vital way.  There is an insane pressure placed on us from birth to succeed, and although many of us are brought up in the Christian tradition of humility and charity, we all know that piety and moral purity are not the main criteria society considers when labeling a person a success.

Since we are social beings, how others see us is so important to how we define and view ourselves.  We want others to like us and we naturally hide our flaws.

So now we come to Lance Armstrong.  Of course I had to watch his interview with Oprah.  I genuinely feel bad for him not because I sympathize with what he did but because I can only imagine how painful the fall from the top to the thorny pit of despair must be.  The truth is, we’ve all been in his situation.  You might say my Scrabble example is nothing like Lance Armstrong because there was nothing really at stake.  But really, that makes my actions even more preposterous.  The only thing at stake was my own vanity.

I’ve talked to some who might understand why he cheated, but cannot tolerate the way he viciously went after the people who accused him of cheating.  Anyone who has had an affair and is trying to hide it will scorch the earth before they reveal their lie.  It’s not noble or right.  It’s just a desperate attempt to stay above everything and scrape and claw at whatever might catch before the inevitable avalanche sends us tumbling down the mountain.  The deeper and more important the lie, the more people we are willing to hurt to protect it.  The way I see it, a man at his worst is usually no worse than most men.

To be clear, I’m not excusing Lance Armstrong’s behavior.  His titles should be stripped, a ban implemented, and his legend in the sport of racing tarnished.  But I don’t hate him either.  I’m just considering the reality that Lance Armstrong, like us all, is human.  Perhaps that is the biggest disappointment.

lance

Snitch

secret

Dragging with her the gossip queen
She slips away to hidden space along the edge
Where whispers are suppressed by industrial woosh
And where webs are weaved
And transgressors trapped
And where ears sneak into seismic cracks
This is the real business
Salt and pepper to the filet of mundane
 Can you believe
    No way, no how
    It’s the truth
    Here’s the proof
    Maybe it’s something misunderstood
    But how can it be, how can it be
    It is, it is

The shame of secrets spilled
From voices
from voices I know
Nowhere better to follow the show
Than from behind a thin sheet of drywall

Let me tell you something…something about what they said
As I…As I heard it all.

The Rant of a Monster’s Protégé

This guy walks into a bar

That guy is me

That guy doesn’t know what to say to this girl

So someone suggests with sincerity—

BE YOURSELF

Of all the hollow, uninspired, lame excrements of human thought

This advice is the worst

And might as well read

BE

because tell me, wise man,

Who is the “myself” I’m to be to you?

Myself is accustomed to customs

And I can never really be free to be me

 

Otherwise I’d

Scratch my ass, lick my plate, kiss the dog, sing off key

Run through halls, slap the queen (it’s just a game) but I’d slap your back just the same;

I’d say you’re fat (it’s likely true); thumb my nose at the men in blue.

Is this the me you want me to be?

Or is how I am determined by you?

I don’t know the many MEs of ME so how can you tell ME what to be?

Be myself

Is that really it?

Don’t you know you’re full of—

Wait!

Would the me you know say that?

You say no

Who’s this dude who speaks so crude

Maybe I am myself right now but you don’t know because

The you that’s me you thought you knew was just an imposter through and through. Maybe you want me to be a yester me

Simply because it favors you

 

When there’s so much MohammeDalaiLamaKrishnApostlePeterPandaExpressChineseFortuneCookieMonster wisdom

How can anyone know how to be?

Maybe it isn’t at all about “be this or be that.”

There is only

C

Which is for cookie

That’s good enough for me.

Meet the Author

“The only way to get there is to pass through Griffin.  No one wants nothing to do with Griffin.”

Gabby arrived to the conclusion that she wasn’t going to get any help from the man in the orange hammock, but she felt it would be rude just to walk away.  The last customers of the day were loading their haul of junk into their pickup trucks.  She wondered how any of these items actually sold.  They weren’t really antiques as the sign advertised.  They were just unfinished, well-weathered pieces that had never seen better days.  “So once I get through Griffin, where do I go next?  Wait, Griffin’s a town, right?”

The man in the orange hammock sat up.  His face looked worn as if the sun had tattooed an old leather glove onto it.  He wore workman’s overalls and had an oval patch with “Dan” written on it in white, cursive letters.  “You ain’t curious why no one wants to go through Griffin?”

“I just assumed it was because it didn’t have a Dairy Queen.”

“Oh, it gots a Dairy Queen.  Fact, looks like any ordinary place.  But once you step outside, you’ll know you ain’t in just any ol’ town.”

“I don’t plan on staying.”

“Hah!”  His laugh was coarse and guttural.  “They ain’t gonna let you leave that quick, I promise you that!”

“Can you just tell me where he lives?”

“I can tell you, but you really need someone in town to show you.  It’s kinda complicated—a couple forks in the road, some landmarks that are tough to see.  That’s how it is in these neck of the woods.  Why you so bent on seein’ Mr. Salvador?  You an author, too?”

“Me?  No.  I’m a nobody.  At least for now.  But I’ve read some of his stuff.  Meet the Author was the one that did it for me.”  It was no exaggeration.  After reading that story she had to meet D.F. Salvador.  It was like her existence depended on it.  The story hadn’t answered any questions or exposed hidden truths, but it connected with her, like she knew exactly what the author had gone through in writing it.

“I read that one,” Dan said as he flicked a fire ant off his arm.  “There was a big to-do ‘bout that one ‘round here when it got published, you know, on account of the familiarity of it and all.”

Gabby thought about biting her tongue, but she couldn’t resist.  “I can’t help but notice, but in that story he had a guy in overalls on an orange hammock.  Did he base that character on you?”

“Nah.  I based me on that character.  Honestly, I don’t care for the man.  After the drought, he bought out my deeds forcin’ me out here to the fringes.”

“So you know where he lives?”

“Sure.  Right on the banks of the Oeeokee River.  If you can find it.”

Gabby pulled out her map and studied it.  “Now I know you’re messing with me.  There’s no Oeeokee River on the map.”

He tumbled out of the hammock and stretched his limbs.  “That’s cause it didn’t exist until Mr. Salvador moved in.”  Dan put his finger on the map, leaving an oily smudge where he dragged.  “He dug some trenches along here, moved some boulders around, redirected the flow of that other river you do see here on the map.  Made the old house riverfront property.  Suppose he wanted to make an oxbow, but I guess he didn’t have time to finish.  Problem is the Oeeokee ain’t got nothing to flow into, so it kinda bottles up and busts its banks whenever we get a good rain like we did last night.  Floods the place.  He’s always cleanin’ up the place, but the waters always comin’ in faster than he can clear it out.  That’s what happens when you fight nature’s course.”

“Does he live alone?”

“Yup.  He has some children in town, but he let go of them some time back.  You’ll probably run into them.  Griffin’s a small place.  Maybe they can tell you where to find him.”  He coughed out another laugh.  “You best be goin’.  Storm’s comin’ in.”

He seemed to be ushering her back to her car, now the only vehicle in the dirt parking lot, but Gabby felt somewhat compelled to buy something, at least for Dan’s time.

“How much for that Velasquez print?”

“Ma’am, that ain’t no print.  That is a genuine painting.  Lost Manyness, I think is what it’s called.  It reminds us of when we lost our many niceties.”

“It’s Las Meniñas.  It’s by Velasquez.  It’s like in every art book.”

“Then this Velasca fella’ must’ve copied this work here.”

“It was painted in Spain—”

“Still could’ve seen this one.”

“—like five hundred years ago.”

“How you know so much about art?  You an artist too?”

“Maybe I am.”

“Good luck findin’ your writer friend Mr. Diego Savador.”

Dan walked Gabby to her car, a shiny, new hybrid.  He held her door open as she got in.  She thanked him and said goodbye and tried to pull the door shut, but he held firm.  “They say he killed a man,” he said.

“Do you believe that?” she asked.

“The important thing is if you believe that.  You’re the one goin’ to see him.”  He finally let go of the door.  “But you can’t believe everything you read.”

Gabby pulled out of the dusty parking lot of the antique shop and followed the road north to Griffin.  When she rolled into town, she was struck by the familiarity of the places lining the main road—the pizzeria with the cartoonish pepperoni pizza missing one slice painted on the window, the coffee shop with the wrought iron cafe chairs on the patio—but they existed together like an impossible memory, incongruous with the reality she knew.  She had never been to Griffin before.

She stopped her car when she came to a red light.  She found it peculiar that there should be a stoplight at a point in the road where there was no intersection.  Minutes passed.  Was this what Dan had meant when he said the town wouldn’t let people go?  She was about to run the light when a sheriff’s cruiser pulled up behind her.  She waited longer.  He inched closer.  She didn’t know what to do.  The sheriff turned on the flashing red and blue lights, but she still had nowhere to go without running the light.   Finally, the sheriff pulled alongside her in the southbound lane where oncoming traffic would have been had there been any traffic.  He gestured for her to follow him to the Dairy Queen parking lot.  She followed.

She parked, rolled down her window, turned off her car, put her hands ten-and-two on the wheel, and waited.  The officer walked to her door and leaned in.

“You must be lost.  The road pretty much ends here, or a little ways down the road.  The only people who stop here at this light are people who are lost.  Everyone else just drives on through.  So, what exactly are you doing here?”

Gabby wasn’t sure if she’d done anything wrong.  “I don’t know exactly where I’m going.  I’m looking for a writer,” she said.  “D.F. Salvador.  Do you know him?”

“I sure do!  If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be sheriff!”

“Can you help me find him?”

The sheriff removed his cap and scratched his head.  “Well, you follow this road until it comes to a T-intersection.  Take a left…you know, it’s complicated.”  A few more cars pulled into the parking lot diverting the sheriff’s attention.  “I’m late for a town hall meeting, too.”

“At Dairy Queen?”

“You think we have a town hall?  Look, I’d help you, even drive you out there, if it wasn’t such a big meeting.  It’s our Third of May Celebration tonight.  You should stick around.  Bring your gun.”

“A gun?”

“Yeah.  Everyone fires off at midnight.”

“Wouldn’t that be the fourth of May?” she asked.  The sheriff began to slowly retreat toward the Dairy Queen, and Gabby wasn’t sure if he’d heard her snide question.              “Listen,” he said.  “If you’re looking for your author, just listen for water and head in that direction.  You’ll probably find him in the river.”  He backpedaled a little faster.  “Sorry, I can’t help you more—”

Gabby stepped out of her car and called out, “I heard he has family in town.  Do you know where I can find them?”

The sheriff laughed.  “Everyone in this town is related in one way or another.”  He pointed a finger pistol at Gabby and winked.  “But try to make it tonight.”  He disappeared inside the restaurant.

Suddenly, something prodded Gabby in the back.

She spun around and found a scraggy, one-legged man waving a crutch.  His other arm was in a sling, propped up at a 90 degree angle.  “You’re looking for Diego Salvador, aren’t you?” he said, falling hard back onto his crutch.  “Do not let him see you or he will use you.  He will, he will use you.  You know, he did this to me.”  His eyes were expressionless, but she quickly realized it was because he had no eyebrows.  He was painfully lacking.

“You know where to find him?” she asked.

“Last time I went looking for him, this happened to me,” he said, nodding to his limp arm.  “Here.  Take this.”  He held out the crutch.  “I need to give you something.  Hurry!  Take it!  Do you want me to help you or not!”

She put a hand on his shoulder and took the crutch.

He continued to hop around while he searched his pants.  He yanked out a gun.  Gabby recoiled, nearly making him fall in the process.  “Gimme my crutch,” he said.  He waved the gun wildly as he tried to balance himself.  “Here.  Take this,” he said, offering the gun.  “Trade.  Gimme my crutch.  Quick!  Before I fall and break my one good limb.”

She didn’t want it, but she she didn’t want to see him fall either.  And she certainly didn’t want the gun to go off accidentally, so she took it.  It felt warm and heavy in her hands.

“You seem like a nice girl.” the man said.  “You have a name?”

“Gabby.”

“You’re a lucky one, I can tell.  I just don’t want to see what happened to me happen to you.  It ain’t easy being half a man.”

She tried to hand the gun back to him.  “I’m sure he didn’t intentionally hurt you.”

He pushed it away.  “Are you his mouthpiece now?  He’s using you and you don’t even know it.”

“I don’t need a gun,” she said.

“Keep it.  I really have no reason for carrying it.  I guess I just had it for the celebration.”  He smile widely.  “But tonight, you’re the celebration.”

Gabby pulled the gun closer to her.  “I don’t know what you want me to do with this.”

“You’ll need it.  I’ll show you exactly how to get there, but first you have to promise to me to do something.”

She followed the directions, moving slowly down the path.  She had been warned not to startle him.  She had been warned not to step in his shadow or pass over his reflection.  The one-legged man had warned of many things, but the consequences of ignoring the warnings were vague.  As long as she beat the storm, which gathered strength at the edge of the tree line, she’d find him on the river, which would be the “safest place to confront him.”

It was when she felt the first twinge in her chest that she first turned around and assessed her progress, wondering if she’d be able to return the same way she came or if she’d even recognize the path from a flipped perspective.  Why had she trusted the one-legged man over her own instincts?  She closed her eyes and dampness closed in on her senses until it filled her body.  Thunder just beyond the tree line.  The natal smell of rain.  Water.  Water flowing.  She opened her eyes and followed the sound.  She hopped over prickly plants, trusting the stability of makeshift stepping stones.

Finally, a shallow stream swarmed around her ankles.  She’d reached the outer nerves of the Oeeokee River.  The little house was where she knew it would be, but she knew D.F. would not be inside.  Upriver, a cluster of boulders parted the river, unleashing rapids on one side and a calm flow on the other.  A small tree sprouted from the largest of the boulders.

She mapped her way there, choosing the flattest rocks and stones and imagining the occasional leaps and feats of balance that would be required to reach the cluster.  She knew she’d find him there on the other side of the largest boulder.

She moved quickly but quietly.  A few rays of sun broke through the clouds.  Her shadow danced along the boulders until her shape took form in the reflection of the river. She was aware of her pounding heart as she climbed atop the boulder.  She gave one final look at where she’d come from and she caught a glance of her reflection, full and colorful, in the river below.  She felt more resolute than ever as she pulled herself atop the boulder.

There he was under the shade of the tree, his back to her, his journal in his hands.  The rolling water obscured her footsteps as she crept up behind him.  Before she did anything else, she had to see what he had written.

On the page were two sentences and his hand hovered above, prepared to add more.  She moved closer to read what he had written.

The only way to get there is to pass through Griffin.  No one wants nothing to do with Griffin.”

            Then

Gabby arrived

The American Experience in One Patriotic Day

TO THE PROMISED LAND

After breakfast on the morning of the 4th of July, 1998, my buddy and I wandered over to the Capitol to survey the area and find the optimal place to view both the fireworks and the show.  Unbelievably, people had already laid down a few dozen quilts to mark off their saved spots.  Who were these people that had nothing better to do with their lives than sit out on a lawn in muggy heat for eight hours?  Surely, whatever they were waiting for was worth it if they were this committed.

We stepped over a knee-high wall and explored the terrain searching for any prime land that remained unsettled.  Though the best spots had been claimed, a few good areas remained.  If we’d waited any longer we might have lost out on a chance for a spot, so we hurried back to our apartment a few blocks east of the Capitol to grab necessary supplies.  Carrying just the essentials—a quilt, camera, tape recorder, Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment to help pass the time, and a cooler of beer—we headed west across a sea of grass to join the sweaty, huddled masses.  A furious land grab was inevitable.

The lawn in front of the Capitol was already twice as full as before, and the short wall that we had hopped just an hour before to gain access to the lawn was now reinforced by a five-foot fence.  A guarded narrow staircase leading over the wall provided the only access to the area. The crowds poured into the space and scattered to find spots to set up their temporary homesteads.  Somehow we found a perfect section that offered a clear view of the concert stage and the Washington Monument.

By five o’clock the lawn had become a patchwork quilt of patchwork quilts.  Beside us, only a tiny strip of unconquered grass remained.  I stretched my legs across this area trying hard to protect it.  Then came the family of six.

One of the little daughters complained, “There’s not enough room, Dad.  It won’t work.”

She was absolutely right but the dad insisted, “Oh, we’ll make it work.”  He bullied a group in front of us, who had been there since nine in the morning, into surrendering some additional land for his family.

I wanted to say something to halt their aggression, but I didn’t, and reluctantly watched as they made themselves comfortable at the expense of our own comfort.  An hour later fifteen of their relatives trekked across the dense landscape to join in the land steal.  It was physically impossible to fit any more people on that strip of land without invading our privacy.  The adults gently spread their quilts over ours while maintaining friendly conversation with us, but their children trampled over our quilts with no regard for our claim.  Eventually, we were crammed into four square feet of space.

This was not fair, I thought.  Why should I have to share my little parcel of the Mall?  We had sacrificed our day, battled heat, humidity, thirst, hunger, and dehydration so we could have our own little view of the majestic firework display, and here they came, freeloaders, arriving at the 11th hour to steal our fruits without putting in the labor.  They were probably proud of their opportunism, that they had played their cards perfectly and had nabbed a decent spot to enjoy the show while still being able to enjoy a little AC during the hottest part of the day.

When you think about it, there’s not much difference between an opportunist and a freeloader except that we celebrate one and detest the other, the real difference depending only on perception.  I decided not to make the distinction and allowed myself to feel happy for them.  Complaining would only make two unhappy groups of people.  I would find a way to enjoy the show, and if I could share this moment with a few others, so be it.

BORDER CONTROL

By 6:30 the umbrellas that once shielded the sun were now blocking a light rain that fell.  A lady settled on the narrow strip of grass behind us, careful not to intrude on our limited space.  She was waiting for her husband to join her, but by seven, the patrol on the border was turning back new immigrants to the lawn.  If someone from the lawn wanted to leave and return, they were required to obtain a password.  The password was Cheeto.

Eventually the rain waned and the concert began with a tap dance number starring Tony Danza and a pair of bright-eyed dancers.  Actually, I felt kind of sorry for them.  I’m sure they spent a lot of time preparing and synchronizing their steps, but in the age of Michael Flately and Riverdance, it just wasn’t too impressive.

Then came the longest rendition of the National Anthem that I’ve ever heard.

After Sha-Na-Na revived a couple of their tunes, Suzy Boggus approached the stage to sing Woody Guthrie’s socialist anthem.  About this time I noticed that our quilt had become a home to a couple of unfamiliar kids.  What the hell were they doing on our quilt?

This land is your land

                        This land is my land

                        From California

                        To the New York Islands

 

We sang along with the rest of the crowd as I wished I could sit on the cushy chairs in the roped off section in front of the stage, but this prime real estate was reserved for the politicians and VIPs.

 

                        This land was made for you and me.

 

THE GRAND FINALE

What we were all waiting for was the grand Russian overture, which signaled the climax of the American celebration.  When the cannons fired and the trumpets blared, we would instinctively search the skies.  We were treated to the whole 15-minute rendition filled with the unmistakably Russian folk themes.  (Personally I don’t mind this rendition, because the build to the climax is that much more dramatic, but starting in 1999, the National Symphony Orchestra apparently decided that most people would rather not wait for the payout, and now play the last three minutes and the most exciting bit of Tchaikovsky’s tune.)   Anyway, after the roaring cannons and blasting fireworks, the entire crowd joined in the singing of God Bless America.  After all the fighting and jostling for position, everyone was now cheerfully singing.  It was a chilling moment.  As much as we got on each other’s nerves, we seemed to have found a way to come together.

The song ended, and there was sweaty madness.  Thousands of people pushed towards the streets leaving behind a wasteland littered with beer cans, potato chip bags, and food.

An estimated 450,000 people filled the Mall on this 222nd birthday of our country, and we had been right in the middle of the melting pot of patriotic Americans.

Poem to a Child

Poem to a Child

Beware, young child, of the shadow line

You see it now in the distance,

Not as elusive as the horizon

But sufficiently ambiguous to inspire curiosity.

You may be eager to dash to it

To race across

Unmindful of transgressions.

But if you should advance headlong

As a car accelerating through a yellow light

Without pause or hesitation

You will have missed the shift in shadow

Because light can elude hasty eyes.

While you may heed every warning and approach with caution

As you near the edge you will experience gyrations of emotions

And you will do things that defy explanation

You will lose direction

as if you were the spinning needle of a compass

affected by magnetic disturbances.

Your thoughts will be clear as mud

As you sift through assortments of ideas

That mean nothing and everything all at once.

I say this not to frighten you—

Everyone must travel to the edge

and experience the twisted sensations that precede all things momentous.

I say this to prepare you.

It is here at the border between shade and light that you grit your teeth and resist the rash urges to retreat.

Before the final step, stare down—

Stare down with fierce resolve

All your misfortunes, your mistakes, and your wavering conscience,

Because this is the only worthy fight in life!

Then proceed.

Adulthood is not defined by age

But by the passage beyond the shadow line

And into the light.

Don’t Search My Bags

Don’t search my bags
I don’t know
I don’t know
what is in there
yes I packed
yes I packed my bags

lemme pass
take a chance
lemme pass
I’m in a hurry
to move on
I’m movin’ on

I’m dyin’
yes I am
but not a drug
for this man
just need a wave and a nod
to get me goin’ on

do you really wanna see
all the baggage in the bag
all the crap
that I have
and listen to my story
of how I got what I packed?

ain’t got the time
or the tissue
or the drops for the eyes
threw away
all the tears
‘cause I knew they had to go

where I go is where I go
do you really wanna know?
if you’d seen where I’d been
you’d zip it up again
and let me through
and let me through

here it is
see it all
do you wanna hold me?
grab my wrist
check your list
did you miss
anything
anything at all?

what I say is who I am and
what I am is what you’d say
is a mess of a man
with a bundle in his bag.
not a threat
just a mess

did we really need to check it?

High-fiving Has Got to Go

It is about time the NBA starts cracking down on excessive celebrations like this high five shared between Blake Griffin and Reggie Evans.  There is no place for this kind of behavior in sports, congratulating a teammate for a job well done with an obscene gesture.  A cordial handshake is the appropriate form of congratulations, and I applaud Marc Davis’s efforts to rid high-fiving behavior from basketball games by assessing a technical foul in this situation.

High Five

Now that the league is beginning its effort to crack down on high fives, it should not stop there.  High fiving is a societal illness that manifests itself in many arenas.  I am a hardcore conservative when it comes to this matter.  Did our founding fathers high five?  Can you imagine John Hancock signing his name then trotting over to Jefferson to slap hands?  After crossing the Delaware, would George Washington have jogged down the infantry line high-fiving his soldiers?  Of course not.

Yet this has become, dare I say it, acceptable by our immoral society’s standards.  Those of us like Marc Davis and me who are disgusted by this crude form of celebration have been pressured to look away for too long as our leaders try to convince us through their actions that this is acceptable.  What does it say about who we are when our president uses the high five to celebrate the passage of the health care bill?

Somebody, please think of the children!

It is appropriate that it all ends in Los Angeles where the crude gesture began back in 1977 at Dodgers Stadium when Dusty Baker smacked a homer and arrived at home plate where his teammate, Glenn Burke, had his hand extended high in the air in celebration.  Not knowing what to do, Baker slapped it.  And it hasn’t stopped since.  Think of how we’ve fallen since 1977.  Apple was incorporated that year and now is poised to take over the world with high-fiving geeks who have closer relationships with their phones than their girlfriends and want to ensure that it’s the same for everyone else as well.  It was the year Carter pardoned Vietnam draft evaders thereby excusing individual selfishness.  It was the year I was born, and there’s this horrible hospital picture with me on my mom’s chest.  My dad is at the foot of her bed, his open hand extended in her direction.  I don’t remember that day, but if post-photo she slapped that hand in celebration, I don’t ever want her to tell me.