Monday, October 20, 2008

My Four Hour Madness

In the summer of 1996 I was sharing a house in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle with three cartoonists and/or musicians: Eric Reynolds, Al Columbia, and Andy Schmidt. Finding ourselves, one particularly sunny afternoon, achieving a quite remarkable state of boredom, we set out to break the monotony by fulfilling the unspoken belly-flop of the cartooning world, the undertaking of the creation of a twenty-four hour comic, which entailed writing and drawing a complete, multi-paged comic book, within one twenty-four hour period.
I already knew I was in trouble with such talented, idiosyncratic fellow marathoners to parry with, but what I hadn’t taken into account was my terrible predisposition to change my mind in a last-hour bout of obsessive over-thinking.
Some fifteen-plus hours into the affair, only Andy, Eric and myself were still standing. We were hungry, and needed some fresh air.
Al had retired to his room to sleep, his own neurotic tendencies seemingly having caused him to bail on the endeavor. What none of us could have known, as we sat hunched over a very early morning breakfast at Denny’s, only hours from our imposed deadline, was that he’d soon awake, refreshed, and would miraculously proceed to create a half dozen pages of cartooning so resoundingly potent and well-executed it would leave the rest of us speechless.
My own change of course had happened some four hours before we sat down to our greasy platters, at about exactly the halfway point of the exercise in forced productivity.
All of a sudden, in a flooding crash of displeasure with the dozen or so pages I’d already created, I bolted from the shared front room of the house to my own, where I quickly destroyed all I had created. Sequestering myself in my tiny studio, I managed to bash out a furious twenty-four pages of utter nonsense in just under four hours, a free-flowing, sleep-deprived, wholly improvised barrage of dada doodle and description that I entitled It’s All Just Shit and What if it Wasn’t? or Ape #12 Talks Tiny for a Brief Moment.
A direct response to my despair and exhaustion, the heavily didactic pamphlet of half-cracked rhyme and introspection is an exercise in a more pointedly quasi-political hue of my spectrum of thought, soberly offering, near the very end, in as near a summation of its agenda as it might possibly achieve, the following bit of disparaging advice: “The dogs had it right from the start. Scratch your fleas and learn to shut up. They keep building prisons, and they fuck, and they find another Christmas at the end of every year.” Just what that might all mean is still an open question, one I’m more than happy to have the reader discern on their own.
Stylistically, It’s All Just Shit… owes more than a little to Chicken Skin Gloves and a Faggot of Thunderbolts, my book of mainly nonsensical rhyme and picture from 1987. It also harkens to later improvisational attempts such as 2007’s Black Weather.
A warning, before entering the hopscotch narrative that follows. You may well want to loosen the strap on your thinking cap. Better yet, take the silly thing right off – you won’t be needing it, I assure you.

The wrap-around cover.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Big Lonely, Part Three

“Well – what do you think, Doug?”
     I didn’t know what to say. It was about the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. It must have risen a hundred, a hundred and fifty feet above us, high over the pool of dark water lined by the field of boulders that my beautiful guide had just gone prancing across, with an ease that made my knees ache. Having spent the last two hours trekking through the verdant, lush jungle, we were at the base of Heaven’s Whiskers (each landmark had a seemingly more endearing name than the last), a majestic waterfall that fell from a monolithic slice of volcanic rock, a skyscraping buttress in the middle of the dense foliage, every bit as high as the Three Sons, but mostly hidden from the beach as it was a good four miles inland. Misty had insisted we hike out to it after we’d exhausted ourselves making silly noises inside Big Mouth. I wasn’t sure I was up to it, but had planned to see the real jungle anyway and I was damned if I was going to have my fifty-four year old body let me down now, not after I’d already done so well for myself.
     We’d started off on a fairly tame trail, one marked with cute, carved totems. “Do you know how many German and Australian butts sit on this dude to have their picture taken?” Misty had joked, setting herself down upon one of the posts, contorting her face in an attempt to imitate the carving.
     The trail soon became more challenging, turning into a ribbon of red clay that wound along the jungle-topped cliffs, often bringing us within inches of the plummeting drops, a forest of vine-choked trees now below and above us, ripe bananas and mangos hanging just over our heads. The air smelled of salt and fruit. I watched Misty move along ahead of me, her lithe body making it look effortless. She had changed into a pair of cut-off jeans and an old T-shirt with two big cartoon eyes across her chest. I was doing my best not to stare, but I suppose that was the point, not that she had any interest in being ogled by an old man. We stopped at a little bluff, where the bananas were so ripe they’d fallen to the ground. I stood motionless, quietly finding my breath, staring down across the cascading green landscape, seeing where it touched a thin strip of white, a beach that met the ocean, a breathtaking vista of aqua blue that I followed out, to the horizon, imagining that I had somehow stepped into another world, that the Earth of traffic and smog and lottery tickets was somewhere else, somewhere beyond the stars, spinning in its own busy orbit, leaving Misty and I to play, to venture our paradise like two – well – you know what I mean.
     I was quickly falling in love with my runaway island. Memories of those polluted waters alongside Frank and Catherine’s camp were almost now like a dream. The travel agent hadn’t lied to me after all – I
had come to paradise.
     “Are you OK, Doug?” Misty asked.
     “Sure, just remembering,” I replied, realizing my eyes were tearing. Her voice was so sincere, so unaffected. It sounds silly, I know, but I was beginning to see her as some sort of innocent, a delicate bit of beauty in a poisoned world, something, someone, I felt I would have done anything for, anything to spare her from fate’s cruel, indecisive, indifferent hand. But I caught myself, recalling the beach, the pot-fueled shanties, Tony’s drunken midnight madness, and I realized how foolish, how romantic I was being. I knew I needed to keep my head about me. And my heart.
     “It’s downhill for a good bit now, then we turn inland,” she smiled, looking sympathetic, making me feel older than ever.
     I motioned her on, steeling myself for what lay ahead. Watching her practically skip down the twisting trail, her bare feet playing hopscotch with the rotting fruit, I felt more than cumbersome, looking down at my hiking boots, imagining I must look like Frankenstein’s monster compared to my frolicsome guide. When she’d kicked off her flip-flops back at camp, telling me they were no good for hiking, I thought she was going to produce hiking shoes of her own. When she ran ahead, barefoot, I thought she was insane and had to quell a sudden urge to excuse myself from the odyssey. I was now wishing I’d brought something lighter to wear.
     We soon found ourselves on level ground, cutting through waist-high clusters of pale green grass that sprung up from the sand about our feet. Stepping over a stream, I noticed a small wooden sign.
Surfers beware, read its hand-written warning, this beach can kill. Under this were hatch marks. I counted seven. Catching up to Misty, I caught my breath. “That sign by the stream,” I breathed, “Is it true?”
     She nodded. “Nobody surfs here, not even the crazies.”
     I decided not to ask who the “crazies” might be.
     We were now at the edge of an isolated portion of beach, the white strip I’d looked down upon from on high. The sand here was even whiter than anywhere on the island. The beach abruptly ended a hundred feet or so to the north of us, where great rocky cliffs rose up to meet the jungle, these being mere steps to the dizzying formations beyond, great, jagged fortresses of black, a natural wall holding back the ocean. Misty had jogged over to the cliffs and was pointing to something, urging me over. I trudged across the pristine sand, feeling I was desecrating it with my hi-tech hiking gear. “Nephella,” she said, directing my eyes to great webs stretched across the rock, only inches above our heads. I thought she was referring to the silky, dew-spotted strands until I saw the first of many large spiders, golden patterns decorating their grape-sized bodies. “See the faces, Doug?”
     “Wow, they
do look like faces, don’t they? Like masks almost,” I replied, staring at the designs, the gold seeming to stand out in relief, as if it had been applied to their bodies. “What did you call them?”
     “Nephella,” she replied, smiling. “That’s their scientific name. Most people just call them shield spiders, because the faces look like paintings on old shields.”
     “How do you know all of this?” I asked, giving her a sideways glance.
     “My father taught biology at the school before he got addicted,” she explained, matter-of-factly. I thought about his enthusiasm for the flattened bullfrogs and it all made sense.
     “They’re beautiful,” I said, almost adding “like you”, but stopping myself, knowing it wasn’t wise. “This is about the most
private “private beach” I think I’ve ever been on,” I declared, turning to survey the virgin setting, seeing no sign of others anywhere, not even marks on the sand.
     Misty smirked. “Oh, it gets used, for parties and stuff,” she said, already making her way back towards the tall grasses and the edge of the jungle. “The tide wipes it clean every day.”
     “Oh,” I replied, feeling my age about me like chains.
     We were soon making our way through what seemed to be uncharted territory, soaring trees rising on all sides of us, dotted with big, white flowers and clusters of red and purple buds, bristly vines running from one to the other, creating a roof that splintered the sun, giving some marginal relief from the heat. I was going to be surprised if I didn’t lose at least five pounds by the end of it all. Not that I couldn’t stand to lose them.
     “This looks a lot like
The Mushroom People!” I called out, but Misty didn’t hear, she was now quite far ahead of me.
     I carried on, letting the sweat run my face and neck, my mind drifting, back to the front room of the house where I grew up, a secluded cottage craftsman in Corte Madera, just north of San Francisco.
     I was just a boy, no more than six or seven, camped before the television set, the tiny black and white with the rabbit ears and the big ball of foil my mother had attached, so we could get channel seven, the channel that featured Thriller Bill, host of “my most favorite program in the whole world”,
Monster Masterpieces.
     “Are you wearing your glasses, Douglas Robinson?”
     “Yes!” I lied, not taking my eyes from the flickering screen, seated only inches from it, so close the tiny, blonde hairs on my knees stood out, charged with static electricity.
Good evening, thriller fans,” announced the host, poised between cardboard pillars, wearing a stiff, indigo blue tuxedo that was noticeably small. His hair was a shiny helmet of black curls, his upper lip hidden beneath a great, furry moustache. “Tonight we take you to the mysterious waters of the South Pacific and an uncharted isle where under every footstep waits unimaginable horror, the jungle floor lined with the terrifying spores of an alien army bent on the very destruction of the human race!”
     “Douglas Robinson! Turn that thing
down, it’s bad for your ears that loud! At once, young man, I’m listening!”
     “Yes!” I hollered, staying right where I was, utterly transfixed.
     “Sit back and prepare yourselves for tonight’s feature presentation –
The Mushroom People!” declared Thriller Bill, backing into the darkness between the pillars, where a plastic chair and a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm coffee awaited him. An eerie flourish of distorted electric organ blared from the set as a swirling white shape appeared, spinning faster and faster, making me blink.
     “Douglas Robinson?”
     The shape had become a mushroom, an evil-looking giant white spore that hovered in the center of the black screen as the psychedelic organ faded and a soft violin began to play, ushering in pale typography that floated underneath the now-pulsing mushroom.
     “Douglas Robinson, why do you do these things to me?”
     There was a sudden loud noise and then I heard my mother cry out. I turned to see her laying in the entrance to the room, sprawled upon the tile floor, one of her little white bottles rolling from her hand. It was a sight I had seen before, too many times, a numbing tableau played out again and again, ever since father had driven his car into a tree, only a mile from home.
     “Welcome to Paradise Island, Doctor Fielding – I trust your journey was a pleasant one?”
     “Yes, yes,
excellent – thank you.”
     I turned back to the television, trembling, afraid to move, wishing that God had never planted that old tree by the baseball field.
     I looked up and saw Misty. She was standing in the dark pool of water at the base of the great, towering falls, up to her waist, the cartoon eyeballs on her T-shirt clinging to her high breasts, leaving little to be imagined.
     “Aren’t you coming in? It’s really refreshing.”
     “Welcome to Paradise Island,” I said, grinning as I collapsed on a big rock. I first removed my fanny pack, which held my valuables, my wallet, eyeglasses, and one return ticket. I then worked at the laces on my hiking boots, sweat running down my forearms, pooling between my fingers, making it difficult. I heard a splash and looked up to see Misty swimming straight towards where the falls hit the water. Shaking off my heavy boots and damp socks I inspected my pale, ugly feet, all red about the toenails, speckled with dark bits of cotton. I stood up, wincing at the feel of the rough stone, contemplating removing my hiking shorts, thinking better of it. I carefully trod down to where the dark pool met the boulders and slipped my sore feet into the cool water, instantly feeling relief.
     “Come on, Doug!” cried Misty. She was now directly before the rushing ribbon of white. She looked so tiny, so vulnerable. I grimaced her way, afraid for her, suddenly doubting myself, my ability to even swim. “You have to experience this – you
really do! C’mon!”
     “We arrived from the far reaches of outer space,” I narrated, letting myself down into the water, up to my waist, taking a deep breath. “Transported on the spores shed by our mother planet, we journeyed to your planet, seeking a host species to continue our one-mighty civilization.” Misty had now disappeared behind the curtain of falling water. I placed my feet on a firm rock and pushed off, moving out into the ebony pool with surprising ease. It was like no other water I’d ever felt. It snaked about my arms and legs, velvety and soft, offering no resistance. I closed my eyes, shifting about to recline on my back, something I’d always enjoyed as a boy. I watched my reddened toes break the surface. “Yes, Doctor Fielding, we need humans to nurture our young – you and your kind are to be the fields of our future harvest, your blood and organs will offer adequate protein to ensure the propagation of a
million new mushroom people!”
     It was Misty, she’d come up behind me, as silent as smoke. I laughed at myself, blushing quickly, turning over to face her. “I can’t believe how soothing it is in here,” I said.
     “You’ve got a thing for these “Mushroom People”, don’t you?” she giggled. I couldn’t help but notice how her shirt had billowed up under her arms. I could make out the dark of her nipples below the surface.
     “I told you – it was my
favorite movie!” I laughed, closing my eyes, dipping my head into the water, shaking off like a dog as I came up.
     “What State were you born in, Doug?”
     She sent a handful of water straight at my face. “Be
serious, Doug! I want to know!”
     Wiping at my eyes, recovering, I gave her a steady look. “Why do you have interest in an old guy like me?“ I asked. I needed to understand her. I’d followed her deep into the jungle. I wasn’t normally so trusting of people I didn’t know.
     She smiled, pulling down with her shirt, but it refused to cooperate. I turned away discreetly, not wanting her to know I’d noticed. “Why do I have to have a why?” she said, giving up on the shirt.
     I shrugged, the best one can while up to one’s neck in water. “It doesn’t usually happen to me, that’s all,” I replied, feeling a bit silly for having even asked the question, even though it had been at the center of my thoughts since early that morning.
     “What, people being friendly?” she asked, swimming to one side, her long bronze legs catching the sun hitting the surface of the pool.
     I grinned. “I guess,” I offered, wishing I’d kept it to myself. She was clearly a different sort of creature than those I was accustomed to. She was free, fresh, her motives seemed without suspicion, without consideration, she seemed to simply enjoy my company, showing of her island. Why was I having such a hard time accepting this? I had to let go of my deliberations or I was going to ruin what was turning out to be the most enjoyable day I’d had in a very, very long time. “New Jersey,” I said, cutting through the water with my arms, my eyes following her as she headed towards the center of the pool. “Lambertville. A quaint, pretty, rustic place, lots of older artists and writers lived there, still do. We lived on a small farm.”
     “Your dad was a farmer?”
     I laughed. “No, he wasn’t a farmer, he was a photographer.”
     “For like newspapers?”
     “Uh, well, sometimes, sure – he did lots of different kinds of photography,” I replied, not needing to explain that he was primarily what they called a “cheesecake” photographer, working with half-dressed models for a variety of tawdry men’s magazines. My mother was one of these models. They’d met on the job.
     “He’s dead now?”
     “Yes, he died when I was just a boy, in fact,” I offered, surprising myself with the ease of my candor. I felt a cool spray on my face and suddenly realized I’d followed her almost to the bottom of the falls. I then turned about to see that I’d actually entered the falls themselves. I couldn’t believe it. What looked like a forceful vertical river from a distance was in reality nothing more than a saturating mist, like a showerhead set to fine. It was beautiful. I looked straight up, seeing white shapes drifting about the falls far above me, herons, their wings catching the updraft, letting them spiral the mighty rope of bubbles. I moved through the shower, seeing Misty on the other side, pressed up against the black, shining walls of the cliff, smiling at me with those huge eyes, her long dark hair like seaweed about her round face. I hesitated, staring at her, not quite believing I was still alive.
     “Come here, Doug,” she said softly, blinking. I felt myself gliding through the wet air, towards her. She reached out and caught my shirt, pulling me close enough to lean her chin forward, her young lips touching mine, leaving me with the most gentle kiss I’ve ever known.

     I stared at the spray, mesmerized at how the sun was cutting through it, reflecting back upon itself.
     “I used to know another Doug. He was busted for selling on Proper Island.”
     It was as if the sunlight had been captured in a thousand tiny glass tubes.
     “If we’re going to hike into the jungle we’d better get going,” Misty explained. “The later it gets the more chance there is of a rainstorm and the trail gets too slippery then.”
     A thousand glowing tendrils strung across the mouth of the cave.
     I turned to see her, my young new friend, standing in the dim of Big Mouth, looking anxious. “It’s unpredictable this time of the year,” she stressed.
     I smiled, shaking the strands of my intoxicating daydream away, almost blushing when her eyes caught mine. “Right! Let’s go then. Maybe we can even make it to the falls.”
     Misty shook her head, moving past me. “Not the season for that, Doug. Heaven’s Whiskers lies at the end of a river valley which can flood out in half an hour if the rains come.” I watched her pass through the sparkling curtain, tasting my own lips, my heart aching.

I was sitting inside my tent, lacing up my hiking boots when I heard the scream. I scurried out the open flap to see Misty and a lean, muscular young man, standing before a weathered grey VW Bus, a jolly roger strung across the cracked rear windshield.
     “I just wanna say goodbye, Tony, that’s all,” Misty declared, lowering her voice as they both turned to see me peering out of my tent, hanging there like a cuckoo sprung from its clock. The young man shook his head, pulling her close, moving his mouth along her neck. “Ton-ee!” she screamed again, this time with less conviction. A moment later they were both inside the van.
     I backed into my tent, not looking their way. I lay there, my eyes closed, listening to the sound of the wounded engine starting up and suddenly felt very alone. “Welcome to The Big Lonely” I sighed, recalling a conversation I’d had with Frank two days earlier, how he’d asked me if I’d had the “big lonely” yet, telling me that every visitor to the island gets it, even those enshrined within the service comforts of the Ramada. “You’ll know it when it hits you – it’s more lonely than any other lonely,” he’d explained.
     I lay there, listening to the breeze pestering the tent flap and the regular crashing of the surf, straining for the noise of the departing van, but it was gone, headed for who knows where. I let the sudden loneliness wrap itself about me, a swelling sense of desperation, a feeling of never again knowing another human being. It wasn’t new to me. I had to smile at my fate. I’d been a companion of the Big Lonely most of my life, no surprise for a man raised by a woman who’d given up on her own.
     Shaking off the melancholy, I stuffed my pockets with a few of the energy bars I’d picked up on Proper Island and slipped on my fanny pack, placing an unopened bottled water into the holder against my right hip. A few minutes later I was making my way into the shade of the jungle, having located the entrance to the trail. I hiked at a steady pace, every step taking me further from the loneliness of the beach. On and on I marched, the trail getting redder as I went, twisting up and up, soon heading along the magnificent steep cliffs that raced down into the unnaturally blue ocean. I didn’t stop until I came to the first valley, where a thin strip of pale sand lay exposed to the water. Here I found a tiny stream that seemed to run right underneath the beach. Following it with my eyes back into the jungle I could see that it gradually widened. Wiping the clinging perspiration from my face with a bandana I’d tied about my head, I began to follow the softly running water, busy trying to keep the image of Misty from my mind, of her brown body shining in that dark, cool pond. I soon came to a point where the terrain rose up steeply before me, impossible for an old man like me to climb. The only way to continue was across the stream, which was now a good seven or eight feet wide. I stood on the bank, measuring the depth, noticing the peculiar orange and red pattern below the surface. It was as if a thousand goldfish had settled there, coiling themselves into glistening balls. Knowing that wet boots and socks wouldn’t benefit a long hike, I nevertheless left them on. I raced across the stream, reaching the other side, charging through a patch of thick ferns to find out just what the orange and red had been. The jungle floor was literally covered in fallen mangoes. As I stepped towards them a tangle of fruit flies filled the air, so thick they swarmed my nose and eyes and throat. Gasping, I hurried around the rotting field, spitting frantically, my eyes tearing. A few moments later, I was still blowing my nose, continuing on through the thickening veldt. Looking down at my feet I’d begun to notice little flashes of brilliant green, like fleeting embers escaping a campfire. I then saw what they were, tiny lizards, no bigger than my thumb, scurrying from under the leaves as I approached, keeping just a few steps ahead of me. I moved on, my eyes to the ground, mesmerized by this fascinating display, until I smacked right into a low-hanging branch, making me shout out in surprise. Listening to my voice echo along the jungle valley, disappearing without a reply, I had to fight back the unbearable loneliness all over again.
     I don’t know how long I’d trekked before I came upon the thick stand of bamboo, blocking my way, stretching a good twenty feet around. I began to circle it, until I came to where a few shoots had been broken to the dirt, creating an entranceway. Relishing the shade within, I entered, adjusting my eyes to the dimness, which was splintered by knives of brilliant sunlight. I soon realized that the thick shoots all about me were decorated with intricate marks, as if they had been carved. My eyes now used to the light, I moved in close to inspect one, imagining ancient symbols, or even an alphabet long ago abandoned by Three Sons’ original inhabitants. “Alice loves blowjob,” I read out loud, blinking, not quite believing it, quickly scanning the poles all about me, finding more of the same, nothing that would have seemed out of place in any public restroom, except for the last one I came to, scratched within a big, lopsided heart. “Prince Frank loves Catherine the Great. Forever.” I then noticed the dirt at my feet was littered with bits of torn condom packets and the shriveled, used sheaths themselves. I suddenly wanted to be anywhere else.
     Bolting from the disguised party shelter, I charged back down towards the stream, not even slowing down as I stampeded through the fury of fruit flies, striding across the river like a man half my age.
     Paradise had revealed its ugly side once again; the stagnant, polluted beach waters along the homeless camp seemed only a moment away; the sad, wrecked look in Frank’s eyes hovered before me, making a mockery of the lush greens and blues, the fragrant flowers hanging pregnant with blossom in the trees above me. I raced on and on, my clothing drenched with sweat, my eyes stinging with the salt.

It was near dark when I made it to my tent. The beach dwellers were keeping to themselves again, hardly a sole was in sight.
     Though I’d promised myself I wouldn’t, I searched Misty’s camp hopefully, seeing no sign of her having returned.
     Tired beyond belief, my arms and legs covered in scratches, my eyes still red from the flies, I crawled into my tent, zipped up the flap and fell fast asleep, not even bothering to remove the uneaten energy bars in my pockets.

I woke to the rising sun, an orange ball glowing through my tent.
     I’d slept heavily and felt surprisingly good considering.
     Having no desire to remain where I was, I made short work of taking down and packing and was soon fastening the strap of my pack about my waist, giving the lazy beach settlement one last look over, before making my way to where the road ended (or began, as it were). Not expecting to find a ride so early in the morning, I started trudging back along the way I’d arrived two days earlier, when I’d still been full of expectation, imagining the jungle paradise I’d first seen as a child, on that unreliable old black and white television.
     I was glad I’d ventured on by myself, glad I’d seen what little I did, even if it had been spoiled, for I felt a certain sense of having completed a task forty years in the waiting.
     At long last, I’d walked with the Mushroom People.
     Transported on the spores shed by our mother planet, we journeyed to your planet, seeking a host species to continue our once-mighty civilization.
     “Farwell, Paradise Island,” I sighed, taking one last look back, to where the dark road slipped quietly into the lush wall of green.
     I’d only been walking twenty minutes when I came upon a van parked alongside the skinny road, blocking a good third of the tarmac. An elderly native man wearing a straw hat looked up as I approached, from where he’d been leaning against the front of the vehicle, reading a newspaper. He eyed me cautiously, before offering a curious smile. “You a hippie?” he grinned, shaking his head slowly.
     “Not a hippie,” I smiled. “Too old for that sort of thing.”
     “You need a ride?” he asked. I read the side of the van.
Sam’s Fresh Fish Tacos.
     “Yes, yes I do,” I replied, enthusiastically, hardly believing my luck.
     “I go to the Magic Mart,” he offered, folding the newspaper on his knee. “That far enough?”
     “Plenty,” I said, not having any idea where the Magic Mart was.
     The older man tossed his newspaper in through the doorless driver’s side and motioned for me to get in. I jogged around the van and quickly removed my pack, setting it before the passenger seat, sliding in myself, taking the newspaper as I did.
“Murders, births, and sex,” remarked the taco man, glancing at the paper, which I know held against my knees. “We got that too on the Sons, just not so much maybe,” he grinned, a silver filling in his mouth catching the sun coming in through the scratched Plexiglas windshield.
     I laughed softly, opening the paper. It was the previous morning’s edition of the Proper Island Gazette. There, at the bottom of the front page, was a small headline:
California Jackpot Winner On Island.
     “You from mainland?” my new driver asked, starting the engine, shifting gears, making a sound that made me clench the seat cushion, wishing there was a door at my side.
     “Uh, yes – I am,” I offered, suddenly feeling quite exposed. I folded the newspaper again, quickly sliding it into the gap between us.
     “My brother is in Tennessee. He makes chickens for fast food. Which state you from?”
     “Philadelphia,” I lied. “Pennsylvania.”
     The elderly man chuckled, tapping the steering wheel, the noisy van now rumbling along at an uncomfortable speed. “The City of Brotherly Love – in The Keystone State,” he declared, proudly, flashing me another big grin.
     “Very good,” I said. “That’s more than many American’s would know.”
     He touched his bronzed temple. “I read.”
     “And you
remember,” I said, instinctively pushing the paper further down between the seats.
     “I have an island brain,” he smiled, looking ahead. “It’s small maybe, but it keeps good track of itself.” A rooster suddenly ran into the road, from seemingly nowhere. We didn’t slow down at all. There was a soft sound underneath my feet and I looked out the van to see a receding trail of dark orange feathers.
     “Magic Mart,” I breathed, now holding the seat with both hands. “Magic Mart will be perfect.”

The Magic Mart Grocery and Bait Shop was situated next to another of the large, roadside shrines. Much like the first one I’d encountered, it too was festooned with a bounty of fruits, and vegetables, and flowers. Walking up to it, I tilted my head, seeing the rather impish grin on its oval face, how its hands came together just below its chin, forming a pyramid, thumb to thumb, fingers to fingers. I stood there for a moment, in its shadow, feeling the pleasant morning breeze at my back. Instinctively slipping my hand deep into my pocket I felt one of the energy bars from my jungle hike. Pulling it out, I saw it was crushed, but the wrapper was still intact. “Peach and Granola,” I thought, dropping it amongst the ripe offerings about the pedestal of the shrine. “The price of a safe ride to the Magic Mart.”

I was only two miles from the airport and it wasn’t quite eight o’clock.
     I was happy to be traveling before the day’s heat set in. The road after the Magic Mart was sparsely populated, offering little sign of life, apart from an occasional rusty mailbox attached to a pole, at the foot of a winding path that seemed to lead to nowhere, or a hubcap set against the base of a tree. It wasn’t long before I came upon one of Frank’s “decorative bulls”, splayed across the black road, looking more like a starfish than a frog. It was a relatively fresh kill, its skin still glistened, a rose-pink tongue lay uncoiled from its torn mouth. I began to search the sandy edge of the road for another, my eyes following the dry brown grass until I noticed a group of colorful objects assembled in the grass. I then saw another and another. Walking towards them, I realized they were pauper’s graves, like those I’d seen during my inaugural day on the island. I knelt before the first. Scrawled on a wooden cross, secured with wire and string, were the simple initials D.F., followed by 72-97. About the cross was an assortment of rubber dinosaurs, a red plastic keychain from the Ramada Inn, and a broken pink dinner plate. Some cheap costume jewelry dangled from one end of the cross. I ventured further into the thrift store cemetery, spellbound by the unexpected intimacy of the sad little memorials.
     The next featured a Frisbee, a leather cat collar complete with silver bells, and the top half of a Ken doll, positioned at the base of the wooden cross. It would have been a fallen crucifix, slipped from its cross, but Ken’s arms don’t bend that way. Painted on the cross, in all capital letters, was WAVE-MAN, GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN. I noticed a plastic rose had been placed inside the Frisbee.
     The third was a bit more elaborate, the cross having been set on a stage of red bricks, surrounded by shells and bits of sea glass, the green and brown remnants of bottles washed ashore, plus a Pennsylvania State license plate, leaning at the base of a crude wooden cross. I could see that it was the newest grave of the three, the loose red earth about the stones indicated it just how new it was. There was only one other item of decoration left at this one, a plastic toy airplane, hung by its hollow underbelly atop the cross, like a coat on a hook. It was bright orange and white. On the tailfin was a patch of dry glue, where a decal had obviously been. The cross itself was blank, which I took to be another sign of how fresh it was. I stood back, taking it in, wondering what new offerings it might acquire with time, the detritus of the buried. “We go on collecting, even when we’re dead,” I thought, half-smiling, beginning to back away from the grave, when a thought suddenly struck me. I made my way around to the other side and there on the opposite tailfin of the toy plane was a tiny Pan-Am logo.

That evening, I pressed back into my seat on the shaky commuter plane to Proper Island, wondering if I really had witnessed the grave of Catherine the Great, knowing all too well that I’d more than likely never know, for my time on Three Sons was over.
     As I’d sworn to myself that afternoon I’d hung my Gone Fishin’ sign back in Echo Park, I was never going to return, not to anywhere, ever again.
     Outside my little window was nothing but blue, ocean as far as I could see. My thoughts drifted to the image of those blood-stained rooster feathers, scattering across my mind like vapor. “Your seat belt, please, sir,” came a sudden voice.
     I looked up to see a young woman, no more than twenty-five, offering me a professional smile. Grinning sheepishly, I secured myself, watching her making her way down the narrow cabin aisle. Pressing back into my seat, I closed my eyes, imagining Catherine’s wheelchair, sitting vacant on that spoiled stretch of beach. I then saw Misty, smiling to me from behind the curtain of the rushing falls, and I began to cry.

The End   ©2008 Jeremy W. Eaton

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Big Lonely, Part Two

Later that same day I managed to hitch my first ride.
     Few vehicles came along Road 17 (as it was listed on my map), other than the small tourist bus or the occasional truck from the salt beds. Very few residents of the island drove cars, most had mopeds, or bicycles, or simply walked wherever they had to go.
     I was hunched over, my pack feeling as if it weighed a hundred pounds, the sun beating down relentlessly, when I heard the advancing engine and turned to see the white truck approaching. I stuck out my thumb, something I hadn’t done in over twenty years, and, to my surprise, the truck pulled over just ahead of me. I hurried to the passenger side, noting how dinged and rusted the vehicle was. Inside was a teenager, a native boy, no more than seventeen, a red bandana about his black hair. He gave me a quick, toothy smile and put the truck into gear. “Thank you,” I said, smiling back, looking about me, noticing the gun rack behind the seat, how it was loaded with spears, each fashioned from wood and tied with a variety of brightly-colored feathers near their sharp tips. At the bottom, for good measure, hung a small rifle. “Hunting?” I asked, trying to catch my driver’s eye, but he just looked ahead, tapping on the steering wheel. “What are you hunting?”
     “Pig,” he answered, still not turning my way.
     “How many pigs are there on the island?” I asked, hoping to find conversation.
     “One less by tonight I hope!” the boy replied, blowing a green bubble from between his lips, shifting in his seat, popping the gum with a sharp cracking sound. I noticed he was driving bare foot. I laughed and he laughed too, seemingly appreciative of my sense of humor. “Where are you going?” he asked, adjusting the rearview mirror. We were headed north, going counterclockwise about the island.
     “I’d like to get to Wipeout Beach,” I said, visualizing the route I’d marked on my little map. Wipeout Beach, supposedly named by surfers in the early 60s, was at the northernmost point of the highway, where it suddenly ended, surrendering to the thick jungle and the mighty cliffs. My plan was to rest there and use it as a camping point for some exploring of the jungle itself, something I’d decided that morning, over a hasty breakfast of mashed banana, mango, and Mountain Dew.
Burnout Beach we call it,” he chuckled, rolling down his window to spit out the gum.
     “Burnout?” I asked, smiling.
     “Yeah, Burnout because that’s where all the
hippies hang out,” he replied, smirking, reaching for a pack of gum from the glove compartment. “Want some?”
     I looked in his hand.
Tropical Fruit Wave the package boldly claimed. “No thanks, I’m good,” I said.
     “My dad says they all crawled north when Bush made up Homeland Security,” offered the boy, now working a new piece of gum between his white teeth.
Who did?” I asked, not following.
     “The hippies!” he laughed, giving me a quick, curious glance. I think he’d just noticed that my grey hair was pulled into a long ponytail.
     It was my turn to laugh. “Oh, I thought you might have meant the
pigs,” I said, relaxing, letting my hand catch the warm wind through my open window. “Do you use the spears to hunt them?”
     “Yeah,” he replied, not sounding too enthusiastic. “My dad likes to keep it traditional. I spear for an hour or two, then, when my arm’s tired, I use my gun. Dead pig’s a dead pig.
     “Good eating?” I inquired.
     “It’s OK – tradition,” he sighed.
     “Do you want to leave Three Sons someday? Go to the mainland maybe?”
     “Maybe. If I’m lucky I can,” he offered.
     “Do you visit the other islands?” I asked, catching sight of a rooster, attempting to scale the walls of red clay that had grown on either side of the road.
     “I went to Proper to get born,” he explained, cracking his gum, downshifting, the old truck making an unhappy sound.
     “Oh – is that usual?” I asked, imagining the little plane I came in on, full of expecting mothers.
     “Nah, my mom had complications with me, that’s why.”
     “Oh, I see.”
     We were now passing a scattering of little buildings, tiny grocery stores and humble-looking homes, followed by a massive statue, as tall as a palm tree, sitting in a circle of grass that was covered with bunches of red and yellow and orange.
     “What was that?” I asked, turning back to see the profile of the seated stone figure, thinking it looked Indian, or perhaps it was Buddhist. “Was that
fruit in the grass?”
     “Offerings,” the boy sighed.
     “Yeah,” he said, cracking his gum once again, looking bored.
     About fifteen minutes later, having made our way through fields of tall, coastal grasses, the highway suddenly veered inland, taking us past a construction site with a sign that promised: COMING SOON! FOUR PUMP SELF-SERVE AND LATTE.
Progress, I thought to myself, wondering where all the cars were going to be coming from. Then I remembered overhearing a conversation while waiting to board the plane on Proper Island, about the car rental service that was coming to Three Sons, to encourage more tourism. I had to wonder if Frank’s bullfrogs would be around much longer, flattened or not. Soon, we entered a series of hills, which became towering rises into thick vegetation. Yellow spots appeared in the trees, which I quickly realized were bunches of bananas. The road now twisted through these passes, getting narrower and narrower, the sun all but obliterated as the vine-entangled limbs seemed to be falling in upon us. My driver leaned out his window and sniffed at the air. I thought he was smelling the bananas. “It’s quite a scent,” I remarked. “I’ve never experienced it before – intoxicating.”
     The boy gave me another curious look. “You’ve never smelled pot before?”
     “Burnout is only about a third of a mile from here – straight ahead,” he said, pulling us off the road and into a small clearing. I noted other tire tracks. Getting out of the cab, I took a deep breath and understood. It was like standing downwind from a high school playground.
     “Well, thanks for the ride, I was getting pretty tired in the sun with all my gear,” I explained, lifting my backpack from the bed of the truck, noticing a plastic bucket labeled HOOVES. “This is your hunting spot then?”
     “Tradition,” he sighed, grabbing at the spears on the gun rack.

Burnout Beach (I can only now refer to it by that name) was a beehive of activity compared to Salt Face. I counted at least a dozen encampments spread along its main stretch, many utilizing palms, like Frank and Catherine’s. Large Persian rugs hung from rope strung between the trees, creating apartments, each lined with more rug, or bits of old carpet and cardboard. The walls moved in the breeze, offering glimpses of the furtive inhabitants of these houses built on sand, bare arms and legs gathered together in communal understanding. As I made my way across the top of the beach, where the road abruptly ended, swallowed by white sand and a coven of towering, darkly-barked trees, I couldn’t help but notice that no one was outside. The beach itself was all but empty. I stood before the ominous trees, the sort of which I’d not encountered before on the island, looking up to see their spindly, haphazard limbs curl into a webbed roof of vines, so dense the sun was all but hidden. It was as if someone had drawn a line between beach and jungle.
     Choosing a shady, dull patch of sand, just beyond the jungle breach, I quickly pitched my tent. I was at least twenty-five feet from the last of the rug-fashioned homes. No one had even noticed my arrival.
     My little blue house now standing, the wind striking it with a regular snapping sound, I set to making myself a fire pit. Finding dry wood was not hard. I‘d wisely chosen the dry season to visit Three Sons. Digging the pit itself, however, was a more difficult chore. Each time I turned to push aside what I’d excavated, the growing wind quickly filled the cavity with a fresh flurry of white sand, all but burying the sticks and bits of driftwood I’d assembled. Sighing, I collapsed onto my back, relenting to the ocean’s mighty breath, stretching myself upon the sand. I lay there for a long moment, listening to the wind, and the furious waves crashing into the coral beds that I knew from my reading lay just beyond the waterline. It was these jagged, dangerous formations that had given the beach its official name, the wipeout of any surfer here being a serious circumstance, even for the most experienced. The northwest side of the island, noticeably more windy, was altogether less hospitable than the south. I was already missing sunny Salt Face, its feral cats, cockroaches, and pungent sea cows included.
     The waves, dying regularly on the coral, as dependable as a metronome, must have sent me to sleep, for I awoke with a start, alarmed at how much the daylight had faded. I knew I had to quickly see to my fire, before it was too dark.
     Deciding what I needed was a guard against the wind, I looked about me, soon spotting a small pile of boxes beside a garbage can that sat near the closest camp. A cardboard box, pinned to the ground with a stick, would act as a suitable windbreak, I reasoned, brushing the sand from my back, staggering towards the bohemian enclave. It would also enable me to light the fire, my matches alone being no equal to the powerful gusts.
     As I approached the camp, the wind suddenly lifted the rug curtain facing me, draping it back up over the wire it was strung across, exposing a young native woman lying on her side. She was topless. The breeze played with her long, black hair, making it dance. She was like a painting by Gauguin, her slender hips wrapped in a red, flowered skirt. I couldn’t help but look. I was surprised to see that her eyes were open. She smiled my way, making me quickly cast mine to the sand at my feet. “Howdy!” she called out, rolling onto her stomach, showing some modesty. I waved tentatively and trudged her way, trying hard not to stare at her slim, dark body. “You’re new,” she said, matter-of-factly, pulling tangled hair from her face.
     “Yes,” I said, clearing my throat, hoping I didn’t appear too much the tourist. I was definitely not in an area marked in my travel guide, at least not one recommended to the common vacationer. The boy hunter’s words rang in my ear: “
My dad says they all crawled north when Bush made up Homeland Security.”
     “Going to stay a while?” she asked, remaining where she was, regarding me with what I hoped was a friendly eye. She was young enough to be my granddaughter.
     “A little while,” I smiled, gesturing towards the boxes. “Are those yours?”
     She followed my pointing. “The garbage?” she asked, showing the beginnings of a grin.
     “Yes. I was wondering if I might – if I could have one of the cardboard boxes. I need to make a windbreak to get my fire going.”
     She shrugged. “Go ahead, they ‘re not mine, they’re Tony’s – he doesn’t want them.”
     “Thanks,” I replied, hurrying over to the garbage can, spotting a tiny, striped cat. It dashed away, across the shady sand and into the jungle’s dark maw. I grabbed the biggest of the boxes, marked with the logo of an energy drink called Vibrous. Passing by the camp, I saw the girl was lying on her side again, her back now to me. She hadn’t bothered to adjust the upturned rug.

My first night on Burnout Beach was horrible.
     A stomach full of the last of the beans and tortillas I’d brought from Proper Island, I’d crawled into my tent, the wind now howling all about me, the waves crashing with a new ferocity. I suddenly felt very alone. Vulnerable. What had I been thinking when I called that cab to the airport? That the money was going to give me a traveler’s soul? That I was going to take to traversing the globe like a nomad, the man who’d spent the majority of the last twenty-five years idling in his little bungalow, treasuring his obscurity, the lack of personal entanglement in his life, content in the cradle of the pleasant and numbing sameness to his days?
     I lay there, under the thin bed sheet that served as a sleeping bag in the tropics, wishing I hadn’t been so hasty, but, really, what choice did I have? Back on the mainland I was now a marked man, the player holding Park Place and Boardwalk.
     It was then that I started hearing a new sound, a mad, spirited laughter, mixed with the raging wind and the crashing thunder of the waves. Unable to sleep, I stretched before the front of my tent, unzipping the door flap, listening, trying to discern what was going on.
     The laughter was louder, clearer, moving across the beach towards me. “SEE? SEE HOW IT’S GOIN’ TO END, GOD?” the laughing voice now cried out. “SEE HOW
     “Ton-ee! Ton-eee! STOP IT!
     I recognized the girl’s voice. Apparently her friend Tony had returned. He sounded very drunk.
     “Ton-ee! SHUT THE
FUCK UP! People are sleeping!”
     “You cannot petition the lord with prayer,” I whispered to myself, recalling the line from an old Jim Morrison song.
     “TONY! Either shut the
fuck up or go drown yourself – you stupid idiot!” cried the girl, sounding as if she were right outside my tent.
     “Ton-ee! DON’T! Come
     I was worried for a moment, thinking he was actually going to walk himself into the sea, but then his laughter returned, bigger and louder than before.
you! Stay out of my tent! Go sleep it off, loser,” the girl declared, her voice trailing off.
     I stayed at the open flap for a few long moments, straining to hear what I couldn’t see in the dark, Tony’s laughter now devolving into guttural exchanges with the wind and waves. “Must be the Vibrous,” I sighed, returning to the refuge of my sheet, curling up, fists between my knees, the way I’d slept as a child.

The following morning crept upon me, inching along ever so slowly, announcing its presence with the patience of an old man waiting on a bus.
     I sniffed at the warm, salty air, my eyes heavy and sore, feeling the tickling breeze across my bare chest. I’d left my flap open all night. Sitting upright with a start, I lunged forward to close it but quickly realized there was little need, I was all alone in my blue habitat, not even a gnat had wandered in to bother me. Obviously the dry season meant very little insect activity on the north end of the island. I’d purchased two spray pumps of the strongest insect repellent back in LA, having read horror stories of the giant, purple-tinged mosquitoes, but they were nowhere to be seen. Apart from the roaches at Salt Face, and a few large banana spiders in the restroom near the airport, I’d hardly encountered anything an entomologist would get excited about.
     I stuck my head through the flap, feeling the luxurious breeze, which had replaced the apocalyptic gale sometime during the early hours of the morning, at a time when I must have been in some approximation of sleep, what little I’d managed. Sitting, with my legs outside the tent, my feet dug into the warm sand, I saw that the sun had just broken the horizon, a great, orange-colored egg, bleeding out the new day, illuminating everything with an unnatural intensity, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I found myself staring at my chest, each graying hair seemed to be casting its own discernable shadow. It was as if the whole world had instantly come into view for the very first time, every last bit of minutia announcing itself.
     “Sorry about last night.”
     Startled, I looked up to see the girl from next door, standing about ten feet from my camp. She was now dressed in blue jeans and a frilly blouse. She was even more beautiful this way, I thought, offering her an embarrassed smile, suddenly feeling quite naked.
     “He’s gone,” she added, reading my thoughts. “This time for
good – I hope.”
     “Your boyfriend?” I ventured, wondering what a lovely young woman like her must make of an aging specimen like me.
     “Yeah,” she weakly smiled, “But I don’t care if I ever see him again.”
     “It’s a small island,” I replied, seeing the worry cross her soft face, instantly wishing I hadn’t said it. “Do you have family here?” I quickly added.
     She chuckled, casting her eyes to the ground, toying at the sand with her bare foot. “Not really, just my dad.”
     I grinned, feeling an odd kinship with this man, even as I felt a strangely jealous ache in my heart. “That’s good,” I said, trying to sound positive. “Are you close to your father?”
     She chuckled again, this time with a rueful tinge. “
Everyone’s close with Prince Frank,” she said, moving her long, tangled hair from her face, squinting towards the ocean, the brilliant rising sun giving her dark features a solemn, almost stately grace.

Misty Candlemaker had been named after her mother, Frank’s island wife, who, I learned, wasn’t ever actually his wife. Not that that mattered to Misty and her sisters. Their mother had died some years earlier and their father treated them like everyone on the island, with the enthusiastic fervor of a junkie.
     The news shocked me at first. I felt fooled, and then betrayed, but soon realized that Prince Frank had done nothing to deceive me, he had simply greeted me with the over-sized presence of a storybook character, performing a role that had filled a vacancy in my imagination. Where I truly felt betrayed was with Catherine.
     “She’s an addict
too?” I queried Misty, the disappointment in my voice making her look at me rather sadly, as if I were a dog with a bad foot. She nodded gently, reaching out to cup her hand against a trickle of water running down the wall of the cavern we had retreated into, after having breakfasted together on the beach. All of the things I had been told by Frank, the stories of their courtship, of Catherine’s careers, ran through my mind, every one now suspect. I didn’t know quite what to believe, but when I searched the dark, intense eyes of the girl across from me I knew I wanted to trust her, trust her completely. I could see no reason why she wouldn’t be telling me the truth. “And they’re not married either, I presume?”
     Misty grinned, her teeth almost fluorescent in the dim light of the cavern. “Not legally, but we say “husband” and “wife” here for people we are going with – our lovers…” she explained, her voice trailing at the word
lovers, exhibiting a shyness I hadn’t quite expected.
     “Oh, that’s odd – but I see. So Frank was being truthful when he told me he was Catherine’s husband.”
     “My father’s not a bad man,” she stated, putting the hand of water to her lips. “He wasn’t lying to you, he’s been with Catherine since I was a little girl. He loved her before he did my mother.” She was telling me all of this in such an open way, as if we’d long been familiars. It was a clear trait she’d inherited from her father, regardless of his addiction. Her faith in his character was comforting. Though I’d told her most everything of my experiences with Frank and Catherine, I hadn’t divulged the little act of altruism I’d performed the afternoon I’d run into the colorful duo outside the clinic, how I’d purchased ten money orders, five made out to Frank Candlemaker, five to Catherine Hammond, and had left them with the dutiful clerk, a young, plump woman, whose eyes had grown when I told her how much each were to be. It wasn’t that much really, just what I felt the need to give, if for no other reason than to offer the burdened couple some resource for comfort in their remaining days together. I wasn’t carrying my fortune with me, after all. That wasn’t even mine to have, not yet anyway. It would be doled out in monthly sums. I’ve always found that a quaint custom of the lottery, a practice that speaks to the paternal nature of State governance, a partially patronizing gesture, one not unlike my own in portioning my gift to Frank and Catherine.
     “I know he’s not bad, Misty,” I smiled, finding myself feeling more emotional than I was comfortable with. I was at peace with the giving. It didn’t matter that they were addicts. My concern was for their hearts, the cavities that a lifetime of dreaming leaves us. I didn’t need to ask about Catherine’s supposed cancer and the pain killers, the clinic was obviously supplying them both with whatever they needed to get by. That my money could help, however that might be, was enough for me to know. I’m no stranger to addiction. I’ve seen what it does to a person, what little it leaves for others.
     Misty stood up, turning about as if she were a ballerina, her bare heels spinning on the smooth, damp floor of the cave. She opened her arms wide, gesturing with a magnificent smile. “So – this is
Big Mouth! Pretty cool, eh?”
     “Oh, it’s
very cool!” I enthused, following her into the center of the great maw, which, cut into the cliffs thousands of years ago, truly did resemble a huge, open mouth. There was even a ridge running down the center, all the way to the very back, as if it had a tongue.
     I still had many questions for my new friend, but was happy to forgo them for now, realizing she was obviously more interested in showing me the hidden treasures of her home. She was, after all, just a girl, something I had to keep reminding myself.
     “Verrrrrrrr – reeeeeeeee – coooooooooool!” she answered, her voice echoing wildly as she reached the ridge at the center of the cavern.
     I laughed, hearing my voice circle the dripping walls that raced up to meet each other, a good twenty feet above us. We were in a natural amphitheatre. “Is it true that they filmed
The Mushroom People on this part of the island?” I called out, the word mushroom reverberating deeply.
     Misty giggled. “
Mushroom People?” She bent over, holding her stomach. “Dude! Burnout Beach is The Mushroom People! Least when they can get hold of that stuff!”
     “No, I mean really,” I laughed. “The travel agent in Los Angeles told me it was partly filmed here – in 1951.”
     Misty was still laughing. “1951? That’s like so
long ago! Why would your travel agent tell you about that?”
     I calculated roughly how many years 1951 was before she had been born and felt my cheeks going hot. “It was just about my favorite monster movie when I was a kid, that’s all,” I replied, meeting her at the cave’s middle. “They didn’t shoot scenes in Big Mouth, but they should have – it would have been perfect.”
     “You’re a funny guy,” she smiled widely, her features folding in upon themselves, before suddenly going firm. She gave me a strong look, her hands dipping into her jean pockets. “Why won’t you tell me your name? Not even your first?” She sounded a bit hurt. She had reason to be, I suppose, after having been so open herself. I was still amazed that such an attractive young person would have had any interest in a relic like me. I sighed, pulling at my chin, feeling how rough it was, realizing I hadn’t shaved since I’d begun my little “fishing” trip. I really did owe it to her, I thought. What harm could a little divulgence do? Besides, it was all but impossible not to give those glorious eyes want they wanted.
     “Doug,” I said quietly, turning from her as I spoke, to see the entrance of the cave, the golden sunshine making the sheets of mist dropping from the roof look like a curtain of glass trinkets. “My name’s Doug.”
     It’s my real name. I could have said anything to please her, but I didn’t, I told her the truth.

To Be Continued

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Big Lonely, Part One

Catherine seemed to be about fifty years old, but it was hard to say, the way she sat, draped over herself, a wilted flower, her wizened limbs peeking like spilled cutlery from under her brown blanket.
     When we first met, she was introduced as “Catherine the Great”, a comment that sent chuckles about the small fire pitched in the middle of a sparse grove of palms shaped like an open hand, against which the grinning faces of her friends were silhouetted, all frogs and toads and troglodytes in the dim, flickering flame.
     Catherine wasn’t fit enough, or well enough, to move herself. No one, other than Frank, her husband, ever bothered to walk her out along the tarmac road leading to the neglected stretch of public beach that her social circle called home. The wheels of her wheelchair were locked tight with rust and sand, the rubber tires, long since having gone brittle, were all but absent from the rims. It was in this weathered throne that Catherine Hammond resided, half-asleep, half-gone, drooling at the mouth, pupils searching the undersides of her lids. She was clearly the matriarch of the group, the eleven or so mostly middle-aged homeless citizens of Three Son Island, a tiny American territory in the lower South Pacific, a prehistoric junkyard I had been deceived into believing was some select tropical paradise.
     Three Son Island was discovered in 1843, by an Australian slave trading ship. History has it that the island was given its name after the three sons of the slave who rousted his fellows after the vessel had struck a reef only a few meters from the isle. Forming a small, but formidable, mutiny party, the father, along with his sons, and perhaps ten others, including a pregnant girl, separated their chains from the ruptured moorings in the hull, rising up through splintered gaps in the deck, quickly overcoming the wounded and dazed crew. Killing them all, in a desperate bid for freedom, the slaves took all they could of the ship’s provisions, struggling with them through the waist-high water to the thin beach of ashtray sand. Returning again and again, they grabbed all they could, even stripping away wood and iron, until the gravely-injured vessel slipped from its resting spot on the jagged reef and dropped into the ocean, the deck going under as it rolled over into the brilliant blue.
     It was the ancestors of these original settlers who mostly populated the island, mixed with a late century influx of Pacific Islanders, who had come from other territories in the French Philippines to work when Three Son’s natural salt beds became a point of interest to international trading companies.
     Barely thirty miles in circumference, the island was serviced by a single paved road, which traversed three quarters of its coast, the remaining fourth being home to towering cliffs that cut right into the ocean, offering no beach or safe place for boats. Here grew a thick, jungle-strewn sanctuary of banana and mango trees, bamboo, and choking vines, punctured by three red points, clay hills that rose up through the dense green canopy like a box of sharpened pencils. These were the apparent inspiration for the island’s naming, the founding slave declaring the spirits had left them as foretelling of his sons becoming kings of the new nation.
     On a thin peninsula of land, at the southeast corner sat Three Sons Airport, where a rickety and truncated runway had been laid, with a surface that made the moon look smooth. The tiny airport itself was mostly situated outdoors. The check-in desk was regularly buffeted by the wind, often carrying tickets towards the landing strip. A frantic island girl could usually be seen rushing after them in her neatly-pressed uniform.

It was here that I had come, some two weeks before, wanting to get as far away from the mainland as I could.
     The twin-propeller plane I’d taken from Proper Island, a larger isle to the north, under territorial jurisdiction of the French, had canvas windows, which snapped shut. The one by my seat, having popped two of its snaps, was flapping like a trapped bird, forcing me to hold it shut throughout the forty-minute flight. The company that operated this once-daily excursion also oversaw bicycle and moped rentals on Three Sons, the rental shop of which I was looking for when I first ran into Catherine’s husband.
     Frank Candlemaker was a native, his blood African, Pacific Island, and Native American. His great-great grandmother had supposedly been the daughter of one of the original three kings and he liked being referred to as “Prince Frank”, a title he asked be taken with a certain solemnity and respect, unlike that of his invalid paramour.
     Frank had a surprisingly high voice, which I mistook for that of a young girl the first time I heard it, busily making my way down the dirt thoroughfare of a fleeting rash of pre-World War II development on the south western tip of the island, a bizarre approximation of a small town middle America that the locals called Bijoux, after the long-vacant, but still standing movie theater where thousands of American servicemen and women had passed their time during the long days of the war’s Pacific theater. On my tourist map the town was listed as Leavestown, a name nearly as literal as Bijoux.
     At one time, from the late sixties, right up until 1992, when a ferocious hurricane hit the island, leaving much of it in ruins, Bijoux had been a thriving stretch of bohemia, peopled by American and European refugees of the cultural wars, societal dropouts with the prerequisite grey hair and pony tails. What little was left of that now, a vegetarian cafĂ© and an art gallery that posted no hours, was depressingly situated in the middle of general disrepair and ruin, many buildings still having open walls, looking like the backs of doll houses.
     As I made my way towards a small rack of primary-colored bicycles that advertised the rental shop, I suddenly heard Frank’s high-pitched voice, coming from across the street, in the shadow of the derelict Bijoux itself.
     “Hey! Mister! You’re interested in decorative bulls?” it called, taking my attention from an exposed child’s bedroom, still partly papered with Dennis the Menace wallpaper. I looked across the all-but deserted street, seeing a figure standing under the faded marquee. “You’re interested in bulls?” it called again, a body now crossing the road towards me, entering the bright sunlight, revealing its short, barrel-shape torso and head, with a face that appeared to have been whittled, great gorges and lines crawling across the cheeks and about its yellow, jaundiced eyes. I shrugged, confused by the odd question. “See?” Frank furthered, passing a flat object before my eyes. “Bullfrog – perfectly preserved in two dimensions!” he claimed, with a cartoonish grin.
     “You found this on the
island?” I asked, feeling quite ignorant.
     Frank laughed, this too like that of a young girl. “Where
not can I find these?” he said. “You are walking the highway in the morning, between Salt Face and the Ramada, you’ll fill a basket. It’s the tourist bus, it flattens them to the road,” he added, placing the frog across my hands. It felt like a dried bean husk and was almost as light. It had apparently been hit mid-jump, it’s long limbs outstretched, a leathery coil hanging from its open mouth, which I had to presume was its tongue. It wore a mocking, winking expression, one mottled eye still in its socket. Seeing its delicate backbone, jutting up through a long fissure on its back, I imagined it would probably rattle like a maraca if I were to shake it.
     “Don’t they get eaten by birds?” I inquired, feeling less intelligent with each question.
     “Chickens don’t eat
frog!” Frank responded, with another peel of playground laughter. “They’re poisonous to its digestive tract.”
     “Sure!” he grinned again, taking back the cardboard amphibian, putting one foot upon what remained of a low concrete wall that quickly disintegrated into a patch of lusty-looking nettles. “We’ve got a chicken problem on Three Sons, sir,” he began to explain, shaking his head sorrowfully, the grin softening.
     I looked surprised. “Is that the odd sound I heard this morning, when I awoke on the beach at Salt Face? A chicken? A 
     Frank laughed again, making half an attempt at dancing like a chicken for my amusement. “Three Sons has three
thousand chickens!” he declared. “They climb trees and knock down unripe fruit! They shit in our gutters! They are a nuisance, but we are not allowed to kill them – not yet, anyway.”
     I was still confused. “They’re not indigenous? Where do they come from?”
     He rolled his eyes.
Foolish tourist. “Nothing comes from Three Sons, sir, everything here arrived on the wind. We are a shipwreck people,” he stated, a slight twinkle to his eye. “The chickens, the bullfrogs, the goats, the pigs, my ancestors, they were all brought here from somewhere else.” Just then a thin, striped cat dashed between us, disappearing into a gap in the crumbling wall.
     “The cats too?” I asked.
     “Feral,” he replied, looking at the frog. He held it up again. “You’re interested in decorative bulls?” he asked anew, suddenly seeming to have forgotten the thread of our conversation. “They look great in the basement or game room!”

I ran across Frank, and Catherine, more than once over the next few days, mostly at the horseshoe-shaped beach on the eastern side of the island, the unloved public area boarding an inlet of fetid, milky-white still water, its oily surface dotted with bits of floating garbage. This spot had been their home for almost two years, Frank had explained one evening, after I’d accidentally stumbled upon the camp.
     “Mostly locals use this beach,” he told me, shoving an overripe mango past a neglected scattering of grayish teeth and red, angry-looking gums. He pulled another, brown and dimpled, from his pant’s pocket, holding it towards me.
     “No thanks,” I declined, smiling, my eyes searching the little camp, seeing the hammocks slung between listing palms, the corrugated metal sheets that provided shelter from the constant wind, the tireless AMC Pacer that was home to Alice, the eldest of the little colony of homeless individuals, whose body was racked with bedsores and rickets, who lived her days, sprawled across the front seats of the abandoned car, talking to herself. I noticed Catherine’s wheelchair, sitting vacant beside a smoldering campfire. I was shocked not to see her in it. “Catherine?” I almost gasped, motioning to the chair, fearing the worst. He just laughed, patting me on the arm.
     “Not to worry, mister,” he smiled, his motley teeth full of mango. He pointed behind me. “She’s in the lavatory!”
     I turned, seeing a portable toilet, sandwiched between two trees. “Oh!” I blushed. “I didn’t see that on the way in. Aren’t the bathrooms at the building working?” I was referring to the public house located at the entrance to the beach, the concrete bunker where a group of listless teenagers sat about, looking bored with life.
     “Backed-up,” replied Frank, taking a small penknife to the fruit I’d declined, surprising me by actually cutting away part he deemed too gone to eat. “Bad plumbing. The park system ignores us mostly. We’re lucky they brought the replacement.”
     “I guess it makes it easier for Catherine, being so close.”
     He made a face, rolling his eyes, his cheek bulging with mango. “She’s been in there almost half an hour – she’s reading her
Rolling Stone.”
     I offered him a surprised look. “The magazine?”
     He nodded, belching, wiping his mouth. “I got her a subscription for her birthday. It’s always been her favorite. She once met Robert Plant of the Led Zeppelin, you know.”
     “Really? When she was working for the airline?”
     He nodded again, digging his hands deep into his pockets, spreading his stance, pushing the air with his thick chest, glancing the way of the portable toilet. A knocking sound was coming from the door. He cleared his throat and began to head towards it, turning back to look at me as he did. “Says Robert Plant tried to woo her, but she didn’t go with the rock star – she’s too fragile for that kind of life. She needs a man like me – a man who isn’t going anywhere.”

The next time I saw Frank, he was with Catherine, pushing her across the street in what appeared to be a wheelbarrow. They were leaving the Three Sons Clinic, which was housed in the same modest stucco building as the Three Sons Post Office, which doubled as a shaved ice stand. Frank had explained that Catherine suffered from numerous maladies, not the least of which was a pancreatic cancer that was quickly killing her. All the doctor could offer were pain killers, heavy sedatives, which were mostly to account for her somnambulistic state. Seeing me, Frank held up his hand. “Mister!” he shrieked. “Hello! It’s Prince Frank!”
     “Hi there – we meet again!” I called out, making my way across the hot, black road, which the locals simply called “the highway”. Tugging on my backpack, decorated like a washing line with the laundry I was airing, I squinted into the sun, seeing the body in the barrow. I thought for sure Catherine’s time had really come, but, as I neared, I saw her weak smile, heard the cooing sounds she was making. “Greetings, Prince Frank, Catherine the Great,” I announced, offering Frank a little smile, whose head was now hung low. He didn’t look very happy.
     “She’s getting weaker the doctor says,” he almost whispered, setting the wheelbarrow down on its haunches. “I will soon be saying goodbye to her.” I tried to convince him that, as a territory of the United States, residents of Three Sons must be entitled to some sort of assistance. Perhaps the Red Cross could procure the appropriate chemotherapy? He just shook his head. “No, no, mister, you just don’t understand – it is too late for that. Besides, we are gypsies. No government will help us.”
     Catherine lifted her head. “Who did you bring for me, Frank?” she asked, her voice dry and crackling.
     “It’s the pleasant gentleman, sweetheart.
Remember? The one who thought the chickens would gobble up the frogs?” Catherine giggled, her body shifting under her old blanket. She was slumped backwards in the wheelbarrow, her bare, red-marked legs spread between the handles, offering me a better view of her ravaged body than I’d wished to see. I must have blushed, my embarrassment noticeable, even under my heated, perspiring face. “We’re only teasing you, mister.” Frank offered. He seemed comfortable calling me mister.
     I’d not given my name to a soul since the girl at the airport gate and didn’t intend to. I wasn’t sure if my story had made the papers on Proper Island and didn’t want to chance being discovered. It had been hard enough getting to the airport and on a plane back on the mainland, and that was before they’d disclosed the full amount of my winnings. “Oh, I know,” I assured, wiping at my brow. “How are you feeling, Catherine?” I asked, leaning around Frank, catching her faraway smile. “Frank tells me you’re a Pennsylvania girl. I have family in Pennsylvania.” She gurgled in response.
     Catherine Hammond was not a native of Three Sons. She’d first come to the island in the early 70s, as a stewardess for Pan-Am. She’d been given a week’s layover vacation on Proper Island and had climbed aboard the same twin-propeller I’d traveled in, coming to Three Sons at the request of a hippie friend who was living in a teepee on what the natives called “Burnout Beach”. Frank had told me they’d met about a campfire. They’d gotten high, they’d talked into the morning, they’d “made love” on the white sand and had fallen asleep in each other’s arms. “Thinking like we’d never leave each other again,” Frank had sighed. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Catherine having to catch her flight on Proper Island the next day or if he was thinking of the disease that had forced him to wheel her, like a bag of bananas, to the doctor. It was almost five years before they saw each other again. By that time she was working for the government, in an administration building in Washington, D.C., acting as assistant to America’s regional “ambassador of territorial claim” in the South Pacific, a position she had gotten purely through chance, happily saying goodbye to her years of jetting about the world. Little had she known, when she’d nervously shaken President Jimmy Carter’s hand at the swearing-in ceremony for new employees, that she’d promptly be asked to accompany the ambassador on a five-territory junket. Initially, upon her return to the mainland, she and Frank had written each other with devotion, rarely missing a week, but then she met a nice man in her department and her answers to Frank’s long, heartfelt and funny letters began to grow further apart. He knew something had changed, but she refused to explain. They eventually stopped communicating, the dream of living together, like a new “Adam and Eve”, on their own island, became nothing but a bitter joke to Frank. His heart badly broken, he swore to “never fall for another woman who came in on the wind” and quickly married an island girl named Misty and had three children, all of whom he loved, but more out of duty than any true feeling of the heart. When he saw Catherine, all those years later, striding across the pavement at the tiny Ramada Inn situated next to the airport, her dark hair bundled upon her head, looking so smart in her glasses, holding her briefcase, he knew he could not return to his family in good conscience.
     At first, Catherine resisted his advances, ignoring his every entreaty.
     On the island for a full week, she kept to the ambassador’s schedule and the hotel swimming pool, locked in the world of the privileged tourist. Frank almost gave up, thinking it was because she did not want to see him, but it was quite the opposite.
     She had begun imagining a reunion weeks before she’d left Washington, the memories of that blissful night on the beach, of all the amazing things they’d shared in their letters, coming back, filling every moment she hadn’t been diligently preparing for her first expedition as a representative of the United States. But, seeing him again, looking as fit, as pleasantly thick, as the day they’d met, she’d instantly shut down her feelings, terrified of jeopardizing her new career. Hiding within the walls of the hotel, she was desperately trying to save herself, knowing what she was denying her heart.
     “Where are you coming from?” Frank inquired, peering quizzically at my pack, the clothes-pegged shirts and underwear flapping in the hot breeze.
     “Salt Face,” I replied, snapping out of my reverie, blinking, feeling the effects of the blazing morning sun. I gestured back down the dark ribbon of tarmac I’d been making my way along all morning, since breaking camp.
     Frank looked suspicious. “You still at the beach? Why aren’t you at the Ramada?” When we’d met, three days earlier, I’d told him I was going to camp at Salt Face and he’d laughed, softly mocking me for wanting to “go native”, but now he looked genuinely upset to hear I was still here. “What’s wrong with our Ramada?” he pressed, sounding offended. “It’s not good enough for you?” 
     “Oh, no, it’s not that, it’s, well – I prefer being outdoors,” I tried to explain, recalling the amazing events of that morning.
     I’d woken to the chorus of rooster calls and the hissing of feral cats scampering about the beach, watching the silhouettes of giant cockroaches scurrying all over the outside of my tent. Making my way to where the white sand met the pristine blue water, I’d begun my regular fifteen minutes of stretching, walking right into the ocean, which was as warm as a bath. I’d not felt so natural, so aware of simply being alive, in years.
     Swimming casually out into the mild little harbor, I let my mind drift, back to the previous week and the announcement of the largest ever single-player win in the California State Lottery and the subsequent discrepancy in the tabulating process that caused my name to be made public. I was, in a matter of hours, living the nightmare I’d often imagined all big winners must face, old friends and forgotten acquaintances suddenly arriving on my doorstep, tracking me on the internet, filling my mailbox with all sorts of bizarre and desperate messages. Making matters worse, my face and name had been all over the local news only two weeks before, when I’d stumbled across a mugging and had intervened without really thinking, rescuing the elderly man’s wallet and chasing the young mugger right into the hands of the arriving police. They tagged me “Good Samaritan of the Week”, a title I tried my best to disavow. Only thirteen days later it was revealed that I was the holder of the biggest lottery windfall in state history. I was quickly deemed a blessed man, one whom complete strangers felt would be all too composed to share his God-given grace and prosperity. I was offered no peace, no respite from the public awareness of my fortune. One of my neighbors, endlessly pestered by his wife to ask me for a loan, was arrested for hitting her with a broom. Another, so distraught that I’d not answered his calls, drove his car into the dry canal, breaking both arms.
     I had no choice but to flee the growing madness.
     Packing all of my valuables in three boxes, placing them in storage, I left a little sign on my Echo Park bungalow door that read: Gone Fishin’, and slumped low in the back of my taxi, all the way to LAX.
     Grinning, remembering the nervous cab driver thinking I was having a heart attack, I felt my body floating in that tepid, salt water bath, feeling blessed.
     It was as if I’d woken to find myself in an old Disney cartoon, reality, and all my troubles, suddenly far behind me. Settling on my back, letting my toes break the surface, I was looking straight up into the fibrous white clouds that stretched across the china blue sky, catching the tops of the palms swaying gently along the beach.
     I was in paradise, I decided, choosing to forget the poverty I’d encountered on the trek to Salt Face, the dirt-poor farm trailers and the pauper’s graves along the road, many decorated with plastic toys and jewelry and US license plates, the purpose of which I’d meant to ask Frank about.
     It was then that I heard a loud, forceful grunting sound, and a violent splashing, only a foot or two behind me. Twirling about frantically, I came face-to-face with a monster, its head easily the size of a large wastepaper basket, its eyes hidden behind heavy, shiny lids, set above great loose jowls peppered with thick, black bristles that sparkled in the sun.
     Freezing, unable to take my gaze from what I believed was the face of death, my mind built horror upon horror. I could almost feel the bulk of the creature striking me, burying me beneath the surface, devouring me like a sardine.
     Then, all-at-once, it gave off another mighty snort, creating a stench like I’d never experienced, making my eyes water, blinding me momentarily. In that instance it was gone, slipping down into the deep blue below. Desperately swimming ashore, I half believed I was missing a hand or a foot.
     “You danced with a sea cow!” Frank laughed, upon hearing my story, giving his wife’s sneakered foot a shake. “I hope you didn’t try to
milk it!”
     I grinned, thoroughly embarrassed, wishing I’d kept the encounter to myself.

     To Be Continued