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