Vacation as exorcism

In Tofino, I went to the guy who ran a used-everything shop with the copy of “East of Eden” my ex-girlfriend gave me for my 30th birthday. I never read it and I was about as far west as one can be without spilling out into the Pacific, at the end of the Trans-Canada Highway, sniffing sea salt and hyacinths as Spring came up roses everywhere. I asked the proprietor of the shop if he did trades, and he said sure why not, and proceeded to try to sell me a television and a DVD player. I browsed his books and found a Murakami that I already owned, went to the register, and said, “Here. It’s a good deal.” He agreed, and I left. Ben and I drove back east.

The previous night, Ben had been completely shitfaced. He left the restaurant we were at fifteen minutes or so earlier than I did, went back to our motel room, and crashed, hard. It was around midnight. When I got back, I found that he had deadbolted the door shut, which wouldn’t be a problem if I’d had a key for the deadbolt, but which was because I didn’t. I pounded on the door for what seemed like an eternity. A woman below us came outside to let me know that people were trying to sleep.

“I’m kind of S.O.L. here,” I said. “If I had my car keys I’d just crash in the car, but those are in the room and my buddy is wasted and passed out.”

She said, “Okay, well, just don’t knock for too much longer.”

Thanks, lady.

After calling the emergency motel number and receiving no answer, and weighing the pros and cons of walking into town and trying to find another room, I did what any former house painter would do — I walked around to the back of the motel and asked myself if I thought I could climb up to our room. I decided that Ben was probably too drunk to have locked the balcony door, that I saw a route that wasn’t too perilous. I began my ascent.

In retrospect, I don’t recommend doing what I did, because it was incredibly dangerous. Shimmying along balconies and using dividers as footholds and saying to yourself, “You’d better hold on and PULL now, because if you don’t, you’ll break your fucking neck” — none of that is OSHA approved, even less so in pitch black. When I finally thrust myself over the railing and opened the door to our room, I went to Ben and shook him awake and yelled at him:

“You’re a fucking idiot! What the fuck?” I said. “I just had to risk my fucking life to get into this fucking room because you’re too dumb to lock a door properly!” Ben apologized, I went out to the balcony for a cigarette, and when I came back in, he was passed out again.

*

My friend Will told me to go to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park to romp around in old-growth forests, and so we did, Ben and I. I picked up our car at the Enterprise station in Victoria Tuesday morning. The gas tank was 3/8 full. No problem. We’d fuel up in Port Renfrew before we went into the trees.

Which is a good idea in theory. In practice, you should know that Port Renfrew’s one gas station is closed for six months every year. When we arrived in town, I slowed down at the sign that directs tourists to food, accommodations, gasoline. Beneath the pump symbol was a single word, all caps: “CLOSED.” I couldn’t help but laugh, point.

“What?” Ben asked.

“The gas station is closed,” I said.

We went to the general store and talked to the woman behind the register who told us that the guy who runs the dump might have gas, as he apparently did quite a fine side-business selling it to tourists who are too dumb to realize that, duh, Port Renfrew doesn’t sell gas in the winter. His name was Evan. “It’s just up the road on the left. Make a turn on the dirt road and drive up the hill. You can’t miss it.”

Of course, we missed it. We pulled up the second dirt road, where there was another man who lived in a trailer on grounds that could pass for a dump. We were greeted by his dog, yipping like a little shit and trying its very best to get run over.

“Hello?” we called out.

No response.

As the dog continued to bark, the man in the trailer was eventually roused from his sleep. It was probably around 1:00 in the afternoon. He did not acknowledge our “Hellos,” instead simply telling his dog to shut the fuck up and come here. I went around to the back to ask if he had gas. There, he put a shirt on and opened the tarp that separated him from the wild, informed me that he wasn’t Evan, and told us to turn around and go to the next dirt road. He was the picture of Santa Claus, if Santa Claus lived in abject poverty in the Canadian outback.

We left.

Evan was expecting us; people in Port Renfrew apparently call one another to tell them about the idiot tourists in their midst. Ben didn’t have any cash, so I paid with American dollars. $25 for half a tank. It was a bargain, and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as happy as I was when we finally left, knowing that we could get to wherever we needed to end up without the car dying in the middle of the wilderness. We went into the forest and flirted with 1,000 year-old giant trees, and then drove through the mountains and the rain to Nanaimo, where I flirted shamelessly with a young woman from Germany named Anita before Ben and I eventually went back to our room and slept.

*

In Courtenay, we were greeted by Ron and Leanne. Ron is one of Ben’s dad’s oldest friends. We brought them beer and scotch to thank them for hosting us for a night, and Ron took us out on a tour of the area at dusk to see deer and geese in the pastures.

I told Ben, “I fucking hate deer.” But I didn’t tell Ron.

Ron is kind of a hippy and not-a-little-bit nutty, but he’s got a house and a barn and horses and chickens, and he lives like he wants to live, so I have nothing but respect for him. As the night wore on, I snuck out to the car to smoke cigarettes and drink whiskey and look at the stars. Jesus Christ, the stars. And eventually, after his son and daughter-in-law had left, we all decided to hit the hay for the night. I told Ron, “Oh, I’ll be up at 6:00 or so, so we can do coffee together before your doctor’s appointment.” Ron has a bum knee that won’t go away. It’s probably somewhat shitty getting old. I guess I’ll know soon enough.

I was up at 5:30, and Ron was up an hour or so later. We had coffee and talked about this and that as Leanne got up. We watched the morning news before Ben came downstairs and Ron left for the doctor. When he came back, it was pouring rain and I helped him with some firewood and we all pretty much agreed that the conditions were pretty shitty for the fishing we had planned. Instead we played cribbage. Ron won the first game, and I won the second. Leanne went to her spin class and Ben and I gave her hugs and thanked her for everything. Then we went out for lunch.

Ron brought us to what might be the shittiest diner I’ve ever been to, but it was the thought that counted. I had a sandwich. Ron paid. At the end, when we were leaving and doing another set of hugs, Ron told Ben and me, “Take care of one another.” Which maybe is what the whole vacation had been about, after all.

The storage unit (or, The haggle)

There are two hard and fast rules to life: 1) If a pretty woman asks you to dance at a tiki restaurant in Vancouver, you should always say yes, and 2) If a friend tells you that clearing out his storage unit will only take a couple of hours, you should replace “hours” with “days” before you volunteer.

And so I followed the first rule and ignored the second and wound up yesterday morning in Surrey, British Columbia — a bright, beautiful Sunday — with Ben, who had, in the six years since he had first deposited all of his parents’ and family’s keepsakes there, lost the key to the unit, forgotten the access code, and vastly underestimated and misremembered the amount of stuff can fit inside a 5×10 metal box.

I think her name was Lila. She was the attendant at the storage unit place. She was very helpful.

“Do you have a locksmith with you?” she asked us.

No, we do not.

“My district manager can come by and break into it for you, but he won’t be able to do it until sometime later in the week,” she said.

Since Ben and I were slated to depart the next day for Vancouver Island, and since he’d already rented the minivan (another hard and fast rule, by the way: rent a bigger van), I asked if we could try to break into it ourselves.

“Yes, of course. I’d just have to be there to witness it,” Lila said. “I think Canadian Tire rents drills by the hour.”

This is how we came to find ourselves at Canadian Tire, buying an 18-volt DeWalt cordless drill and a rather large metal bit, watching YouTube videos on how to break a cylinder lock. This is how it all began.

“I don’t know if this is even going to work,” I said. “I mean, I’ve used a drill plenty of times, but I’ve never broken into a storage unit with one before.”

Ben was optimistic. I was beginning to regret mentioning the idea in the first place.

We left the battery to charge in the office and went to the unit to size the bit and orient ourselves in the large maze of hopes and dreams, boxed up and packed away, to be retrieved when the timing was right. We brought beers into the cool, climate-controlled building, and bumped into Lila on the way back down to the van. She looked at the beers, at us, and frowned a bit. We had been so quirky and nice till now.

But when the battery was charged, she followed us up to the unit and bore witness as I got some purchase in the metal with the driver and pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed. I took a break. Lila said, “You’re getting close, but you should know that some people bang their heads against the door when the lock finally breaks.”

I braced my knee against the door and thanked her. When the lock finally went, I was glad she had given me the heads-up.

And then: a mountain of boxes.

Ben sorted through them, separating those that would go to the Salvation Army from those that would be kept — the junk from the sentimental. We loaded up a van full. I went outside to smoke my last cigarette and get some more. I got another stupid idea.

In Surrey on Sundays there is a flea market, the signs for which I had noticed on our way into town and on my trip to the gas station across the street. I brought us two more beers from the van and proposed it to Ben.

“What if instead of donating all of this stuff, we go to that flea market down the street and find someone to sell it to?” There was plenty of good shit in the discard pile — an antique cradle, paintings in neat frames, teacups, silverware, sturdy furniture, a quaint parasol. Plenty of good shit that some crazy flea market vendor would buy if we hooked him with some of the nicer stuff on top of our van-load and convinced him to go big or go home.

“Like that show Storage Wars?” Ben said.

Exactly.

The flea market in Surrey is held outdoors next to a little pony racetrack — men in chariots stood behind their steeds coaxing them around the track over and over again with no particular purpose. Small children sat on their parents’ shoulders and oohed and ahhed. We divided our efforts. The strategy: find the people whose wares most aligned with what was in the throw-pile, bring them back to the van, and get them to buy everything else, sight-unseen.

Gunther said that he wished I’d come to him in the morning, but that at this hour, he couldn’t afford to pack up and check out the unit. Mel reported to Ben that he would be happy to come by the next morning. Then I met Tom.

“Hi, how are ya?” Tom said he was fine thanks and what could he do me for and the like.

I explained the situation. He asked the man at the station next to his to mind his things while he went to investigate. Tom is in his mid-50′s, with a belly out to here, which he explained was the result of a recent stomach surgery and not poor eating habits, though it was likely a combination of both. Goateed and slow-footed, his Canadian accent was as thick as maple syrup, though we were only about ten miles from the American border. He expressed his pleasure that we had parked illegally, rather than out among the used pick-ups and 90′s sedans in the vast parking lot. Business, apparently, was not so hot today, despite the weather.

“Maybe it’s because the weather’s so nice?” I suggested. “People might just be out enjoying the Vitamin D.”

Tom shrugged.

I popped the trunk, where the paintings were on display. Tom rifled through the rest of the boxes and told me that there wasn’t much he thought he could sell in there, but that he’d give me $20 for the paintings.

Deal. Also, his first tell.

When we got back to his lot, he said he might be interested in taking the rest of the stuff off our hands if the price was right and we could drop it off at his house down the road. I went and found Ben. We went back to Tom, who was in the middle of a faux-dramatic negotiation with an old bat who wanted to purchase a lion doll from him. She’d already purchased a tiger from someone else. Tom was explaining the superiority of his product to the tiger, his reason for asking for $20. She was having none of it. In the name of building friendly rapport, I stepped in and said that I might want to buy the lion. A trick commonly played by con-men and thieves to dupe the mark into paying a premium for an inferior product.

“Ah, you don’t want that lion, you just want to get me out of here,” she cackled. Not the case. I just wanted Tom to like me, and Tom knew the game I was playing.

She told him that she’d be back later and went off to find other trinkets for her mantle. Tom, Ben, and I went over the situation again: three vanloads full of inheritance. The question was simply a matter of price.

“$300 for everything,” I said. “$150,” he countered. Another trick among hagglers — always halve the first offer. “$225,” I said.

“I’m not a rich guy, you know?” Tom said, and proceeded with his sob story about how not-rich he was, and about how hard it was out there on the lot today. Trying to lend credibility to his counter. Even though I already liked him, I really liked him then. He was good at what he did. 

We vaguely settled on $200. Tom called his roommate Sean and told him that two young men would be coming by with a few loads of things, and could he please direct us to the garage on the left when we arrived. Tom said he would pay Sean the $20 for whatever it is Tom’s yippy dog broke in the house. Tom said, “Yeah, you should probably move your hockey stuff out of there so it doesn’t get mixed up with their stuff.”

Ben offered to take pictures to back our claim. At the time, this might have seemed reasonable, but in retrospect, it simply gave Tom the upper hand in the negotiation, as we discovered when, upon sending said pictures from the unit, he texted me to say that it didn’t really look like much, and he wasn’t sure how much of it he could sell, and yadda, yadda, yadda. We went back to take more pictures. He continued this song and dance via text message. Then he said he wasn’t interested.

Bullshit.

I called him. “Look, Tom, we can simply bring all of this to the Salvation Army, and they can have it. We have other options, you know? We just went to the flea market on a lark and happened to find you.”

“What’s your bottom line?” he asked.

Sigh.

I told him we’d take the $150, he agreed, and told me, “I really hope I’m not just buying a bunch of junk here. I really do, because otherwise I’ll never trust anyone again.”

When we hung up, I laughed. That was his best line of the day.

Three loads later, in Tom’s living room, we exchanged pleasantries and he ponied up the $150. Ben, in a hurry to leave (we were meeting his high school history teacher to play pool in 45 minutes) took the money. I pulled it from his hands and counted it. I looked at Tom. “Just wanted to double-check,” I said.

We both smiled.

The library conference (or, Austin, Texas)

My father and his family spent several years in Austin, Texas while he was growing up. I believe, but do not know, that his own father, my grandfather, was at the time earning his PhD in something or other at UT. (My father never much talked about his father when I was growing up — likely because he became a nasty, polio-induced, wheelchair-ridden drunk, even if his students at Salem State College wrote fawningly of his teaching abilities later, in ways that would make my father misty-eyed when he recounted the letters to us.) Landing in Austin, then, at the end of SXSW, was a bit of a homecoming, just as it was last year when I landed there for the first time. Despite the old and young hippies lounging at the airport, draped across 60L backpacks and waiting for their flights after the festival, I feel as though Texas is somehow in my blood, even if Austin is likely not at all like it was when my father lived there. I exited the plane, packed my pea coat in my roller bag, rolled up my sleeves, put on my sunglasses, and went outside for a cigarette in the wind and sun. I dodged hippies and went for a drink in the airport bar to decompress. I admired a young 20-something blonde in the shortest and tightest black dress I’ve ever seen. Then I left and got into a cab.

I arrived at the taco shack/bar where Kim and Dan were waiting. Kim was at the bar. We hugged. I bought a margarita on her tab and went out to the back patio to say hello to Dan and sit in the sun. I put on sunblock. We talked about their drive down from Tulsa, the famous Italian place in the middle of nowhere with the best mozzarella they’d had since New York. They made fun of me for having a drink at the airport bar before coming to visit them at Rio Rita, and I let them. Maura came. 4:00 PM arrived. Our rental house was now open for business.

We packed our shit in Kim’s BMW and drove.

Wilson and No Outlet. At the end of a cul de sac, our place didn’t have proper signage, but I guess that’s what Google Maps is for. We arrived to a gravel driveway, a hammock in the frontyard, a truly epic tree spidering out over the entire property. A firepit. Lounge chairs. A mid-century one-story with an open floor plan and a retro 1950′s refrigerator in the kitchen. Shitty water pressure in the kitchen sink. Labels on every cabinet — “Plates,” “Glasses,” “Picnic Supplies,” “Spices.” The spices were simply salt and pepper, maybe some paprika, but the rental was the kind of place where you inherited whatever the previous occupants had left behind, and since the previous occupants were SXSW’ers, there was plenty of beer in the fridge. We chose our rooms. Maura got the master bedroom with the private bathroom, since she was the only woman staying with us. Jason, Dan, and I didn’t give a fuck, so I took the room in the back, since it was close to the backdoor, I wake up early, and I like to smoke a cigarette first thing.

We ordered $247 worth of fried chicken and sides from Lucy’s and held a party for all of our favorite librarians. This was ER&L, and since we all stay in hotels so much, we figured we’d change it up a bit. There was a fire pit. There were all the hot shit librarians in the academic world there. There was leftover whiskey and dozens and dozens and dozens of Lone Stars and Shiner Bocks, platters of fried chicken gizzards and livers, collared greens, potato salad, mac ‘n cheese, salad, ribs. The whole night, our librarian contingent worried that they’d smell like a campfire the next day.

“Just send your clothes down to the lobby of your hotel and have them wash them for you,” we said. We had a washer and dryer in the house.

Which they probably did, but Emily texted me the next day to report that her glasses still smelled like campfire.

***

ER&L, for a publisher (especially one based in NY), is the ultimate conference, even if it rings a bit false at times. On the one hand, all of the important people in academic libraries are there; on the other, like any conference, it can read like just so many TED talks, which is why I didn’t even bother to register. Most importantly, though, is that you get to escape from NY and go to Austin in the middle of the worst winter ever. My goal: meet some customers in the courtyard of the conference center, listen to them, take some notes, try and figure out what’s going on, and go from there. I’m in sales. I pitched precisely one school. The rest of them? Fuck it. I was telling a friend of mine earlier that there are two kinds of effective salespeople.

  • Those with common sense, empathy, and street smarts; AND
  • Those who are borderline sociopaths

I’m of the former camp.

Librarians don’t like being “sold to,” and they don’t like pushy people, and they really just want to talk to you about what’s going on, and ultimately I consider myself a good listener. And since I don’t give a fuck about my company or my job anymore, since my boss is very much of the latter camp and virtually impossible to work for (I’ll be gone by December), I’m basically just there to hang out and meet people.

There’s that Radiohead documentary: Meeting People is Easy. Which is supposed to be a joke, or a Deeply Critical Statement About The Disassociation Inherent In Modern Capitalist Society, but really it is. Just say, Hi, I wanna meet you. Don’t be a dick, and learn how to take no for an answer and move on.

Pretty simple.

I had three meetings the first day of the conference. No idea what we talked about. I didn’t try to negotiate or sell anything at all. I’ve made some of my best sales that way. I once spent two hours talking with a librarian about how shitty it was that the school she worked for was investing in a new stadium of some sort instead of fixing the shoddy construction at the main library. That’s it. Two months later, she called me up and spent an ungodly amount of money with me.

The lesson, contra Glengarry Glen Ross: Fuck ABC. Fuck “Always Be Closing.” The lesson is, “Don’t be a dick, understand that your clients are people. Fuck the sale. It will come if it needs to.”

I should write a self-help book.

***

Sian and I met up Monday afternoon and my heart ached and I let her talk about her work and her things while mostly keeping quiet, because that’s simply always the way our relationship has worked. Partially because we’ve always been so on-again, off-again, only to be interrupted by a long stretch of off-again while we both fell in love with other people. I remember her once saying, last January as we sat in my living room, that she didn’t know if I could ever be silly with her, and I just didn’t know how to respond. I haven’t since. Because of course like any human being, I’m a fucking goofball once you get to know me. And perhaps this barb has been one I’ve never been willing to pull, like one of those fish you throw back because the hook is too deep and you’re tired of trying to pull it out.

We went on a bike ride on the ridiculous cruisers at my rental, and when we got back and she laid in the hammock and called a taxi to go back to the conference center, I couldn’t tell if it was an invitation for me to join or if she was just enjoying lovely, lovely Austin. And so I stood around somewhat awkwardly and when the taxi came I went with her to the conference, and I couldn’t tell if we were flirting or not, but because she has a boyfriend and I’m one of those assholes who doesn’t fuck with another dude’s relationships, I said, “See ya later,” and then didn’t see her at all again. She didn’t ask about Francesca and I didn’t ask about Bill. We kept it chaste and platonic. And that was probably the right move. Or maybe it wasn’t.

***

Emily and I spent Tuesday afternoon eating pizza and taking silly pictures. I commandeered the Scientology booth near UT for a photo-op, and Emily told me some crazy stories about a person we both know and I said, “Run like hell.” But I’m worried about her. I really am. Because no matter how much I care for her, I think the person we both know is a sociopath, and though I’ve never dealt with that in a personal relationship, I think I can recognize the behavior when I see it.

I told her to come by the house later on to watch True Detective and eat leftover Lucy’s. I think she went out and partied instead. I hope she’s all right, even though I know that she’s much, much stronger than I am.

Father’s Day (Or, Fly Fishing in Maine)

This is a post I composed for another website back when I did that sort of thing. For some reason, I’ve had my Dad in my head a lot lately, and I dunno. Maybe since I’ve already written the best shit I ever could about him, I thought it was worth sharing here. Maybe because this time of year is when my mother and I were waiting on my sister and brother, desperately, to come home and bear witness three years ago.

I remember the last time his high school buddy Frank saw him alive, enfeebled and incoherent, when Frank said goodbye and he just said, “Frank. Frank.” And he smiled. I had to leave the room, I couldn’t stop crying so hard.

So here’s this.

***

“I took up fly fishing when Danny was in Iraq, to keep my mind off of it. It was the only thing I could do to stay focused. You just watch the water all day. Your line. It was the only thing that worked for me when Danny was in Iraq.” Dave is Dan’s father and he is seated to my left. Dan is seated to my right. We’re in Dave’s elevated 2002 Dodge Ram pickup and I’m riding bitch, awkwardly adjusting my legs whenever we need to downshift. We’re driving to northwestern Maine. Dave is telling me how he began fly fishing.

Dave is about six foot even, 275 pounds. Bald, he wears a baseball cap most of the time. Far-sighted, his glasses fog up when he fishes in the rain, but he can’t tie his flies (flies being the fly fishing equivalent of regular old fishing lures) as well with contact lenses on as he can with glasses. As life is a constant compromise, he chooses to wear glasses the morning we go out to Magalloway River, betting on the high pressure system moving into the region. That morning it rains, hard, for several hours. We all get soaked. We all hike about on the banks of the muddy Magalloway wondering exactly how we got ourselves into this situation in the first place, and when the sun comes out (finally) we rejoice until we don’t, and when we don’t it’s because it’s raining again. Because it rains and rains and rains on the Magalloway over Father’s Day weekend — at least, it does on Saturday morning.

But in the end the sun comes out. You can watch the sunset over Rangeley Lake. It’s pretty.

***

The moose we eventually see is a yearling, but we have to admit that we were grimly hopeful that the ambulance we saw turn around and flash its lights was responding to a moose-automobile accident. It is not. We never figure out what the ambulance was for. Anyway, “Watch out for moose,” Dave says. He’s been saying it all weekend. I’ve never seen a moose in the wild. I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen a moose. Jesus Christ, how can I not have ever seen a moose? I must have seen a moose. Maybe I have seen one, after all.

I realize that I’m at the age where I can’t be sure about things in my memory anymore, and it worries me, because that means I’m dying. Which of course you can only do while you’re still alive.

***

“So your dad died, huh?” Dave says. We’re alone. Dan was inspired to fish our campground’s lake during a lull in the wind. Dave and I are barbecuing asparagus and carrots in steak juice and butter. They will be delicious.

“Yeah,” I say, cheerily. I’d made a toast to my Dad the previous night, in the context of a long and drunken conversation about God and the age of Planet Earth (Dave says 6,000 years, I say 5 billion-ish; he’s a card-carrying member of the Christian Right, and he’s pretty cool). I’d said, “I actually am more religious now than I’ve been since I was a child, because I want to believe. I want for there to be a heaven, where my Dad is happy and looking over us and saying hello in sunsets and shit. But I’m also shitfaced, and honest enough to admit that committing to that isn’t something that jives with the rest of my worldview. But, fuck that, I’m drunk. My point is, I have become slightly more religious lately, because I’ve never wanted that before, but I kinda do now? I don’t know, man.  I’ve never just fucking longedto say hello to someone again,” — and this is the part where you, or I, tear up, and STOP, goddamnit, because we are men and there is a campfire and you are never going to see anyone who’s gone ever again — “And, fuck it. Fuck it, you know? I’d just like to say that my old man was a great man, and I miss him, and I always will, and that’s that, and cheers.”

And we have a cheers all around, and I look hard into the fire, because it’s the only way I can avoid breaking down.

***

Sunday morning. Today. Androscoggin River. 30 minutes up an old logging road, over a bridge with no railings, spindly, spiny, foresty Maine all around us, wind ripping like caterpillars if caterpillars ripped, which they don’t. Dave stays in the truck while Dan and I wade down the river. I bring three beers, even though we begin at 8:00 in the morning, because fuck-it-I’m-on-vacation-and-I’m-fucking-fishing-and-I-want-to-nap-on-the-ride-home, that’s why. I practice my roll cast. It’s getting pretty good after three days, but I still don’t know how to tie a knot worth shit, and ultimately this will be the difference between adoptees of fly fishing and rejectors: this tolerance for knot-tying. I can’t really get with it. But I do like to stand in the water and wish for fish.

“Your main problem,” Dan says, “is that you don’t know when you’ve got a catch,” which is undoubtedly true. I can’t tell the difference between a genuine bite and the motion of the line in an eddy, or down a rapid, or stuck on a rock. I can’t snag the bites I get if I don’t know they’re bites, which makes catching the fish my flies are tempting a bit more difficult. “Yep,” I reply. “I can’t.”

“Let’s get going.”

We go.  Along the way I snag my first fish of the weekend, an eight-inch landlocked salmon, accidentally. I go to reel my line in and notice a pull, and I say to Dan, “I’ve got one!” and he says, “Bring it to shore. Rod up!”And when I pull it off the hook, the salmon wiggling and striving for something not made-up, I say to myself and no one else, “Hey, Dad.” And the fish stops wriggling because it’s out of oxygen, and I pull it off the hook and coax it back to life under water, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t just splash its way out of sight against a backdrop of mountaintops and swamp grass and dangerous bridges. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t disappear down the river, never to be seen or heard from again.

I’ll be damned, old man.

The knife, the alarm

I have a knife that Johnnie traded to me for something or other when I worked on a pot farm in Northern California. Maybe it was dinner or something else I didn’t want, like more pot. But this knife is now cradled on my bookshelf, and this knife is primarily now deployed, contra its original purpose, to stop my fire alarm, or carbon monoxide alarm, or whatever the fuck alarm from chirping on a regular basis. This knife now stands as a testament to what I’ve allowed myself to become in the past four years — which is simply a yuppie, a person who has sacrificed his soul for a wage, for the hope that he’ll be able to support his mother when the time comes.

Filial obligations are a hell of a thing.

But this knife, and Johnnie — we spent an evening or two in Willits, California in a motel, eating sandwiches from the organic grocery and drinking and trying to figure out what to do next. There was a woman named Bob, who I helped set up a tent in the middle of the woods, because I didn’t want her to suffer and didn’t have the authority to bring back to the hill. At the time I had around two thousand dollars in the pocket of my coat, and when I was waiting for a ride — before we set up her tent and all that — I went to the bathroom of the only restaurant in town of note, and came back out hurriedly, worried that she might have run off with my money. Honestly, she was shady as shit, and I think if I’d given her two more minutes, she would have.

But I helped her set up her tent anyway.

Johnnie probably stole a thousand or dollars worth of weed from me, and I was frankly fine with that at the time. Still am. Johnnie is now a father, according to his Facebook updates. I wish him all the best. I sometimes wonder what happened to Bob after we left her in the woods with the deer and the paranoiacs who comprise the California marijuana growing squad.

But this knife.

This knife is not a Chekhov knife. My alarm beeps and I stand on the amplifier my father bought for me when I was 14 or so and hit the little reset button to make it stop. And the alarm has only been sounding for the past couple of months. And it’s fucking symbolic, I tell you. It’s symbolic of things that wake you up in the middle of the night, things that maybe you haven’t paid enough attention to.

It’s fucking annoying. And if anyone knows how to make it stop without ripping it out of my ceiling, I’m all ears.

I’m going to be honest: I’m the kind of person who looks for symbolism in everything. It’s just the way that I was built. I used to, when I was sober, spend a good couple of minutes everyday talking to myself in the mirror and telling myself what my fundamental values were. Like, simple things. Things like, “You are kind to people, and it’s good, and you should continue to be so.” My friend Ben, when I told him this yesterday, when I told him that I had had this ritual, told me I was a character out of a movie. Which maybe I am. Maybe I strive to be dramatic. Maybe that’s my fundamental problem. Maybe in the end I simply want to be seen as a beautiful mistake. And if that’s the case then it’s time to get working on the beauty part.

The knife, the alarm — it’s bullshit. I should just rip the alarm out of the ceiling. I should stop pretending that I’m a contractor and that the knife serves any purpose other than reminding me of who I once was. But who I once was is important. Who I once was was a person who was infinitely adaptable, who could paint walls or hang sheetrock or knock on doors for causes or run businesses or trim pot or trade knives with people in Northern California, when the weather had turned and the clouds had decided to hover, when the Lost Coast had decided to get a little bit more lost.

Johnnie and I moved my tent when it flooded. I don’t have a tent now, but I’m drowning. Northern California is a place. A knife is a knife. I never want to go back there.

There are dreams

The real trouble is the dreams.

On my wall is a poster from a friend’s show from September 21, the first day of the Fall, when I asked her to marry me and she said yes. It was raining. I had us on the guest list but the friend’s band was blowing up and Havemeyer Park was at or above capacity. I eventually convinced someone at the gate that I was a reporter and we got in and I moshed and the skies opened up and the show was over and we went and had dinner and I proposed in a shuttered doorway with no ring, very drunk, and upon asking for a random passerby’s blessing. She said yes, though. And then I asked her what kind of stones she liked and she said sapphire, and then I don’t know, maybe we went to her place or maybe we went to mine. We probably fucked. I woke up the next morning hungover and happy.

But shit happens.

Shit happens and eventually one day after you realize that it has, and she has said, “I love you” as she walks out the door, and you’ve said, “Don’t say that,” that might be it. Or you might watch her from your window with tears streaming down your face as she walks away from your apartment building forever. That might happen; that might be it. And you might get a serious case of the Fuck Its after that. But you might have to keep going anyway.

On my wall is a painting by the first woman I thought I was going to marry. On my wall is an elk antler, a gift from another one. I am a serial hopeless romantic with vague ambitions to settle down. Eventually I’ve become friends with all of my exes. My therapist doesn’t know why I bother. I say, “If I’ve spent that much time with a person, I think it’s worth preserving the relationship.”

He kind of smiles at this.

One day a couple of weeks after she’s walked out on you, when you’re feeling better even though you’re feeling worse, you might go out with some colleagues after work and see her at a bar that maybe she introduced you to, and maybe Jesus Christ a bit as she leaves, just mouth agape, like, “How? How did this happen?” Maybe that will ruin your evening. And then maybe you’ll go travel for the better part of a month because your job is a fucking free-for-all and you just can. And maybe during that month you’ll fuck random women and tell someone else you love her and basically act out and do everything in your capacity to escape. And maybe you won’t know what you’re escaping. In all likelihood, you’ll acknowledge from the get-go that you’re not escaping anything, and that the task you’ve assigned yourself is simply a doomed attempt to forget. What you won’t necessarily realize before you go is that airports are terrible places to forget — that they’re memory machines for the depressed and discombobulated, reminders that no matter how far you’ve come, you still have to go home and face the music eventually.

And what you won’t necessarily realize is that your dreams will get in the way, anyway.

When my father died, I dreamt about his life for months and months and months. In these dreams I always, subconsciously, understood that he was still burned and scattered, but he would tell me things, things that gave me hope, things that reminded me of who I was, who he was, what it meant to have lineage, life, meaning as we all slowly burn.

He told me to quit smoking. I haven’t quit smoking. And as time passed, he stopped appearing altogether. I used to call his cell phone to hear his voice mail message. The last time I tried, it was disconnected. That’s why it was the last time.

Francesca and I sat on a patio on her birthday in September and cried about our dead parents. It was something that brought us together, in a way. Her mother died a few days before 9/11. Until you’ve seen a parent die, you cannot possibly understand the weight and weightlessness of the event. Rudderless and heavy, swimming with barbells. We knew that together. It was both what made us work and what drove us apart. Because broken people cannot hold one another up, no matter how much they can relate. And there is no doubt that we were both broken. We met each other at a bar when I was sober. We met each other again six months later at a bar when I was sober. And then I stopped being sober. And then we fell in love. And there’s no way you can fall in love with a son of a bitch like me unless you are broken.

But there are the dreams, and even if they’re fewer and further between now, they still come at me like jellyfish, stinging just when I feel like I have enough air to float. Because all of a sudden there she is, or there we are, eating burritos and touching one another’s thighs, flirting in the candlelight. And then I wake up to New York or Denver or Portland or Vancouver or Omaha, and maybe there’s someone who I don’t particularly care about next to me, or maybe (more likely) I’m alone and trying to remember where I am and what the point is if all you get in the end is oblivion anyway.

The dreams will go away. If there’s anything my father taught me, it’s that. But it’s also that you don’t have a choice about whether you want them to or not. You don’t get to decide with grief. All you get to do is choose what to think about. And one day, you’ll decide that even if it’s never over, it is for now.

Aside

My grandmother was a very bad driver, a fact that I didn’t realize until she was almost dead. But she was. So when Laura, my boss, tells me that she drives like a little old lady, I picture Gram behind the steering wheel of her little white 80′s Chrysler sedan, taking my brother and sister and me home from some sort of thing that she was doing — boiling us hot dogs and burning brownies, or letting us squash 2222red mites on my dad’s old boat while she chain-smoked in the living room, or watching us climb up the hill in her backyard and roll down it, or something (it’s always summer in these memories — we sledded down that hill, too) — and nearly killing us as she swerved across the double-yellow lines into oncoming traffic. She died on Mother’s Day, in 2003, of natural causes.

But my boss doesn’t actually drive like a little old lady. Little old ladies, at least in my experience, combine their slowness with recklessness. My boss drives slowly, but the similarity ends there. She drives like someone who is 38 and has only had her license for three years. As in her work life, she is nervously vigilant behind the wheel. As with her managerial style, she doesn’t know when to chill the fuck out and steer for the sunset.

***

In Portland it snowed for several days. On the first day, Josh and I drove Krystie to the MAX station, so that she could get back to her hotel near the airport, from which her rescheduled flight would depart the next morning at 6 AM. Josh said, as we pulled a U-turn in a parking lot, “For a person from the city, she seems a little bit skittish about public transportation.” We both laughed. Krystie is a colleague in marketing and was along for the mostly-foiled-by-weather Oregon trip to hit some of her own performance targets, to prove ROI to our new board for the marketing department. Or some shit like that. Krystie is 27, just got engaged, a librarian, and excited to be alive. The whole way to the station, she was worried about everything.

Josh and I, on the other hand, knew that Portland doesn’t just give you a snowstorm everyday.

“Look,” I said, “just take the train and it’ll be fine. Call me if it doesn’t work out and we’ll pick you up on the side of the highway.”

Krystie laughed nervously. We had spent the morning in a coffee shop — me responding to email, her calling our travel agent, various airlines, hotels, etc, trying to get back to New York before the world ended and Portland shut down. I had nowhere in particular to be, except for a couch in southeast Portland for the weekend. As long as the corner store remained open, I was pretty much okay. But even six months into her job, Krystie doesn’t know the primary rule about travel, which is that even if you don’t have the best laid plans, it will probably be okay.

I texted her later, from the restaurant that Josh, Neil, and I had cross-country skied to for dinner, to make sure that she was all right.

“I’m here at last, it’s crazy out there,” she said.

“Yikes. Sorry it took so long!”

“I have my Wendy’s I’m great.”

***

The snow in Portland eventually turned to freezing rain and coated everything with ice, including the snow on which it formed. The city was shut down. Krystie was right to get her Wendy’s and get out of dodge when she did. But I still had my friends’ couch and a weekend to wait it out. An unlimited expense account. The “indoor gun,” with which to shoot empty beer cans set atop the armoire while listening to Abbey Road and vaguely watching the Olympics. I still had Carla, Neil’s dog, who is afraid of life almost as much as I am.

The night after Snowpocalypse became Icepocalpyse, I woke up at 5:00 AM and went outside to piss and smoke a cigarette. At 165 pounds, I could almost walk on the surface without breaking through. Trevor texted me a couple of weeks later:

“You remember that K2 game we used to play on the hill across from your house? The snow right now is freakin perfect for it — ice crust and everything. If only my damn yard wasn’t flat.”

As a matter of keeping the record straight, we only really had the chance to play K2 maybe two, three days in our lives before the conditions were lost to us forever. It really was the best game, though. Here’s how it went.

  1. Watch a hit 90′s movie about people climbing K2, the second highest mountain in the Himalaya and, ergo, the world
  2. Have an Icepocalypse in Massachusetts shortly thereafter
  3. Gather friends to slide down tiny hill atop the ice during Icepocalypse
  4. Pretend you are really on a mountainside and desperately need to save one another from sliding into a crevasse or some such
  5. Punch holes into ice upon which you are sliding in order to have a foot- or handhold from which to grab your prepubescent friends and “save” them as they slide into the imaginary crevasse.
  6. Rinse and repeat until you’ve all died a million deaths and saved a million lives, or until the ice has melted.

Whichever comes first.

And Trevor lives in Connecticut, and sure it was Arctic Vortex month, but the fact that these conditions had manifested themselves on both coasts pretty much simultaneously (in the grand scheme of climate-type-things, of course), in Oregon and New England, and that we’d both remembered that goddamn K2 game when they did… I dunno. It wasn’t even nostalgia. It was just an appreciation of what life used to be about. Because life used to be about simplicity. And now, in the pursuit of that simplicity, we simply make it all that much more complicated.

When it isn’t. Life’s really just about saving each other. And childhood is just about practicing that skill.

***

Dave is my boss. Or rather, my boss’s boss. We’re in Denver, Colorado. Dave and I are eating dinner. Dave is asking me if the fact that we just lost two sales reps responsible for millions in revenue is indicative of a broader morale problem in the company. I resist the urge to tell him that the real problem with the company is that “Do More With Less” is a fucking bullet-point in the ToC of the Official Management Document of two weeks ago, that the morale problem stems from the fact that this is now officially enshrined in company policy. I do tell him that I think the phrase is an “insidious piece of shit phrase.” He agrees. Thing is, I believe him. Thing is, I also know he’ll do his job.

Dave and I are walking down the street from a restaurant to a strip club with a woman Dave convinces to show us her tits. I don’t understand what’s happening. but you can smoke in the strip club, so that’s a thing. The woman who brought us there goes and gets a lap dance. Dave leaves. I finish my cigarette and leave, too.

She had seated herself next to Dave during our dinner, and probably done the most obvious “I’m in the mood, fellas” schtick I’ve ever seen. At one point, the other woman, seated to my right and an ex-con, brought back a hick who I had argued with earlier about the stool I was saving for my boss. It was odd and it had almost come to theoretical blows, except you could tell the 60-something pretty-overweight dude from Oklahoma named Pat didn’t really want to fight me. Later, he would call us “faggots” to the woman we were at the bar with. She would tell us a few minutes after he left, and we would be like, “That’s weird.” And maybe that would kind of just be all of Colorado.

***