Kamping on Asphalt: Lost and Found

Unlike the first chapter, most of my writer friends have rather liked this chapter. And this chapter is the core of the book. The funny thing is that I had no idea at the time. It’s funny how characters take on a life of their own. I certainly did not feel like I was in control while writing this book. Up until I was halfway through the book, I didn’t imagine it having a plot. I was thinking something more like Cannery Row where it was just a bunch of loosely linked vignettes. It was only later when the major arc of the novel became clear to me. Anyway, he’s chapter two.

Chapter 2: Lost and Found

It’s not that Lenny didn’t like animals — quite the contrary, in fact. But they terrified him like so much else in life. He was quite beside himself at the moment. Two months ago, renting this converted trailer on seven acres in the rural hills of southern Washington seemed a brilliant idea — local internet access and no one to bother him. He remembered reading, as a boy, that man was a social animal. But he didn’t know what it meant until a month’s isolation — often due to road closures — taught him. From then he spent almost each night with Andrea — but not this night.

He drove down his long steep gravel driveway up to his front door. As his headlights curved along the front of the trailer addition he became increasingly aware of an animal standing as though guarding his entry.

Nothing new here! Some wild animal was always disrupting his home from the constant mouse assault to his constant fear of being attacked by a cougar while putting out the garbage even though he always did so during daylight and he was pretty sure cougars were nocturnal hunters. He had previously been kept from his front door by a raccoon mother and her three cubs — but this was in downtown Portland.

And then there was the robin incident. He had been over at his best friends’ Bill and Andrea — a married couple with recent hopes of having a child — on the verge of “settling down.” After the end of Portland’s NBA Championship hopes, Andrea — a mischievous pixie at times — had made that suggestion that always sounds better before than after: “You guys want to do some acid?” A old college friend had sent them some and it had been sitting in the refrigerator. It was certainly a way to perk up a fading evening. Problem was, after the deed was done, Lenny had one of those hindsight realizations which seem so profoundly obvious. Bill and Andrea were close — married and soon there were two parties at the house: the couple in love and Lenny — alienated under the best of circumstances. The night dragged on like prison with Lenny wishing for anything as diverting as sleep.

With the break of dawn, he dressed warmly and braved the crisp April air — intent on a walk or anything to kill a bit more time — each second bringing sanity one step closer. Physical step — metaphorical step. Lenny liked that idea as he past house after house in this suburban subdivision. Soon he was on Market, a big street by local standards. No one was awake — it was that time of morning when the birds start to rustle and sing — that time when even a committed indoorsman like Lenny could muster an unaffected love of nature.

Down the road he stopped into a 7-11. He looked through the pre-made burgers and hot dogs. Acid always reminded Lenny just how thin and frail he was. But each item looked so old, dried, plastic. He got instead a Martinelli’s apple juice — the kind that comes in an apple shaped body. He figured if he couldn’t drink it — and consuming food did not sound particularly enjoyable — he could at least look at it.
It occurred to him only then that he had said nothing to his hosts about leaving and that he’d best go back before they had the fire department searching for him. As he wandered down the sidewalk swinging his bag with apply juice, he felt vaguely proud to have accomplished something; a purchase! He looked ahead and this is when he saw the robin.
Some thirty feet ahead, the robin seemed not to notice him — engrossed as it was in extricating something from a crack in the side walk. A few more steps and it stopped and looked at Lenny. He had the uneasy feeling this bird was sizing him up: what a scrawny excuse for a human being. Still, being a hundred times its size, he felt confident he knew how this confrontation would end. With each successive step he felt certain the robin would frighten and fly.
But it did not. It stood motionless as if to say, “keep you distance or I’ll peck you!” Certainly, he had watched The Birds too many times as a child, but Lenny was a man who feared paper edges as much as cougar teeth. Small pains can be torture and he had a certain brilliance for hypochondria. What if that paper had the hepatitis virus on it? What if this robin was rabid?
Several more steps brought him ten feet from this menacing rogue and that was close enough. Still it stared at him — taunting him. But Lenny was not without his whiles. He made a fake lunge for the bird — picturing in his mind revenge for all those years of pain the coyote had suffered at the hands of that other bird. But still the Robin remained still and, he thought, a bit smug.
Lenny looked behind him. The street was still barren. For all he knew this bird was rabid. He swallowed his pride, and walked out into the street — his sight still frozen on this bird. He made a half circle into the street, around the bird, and back to the walkway. The bird had not moved — damnable creature! As he walked away he looked back on the robin who had continued his excavation. If not rabid, its self-confidence must have sky-rocketed, Lenny thought.

His first though was, “cougar!” But further light showed it to be a dark Labrador snarling at him. Had it not been so scrawny, Lenny perhaps would have mistaken it for a wolf. It growled into the headlights.
The dog was hunched over, as if ready to pounce. Its teeth were bared at the headlights flooding the front porch. Lenny did not want to deal with this. He hadn’t been home in a week, preferring each night to snuggle up with Andrea in her warm queen sized eight-layer futon in her new apartment in the city.

Eight months earlier, Bill had left her. One morning he gets up, showers, shaves, leaves for work and she never sees him again. A week later she gets a postcard from Idaho — something terse like “I’m alive and I won’t be back.” Lenny had always liked her, like the wives and girlfriends of all his buddies. She was devastated when Bill left and so Lenny spent a lot of time with her, just friends. Then they started sleeping together — it was cold, still just friends. Until one day, not.

Lenny honked the horn of his car in several short bursts to no effect other than the dog trying to pull back without success. That was when the situation became clear. It had a choker chain on — a long one which had become entangled in Lenny’s porch decking. He exited the car cautiously but certain the dog’s entanglement was great enough to eliminate any risk.

He found a shovel at the side yard — forgotten by some past tenant — and approached the dog slowly with the rusted tip wielded four feet ahead of him. The Dog growled and barked, once Lenny was within striking distance. For the first time it seemed more frightened than angry. Not that this did a great deal for Lenny’s anxiety. It’s like the difference between being beaten because someone hates you and for just being in the way — the blood flows the same.

Slowly, gently, he placed the shovel against the chain and pushed hoping to get it to move against the wood planks in which it was stuck. It didn’t move but the pressure caused the growling dog to lunge forward slightly before falling back. Lenny was so afraid he dropped the shovel and fell backwards onto the gravel drive.

“Fuck this,” he thought, got back in his car and drove away down the mountain and back to Portland — not immune to animal problems but more immune. He drove the twenty-five plus miles back to Portland’s east side — to Sabrina’s Tavern, a strip club where Andrea tended bar. After Bill left, she quit her job working for the state testing babies for chlamydia for this job which paid twice as much.

Barry, the young doorman of the place let him in for free ostensibly because he was Andrea’s friend but also, he thought, because of his behavior. The naked women seemed more to embarrass him than anything. But even still, he noticed and even had his favorites. Like Leanne, on stage topless and swinging around the pole to Disco Inferno, always intrigued him. She was slim, even skinny, with small breasts. Lenny thought they were perfect. Most of the regulars like the girls with the big tits but to Lenny they always looked deformed.

“Lenny!” Andrea yelled as she saw him squeeze up to the bar. “What can I get you?” It was always the same these days, at least when limited to beer: McTarnahan’s. He watched her as she filled his order. He loved her, he thought — more than she loved him, if she even loved him. She didn’t quite have Leanne’s body, but she was close enough. Plus she was intelligent, well-read, witty, and playful. Leanne was just a neo-hippie and Lenny had no patience for the original model hippies; the new ones were just as bad, only stupider. He knew Andrea liked him — a lot — she even liked fucking him but her heart was still Bill’s.

When she came back with the pint she could tell all was not well. “What’s up?”

“I was not meant to live in the country.”

“It’s not like you do,” she said implying that he lived with her.

“Maybe we should formalize it?”

“You mean you move in?” He nodded. “Let me think about it.” She wrinkled her nose up for a second before bursting into a smile. “Okay!”

This thought cheered him and he stayed the evening, closing out the bar and driving Andrea home — only occasionally thinking of the dog.

The next morning he was back with it — snarling. As he stood beside his car looking at the dog, he knew he couldn’t do it alone. The dog was thin. He hadn’t been home for a week so it could have been there for days. He decided to talk to his near-by neighbors — perhaps one had lost a dog recently?
Nobody had, but most had heard a dog barking the last three days. His closest neighbor was an old toy maker who actually lived behind Lenny. He walked down the long steep but straight dirt roadway to his cottage in the woods. As soon as they could see him, Jim’s Dobermans went wild but Lenny knew from experience the dogs were chained — on purpose. Jim was in the yard, bending and flexing an iron rooster mobile.

“You got some dog food I can have, Jim.”

“Why? You hungry?”

Lenny explained the problem, hoping and hoping Jim would offer to help — anything so he didn’t have to face that dog. But minutes later he found himself alone with a frying pan full of dried dog food. On reaching his trailer, the dog seemed more used to him — growling less but maybe just out of exhaustion. He slid the old pan gingerly under the dog’s head. It began gobbling down the dried food with a gusto Lenny had never seen. He backed up and leaned against the front bumper of his car — enjoying the site.

Slowly, the dog’s tail began to twitch and finally wag. It seemed they were now friends though the feast continued. Lenny had often thought about that wagging tale and a dog’s almost complete inability to hide its glee. If humans did so would it make their relations easier or harder? He wondered.
Deciding to take a chance, he approached the dog. It hardly seemed to notice — intent on the food as it was. Around its neck he found a license, “Lucky.” An omen, perhaps. Now he got down to the stuck problem which was particularly easy just now since Lucky’s head was bent down. The chain had fallen between two planks of redwood but unlike how it previously appeared, the chain itself was not stuck — it moved easily up and down through the crack between the boards. The problem was the large attaching ring at the end — it was turned perpendicular to the slit not allowing the chain’s removal. “The joys of an opposable thumb,” he thought as he twisted the chain and removed it easily.

He allowed Lucky to continue to eat as he went inside to get something with which to tie her. His answering machine was blinking which was a surprise given everyone knew he was never there. He hit the playback and listened as he searched the kitchen doors for some kind of rope-like substance. The machine ended its whirling suddenly, beeped three times and began.

“Hey bud, it’s Bill — a blast from your past. I’ve moved back to town but I’m just staying at this KOA right now. I’d love to see you — catch up — find out what’s happening with Andrea. I’m kind of scared to call her. Anyway bud, stop by if you can.”

What a nightmare, he thought. In the bottom drawer, he found some clothes wire though he couldn’t imagine why he had any. Outside, Lucky was just finishing up so he tied her chain to the cord so she didn’t run off. He filled the pan with water but she lapped at it only a couple of times — if it hadn’t been raining she probably would have been long dead.

He could have just let her go but he had an odd curiosity from whence she had come. And now that she was freed, she seemed to have a profound wish to show him. She dragged him — a mile down his main road. And then perhaps up a half mile past three houses to a kind of rural cul-de-sac crowned with what was once a small house now burned to the ground save for a lone charred beam in the middle.

“Come on girl,” Lenny called to her. “I’m not done with you yet.”

Lenny did not like to put off unpleasant chores so he loaded Lucky into the passenger side of his Opel GT and headed for the KOA. He thought about calling Andrea and feeling her out on the subject. But what could she say — he knew her feelings for Bill: she had been unable to file any divorce papers, for example. But Bill’s feelings were unclear, though Lenny couldn’t think of any other reason he’d be back in town other than to rekindle their past relationship.

Pulling into the KOA parking lot, Lenny’s heart descended into his middle stomach. Lucky sat beside him wagging her tail — just happy to be out. He pulled next to Andrea’s green Honda. “I guess he changed his mind about calling her,” he thought aloud. He fought the impulse to just back out and go back home — to his old home. But he had to know; he couldn’t be left speculating. He let Lucky out and grabbed her leash.

They walked across the lot half shaded by ten mature walnut trees past the clubhouse into the resident area peppered with RVs and the occasional car. Lucky wagged and shimmied — quality time with her new best friend. Across the lot he could see Bill’s old red Toyota truck. It looked shut up — maybe they were at the clubhouse or the Lyon’s restaurant across the road.

He approached the truck slowly though Lucky seemed to want to run. Before long, he could see two figures in the front seat, their heads enmeshed in passion. He couldn’t make out their faces but his memory was clear enough. He turned and headed back.

“Hey mister!” a voice yelled from behind. He turned to look and saw a five year old girl, Becky, running toward him. “Is that your dog?”
He looked down and smiled, “Yeah. I guess it is.”

“Can I pet him?”

“Her,” he corrected. “Sure.”

She knelt and petted Lucky in long gentle strokes down her back. Lucky looked up with her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth, smiling at him.

Lenny smiled back.

Morning Music: White and Nerdy

Straight Outta Lynwood - Weird Al Yankovic - White and NerdyIf you have to listen to a white person rap, it is probably best that it be Weird Al Yankovic on “White and Nerdy.” It’s very good. It cuts a bit to close to the bone for me. But it also suffers from the same problem that The Big Bang Theory does. Every white and nerdy guy is white and nerdy in his own way.

I think that we were all a lot more alike in high school. Yes: we all played D&D, for example. But you can’t be ostentatiously nerdy without realizing that you can’t be ostentatiously nerdy when you are like all the other ostentatiously nerdy guys.

Or maybe that’s just me. After all, I’ve always hung out more with the theater and literary crowd than the science geeks. It’s just that within the the theater and literary crowd, I am the science geek. In general, I find the science geeks really boring. (Doesn’t speak well of what the theater and literary crowd thinks of me, does it?!)

But the video displays very well what I think of as the defining characteristic of a nerd: being oblivious about just how uncool you are. The irony is that what is cool is defined by the nerds. Because things that are uncool today will be cool tomorrow. “Cool” is a loser’s game played by boring people. What’s ultimately interesting in a human being is their self-assurance and belief in their own tastes.

Is that Key and Peele at the beginning of the “White and Nerdy” video?

Anniversary Post: Slave Trade Act of 1807

William Wilberforce - Slave Trade Act of 1807On this day in 1807, the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Slave Trade Act — pushed most notably by William Wilberforce. It outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire. But it was just part of the process of ending slavery. Slavery itself wouldn’t be outlawed until 1833. But slavery in England itself had been illegal since 1772 with the decision in Somerset v Stewart.

Now the timing of that last one is quite interesting. This had an impact on the American Revolutionary War. It is discussed in Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen. Somerset v Stewart was extremely well reported on here in the colonies. And slave owners could see the writing on the wall. We can’t say how big a factor there was with regard to this, but it was certainly a force pushing for the war.

In the musical 1776, the biggest part of the drama circles around the southern states walking out because of an anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence. But we don’t actually know what was said because the secretary of the Second Continental Congress thought it unimportant to write it down. In the movie, the discussion is all about how the south would not accept independence if it meant losing their slaves. But I have a hard time believing that people were not making rather the opposite argument, “We are in favor of independence because of the threat to our peculiar institution; why would we sign a document that threatens it?!”

Political progress is always made slowly — step by tiny step. There are broader features of it, however. Slavery was going to end. America bought itself 30 years of slavery with the Revolutionary War. And I can’t say it bought much more. Democracy was in the air. It’s hard to say that progress has been made more quickly in the United States. In fact, it seems rather the opposite. And here we are in America fighting over economic issues that were considered settled in the 1950s.

But we continue on. And this was an important day for humanity in 1807.