Kamping on Asphalt: Not Nearly Enough

After so much implied drug use, the novel finally comes right out with it. These two character have been secondary in the first and third chapters. These two are also the primary characters in my follow-up unfinished novel. But in that one, I kill off Rachel on the first page. So the whole novel is about why that happened. That novel is totally different. It’s told in the first person by Jason. I have to admit that one of the problems with this novel was falling in love with these characters. They were so much fun to write for. Actually, writing this whole novel was fun. I learned a lot.

Chapter 4: Not Nearly Enough

On the 15th of each month, Rachel stood in line at the prescription counter of the Walgreen’s on 15th and Martin for their monthly supply of morphine. Today was the first, so it was Jason who stood in line, and at the Rite Aide on Division. It was all part of a little scan that David, the junkie doctor, had going. Jason and Rachel were supposedly AIDS patients of Dr. D who, along with some usual AIDS meds, received injectable morphine. So on the 1st and the 15th of each month, Rachel and Jason scored their legal opiates and went to David’s for a night, or two, of frivolity.

They previously had been living out of Jason’s Peugeot, 1989 505 DX. But times had gotten hard, or maybe they just got lazy. They had no money and they were going to be sick. Rachel’s skin had already begun to crawl and Jason had only ever kicked in jail, it was almost a point of honor with him. The beginning of a kick always makes a junkie more creative. Jason and Rachel hit upon a great idea: sell the car, buy a tent, and use the rest for dope. They only used the car to live in at the KOA anyway. Of course, the dope only lasted a week, but it was nice, like being on vacation. And then it was back to work.

This morning, waking from a fine night’s nod in their tent discreetly pitched behind a thicket of shrubs and a row of oaks in the field adjacent to the KOA, the couple found they had been robbed. Making matters worse, it was probably a “friend” who absconded with their cash, drugs, flashlight, and Jason’s unregistered Browning High Powered.

Truly, any other day they would have hustled, sold the tent maybe. But this was the 1st, vacation from their high pressure, busy life. So they walked to Ernie’s bar four blocks away because at the back next to the sagging plywood bathroom doors was a callback phone–a payphone that would accept incoming calls. They used it almost daily to contact Jorge and “the boys” but today it was to alert Dr. D to their medical emergency.

He was quick to call back, recognizing the number. Rachel answered. “What’s up” he queried, “is something wrong?”

“Broke, sick, didn’t think you’d want us to show up with the script that way.” They were both on the Oregon Health Plan so money wasn’t the issue.

“You two should plan better,” he sighed with exasperation.

“No!” Rachel protested. “We were ripped off, burgled you might say.”

Dr. D chucked. “Your tend?”

“Yeah. Last night while we were there.”

“Come over to my house and I’ll get you well. About twenty minutes? I don’t have much time.”

They practically sprinted and beat Dr. D by about five minutes. He was the best dealer around. First, he pretty much always gave drugs away. But also he was on time, neurotically so. Sometimes they’d wait an hour, or more, for a dealer in the freezing rain. He let them inside and went down to his basement refrigerator for a small ampule of morphine. Then he ripped open a new package of ten syringes, removed three, and returned upstairs.
He inserted a needle into the ampule and extracted a half cc into the syringe. “Here,” he said, handing it to Rachel. As he prepared the second syringe he added, “I’ll do Jason.”

“What?” Jason protested.

“You have trouble hitting your ass, Jason.”

“He’s right honey, let him hit you.”

David had been a junkie for ten years, shooting up at least twice a day but he had almost no tracks or scars and pretty much all of his veins were usable. He tied off Jason’s right forearm but nothing looked particularly promising. “Let’s try your hand, it doesn’t look that used.”

“No, I try it sometimes, looks like it would be easy, but they roll. I never manage.”

They moved the tie, a hollow yellow cord, to the middle of his forearm. Jason clinched his fist and the veins rose slowly. “There we are,” David said as he pressed various veins looking for the best.

Jason turned his head toward Rachel who was happily nodding on the couch, the empty syringe on the coffee table. She just had better veins. He’d always known he’d had bad veins. David decided upon the metacarpal that runs up the side of the thumb to the first finger. In a few seconds the needle was in, the tie removed, and morphine was coursing through his veins.

He immediately felt better. All the body aches, churning stomach, runny nose: gone. But he didn’t nod. He was high, a little. It felt good. Rachel, on the other hand, was Queen of the Nod. Jason sometimes thought she’d nod after injecting water.

“You kids better?” David asked. Rachel opened her eyes and smiled. “I’ve got to get back to work.” Clearly, David wanted to shoot up alone, the third syringe confirmed that. So they left to take care of their business and to let him take care of his.

*    *    *

Life is harder for the male junkie than the female. People just don’t think of women as junkies, not unless they’re prostitutes. And even for prostitutes, life is easier than the minute by minute existence of the male junkie, unless he’s a pimp.

As Jason approached the pharmacy trying to look gay or dying from ADIS, and not like a junkie, his heart sank. Rite Aide had such a high employee turnover! A new pharmacist and counter woman. It wasn’t that big a deal but they always asked questions, made phone calls.

Soon, Karen, Dr. D’s secretary would get a call. It was usually come pretense at a clarification, so as not to obviously insult the patient. “Did you want 50 mg/ml or 100?” Or the telling, “This is injectable?” The real reason was to check that the script was real and that this tall young man with his Jack Lord haircut was not a junkie. Karen was used to soothing the minds of concerned pharmacists. She was “on board” as David always said–a depressive who was addicted to 50 mg of Valium each day. “100 mg/ml, that’s right. Oh yes, injectable, his stomach is too sensitive for oral.”

But when Jason presented the script, the gray curly-haired woman just smiled and told him it would be about ten minutes if he wanted to have a seat. Rachel was in the parking lot, smoking. He was sure the cigarettes were going to kill her before the heroin. Him, it’d be the cocaine–at least that’s what Rachel was always saying. He could join her for a smoke but better to browse the store, maybe boost something, get a start on tomorrow’s work.

Jason had been to county three times. The first two just for holding after shoplifting. Once the charges were dropped. Next, it was court probation. That was nothing, but he was still on probation when he was picked up for a residential burglary. He got a year for that. But there was no easy way to support his, and Rachel’s habit. It’s not like he could work at Taco Bell, although he did once know a dealer who worked out of a McDonald’s.

Jason was surprised at the products Rite Aide had when he first checked it out. But they had a strict return policy, nothing without a receipt. But Jorge was a veritable clearing house for electronics, a separate business from junk distribution, to his fellow Latinos instead of the almost entirely white clientele for heroin.

He passed down the film aisle, past the photocopy machine and a young female clerk looking through processed film for an edgy mother with a small child. Peering intently at the CD players and boom boxes that lined the wall behind the counter, Jason took a quick look at the clerk, still engrossed. Without looking down, he shot his hand over and behind the counter, grabbing the first small box his hand touched. Still looking at the clerk, he shoved the box, some instant 35 mm camera, under his sweater and half way down his pants.

The clerk turned quickly toward him, but much too late.

“I’ll be with you in a minute,” she said accusingly.

“No problem.” When she had gone back to searching, he went to the pharmacy to pick up his meds. They were ready, crammed into the tiny white Rite Aide bag.

“All I need now is a signature,” the old woman smiled and handed him a pen and an OHP form with the medications listed. As he bent down to sign, he heard a door open in back. He looked. It was the storeroom and standing in front of it were the photo clerk and a tall thin man with wire framed glasses, probably the store manager. They acknowledged Jason as he turned back to sign the form.

“Have a nice day,” the woman offered as Jason walked away toward the exit. The clerk must have spotted him. He walked down the automotive aisle and before they turned the corner, following him, he slipped the camera on a shelf next to the motor oil, all without losing his pace.

As he made his way to the exit, he could feel them closing in just before he hit the door.

“Excuse me, sir,” he heard the man say. Jason turned.

The man lowered his voice, “A customer reported seeing you stick something down your pants… and…” He trailed off. This was bullshit, of course. It was that teeny-bopper clerk standing by his side. “Would you mind following us back to the office?”

“I’m in a bit of a rush.”

“I’m sure,” he said pretentiously. “But it will only take a moment. Jason walked back with them–the clerk leading the way and the manager staring holes in his back. He was taken to what looked like a break room with a refrigerator and a couple of sagging shelves.

“Will you allow me to search you?”

Jason exhaled firmly. “Jesus,” he said, “Do I have a choice?”

“No, not really. We have a police officer coming, we can have him do it.”

“If you are going to do it anyway, go ahead.” The prospect seemed to concern the manager–certainly it did more than Jason who had been through this before. It helped that this time Jason know he was clean.

“Why don’t you raise your hands up?” The manager proposed. Jason did so and the manager started to pat his chest, very lightly. He moved down to his stomach, and then split his hands and worked down his legs. On finding nothing, he padded down Jason’s back. He wanted to check his groin–Jason wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t been certain they’d find something. But the manager was afraid. Sure, there was the potential lawsuit but more it was just one man’s hesitance to grab another man’s crotch, regardless of sexual orientation. He couldn’t do it. “Let’s just wait a minute for the officer.”

They sat around the table staring at one another. The clerk looked glum. The manager smiled meekly at Jason, thinking perhaps he’d been wrong. Jason’s face was unaltered: a scowl designed to communicate hostility. After a few minutes of this, there was a knock at the door and an underage cop entered, at least he seemed underage to Jason with his slick black hair and high school mustache. “What’s going on here?” he asked.

“We thought we had a shoplifter but I searched him and didn’t find anything.”

The cop looked at Jason contemptuously and then spotted the pharmacy bag. “What’s in the bag?”

“Medicine,” Jason said. “But I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“Do you mind if I look at it?” the officer asked as he searched through the bag.

“Yeah,” Jason sighed. “But it seems I have no choice.”

Officer Young, as Jason thought of him, poured the contents out onto the table. He looked briefly at the pill bottles as his attention was drawn to the three bags of syringes and the morphine. “You have a prescription for this?”

“Of course.”

He looked at the manager. “Would you check on that?”

The manager said sure and left the room.

“I think I better pat you down. Stand up and face the wall.”

Jason did so, putting his hands against the wall. The cop searched him thoroughly, showing no concern about invading his groin with gusto. Finding nothing, he removed Jason’s wallet. Looking at his driver’s license, the cop said, “Well, Mr. Thiel…”

“It’s not ‘theel’,” Jason interrupted. “It’s pronounced like the color: ‘teal’.”

“Well, Mr. Teal, if you don’t have a prescription for these drugs, we’re going to take a little ride.”

“Can I sit down?” Jason asked.

“Sure, I’m not an ogre.”

“All evidence to the contrary,” Jason said.

Just as Jason sat, the manager came in the door with a prescription. He said, “It’s to a Jason Thiel.”

The cop handed Jason his wallet and looked at the manager. “Let me talk to you outside.” They exited, leaving Jason alone with the clerk.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” he asked her.

She blushed, “I’m sorry, I just thought I saw…”

“What do you care anyway?”

She just stared at the floor until the cop came back in. “You can go.”

Jason gather up his meds and put them back into the bag. As he strode out the three stood by the door watching him until he turned down the automotive row. He turned and looked over the row and saw them going back into the break room. When he came to the motor oil, he grabbed the camera and stuck it down his pants. Then he walked confidently out the front door.

Rachel was leaning against a light pole in the middle of the parking lot with half a pack of cigarette butts at her feet. Her eyes were focused on the front door and she smiled enormously upon seeing Jason.

“I thought they arrested you when I saw the cop pull up and you were in there so long.”

“I almost was arrested. Fucking teeny-bopper!”

“What?”

“I’ll explain, but let’s get out of here.”

The great thing about Dr. D’s scam was that it worked on so many levels. All the AIDS meds went to real patients without insurance at 10% the cost; $50 to Jason today. David didn’t care, he was just trying to help his patients and it was a little perk for Jason and Rachel which made their lives easier.
There was way too much time before meeting at David’s house at eight. So they caught Tri-Met back to Greenboro and their tent. Once there, they partook again and passed out in each other’s arms.

*    *    *

“Fuck,” Jason said as he covered his face with his hand to cut out the spot light flooding the tent. He had obviously been asleep a while. He looked at Rachel who was rubbing her eyes.

“I hope you haven’t used the whole bottle.” It was David.

“Turn off that fucking light, David!”

“Come on sleepyheads, I’ll drive you over to my place. Leanne is there and I scored some really good coke.”

“Coke?” Jason said eagerly as he sat up.

“He doesn’t need any coke,’ Rachel said drowsily. “Let’s just meet tomorrow night.”

“Come on, Rachel,” Jason said standing up. “You like a speedball as much as anyone, you’re just lazy.”

“All right, all right.”

Leanne was a piece of work but it was clear why Dr. D liked her: she was gorgeous, in a skinny kind of way, Rachel though. But Rachel was jealous, to some extent. Every time she got off smack, she put on thirty pounds and her face broke out in acne. In all other ways she was superior, she though, and so did most others. Leanne was a dancer at Sabrina’s, a strip club his friend Lenny had brought him to because he was dating, and living with, practically, the bartender. Lenny was pretty straight, so he didn’t notice but David knew immediately that Leanne was a junkie.

Of course, Leanne wasn’t just a body. She had traveled extensively, especially for being only thirty. In fact, it had been in Thailand where she had discovered opiates at the prime age of twenty. She met the bass player of some famous punk band at the time who took her to an opium den. They spent all night there smoking and nodding. She was instantly in love, with opium, not the musician.
When they entered the house, Leanne had a clear coke-filled syringe in her arm. “This is some great coke guys.”

“I told them,” David said watching her hand tremble. “How much have you done?”

“Not that much; not nearly enough.”

Morning Music: Weird Al Yankovic Live

Weird Al YankovicI found the following Weird Al Yankovic live concert. Looking at the audience at the beginning, I thought: they are white and nerdy. The show sounds quite a lot like They Might Be Giants. It hadn’t even occurred to me before just now that John Linnell is also an accordion player.

In addition, what a great band he has. Of course that isn’t hard. It’s really kind of like hiring an accountant. If you are willing to pay, they will play. But the music is still vibrant. And it is a really well put together show. You might remember that I mentioned last week that I thought that Stop Making Sense was pretentious. But Weird Al Yankovic shows that you can put together a really tight piece of entertainment without annoying me.

Anyway, this week has made me appreciate Yankovic more than I did before. Of course, I’m not going to run out and buy any of his work. I feel a little old for it anyway. I’m more inclined to pour a drink and sob through some Jacques Brel.

Anniversary Post: Jamrud Mosque Bombing

Jamrud Mosque BombingIt is the seventh anniversary of the Jamrud mosque bombing. It was a suicide bombing and at least 48 people were killed and roughly a hundred injured. According to witnesses, a boy of 15 or 16 climbed into a window, went to the main hall that was filled for Friday prayers, and he blew himself up. It was a complete horror as you can see in the photo on the left. But there are two issues that this raises in my mind.

The first is the use of children as suicide bombers. I once heard an interview with a teenage girl who was supposed to be a suicide bomber but backed out at the last minute. And her story was really tragic. Her boyfriend had been killed by the Israelis and so she was upset and mentioned that she would like to get revenge, and the people who lead these kind of things jumped on her and pushed her into becoming a suicide bomber. It is so horrible. Like military leaders everywhere, she was just a resource to be used however they thought best in their war with the Israelis. All I can say is that warriors should fight their own wars and leave kids out of it. I realize this is not the way things work, and there is nothing any different between that and killing children. Still, I have a hard time not seeing this teenage boy as a victim as well.

The second issue is the bombing of a mosque. I’m just not clear where all our resentment of Muslims comes from. The Muslims who are politically radicalized are mostly in the business of killing other Muslims. So I just don’t see what the whole issue is with their religion. I keep coming back to Sam Harris’ line that “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas.” Really?! It’s such a bigoted and ignorant claim. His depth of thinking on Islam is about as deep as Phil Robertson’s thinking on atheism. The main thing that occurs to me is that this kind of thinking (that many atheists are very open about) is very much blaming the victim.

With deep sadness and hope that the world becomes a better place, we mark this seventh anniversary of the Jamrud mosque bombing.

Kamping on Asphalt: Grandma

The third chapter takes us back to the family in the car. Actually, the first name for this novel was “Life in a Car,” based upon a cartoon that a friend of mine had drawn. Looking at it now, it’s interesting that with the Lenny narrative, I manage to transition seamlessly, whereas with the family, it’s clunky and episodic. About the only thing I like in this one is the description of the accident. And that is something that I seem to be alone in. But it strikes me as crystal clear. This chapter is also precious — I have such a problem with sentimentality in my fiction! Also: the broken English bothers me somewhat. But it was just something I was around a lot at that time. Regardless, it’s Rick’s story here.

Chapter 3: Grandma

It is hard to say what makes a man attracted to a particular kind of woman. The conventional wisdom was that it was Madison Avenue and that every man most desired Twiggy or her current supermodel equivalent. Certainly, there were few men who would shove the Cosmo cover girl out of his bed but this really had much more to do with impressing friends than with their own desires. It’s like that old joke about the guy who is marooned on an island with Cindy Crawford (at her prime, of course) but is dissatisfied until she pretends to be his best friend Bob. Then the guy perks up and says, “Bob! You’re never gonna believe who I’m fucking!”

Rick never had this problem as he really didn’t have any friends. Sure, there were guys from work and sometimes they’d watch a ballgame and drink a couple of beers. But mostly his life was focused on his family and it had been that way long before he had his own. Sure, he was gruff. He bellowed at the kids and he patiently endured the badgering of Lucinda. But he loved them all, dearly.

Sexually, Lucinda was it. She had light brown skin like a perfect California tan. But Rick hated tans, they made the skin tight and crusted, and after a while, old. Then the tan lines! What man would want strange geometric white areas on his woman’s breast or groin? No, Lucinda was just perfect.

And he liked that she was from Mexico. Truthfully, native born Americans were a bunch of lazy, overpaid whiners. They were always on about how little they made and how the company was raking it in and if only they had the tools… if only. If only they’d stop jabbering and get to work. The Mexicans were always hard working and pleasant. He never did get the idea of the loafing, welfare recipient Mexican. Those must have been second generation, poisoned by the public school exposure to third generation Irish and fourth generation Italians.

The best friend he ever had was Antonio, a foreman at the dump who was a permanent resident but still a citizen of Mexico. They used to get together and watch Mariner games at Rick’s apartment. Antonio would always bring over some kind of weird Mexican beer. He couldn’t just stick with Corona; Rick had grown used to that. No. It had to be Negra Modela or some other beer he couldn’t pronounce.

“What don’t you just buy Bud, Antonio? You’re in America for Christ’s sake.”

“Yeah, Bud’s good. But this, very good.” And he would smile wryly in his self-effacing way. “Why you don’t have a wife, family?”

Antonio was married with a kid on the way within a year of coming over. She was American, Mexican American. Second generation, but Rick didn’t hold this against her. “I don’t meet many women,” Rick replied but he could tell Antonio had something more on his mind.

*    *    *

The whole family stood at gate C6; Rick, Lucinda, and the twins, waiting for Lucinda’s mom flying in from Veracruz. Rick was very worried about this. “We live in a goddamned car! Does she know that? Why doesn’t she get a motel room? That would be okay.”

“It’s fine honey,” she had told him. “She lives in Mexico!”

He guessed that she was trying to be funny, but it just made him more worried. To begin with, this was the first he’d seen of his mother-in-law since the wedding and he did not like the idea of her seeing how well he was providing for her daughter and grandchildren. And then where would they put her? In the trunk?

Lucinda insisted that it would be fine. Her mother too, as much as she understood the situation. The kids, they’d never even seen their grandma. She could have been Bugs Bunny for all they knew. But they were excited to be at the airport.

“Can we have a quarter?” Becky asked, pulling at his pant leg.

“Why?”

“For the phone!” as though it were obvious.

He reached in his pocket and handed her a quarter. “You can’t make a call with that.” The twins scurried away to the row of payphones. Rick looked over at Lucinda who smiled weakly and then looked at the twins. Danny lifted Becky up around the waist so she could insert the quarter. She came down and put the receiver back in place causing the quarter to fall down the inside of the phone. They both giggled as Danny took the quarter out of the return slot.

If only happiness were always that easy, Rick though.

*    *    *

Normally, Rick spent Thanksgiving with his parents in Corvallis. But that year, for some reason they had decided to spend it in Las Vegas as part of some old folk’s tour or whatever. When Antonio heard him talking about this strange turn of events he immediately, eagerly asked Rick to spend the holiday with his family.

“I don’t know. You’ll probably serve burritos or something.”

Antonio assured him that they loved turkey in Mexico and after two days of concentrated assault, Rick agreed. He made it a point to bring a twelve pack of Budweiser in cans to the event.

“You didn’t need to bring beer, I have a case a Tecate!” Antonio said as Rick entered his house for the first time. Antonio led him into the kitchen. “This is my wife Corrina,” he said pointing to the slightly plump dark woman basting the turkey. She looked up and smiled brightly. “This is Rick, and…” he said referring to the petite young Mexican woman standing aside eating salsa with a carrot stick, “this is my youngest sister Lucinda.”

Somehow, Rick and Antonio managed to find themselves in the backyard, each with a Tecate in hand. As Rick remembers, he never did have a Bud that day. “You’ve set me up, Antonio.

“What?” Antonio said bewildered. And then, as if changing the subject, “What you think of Lucinda? She’s no married, you know.”

“That’s a surprise.”

“You no like her?”

“No, no,” Rick took a swig of Tecate. “She’s very pretty, beautiful.”

“Good! I make sure you sit next to her at dinner.”

“No!” But of course he did and privately Rick was glad even if the situation was awkward. She was pretty and she had an open, positive demeanor that contrasted nicely with his calm discontent.

*    *    *

The skyway tunnel gate opened and passengers began trickling out with their brief cases and carry-ons which they tugged along like reluctant dogs. “Danny! Becky!” Lucinda called and pointed to her side. They dutifully obliged just as Rick saw his mother-in-law coming up the tunnel. Actually, “saw” was incorrect; at four foot eleven, she was invisible in the increased flow of departing passengers. But he could hear her.

With the food they serve, Santa Lucinda! You’d be loco to eat it. She always brings her own, or starve. Better to starve a little than die a lot.

Rick knew there was another reason he was dreading this. At best, she was a chatterbox in only one language, a language he didn’t understand. At worst, a chatterbox in two languages like now. When the crowd broke she saw them and yelled, “Lucinda!” Lucinda ran to her and they embraced while the passengers moved aside and past, irritatedly. Suddenly, her mother burst apart from her and widened toward the twins, “El nino! La nina!” And she ran to embrace them almost as quickly as they ran for cover behind their father’s legs. Stymied, she looked up at Rick and laughed, “Senora loca!” she said, “Senora loca!” and hugged him.

*    *    *

Antonio’s whole family was from Veracruz, a gulf port town in the south of Mexico. Lucinda was visiting for a week but he made sure that she stayed long enough to ensnare Rick. He was always talking about her. A couple days later, he came over for the Mariners vs. the Giants, a six pack of Bohemia in hand. “Hey! What you think of my sister?”

“Don’t push, Antonio.”

“You no like her? I think you like her.”

“She’s fine. I like her.” He stumbled. “Really, I don’t even know her.”

“Then know her. I think she like you.”

And it went on that way until Rick asked her to a movie. Before he could blink, he was in a Catholic Church in Veracruz. Now he was in a car, his home, God help him, with his wife and kids and exuberant mother-in-law in the middle of the back seat as they pulled out of PDX.

Lucinda and her mother had been speaking almost hysterically together in Spanish. This presented a problem for Rick. On the one hand, he didn’t know what they were talking about and so could pretend that they were just birds twittering in the background. On the other, forced to speak in English they might say less. He opted for the latter given that he was somewhat interested in knowing what they were saying, at least as long as he didn’t know.

“Mama said we should go out tonight and she’d take care of the kids.”

“No money,” he grunted.

“I give you,” the mother-in-law chimed in eagerly.

“Where would we go? We can’t take the car.”

“We could go to that motel, we haven’t been alone in a month.”

The highway Motel 6 next door to Mel’s Tavern. Sadly, that was a very appealing thought to him. But he hated the idea of begging for money. He already hated having Lucinda’s mom stay with them. “Welcome, Mrs. Valencia, to our wonderful ’65 Bel Air, I mean home.” This was the standard kicker: he wanted to accept the offer but he wanted everyone to think that he was against it, that he was just going along to keep the peace. “What about the kids?” he asked.

“Mama will watch them.”

“But they just met her!”

Rick looked in the read-view mirror. The twins were sleeping on either side of her with their heads resting on each shoulder. “I guess,” he said. “If you really want to.” Lucinda snuggled up next to him and kissed him on the cheek as they drove home down the highway.

*    *    *

They walked across the parking lot, passed the clubhouse and out onto the street, hand in hand like high schoolers in love. They thought they would stop at Mel’s for a drink or two and then check into the motel. This was not exactly a night on the town, even by Greenboro standards, but it was nonetheless a major treat.

It was late afternoon, and a Thursday, so Mel’s was slow, just a couple hard-core old-timers at the bar and a young couple talking slowly, earnestly, quietly at a booth in back. The woman looked up as they entered, she’d been crying. Rick and Lucinda took a booth two up from the young couple.
“Of course I still love you. I always loved you. But God, you’ve really mucked things up.” The woman said.

The bartender called from behind the bar, “We don’t have a waitress, you’ll have to come up here.”

Rick pushed himself up and looked at Lucinda, “What do you want?” She shrugged, whatever was fine.

Rick looked over the bar–there wasn’t much. “Do you have Corona?” The old man closest to him glanced up uninspired.

“In a bottle,” the bartender replied.

“Okay, I’ll have that and a pint of Bud.”

When he returned, the couple’s argument had accelerated. She said, “It’s out of the question.” He said something unintelligible and took her hand gently. She jerked it away. “No,” she said curtly.

“Maybe this isn’t the place for a romantic drink,” Rick whispered and set the Corona bottle in front of Lucinda.

She bent towards him, “He wants her back and she don’t know. I think she’s hiding something.”

“I’m sorry,” Rick said. She looked back puzzled, so he continued. “That I’m out of work, that we’re homeless, that I’m not providing for my family like I should.”

She grabbed his hand and put it to her face. “Things will get better. I love you.”

The front door burst open and the setting sun filled the room, as two skinny kids practically ran inside. They were maybe 23 but the bartender seemed to know them. The boy went up to the bar and slammed a bill down. The girl kept walking straight back like she was in a hurry for the bathroom.
“Two Henry’s, Ken,” Jason said. Ken started pouring and looked back.

“You’re in a good mood today,” he said.

“Business has been going well.”

The old man turned to him. “Show me that card trick again.”

Jason pulled a deck of cards out of his pants and said, “I’ll show you two.”

Rick turned to look at the back of the bar. The girl wasn’t inside the bathroom but on the phone. She punched a number in and hung up. Then she walked briskly to the bar and kissed the boy on the cheek. The couple in the booth got up, walked gravely to the door, and left.

Lucinda smiled at Rick. “You worry too much,” and then lifted the Corona bottle to her thick red lips and drank.

The payphone at the back of the bar rang startling everyone except the old times who continued their methodical alcohol ingestion. The girl shot up and ran to the phone. “Hi… Rachel… Yeah… Forty minutes! Mel’s… okay, okay.” She slammed the phone back into the cradle and walked dejected back to the bar.

“This shouldn’t be so unusual,” Rick said. “Having a drink, spending a few minutes to ourselves. I’ve got to get a job, any job. Working at Taco Bell would be better than this.”

“It would improve your Spanish,” she smiled. “No. That wouldn’t pay what unemployment does.”

He took a long drink of beer and felt its relaxing charms like a back rub or a hot bath. “I just feel like a failure.”

“You’re no failure.” She reached over and kissed him on the lips. And then again and parting his lips with her tongue, caressing, tender, passionate.
When at last, they separated, Rick blinked his eyes and smiled at Lucinda who smiled angelically back at him. “Maybe we should leave,” he said and finished the last drops of his pint.

Rick waited out front while Lucinda visited the ladies room. Mel’s was on the corner of 12th, a very busy street, almost a highway connecting the southern Portland suburbs, and Macdonald, a minor street but large enough to require a stoplight. The speed limit was 35 but most of the cars speeding down 12th were doing 55. A Datsun pulled up from behind Mel’s on Macdonald and idled at the red light–the young man inside singing along with some unheard song on the radio. A line of cars passed by, a mixture of the rural, suburban, and urban influences: a pearl white Lexus, a red Chevy pickup, line green Tempo, and an old tan AMC Gremlin rattling along. The light turned yellow and the young man in the Datsun put the car into gear. A block away a brand-new white Toyota truck, jacked up high sped along 12th. Behind the wheel, a young white boy, maybe 18, maybe not. Next to him, a young Mexican, probably the same age. They were screaming along but the light just clicked red. They’ll try out those virgin brakes, Rick thought.

The Datsun pulled out across the intersection. The white boy looked at his Mexican friend and laughed, his left arm hanging out the window feeling the cooling evening air. The Datsun was accelerating through the middle of the road when Rick realized how fast the truck was approaching, 75, maybe 80 mph. And the white boy still laughing, his head turned toward his friend. The Datsun driver was oblivious, singing energetically. The Mexican looked forward and screamed, silent in the noise of the traffic. Rick stumbled back against the wall of Mel’s. The white boy looked up dumbly just as he entered the intersection. The truck smashed the back quarter panel of the Datsun; it sounded like thunder. The Datsun spun around, traveling diagonally down 12th. The truck plowed into the ground, flipping over the Datsun and turning sideways onto the driver’s side–grinding to a stop while the Datsun slid past and into a row of trees on the right side of the street.

Silence. The momentary silence before any reaction was possible. The first was the most anguished scream of terror and loss. “Mi amigo!” the Mexican cried from the truck. “Mi amigo!”

Rick ran to the truck, the bottom of the truck, and looked in through the passenger door window. He found the young brown man was sitting on the steering wheel, sobbing. He looked up at Rick pleading, “Mi amigo.” He friend was below him, half fallen out the window, only his waist down visible inside the cab. Rick offered the Mexican boy his hand and pulled him out.

The young man emerged from the Datsun, bleeding from the head, dazed, but otherwise okay. The bartender was the first to reach the door of the tavern. Rick was helping the Mexican, his breath saturated with alcohol, out of the street. He was sobbing and muttering, “Mi amigo.” Rick handed him to Ken, “Give him to my wife, she speaks Spanish.”

The young couple came out of the door. “What happened?” the guy asked.

“An accident,” Rick said heading into the street to rescue the Datsun driver.

“Should I call an ambulance?” Ken yelled.

Rick came to the young Datsun driver who was standing in the middle of the road, staring at the remains of the white boy. The head was a mangled red mess and the torso soaked in blood with tatters of intestine and stomach in a brief line along the asphalt. “No hurry,” Rick yelled back and grabbed the Datsun driver, guiding him across the street.

“Don’t look,” he said as they walked back to the sidewalk.

“Did I do that?” the young man asked.

“No, don’t worry. It wasn’t you.”

When Rick got to the sidewalk, Lucinda was talking to the Mexican boy. He didn’t understand much Spanish but he knew that the kid wasn’t making much sense. He still mostly said, “Mi amigo.” Ken was inside calling for help. The young couple was leaning against the wall smoking and watching. The old-timers were back inside drinking free doubles.

After the police came they took the Mexican and the Datsun driver away for questioning. Rick and Lucinda held each other and watched while the tow-trucks arrived and worked on up-turning the truck. Before long, the police had one lane open and traffic was squeezing past.

Ken came out. “Can I get you two a drink on the house?”

“No, thanks,” Rick said. “I think we’re just going to go home.”

“I understand,” he said. “I really appreciate how you handled the situation.”

“What else could I do?”

A Dodge Dart pulled up in front of Mel’s. The two Mexicans motioned to the young couple who got into the back and the car sped away.
Rick and Lucinda walked the four blocks back to the KOA. The sun had just tipped below the west hills but it was still light. Mrs. Valencia was setting on the hood of the car watching the twins play jacks. She looked up, “Back?”

Rick picked up Becky and Lucinda picked up Danny and they sat on either side of Lucinda’s mom on the hood.

“Yeah,” Rick said. “We’re back.”

Morning Music: If That Isn’t Love

Alpocalypse - Weird Al Yankovic - If That Isn't LoveToday, we feature the Weird Al Yankovic song “If That Isn’t Love.” It is an odd song. It is a list of things men do in relationships that are meant to show great kindness but show the opposite. But it’s kind of hard to focus on the lyrics when watching the very creepy video.

The song is supposedly in the style of Hanson. This is another pop culture reference that I am unaware of. But at least in this case, I do know the style. It is very much like much of the music I’ve inadvertently overheard on radios over the past fifteen years. It isn’t the worst thing you are likely to hear if you make the mistake of leaving the house.

“If That Isn’t Love” does have a strong musical refrain. It’s a trick though. I could explain it, but then I’d have to give up my Music Snob card, and I’ve worked so hard to get it.

Melissa Macro-Virus Release

David L Smith - MelissaOn or around this day in 1999, David L Smith released the Melissa macro-virus. He posted a Word document on the newsgroup Alt.sex. The document supposedly contained user names and passwords for porn sites. So, of course, people grabbed it. But all it contained was a virus written in the Word macro language. What it did was grab your first 50 contacts from Outlook and forward the virus to them. What’s amazing about it is that it is estimated that it ended up affecting 20% of all the computers attached to the internet at that time.

What’s interesting about the whole thing is that Smith didn’t write the Melissa virus. This is generally the case. Most virus writers do not release them. But they do tend to incite their release by making them available. For decades, I’ve wanted to write a virus — not to release or even run, except in some test environment. I just find the technology interesting. But I haven’t done that kind of coding for fun since my early days in graduate school.

David L Smith is kind of a sad character. He was thirty years old. He named the virus Melissa after a stripper he had known in Florida. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Just the same, I feel sort of like him. When I was that age, my life spun out of control because of what I now see as a lack of meaning. I can easily see myself getting seduced into the world of hackers and doing something incredibly stupid like releasing Melissa.

Compare what Smith did, however, to what happened to Robert Tappan Morris. Morris created the worm that bears his name. But he didn’t mean any harm. He wrote it to measure the size of the internet. It’s just that things, well, got out of hand. This was back in 1988, long before the web — and not long after I got on it. And the worm basically shut down the internet for a few days. But they still convicted him, which just seems wrong.

Smith, on the other hand, I think deserved to go to prison. He was given a sentence of ten years, but served less than two, probably because he was able to roll over on a few virus writers. Otherwise, I don’t know whatever happened to him. He probably wants to be forgotten. But he did bring us one of the great bits of internet lore.

Continue reading

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.

Kamping on Asphalt: A Night at the Movies

I think I’m just going to publish the first five chapters of my first novel, “Kamping On Asphalt.” It was 20 chapters long, but a mishap resulted in the destruction of most of it. I only ever got 8 chapters into a computer. I still have them. It was a deeply flawed book regardless. But each chapter worked as its own short story. In fact, the whole thing started with the following that was only meant to be a short story. But then things just sort of got out of hand. In the context of the novel, this chapter is kind of like a foreword. I wrote this 15 years ago, so forgive me if you think it totally sucks. I do think this first chapter is a tad cloying myself. —FM

Chapter 1: A Night at the Movies

It was summer, which was lucky for them because they were living in their 1965 Bel Air. The down side was that the sun came pouring through the windshield at 6:30 each morning, heating the car up like a greenhouse. Six-thirty—Christ! Rick didn’t wake up that early when he had a job. He turned and looked at Lucinda asleep beside him. She looked so peaceful with her black hair framing her light brown skin. In the right-brain fog of the morning, he could imagine almost anything: she was kind, intelligent, able to cook lasagna. He smiled weakly at the thought.

Turning his head toward his side window, he was greeted with two up-turned smiling facing. “What are you two up?” he dully quizzed his only progeny, the twins from hell: Danny and Becky.

“We want to go to a movie,” Becky chimed eagerly.

“It’s too early.”

“Not now,” Danny corrected. “Tonight. Sleeping Beauty is playing at the Last Chance Drive In. Can we go?!”

“Please! Please!” Becky began that familiar whine.

“Sh!” Rick whispered harshly. “You’ll wake your mom.”

“She can go too,” offered Danny helpfully.

“Nobody’s going to the movies. We hardly have enough food to last until my next unemployment check comes.”

This was true. Since being laid-off his job driving the garbage truck, they had been living hand to mouth out of the family car. The situation was particularly bad towards the end of the month. This was nothing new; Rick had never managed money well and Lucinda, well, she was a spend thrift. But it hadn’t been such a big deal. He liked driving that big truck and he had always had a strong fondness for sea gulls. He looked forward to seeing them each day. Now all he looked forward to was his monthly unemployment check and that was two days off. He had exactly $6.32 and a couple of cans of Pork and Beans. The near future was looking bleak, despite the miracles that Lucinda could perform with any canned food.

“We never get to do anything,” Becky began to pout. “It’s so boring living here.”

“It’s only four dollars each,” Danny added as he produced the previous day’s Press Herald from his back pocket.

“You got sixteen dollars?” Their dejection was evident so Rick softened. “Look, if you guys can get some money, maybe we can get ice cream later.”

Danny gently hit the side of the car several times with the folded newspaper. He turned to Becky, “Maybe we could collect cans or something.”

This thought cheered his sister immensely. “Yeah,” she smiled.

“Just stay out of trouble,” their father encouraged.

The twins ran off with the energy reserved only for the ignorant. Rick turned to Lucinda and kissed her on the cheek. “Honey,” he prodded her to consciousness. “Honey, the kids are gone. Wanna fool around?”

Lucinda’s eyes began to blink open to the intense sunlight. She turned toward her beloved incredulously. “You wanna fuck?”

Rick grinned and nodded eagerly.

“What is it makes you so horny: the car or the campground?” she quarried.

He just shrugged, grinning even more.

Lucinda yawned and pulled her skirt up.

By 10:00 most of the RVs had packed up and gone. Becky was holding the garbage can liner Danny had stolen from the men’s room. He was now standing inside a tin drum fishing for cans. “Here’s another,” he said throwing it up into the air. Becky ran toward her brother to catch the can in the bag.
“That’s it for this one, I think.” He climbed out with his white All Stars sopping wet and brown from probably a half liter of Pepsi poured inside.

“I think we’ve gone through all of the trash here. How many do we have now?”

“I don’t know; let’s count,” he said.

They sat down on the nearly empty parking lot and poured the cans out before them.

“Forty-three. How much will that get us?” Becky asked.

“That’s $2.15. We’re never going to make it this way.”

“At least we can get some candy or something.”

When they approached the car, they could see their mother folding the enormous quilt they slept under—the one grandma had sent them from Mexico where she lived. Dad was sitting on the hood of the car in his boxers, want adds splayed before him, drinking a Miller High Life—the last one left.

“Where you kids been?” Lucinda yelled at the children.

“Collecting cans,” said Becky defiantly.

“You better not be climbing around in trash cans,” their mother added. “I don’t want my kids climbing around in trash cans.”

Rick looked up. “The kids are fine, honey.”

Lucinda noticed Danny’s wet feet. She put the quilt she had just finished folding down on the roof of the car and grabbed Danny by his closest ear. “What happened to your shoes? Your father works hard every day reading the newspaper and you just destroy all your cloths!”

Danny pulled away. “We’re just trying to make some money!” he said.

“Rick! Did you know about this?” she demanded.

“Honey, it’s just fine.”

“Sure. Sure. It’s just fine. Where’s the lighter fluid?” she said looking about the car. “Let’s just set the car on fire! It’s just so fine.”

“We’re going to the store to cash in these cans,” Danny stated.

“That’s fine,” Rick answered.

“Oh! Fine again,” Lucinda said.

The twins started off.

Lucinda called after them, “Make sure you be real careful crossing the freeway.”

*    *    *

Rachel leaned against the corner of the row of auto can return machines in front of the Cloudburst Grocery. She took a long drag off her Camel Filter. Every machine was busy churning and crunching, churning and crunching, but her eyes were glued to the kids. They couldn’t be more than eight—far too short to be using these machines—she wondered vaguely where their parents were. In her twenty-four years she hadn’t much experience with children.

Putting each can into the machine took great effort. Becky would grab a can from the bag before placing her dusty right sandal into her brother’s cradled hands. She’d then shoot up and launch the can into the blue circle labeled, “deposit.” Her brother and she then stood back and watched as the door to the hole closed and the machine began to grumble. They waited to see their monetary total, displayed in yellow LEDs, change from 90 to 95 cents. It didn’t. The can came falling into the reject bin at the bottom of the machine.

“Shit!” Becky said.

Danny gasped. “You’re gonna get in trouble!”

“I’ll tell about you drinking daddy’s beer.”

Jason came up behind Rachel sniffling. He bit her lightly on the neck. She turned her head toward him without losing her stare of Becky and Danny. She exhaled her last drag as Jason kissed her on the cheek.

“We could use them,” she said.

“They’re just kids,” answered Jason with a hint of interest.

“Exactly.”

Rachel and Jason approached the twins as another can was delivered into the reject bin.

“Shit!” Becky said.

“Would you like some help?” Rachel asked.

Danny and Becky swung around quickly at this abrupt suggestion.

“We’re doing okay,” Danny said lightly.

“Here, let me do it,” Jason offered and then wiped his nose on the sleeve of his sweater. “It’ll go faster.”

Jason began putting the cans in the machine one after another.

“I’m Rachel—that’s Jason. What’s your name?” They told her. “These machines can be a real pain. Getting some candy money?”

“No. We wanna go to the movies: Sleeping Beauty.”

“I don’t think you have enough cans for that,” Rachel observed.

“We just started,” said Becky in a bit of a huff.

“Oh, sure,” said Rachel apologetically. Jason was finished with the cans and pressed the receipt button. The machine spit out a tag stating, “Credit: $2.15.”

“You two want to earn more than that?” asked Rachel.

“Doing what?” asked Danny.

“Nothing hard. Let’s go get your money and I’ll tell you about it,” Jason said as he handed Danny the receipt. He looked at the two girls, “We’ll be right back.”

Rachel and Becky walked to the bicycle rack at the side of the machines. Rachel lit another Camel. “Where do you and your brother live?”

“At the KOA campground across the freeway.”

“Jason and I lived there for a while when we had a car.”

“Where do you live now?”

“Oh, here and there,” she said.

“I don’t like living in a car.”

“Yeah, it’s a bummer.”

Jason and Danny stood at the checkout counter behind a tan man wearing an undershirt that used to be white and dirty work pants. He was buying a 40 oz. Bottle of Miller High Life which he was having a hard time controlling—partly because he was drunk and partly because his right arm was cut off half-way up the forearm and he had a thumb as his sole remaining left-hand digit.

“We just need you two to sell a couple of books for us at Perry’s Bookstore,” Jason said.

“Why don’t you do it?” asked Danny.

“That’s kind of complicated,” Jason said. He grabbed a couple of Snickers Bars from the candy rack. “Do you like Snickers?”

“Sure,” Danny said as Jason let one of the bars slide down his sweater sleeve.

“What am I thinking! I left my wallet in the car,” he said, pretending to put the bars back and sliding the second one up his sleeve. “The guy at the store won’t buy books from us because he thinks that we steal them.”

“Do you?” asked Danny with awe.

“No. But he doesn’t believe us. If you’ll do it, we’ll give you ten percent of the money.”

“How much is that?”

“It should be about ten dollars.”

The drunk shuffled out and Danny handed the receipt up to the sales clerk. “Two dollars fifteen cents please,” he said.

The tan man came out the automatic doors of the supermarket and walked past Rachel and Becky who was swinging around in circles on the bar of the bike rack.

“They turned our apartment into a condom…” Becky stammered.

“Condominium,” Rachel corrected.

“Condominium. And daddy didn’t have his job so we had to move into the car.”

The tan man stopped in front of them with a concerned stare at Becky. He looked at Rachel. “You take care of that child. She could fall and hit her head and bam, she’d be gone. Freak accidents happen. I know,” he said significantly. He raised what was left of his arms up, bagged beer pressed tightly between his left arm and torso. “I got hit by a train when I was a kid.”

Becky stopped swinging and stared at the man.

“Yep,” said Rachel. “You gotta watch them every minute.”

“She’d just have to fall off there and that’d be it.” He held his mangled right hand in front of his nose. “Freak accidents happen. I know.” He slowly nodded.

“Yeah, well, we’re just waiting for Dad,” Rachel commented trying to extricate herself from the conversation. Becky continued to stare.

“Oh!” he said laughing. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he paused and laughed, scratching his cheek with his stub. “She’d just have to fall and that would be it. You take good care of that kid.” He smiled and waved goodbye with his stump and wandered off.

Jason and Danny followed close behind. “Making friends?” Jason asked.

Becky was still following the tan man with her eyes. Jason broke her concentration. “You like Snickers?” he asked.

“Ah, sure,” she said.

Jason reached behind her ear with his hand and pulled out a bar, handing it to her.

“Cool,” said Danny.

“You want one?” he asked and, before Danny could respond, pulled another Snickers out from behind his ear.

Rachel jabbed Jason in the side, “Perry’s only buys until noon.”

“Oh yeah,” Jason said. “We’d better get going.”

Jason handed two books to Danny. They were old and didn’t have pictures. He looked at them doubtfully.

“Why does the bookstore want crummy old books like this?” asked Becky.

“They just do. If he asks why you are selling them tell him that you’re living in a car and your dad is in a wheel chair, so he can’t come himself. You got all that?” Jason asked.

“I think so,” Danny said.

“Where do we put these?” Becky said holding out her empty Snickers wrapper.

“Just drop it on the ground,” stated Rachel matter-of-factly.

“You mean litter?” asked Becky with shock.

“Oh here,” Rachel said taking the wrappers from her and her brother.

The twins walked into Perry’s Used Bookstore. It was very crowded with books, many of which were piled one on top of another above the bookcases. Off to the right was a counter with a large sign overhead which said, “Sell Books Here.” They approached the man behind the counter—an older man with thin blond hair and a bushy mustache.

“Can I help you kids?” he asked kindly.

“Our dad sent us to sell you these books ’cause he’s a cripple,” said Danny as he dropped the books onto the counter.

“We don’t usually buy books from minors,” he said trailing off as he became lost in the books before him: Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer—both first editions. “But we could make an exception, I suppose. So your dad’s disabled?”

“Crippled,” Danny corrected.

“He was run over by a train,” Becky added helpful.

Danny turned toward her. She smiled at him.

“He was drunk. He knows all about freak accidents,” she continued.

The clerk stopped flipping through pages and looked up dully. “A train?”

“Yeah,” said Danny going with the flow. “His legs were cut off right at the knees. Now they’re all like a prune at the bottom. It’s really gross.”

“And he doesn’t have a right arm either,” said Becky.

“And he has a black eye!” Danny added almost overcome with the excitement of the story. The clerked looked quizzically at him. Danny added, “Mom hit his eye on the car door putting him in last night.”

“Does your father have a lot of books?” the clerk asked.

“Oh yeah,” said Becky. “But he has to use his mouth to turn the pages because his other arm doesn’t work very well. He didn’t think you’d want those.”

“He used to have all kinds of books but now he’s selling them because he’s read them all.”

“Oh. Well, I can give you $70 for them.”

Becky smiled at the thought of that much money but Danny had been instructed on this matter. “My dad said they were worth at least $100.”

The clerk looked at Danny for a moment and smiled. “Wait here for a minute,” he said and disappeared into the back of the store with the books.
“Do you think he’s going to have us arrested?” asked Becky of her brother.

“No,” he said. “Why would he?”

“For lying.”

“Do they arrest people for that?”

“I don’t know.”

After a couple of minutes the clerk returned. “Does your father know that you are selling these books?”

“Yeah,” said Becky. “He sent us here.”

“Okay,” he said. “I can give you $120 for the books.” He looked at Danny, “Is that acceptable?”

Rachel and Jason waited outside the grocery store. They both smiled as Danny and Becky approached without the books. Danny noticed Rachel sweating. “It’s too hot for long sleeves,” he told her. She nodded her head in agreement.

“How much did we get?” asked Jason.

“$120!” said Becky.

“Yes!” yelled Jason clinching his fist. He took the money from Danny and gave him $15. Rachel hugged both the kids quickly and the two couples went their separate ways.

By the time they returned to the car, it was lunch time. Rick had the hibachi lit and was heating a pot of pork and beans. Lucinda was constructing cheese sandwiches out her makeshift kitchen in the trunk of the car.

“What have you kids been doing?” asked their father.

“We made $17.15,” Danny said proudly.

Rick was shocked. “Hey Lucinda! The kids made seventeen bucks.” He ladled the beans into four plastic bowls. Lucinda brought cheese sandwiches wrapped in paper towels to everyone and they had lunch inside the 65 Bel Air.

“So can we go see Sleeping Beauty tonight?” Rebecca asked.

“Don’t see why not,” smiled her dad and bit into his cheese sandwich.

*    *    *

The sun had begun its rapid decent behind the coastal hills as Rick backed the car out of its KOA parking space. “Oh shit!” he said. “We need gas.”

“Do we have money?” Lucinda asked.

“Not for gas.” Then a thought occurred to him. “Danny, we’ll need to use some of that money for gas.”

“We only have $1.15 extra,” Danny sounded worried.

“We need more than that for this boat.”

“But we need $16 to get into the movies!”

“We’ll figure something out. Give me five bucks.”

Danny reluctantly obliged and they drove to the nearby Shell gas station where Rick bought $5 worth of gas.

They drove down 205 until they reached Farmington. Rick stopped the car. He got out and opened the back passenger door, “Okay you two, out.”

“What are you doing?” asked Lucinda.

“Saving money.”

Rick walked to the back of the car and opened the cavernous trunk. “You two hide in here until we get inside the drive-in. Then I’ll get you out.”

Danny looked at his sister. They grinned at each other and Danny said, “Cool.”

They got in and Rick carefully closed the lid over them. “Make sure you be real quiet.”

The movie theater was about the only thing in Farmington, so it wasn’t hard to find. It was now dark and the marquee outside was glowing, featuring tonight’s attractions: Sleeping Beauty along with Magic Tricks. They paid their eight dollars and drove inside. The drive-in was fairly vacant. There were twenty cars at most. Rick parked the car and adjusted the speaker while Lucinda got the kids out of the trunk.

Once they were all settled, Rick stretched and leaned his head against Lucinda’s shoulder. She absently ran her fingers through his hair before they both dozed off to sleep.

*    *    *

“Dad.”

Rick felt something jabbing into his back.

“Dad,” the twins said in union.

Rick opened his eyes. Lucinda was beside him slowly waking. He was in the car. He was at the drive-in. Before him on the screen was a naked woman bouncing on top of a man—her large breasts flapping up and down.

“Beauty’s coming! Beauty’s coming!” the woman moaned from the speaker in the window.

“Dad,” came Danny’s voice alone.

Lucinda finally opened her eyes. “My God!” she said. “Oh, my God!”

“Dad, why is she called ‘Sleeping Beauty’ when she never sleeps?”

“This movie is so boring,” added Becky.

Morning Music: Party in the CIA

Alpocalypse - Weird Al Yankovic - Party in the CIANow we get to the point where I really show my pop culture retardation. Today we are listening to Weird Al Yankovic’s “Party in the CIA.” I don’t like it that much just as a song goes. But the problem is most likely that it is a parody of a song I’ve never heard, “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus. And yes, I could go and listen to it now. The problem is that I am so stress out about work and finishing the book and getting this site set so I can go out of town, that I just can’t handle listening to a Miley Cyrus song.

One thing I didn’t know was that Miley Cyrus is the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus. I find that’s interesting because it is so not surprising. I don’t know how it is that the myth of the meritocracy continues to live on. I’m not clear how the very existence of Jaden Smith doesn’t make the entire nation burst out laughing when the word “meritocracy” is uttered. I know: people convince themselves that it is all in the genes. I have two responses to that. First, that’s crap (I don’t have time to go into all the ways that it is crap). Second, how is that any different from the old idea of royal blood?

“Party in the CIA” also bothers me in that it is the kind of thing that people can take differently on the basis of their politics. I know that Yankovic is a liberal. But I also know a lot of authoritarians who would watch this video and come away with the idea that it would be totally great to be in the CIA and topple unfriendly governments. The truth is, in this song, Yankovic doesn’t tip his hand. That’s great for most subjects. Not for this.

On the other hand, I love the cartoon style.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Exxon ValdezOn this day in 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled about a half million barrels of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska. I remember at the time that I bought a shirt that said, “We don’t care. We don’t have to care. At Exxon, we’re part of the problem.” This was based, I think, on Lily Tomlin’s telephone operator character, Ernestine. It amused me for a while.

But even at the time, I understood that the problem was not Exxon or even the oil companies. The problem was and is the system itself. If you have a population that is dependent upon something as toxic as fossil fuels, you are going to have accidents. There will be consequences.

I don’t talk about it much because it seems elitist of me with my relatively stable life. But I wonder about capitalism and our push for ever more growth. I do see that if regular working people are going to see improvements in their lives, we need economic growth. But that’s only because we’ve decided that capitalism is the only system we can possibly have. And that seems less and less tenable.

I find that I get hung up on how you would replace capitalism. But the truth is, that’s silly. In our society, capitalism is like water to a fish: it is such a given that it doesn’t really even exist. I would say that for the vast majority of people in the “advanced” economies, belief in capitalism is far more real than belief in God. At least with God, people know there are other people who don’t believe in their particular choice.

So we are stuck in a situation where we are just trying to make the given state of awesome capitalism more humane. Think about Bernie Sanders for a moment. He calls himself a socialist, but that’s really a joke. He’s just an old style liberal. We’ve lost so much ground over the last five decades — especially here in the United States.

Obviously, we will eventually get over our addiction to oil and things like the Exxon Valdez oil spill will be a thing of the past. But capitalism will create new ways to destroy us. Rest assured.