The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : portraits of a moment

Breakfast Symphony

It isn’t much, this writing I do in the early morning.  I sit in a small, hometown restaurant, sometimes filled with locals and truckers.  They tell local stories that don’t mean to say much, but in the end, says everything that needs saying.  Other times, like today, I’m in before the regulars, to say my good mornings the the cook, who has my order memorized but politely asks me anyway.  With a click of her pen and a swoosh I find myself in muted solitude, as the waitress doesn’t come in for another half hour.  The morning itself sees a break, and strikes up a conversation.

This morning begins with a low, soft song of the reefers, an exhaust fan over the griddle, and eggs, potatoes, and meat frying and crackling in the grill.
Like every good song, it is also a story.  I hear the punctuation with the metallic scrape of the spatula across the griddle, the staccato rapping of its hard edge chopping, another long scrap, and the sudden flourish of freshly sizzling food.
The coffee pot begins its morning crescendo, a light but powerful chatter of drops.  At first there is nothing more than the thin tinkling of drops against the naked glass, and I find myself leaning in just a little, to catch the delicate trill.  slowly though with the patience and timing of a Master, it broadens and deepens into a torrent of hot liquid pools.  The humble Pyrex is transformed, as I sit across from it, to a full throated percussion piece, and I close my eyes as the movement pulls together in powerful finale.
And there, in time with the sweeping crest of my own emotions, the music quiets, and allows my imaginations a space to be, to reflect, and to allow my joy at its beauty bask, and cure in its own light for a moment.
 The plate’s gentle clunk onto my table, and the swirl of coffee into my cup bring me to the next movement of this extraordinary symphony: The Aromas.

Requiem for a marmot:

The red-brown rodent held his body in tense anticipation on the edge of a wide, flat rock. To the left and right he could not see it’s end, but 50 feet straight ahead was a high spot, perfect for basking in the midmorning sun.

He prepared for this scamper across open ground with the same ritual he always did, its refined tradition having kept him safe for three seasons. He saw no reason to change his habits now. He held stone-still, he listened for the foxes and weasels, and watched for the shadow of the hawks that had taken so many of his family. The only shadows were of the behemoths swirling past with such mind-numbing speed that he couldn’t comprehend their arrival or departure, only that fleeting moment when they were just suddenly there. But they seemed a benign species, never taking predatory interest in him. And so he worried not at all about them.

He focused even more sharply on his objective, and on his awareness of his enemies. They were crafty, and his only defenses were stillness and speed. The time for stillness had come to an end. Now, his body taut and ready, he brought forth every ounce of speed he could muster to reach the wall and return to invisible stillness in the warmth of the sun. He burst into motion.

Julia Cartwright fumed at the wheel of her ancient brown Datsun station wagon. It’s sides suggested wood paneling, but closer inspection revealed that it was an illusion created by a combination of rust, sun-fading, and a million tiny scratches. Her angst, always compounded by the stress of driving this dilapidated car, was fanned by the prospects of the afternoon shopping invitation from her sister. Her sister’s life was perfect, from the new car, to the trim lawn surrounding the pristine driveway that her own car would have to infest while they drove The Perfect Car to the mall. She loved her sister, really she did. But she always felt this internal animosity towards her success, with an undertone of cynicism at the compromises in principles she always assumed must have accompanied them. Her own stance of eschewing fashion, luxury, and comfort had not given her the sense of satisfied peace she’d always believed it would. And now she drove – not to the mall but to her sisters Perfect Driveway, where they would stash her car while they went out in public together. Just once, she thought, she’d like for her sister to say, “hey, your car is a classic, and it has such cool bumper stickers. It gives off such an aura.”

But the only aura it gave off caused the mechanic to furrow his brow, when she could afford him. Its rusting body’s return to its natural state would have been better to allow to happen in a deserted field. But her chosen profession and ideals didn’t allow for a better option. so instead she drove it onward anyway, in sullen compromise. Usually she avoided the thoughts that came when she thought too hard about it. But visiting her sister had a way of digging up the emotions out if the compost bed they sat in to rot. The atmosphere in her head was rank with its volatile aroma as she sped as best she could down the highway.

20 scampering steps into his dash, the marmot suddenly felt an unseen weight, pinching and then smashing his tiny body into the strange, black rock. In an instant his body exploded, his guts bursting through a a widening hole rent in his abdomen by the inconceivable weight of the speeding behemoth. His body rolled five times in that one second, his bulgingl eyes fixed on its rear bumper. A faded sticker was the only witness to his passing, his squashed lungs quivered in vain to breathe just once more. It spoke its ceaseless Utopian message as an impromptu eulogy and benediction as the light faded from his eyes.

“Visualize World Peace” it intoned.

And bowed an amen as it disappeared over the horizon toward a Perfect Driveway, to hide its social shame.

Where the Rubber Goes

Usually what you see here is a story, and today is no exception.  Except today, there are no words , just photos and music, a look back at the life of one simple part of a machine, and its significance.

i do a bit of riding my motorbike, and this weekend, my rear tire came to its noble end.  Installed a year ago, it has gone above and beyond the call of duty.  So I put together a slideshow with music, to celebrate its passing.

 

Does it sound strange to eulogized a mere tire?  Perhaps, but our mourning and melancholy, our celebration of life, death, and re-birth, is not for the fallen, or the departed, but for ourselves, who remain to find new life, and new meaning as the world around us changes.  relax, let go, and embrace the next, yet unknown adventure

.http://youtu.be/KlGUWf6Qi54

 

 

 

 

This Sunday morning began, as do many of the weekend mornings around here – slowly, with my wife and I bringing online our various faculties – awareness of our children’s status and location, the reason for the Odd Gait on the way to the bathroom, the most appropriate contortion required to correct said Odd Gait, and creating the illusion of presentable appearance. The latter generally comes in stages, as we come to grips with the level required. On a Sunday, “Functional and decently enrobed in Fuzzy Things and comical T-shirts” is the norm. “Functional” generally means glasses, coffee, and something to keep the hair out of our eyes.

From my entry to the Submarine Service in 1983 until a few years ago, I had maintained short hair, but a few years ago I woke up on my normal haircut day wondering to myself, “Why am I going for a haircut? I don’t even like haircuts”. And so, on that brisk December morning 5 years ago, I stopped. It has created endless mirth and/or derision with the kids and wife, but it’s my hair, and it’s length is my choice. My wife threatens to cut my hair in my sleep sometimes. I threaten to beat up her relatives with the jawbone of an ass. And thus…the hair grows.

This morning I had the early morning duty, and so was well ahead of her in the process of coming to grips with Sunday. Fuzzy things: check. Comical shirt: check. Coffee: double-check. Hair-thingy: check. And I was well on my way to my Sunday morning station, waffle-making in the kitchen.

This week was Strawberry Waffle week, and so I headed to the basement freezer to retrieve a bag of berry sweetness. Alas, I found the stack of ruined food in a bucket, barring the opening of the freezer door. My wife told me about this bucket two days ago, and asked me to take out to the trash. Seems one of the kids had raided the basement, and left the freezer door open long enough to created a frost-laden tomb for most of our stores as the freezer had valiantly tried in vain to freeze an extra 1200 square feet of space, and a path to melted freedom for that which rolled out of the freezer during the invasion, which then marched on in the great circle of life to “rotted food” status.

I shoved the offending bucket aside with a fuzzy-cloaked foot, and came up against the Tomb of Ice. Fortunately for me, right next to the freezer is an area I use for working, and a crowbar happened to be sitting there. I snatched up the tool with biblical flare, and applied what turned out to be the only appropriate tool for the Philistonian strawberry freezer bag. The usual butter-knife-as-a-lever approach would have never worked, the strength of the foe was too great. As it was, my hands spent long enough inside the freezer to go nearly numb – completely numb on the right side. When the top bag sprang free of its frozen bonds and bounced its brick-like weight onto my foot I was so proud of myself. I started back up the stairs with crowbar and strawberries in hand, and the bucket of rotting food went quietly back to forlorn decomposition.

It was in this state that I first met my wife for the morning. She had gotten as far as the coffee pot, but no further. She took one glance at her battle-weary husband ascending from the basement with the crowbar gripped victoriously in his left hand, and her eyebrows shot up in a way incongruent with her level of awareness. The poetic “first waft of coffee in the morning” moment made ubiquitous by endless coffee commercials…they never show these moments. These are the harsh reality – that wisdom is truly bought by moments when your shocked and overwhelming response is slowed by a mouthful of hot coffee, and the physical restraint required to contain that coffee gives you an aire of wisdom and tolerance.

There was one other area that I was ahead of her on this lazy Sunday morning. My hair was safely out of the way, held by my own, non-glittery plain brown hair-thingy. She realized this as I walked past her to put the crowbar on the counter, and the frozen berries in the microwave. As the microwave set busily to warming the berries, I sauntered into the living room, and she apparently launched a covert attack, tracking down and grasping to steal the hair-thingy from the back of my head. By all accounts, her pre-caffeinated state caused three misses before she finally grasped the swinging ponytail.

At this point, caught totally unaware, all my submarine training came to bear fully on the attack at hand. I wheeled around to pull my hair from her grasp, and simultaneously pulled her close by circling my right arm behind her. The sudden movement floated her fuzzy things just enough that my hand slipped under the comical t-shirt and met her bare back. This was, you may recall, the hand that spent the most time in the freezer just moments ago, and was still numb.

Her reaction to my hand caused the hair-thingy she had managed to slide off my hair to become immediately available for my retrieval. Also available was the munition of a non-verbal acoustic assault that defied several laws of physics, and made me blink. But I held tight, basking in the sudden warmth my numb hand felt, and the unexpected intimacy of we two, in our fuzzy things and comical t-shirts. The desperate panic of a moment ago was punctuated with an intensely quiet, focused moment between us, and our lips clung to each other until the cold in her back sent her kidneys into cryogenic stasis. And then, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, we watched…to see which of us would flinch first…which would make the dive for the hair-thingy lying on the floor four feet from us.

Her eyes darted first, and I let her go. It has long been an accepted fact in our relationship that she is quicker than I. I never really had a chance. I threatened her relatives, but she pointed out that the ascribed Ass’s jawbone was already flailing the air in a futile soliloquy, and the matter was dropped in uncontrolled mirth. She had her hair-thingy. She had her strawberries. And, she had the last laugh.

And I? I had a tub of decomposing food in the basement, a free-flowing mane of hair, a warm hand,

…And a coffee-flavored kiss from a queen wearing fuzzy things and a comical t-shirt.

I win.

 

 

A friend of mine’s brief description of her morning reminded me of things I love about Autumn, and inspired the following.  It’s still early in the season, but never too early to write about coffee!

The cold grey gloom of the dawn sky matched perfectly with the tarmac and smooth steel beams reflecting in the tungsten lights, to create a cloud of gloom over a small group of people huddled around the airport coffee shop. They stood, mindless, still dazed by the bustle of the early morning security gate check, vaguely hoping to collect themselves with a cup of something warm. The gigantic windows opening to the twin terminal wings presumed to give patrons something to look at. On this morning, grey planes on a dark grey tarmac with a weeping grey sky backdrop was more than any human wanted to endure.

She arrived on this gloomy scene with the stoic anticipation of a traveler embarking to tropical places. The anticipation that had fueled her excitement for a week now slowed, like a semi toiling over a final grade before the descent into the big city. She was fleeing the gloom, but it stood there, in her path, weaving it’s coils around her mind. Her last thought as she stepped up to the entirely-too-perky-for-this-morning-can-I-get-something-started-for-you-does-it-show-that-I’ve-already-had-six-cups-of-my-own-brewed-to-perfection-coffee Barista was that surely they must have something to help. Her foggy mind deflected most of the Barista’s assault, but she realized she could now read the menu. Or at least one line of the menu. Pumpkin Spice Latte. That would do.

The bustle behind the counter swirled, in stark contrast to the rest of the coffee lounge. Wide padded benches under a fifty-foot ceiling invited people to take in the airport experience in three-dimensional grandeur, to forget about the world and become part of it all at the same time. People sat, lost in their paper, in slow conversation, in gripping determination to make it out of there. Others, who were further into their morning coffee rituals, talked in small pockets of conversation, becoming aware and then trying to distract themselves from the growing dreariness outside. She found a seat open between two of these groups, conversation on one side, sullen silence on the other, and dropped down just long enough to unload her bags, and to hear her number from behind the counter. The dissonance between the sudden relief of unloading and having to get right back up again made her forget herself. She left her bags momentarily unattended, realizing this with a pang of angst as she reached out to the counter for her coffee. The sudden fear of non-compliance disrupted her so badly she nearly abandoned her reach to rush back to her bags, and fought down the panic by focusing on the warmth of the cup. She sat back in her seat again, sighing with relief that no one called security, and tucked her purse and travel bag close against her left hip, nesting them between herself and the end of the bench. She checked the time, mentally gauged just how relaxed she had time to get, and then settled in to her coffee and surroundings. Her awareness of the gloom outside returned.

 

Her internal commentary slowly turned to the irony of traveling to the tropics on a cold autumn day like this, and she inhaled deeply of the aroma curling from the cup. She found herself transported through a magic portal, suddenly thinking about the things yet undone for winter – the next leaf-raking, the turning of her garden, and draining her garden hose and packing it into its winter place in the garage. Another sip of her coffee enveloped her mind, flavoring her thoughts with notions of how things should be in this season. She thought about November, and how things would be when she returned. Slush on the night streets, lights glaring off the wet pavement. She thought about the blanket of leaves that would lay overher small yard, covering it up to its chin for its winter’s sleep. The bustle of costumed children trampling up to her door on Halloween echoed in the back of her mind. Her cat’s warmth as she sat in the evening reading, and being with this companion, while the winds of November howled in vain outside. Her favorite chair and side-table, with books she liked, called to her from through that portal. She found herself hoping she wouldn’t miss it.

She inhaled deeply of the thick spice steam that lingered in the cup after the last was gone. The grey of the morning brightened from its predawn gloom , she could begin to see the pattern of the rain outside on the tarmac. And with the smell of autumn still swirling around her head, almost…almost she turned back to the exit, to hail a cab, and to go check on the sleeping bulbs in her garden.

Not free yet

Departing the I-5 corridor in Olympia to the west in favor of Highway 101 to Port Angeles is much more than just an exit from the freeway when traveling on the bike. A gradual but gratifying process begins to empty me of the chaff of life. From the very first sweeping right turn at exit 104 that slings me under the interstate and onto the side highway, I feel something leaving me, some palpable entity whose inertia has prodded me like an unwilling goat for the last hundred miles, leaving me with an illogical sense of haste I cannot understand. I can sense it, still moving northward on the freeway I just left, every moment an ever-widening gap between that thing and I as it searches first for me, and then for some other easy victim. I have shaken it from my path. But I’m not free yet.

 

Three exits on this short burst of new freeway, and then the busy intersections and traffic of the city fade, extra lanes disappear, and after a few short miles are nearly completely gone.  Rural scenery replaces strip malls, and as the buildings disappear, so does an entire level of stress. My mind begins to slow. But I’m not free yet.

 

For the next half hour a greenway rolls past. In the open air of the saddle of the motorbike, a full azimuth of the arching foliage welcomes me through a kind of gateway. In autumn, this stretch of road is brilliant orange, red, and yellow, interspersed with the deep green of spruce, fir, and cedar. It has been nine months since I last traveled this path. If you’ve experienced it, if you know that autumn display, it stays with you forever, even here in the height of summer, and it colors your view with anticipation of another season. The road continues like this, passing through a couple towns, skirting one using a bypass, and then leading into the wilder country. But I’m not free yet.

 

After passing Shelton, the road shrinks to two lanes, and I feel like I’m stepping out of one world into a different one, that seems at once smaller, and larger, than the confined domineering existence of the city. Every mile I travel, another pound of tension drops off of me, like loosened shackles. The narrow road weaves beneath my wheels like a tightrope walker’s line, I push the bike along it, balancing and dancing its path as if a rebirth awaits me at the other end. The Olympic mountain range drives upward powerfully to my left, into snow capped jagged peaks which from this close range I only glimpse occasionally through the dense forest, but I can feel their presence. The smooth, soothing waters of Puget Sound rest gently just to my right, the road wending along its shores squeezing in between water and mountains. Vacation homes line the shores in some places, in others old bridges span across marshes, where the rivers caroming from the heights of the mountains finally spread out into individual streams so numerous and dense in places that the land becomes a marshland network of creeks. Fishermen work this shallow delta, and I smile to myself to see them again, as if they were cousins I’ve known all my life, and am returning to. But I’ve never met them. The bike reminds me to ride on. I’m not free yet.

 

Soon, all that’s left is the occasional house, with long-forgotten equipment in and around rotting barns, shoulder-high grasses hiding clumps of iron that used to be a crane, or a water truck, or an old sawmill bandsaw, waiting for someone to stop long enough to listen to the tales of long ago. So many tales to be told. I want to stop, someday, and listen to their stories, because I feel that I’m among friends again, but I am fleeing today, and cannot stop to ask for cover in their undisturbed appearance. Not yet.

 

The road leaves the shore, and winds its way up through a pass. The road peaks, drops through a series of blind curves through a wide ravine that suddenly opens into a new valley, yet another distance from the city. This place feels so removed from the city that it cannot be felt at all. Small farms here grow their hay and crops with the wild abandon that the rain forest climate provides. Soon, just like the replanted clear-cuts that cover over completely in two seasons on the vast mountainsides above, the last traces of my having been in the city have been cleared from my mind, and overgrown with fond memories of these places. But I’m not free yet. Not quite.

 

I turn aside from the highway, and ride a short distance up a road I only know for its penchant for going nowhere particular. It is a secret road, and I’ve only traveled a mile up its length, ever. And that is precisely the distance I travel now, to a wide turnout that commands a view of the valley and the mountains beyond. I stop the bike on the roadside, kill the engine, and wait. I look up to the craggy peaks that I can just see, knowing what is there, waiting for it to come. The wind whispers in the trees. A bird busies itself in some discussion at the bottom of the ravine beside me. The gravel crunches as I turn my foot for balance, still sitting on the bike, waiting. And then it begins. A commanding, colossal silence that is more than an absence of sound washes down the mountain, crossing the narrow valley, roiling towards me as if it will tear me apart. And it will. I relax, and take the wave head on – it thunders over me like a collapsing wave. I drink it in, this deep quiet, letting it fill me up, push out every hint of the chaos and insignificant chatter that has been raging in my head, until the separation between the silence and me no longer exists. I am no longer just myself. I am free.

 

Somewhere in me a smile forms, and a joy without words flows out of me with a force greater than myself. Here, on this back road to nowhere with nothing but a motorcycle, I am at home again.

 

Campfire

This dying campfire huddles before me in front of my stool and beneath my poker, here in this late night hour. It burns a deep, deep red, its chest expanding and contracting erratically across the unmoving chunks of wood it has possessed for these last few hours. In this final stage of its life, it is larger than hours ago when it cooked our dinner. It now occupies my very soul, burning and scorching every other thought from me.

Drawing me in across the hours, it has faded from rampant yellow flames into subdued orange, slowly cooking down to a stately blue. The few flames remaining merely whisper now, just a ragged gasping flow of deep red color inside the coals of dead wood. The sticks and marshmallows, my night’s sacred meditation, is now done. Its final weakness, this melancholy shadow of the strength and fury that made me step back from the eager flames of its youth, has turned out to be its greatest strength, a ragged whisper that has the power to change me like no conquering shout could ever do.

I sparked this fire with a match just a few short hours ago, as I stood feeling the chill of the evening woods. It now sparks a fire within me with its final breath, and that fire will burn in me for days, or maybe weeks, until again I stand in the woods, eagerly anticipating another evening chill, waiting to meet my familiar friend again, waiting to have this quiet, intimate sacred dance again, and for my mind to be kindled again.

 

The Doer of Deeds

Here, on this dimly lit night ferry, a group of truckers bask in the melancholy end of their day of work, relaxing from the work of navigating their rigs through this day. Each has a place to go yet tonight, a short leg of a much longer day’s journey, but they are nearly done. They have gathered around a table, playing dice and quietly joking with each other as if they’ve known each other forever, the bond of their profession bringing them together. Occasionally they erupt in laughter when the dice rolls. A biker sits in the corner with his arms folded over his road-stained leathers, content with his travel, seeming out of place for the well-kept cafeteria deck. The cafeteria has closed, the distant lights of the island hover above and below the blackness of the night across the water, and the smell of the Sea occasionally wafts in. The waters are still, but not the placid smoothness of a lazy summer day. This is the calm of a sea whose guts are still churning from the storm earlier, a sea spent and worn, that still smells of things dredged up by the wind and waves that beat it through the day. A storm has passed, the same storm these truckers and biker have passed through today.

This is not a pretty boat here in the deep of the night. Couples in love do not canoodle their way around the outer decks. Pairs of old ladies, friends from as far back as they can remember, do not sit in seats with their shopping bags from a day in the Big City gabbing about their neighbours. It is a boat of business tonight, of the serious deeds of life being done while others sleep.

In between the biker and the truckers sit a man and his grandson riding home to tell grandma of the wondrous things seen and done today. The little boy asking questions one after another – his energy fading faster than his curiosity. The grandpa answers about every third question, letting the boy walk himself through the others, and smiles at the animated joy that forces the weary child up and for a quick lap of the row seats when an answer dawns on him. Sometimes he winds up at the window, staring at the distant island lights. Sometimes he winds up underneath the seats, exploring for more questions. The questions the young boy asks of his Grandpa are of this new world of Industry. He wants to know about the trucks in the hold. He wants to know where they might be going, what they might contain. He wants to know why the smell of the tires and diesel excites him. He has caught a hint of the connection of his Grandpa, the man that up till now was just an old man who loved him, but now, in the context of this night, he realizes that this old man is part of this world too – and suddenly a knower of Manly Things.

The boy searches for more questions to ask of his Grandpa. He peers at the biker over the back of his chair 40 feet away and studies the leather-clad figure, covered in road-grime and mud and bugs and other short-”u” voweled Earth Words. When the biker’s eyes unexpectedly open, the boy ducks, turns around, and asks his Grandpa another question in low, urgent tones. A low chuckle is the only response. The lad sits in silence for a little while, then surreptitiously steals another glance. The biker’s eyes open again, and the sudden eye contact shocks the boy’s senses. He spins around again, and in the stillness of sitting, not wanting to be seen, the day suddenly overtakes him. His questions fade, the top of his head droops against his grandfather’s shoulder, and the dim lights of the island tiptoe closer without his knowledge.

The biker sits, watching the truckers, listening to the boy’s newfound silence, keeping track of the Ferry personnel and occasional other passengers that wander through the tables looking for something to do. Here, at the bow of the ship, an atmosphere has been created that makes others hurry along, feeling out of place here, looking to find refuge in another part of the ship. This place is for those who have done Deeds today. And this boy is in their midst. The grandfather has, by being here with him on this night amongst the truckers and the biker, shown this boy who he will become, where he belongs in this life, a Doer of deeds.

A friend of mine saw an oddity today, and posted a challenge on facebook to come up with a fun backstory to it.  I might have gotten a little carried away, I don’t know.  This is still pretty raw, but thought I’d throw it out there…

 

 

Ann climbed the concrete slope under the bridge one more time, making sure her little girl still was safely tucked in blankets and cardboard, and then ventured out with her present. She had finished sorting through the bag of clothes donated to the women’s’ shelter and given to her, finding what fit, what didn’t fit – and what she could not wear. Much of what she had received had been usable in some way. But there were a few articles that made no sense – a man’s pair of jeans, a coat that could have fit two of her, 3 dresses that didn’t fit at all and probably were beyond wearing by anyone.

 

And a pair of fabulous shoes.

 

The shoes fit perfectly. It was almost as if they had been made for her. But bright red, with 4” heels – she had put them on, dreamed with them, walked a few awkward steps in them – but they were not her. She could not wear something so out of place with her situation in life. She set them in the “donations” pile hesitantly, wishing and dreaming. But these shoes did not fit into her life.

 

The “donations” pile was a pile she always made each time she got a box. She would take the articles in that pile, and put them in places where people who needed just that sort of article would be most likely to find them. She had earlier taken the jeans and coat to the opposite corner of the onramp, across the onramp’s road and placed them lightly on the fence that kept animals – and people – from accidentally wandering onto the busy freeway above. She knew there were men there that would find them.

 

The dresses she set another block away, behind a tree where another woman would probably pass, walking through the park there where she frequently patrolled. And then Ann returned to her bridge, laid her little girl down to sleep in the nooks formed by the bridge girders, and looked again at the shoes, thinking hard.

 

 

Charlotte twitched with the eager energy of someone absolutely bored to tears, anxious to do something, anything, ready for a good excuse for something crazy. She had never been especially good at long-term relationships, because of this boredom of hers. It had landed her in hot water with the law occasionally, but her reputation as a scientist had gotten her out of anything serious. People would often say, “oh, that’s just Charlotte”, and try to pretend nothing serious had ever happened. Brilliance in her profession had excused things before, but had never explained them. And explanation was all she had ever wanted. She could not understand why she could not stick with anyone, why everything in her near-celebrity life made her so restless, why she sought for something new constantly. And it sometimes hurt. It hurt to know people didn’t understand. It hurt to know there was something wrong inside. But it did not hurt nearly as bad to leave a relationship as it did to stay in it.

 

On this morning, a brutal fog made her glad she had a driver. She often felt silly, having a car come for her that was not hers, and a chauffeur open the door for her. It made her feel even more isolated, and something unreal always lurked inside the gaping maw of the open limousine door. But on this day she was glad not to be the one at the controls. She stared intently at the passing road, trying to guess if she was able to see further than the driver. But it was the road, precisely, that she watched, and not the traffic. Suddenly, out of nowhere she yelled, “Stop the car!” The driver’s sudden lurch to the shoulder only helped the door open faster.

When the idea first hit Ann’s mind, she nearly clapped with glee at the though of the scene that would unfold. It was almost a wicked thought, and she checked herself. It was an unchristian thought, she told herself, to tap into the vanity of the privileged ones, and tempered her image into a kinder way of thinking of it. And then she stole away from her sleeping child, on a mission of joy only she would ever understand.

She had waited until the wee hours, because being out where she could be seen was too risky. She furtively dashed up the onramp until she reached the top, and measured herself up against the “Merging Traffic” sign before counting off 20 paces beyond it. And there, 20 diminutive paces beyond the 82nd street onramp “Merging Traffic” sign, she delivered her payload. Two minutes later she lay beside her daughter, snickering in her mind at the vain but happy discovery some rich lady would have the next morning, one pair of bright red fabulous pumps found on the side of the freeway, free for the taking. The sound of an early morning motorcycle accelerating onto the freeway more than covered the quiet laughter.

 

Charlotte was already back up the freeway before the car completely stopped. The chauffeur tumbled out as fast as he safely could, already knowing the only thing he could do is follow and hope for the best. He caught up with Charlotte 200 yards up the freeway. She was holding a red pair of shoes, and repeating over and over, “This is so weird! This is so weird”, twirling around as if she expected a fairy godmother to pop into existence at any moment.

 

“What, precisely, is so weird?” came a man’s voice that was not any of the ones she expected.

She looked around her, and realized it was not the chauffeur who had spoken. Both she and the chauffeur realized with a shock that raised the hair on their necks that the voice was from a very large biker crouched next to his machine, shrouded in the fog on the onramp. His motorcycle sat silent, and he had a screwdriver in his hand, still held up to the bike. He spoke into his machine, as if the question were not intended for her. But since neither the bike nor Charlotte responded, he repeated his question, this time looking over his shoulder, his hands still held to the machine, “What, I said, is so weird about standing on the side of this freeway in the fog in what I can only refer to as your Sunday best?” The question had a slight sense of irritation to it, as if she’d interrupted him from a meditation. In a way she had, but she did not know this about him yet. All she knew was that the leather jacket tossed over the seat could have clothed her, the chauffeur, her best friend Kim and possibly a large dog, all at the same time. She had to stop herself from the fleeting question of whether it was one cow’s hide that clothed many such men, or many cows who clothed this one. It was one of those types of questions that came to her in times of stress, and one of those that had gotten her in trouble more than once for asking out loud. To her own surprise, she actually answered the question.

 

“These shoes. They were sitting here on the freeway.”

 

“Yes. I see a fair number of shoes on the freeway”, said the biker, in a way that made her think this moment beside his bike was one he was very familiar with. “It’s not as weird as you might think”

 

“But these shoes are mine”, she wheedled, as if talking to her mother explaining her way out of possession of the neighbor’s pie plate. The act fell flat, and she was suddenly brought back to the reason she was standing, in the fog, on the freeway in early morning traffic, with an anxious chauffeur and a really big, broken down biker. The gravity of the situation dawned on her in a way the chauffeur had thought about 50 yards ago. She took a step towards the chauffeur, which was conveniently a step further away from the biker. It occurred to her that a good explanation might protect her. “These shoes – I saw them as we went past. They are mine! Well, they were mine, until I gave them away last week. And then I changed my mind, but I went to the donation center and they were already gone and…” her words were gushing out so fast they crashed into one another, and it was evident that the sound of them disturbed his meditation.

 

The biker rose slowly, and turned in a way that can only have the proper effect in a fog. She stopped talking, feeling suddenly like a little girl nattering about her tea yesterday with Ms. Matilda, the doll in the corner, and all the news that dolls like Ms. Matilda’s were prone to have, cares about the state of the stuffed animals, and worrying about whether Darjeeling was really any better than Earl Grey on a day like this and didn’t she think the curtains would be better served trying to match with a different bed cover…

He carefully set his tools down inside the roll unfolded on the tank, picked up the rag laying next to it, and began meticulously wiping his hands, looking at her with his head turned just a little aside, as if listening to a curiousity at the county fair. It made her feel uncomfortable, as if she were about to be examined for broken parts as well, and she decided to stop sounding like something broken. She stepped a little to one side, then back clutching and glancing at the bizarre discovery in her hands, unsure whether the next gesture from him would be helpful or dangerous.

His face was a cross between the Ghost of Christmas Present and Captain Ahab. Sun, wind, and miles had done a lot of work to create lines on his face, but they had formed in laughter, and he bore the look of an old man smiling regardless of what he wanted to look like. She decided perhaps he was trying to look serious now, and without him actually asking the question, she held the shoes aloft as evidence.

“Interesting”, he intoned, and looked back down the onramp as if a thought had stuck its head out from around the corner, beckoning. He sniffed the air, and thought hard for a moment, as if in a trance, and neither of the two people before him thought to interrupt him. A minute passed and his thinking was clearly of something or someone so entirely different than them that Charlotte began to feel as if she were intruding just to be standing there.

He stirred, began to say something, changed suddenly and addressed the chauffeur instead, “Who, precisely, are you?”

 

“Jeffrey, Sir”, the chauffeur responded stiffly. “ I am Ms. Charlotte’s driver, and am here at her service”, the last part aimed at nudging her to recall the car, the destination, and perhaps a thought for their mutual safety. Charlotte blithely ignored all three. The biker looked the driver up and down, glancing twice at Charlotte and back again, apparently assessing his worthiness for such service.

 

“How long have you been here?” she asked, holding the shoes up at him again as if the question was supposed to answer more than a quantity of time.

 

“Oh, I don’t know. Tune-ups are less a matter of time and more a matter of sound” he said slowly, as if all three were standing in a brick garage somewhere safe and sheltered from the elements, and a philosophical discourse on harmony with one’s machine was the most pertinent topic available. He started to disengage, to return to the work at hand.

 

“And you just come here on the freeway to tune up your bike?” she asked incredulously, completely forgetting the shoes.

 

“Well…” he said, pondering, “I want the bike to smell where it’s going, to be in the mood it will be in while on the highway” He said, and at first she thought he was serious, until she caught the tail end of his eyes rolling as he was turning away, chuckling silently.

 

“wait!” She cried, losing her sense of intimidation. “Did you see anyone while you were here?”

 

“Did I see someone stop by, and drop off a pair of shoes for you? No!” he said, mildly amused. “They said they were for a miss Amelia Earhart, and if I were to see her, would I please see to it that she notices and receives them.” “But…” and he paused himself, almost getting caught in another thought again, “…I have only seen one person today, and she was down there” he nudged his head back down the onramp. “I wouldn’t expect her to have anything to do with those shoes though. I think she was homeless, she’d have picked them up if she knew about them, I expect.” And with that he reached back in to his bike’s mechanicals. Charlotte was already gone, running down the onramp. Jeffrey stood, watching her disappear, watching the biker return to his work, and wondered if he shouldn’t just return to the car for all the good he seemed to be doing.

 

Ann’s sleep had been more disturbed than even usual this morning. Amongst the various highway sounds that always kept her sleep light, something else she couldn’t quite finger gnawed at her efforts at unconsciousness. Something was thinking about her. It made her uneasy – she had felt this feeling before, in fact, it was a recurrent thought that formed the main reason she was living under this bridge. She knew, in her head, that it was just the paranoia, that nothing was really there. But that sense in her heart that Something knew about her, and wanted to know more – was after her – kept her on the run. She had moved from house to house, from man to man, until eventually she had given up on houses, and given up on men, because the Something always found her, always came sniffing around, never showing itself, just thinking…just seeking her, and driving her insane.  She had a child to think about now, and didn’t want the insanity to return.  But now, in this early morning, she felt it again. Something wasn’t quite as it was usually. And she felt afraid.

 

Daylight was driving back the shadows, and Ann knew it was time to move on to the shelter for something to eat. Her young daughter stirred, and woke, and that made it necessary to move on with her day. She gathered the two bags she allowed herself, and her daughter, checked for cars so no one would see her descend, and began to shuffle down the slope to the sidewalk. Her kind thoughts of secret generosity had disappeared, and she was on the run again. As she reached the bottom, a woman’s voice startled her from behind.

 

“Excuse me!”, called the woman. Ann wanted to run back up to the girders, but she knew it was useless. She heard the woman’s running and turned, ready to be ashamed. The woman had stopped running, and now stood with mouth agape, staring. Ann’s gaze hung near the ground, heavy with expectation.

Charlotte rounded the corner of the offramp, and saw a mother furtively descending from the girders of the bridge. She flailed the shoes towards the woman, and bounded towards her, hoping to catch up before the woman reached the bottom. They arrived at the same time, and she called to the woman twice, “excuse me…EXCUSE ME!” As the woman stopped and turned, whatever Charlotte was going to say fled her mind, as yet another shock sprung itself upon her.

The woman was exactly the same height as Charlotte. Her stance was not so upright, and her face was worn with cares and fears Charlotte could not imagine. But it was Charlotte’s own face. Her stance bore the same underlying strength, her face, beneath the lines of worry bore the same radiance and intelligence. They looked more than just sisters. They looked like the same person. Charlottes shocked stare lasted long enough for Ann to look up and return the gaze.

 

“Ann?” Was the only word spoken. It had been so long since Ann had heard that name used that it took a moment to sink in and process, an another moment to sink in that this person knew her name. She looked again, squinting to get a clearer view of this unknown Someone that knew her name. The eighteen years since their last meeting had been a lot longer for her than for Charlotte, and it took a lot longer for her mind to traverse that span of time before she could comprehend what was happening. But when she did, she dropped her two bags, nearly dropped her child, and dropped herself to her knees, caught only at the last minute by her twin sister.  The red shoes, still held in Charlotte’s hand, were soon stained with tears of joy shared between them on the fog-dampened sidewalk.

 

The First Christmas Tree

I never intended to call my first car pretty, until I learned how pretty $700 of your fathers money can make a car. Seven Hundred parentally-sponsored dollars makes a car beautiful. I drove it like it was the love of my life. But of course, it was not. It did, however, carry the love of my life well. And so I loved this car, because soon after I acquired it, the true love of my life and I were married, and this car drove us off into the sunset.

A few months later, on a beautiful winter’s morning, in our beautiful car, with my beautiful new wife, we headed out together towards the beautiful hills. The hills were beautiful not because of how they looked, but because of what they held. Somewhere up there, secreted away in a location we did not yet know, sleeping quietly in the snow, was our First Christmas Tree. The saw, the rope, the permit, all had been packed the night before. The hot chocolate was poured into the thermos, lunch was packed into the basket, and I invited my wife outside to board the carriage with a flourish. My beautiful wife raised a beautiful eyebrow at the skis now tied to the top of the car. Seven months of gestation will cause that kind of doubt in a woman. I hastily assured her she wouldn’t be wearing the skis, nor would she be expected to follow, should they become necessary. Her eyebrow was lowered, slowly, and the honeymoon glow returned to her face. It was all beautiful again.

We drove into the hills until a small paper sign on a roadside post matched the code on our forest service map and permit, and we turned onto a snow-packed side road. Soon it ended in a widened area, and we prepared ourselves for the Big Event. She reached over and squeezed my hand.

We glanced at each other before getting out of the car, and again as we stood, looking over the little Bug at each other, bubbling like children in anticipation. I surveyed the tree line for the easy candidates, and they met my expectations – picked-over shrubs that would be suitable for nothing more than potted side-table ornaments. We would have to hike in. We were not small, feeble denizens of safety. We were of robust pioneer stock, and a robust tree was the only kind that would do.

The service road led us through shin-deep snow a short ways to another clearing, and we decided to work the perimeter of the clearing, to look up close at the specimens. I carried my rope over my shoulder and under one arm, swashbuckling style, and brandished my tree-saw at the underbrush as we left the road. I took one step off the road and sank waist-deep into the snow. My wife looked down from the road, now three feet taller than I, momentarily debating laughter. She then elected silence, without a word turning back towards the car.

“No, I have a plan!” I slung the words like a snaring net, hoping to capture her interest back to me. We were only a few months into this marriage, and she still believed I had common sense. She stopped, and waited for an explanation on how a seven-month-pregnant woman should be expected to wade through three feet of snow. I flopped on my back, away from her.

When I sat back up, a six-foot trail had been prepared for her. I thought about the story of the chivalrous duke casting his cloak over a puddle before the lady wanting to get into the carriage, a story I couldn’t remember in detail, but felt that surely I was worthy of copying. I hurled myself back again, making a snow path, until I had cleared about 15 feet. It seemed like a good idea, but five minutes later with snow in every crevice of my body it seemed impractical even to me. So I began to stomp.

And stomp I did, for a full hour. At the end of that hour, my wife was more worn out from laughing at my insanity than from walking through the trench behind me. It was a fine trench, but a finer insanity. She cast her royal gaze across the clearing, and summarily proclaimed that it held no decent Christmas tree candidates. I had to agree, though speaking was difficult by this time. We stumbled back to the car. The short walk down the service road was enough for me to regain my youthful idiocy – I mean, energy, and by the time we arrived at the car I had a new plan. I opened the door for my wife, sat her down, covered her with a blanket we’d brought along, poured her hot chocolate out of the thermos she had brought, and pulled my skis off the car’s top. “Now”, I thought, “we can do this Man-style”.

I headed up the road for about an eighth of a mile. Each time I stopped to look around, the only sound was the sound of wind, open and easy, blowing across the mountain. I let my gaze span the wide landscape, opening up to the mountainside, the vastness of the woods, and to the valley below that stretched to the horizon. And then, just to the left of me, ahead by 50 yards, The Tree got tired of waiting. It shook off some snow, the sudden muffled whump of snow hitting the ground bringing me back to the moment, and to the Tree itself.

It was just the right height, from where I stood. It was just the right shape, full, well-formed, perfect in every way. I slid up to it with an easy swish, the skis stopping of their own accord, as if carrying me to a destination they already knew. This was without a doubt the Chosen Tree. All I had to do was bring it down, carry it back, and drive it home. Easy.

As I knelt in the snow, and unloaded my equipment, I realized I needed to dig for myself a spot to get at the tree with the saw. I dug down into the snow, scooping it out in armfuls. I realized there was another layer of branches actually buried in the snow, and freed them. They were as equally well-formed as the rest, so I decided to include them. More digging. Eventually, with more effort than I intended, I was ready to cut.

It took a moment to realize that my difficulty in cutting was the size of the trunk. I hadn’t realized how big around it was when I first surveyed the tree. But youthful determination being what it was, I persisted, and eventually the tree dropped.

It didn’t drop with the light swooshing sound I expected from my years with my dad cutting down trees for our family. It cracked and groaned, and went down like a mighty warrior, hitting the ground like a punishment. The violence of it’s demise caught me by surprise, brought me around to an awareness of my situation that had been missing. I surveyed my tree again. It was no mere sapling. I looked back at the hollow I had dug for myself, and realized I had dug down nearly 6 feet. Then I saw that the six feet I had dug was merely from the already hollowed out base of the tree. From the average snow line was more like ten feet. I had not cut a christmas tree – I had felled timber. I thought about the exact wording of my permit.

But still, the trophy was mine, and by golly, it was going to be gotten back to be viewed, approved, and adored by my mate. I hauled and huffed, twisted and grunted, and got the tree turned around and lined up to be dragged back to the car. It took about fifteen minutes to turn the tree, stumbling through the snow crust with the extra weight of the tree trunk in my arms, but eventually it began to move in the direction of the car. Thirty minutes later, exhausted, bruised, scratched, and covered with sticky, aromatic pitch, I broke free into the clearing where our car was. I had conquered the beast. I dropped the tree as soon as its entirety was within the vague circle of the clearing area, like a fresh bleeding boar just killed, and stood proudly over it on my skis, exalting in my manhood. My wife rose out of the car, gawking. Yes…I was The Man. I waited for her to say it.

“What on earth?” Were the first words.

“What are you…?” Was the second phrase

“We can’t take that back home.”, came third, as a pronouncement of final doom and disdain.

I realized at this critical moment that presentation was everything, so I lifted the tree as upright as I could, “But look how perfect it is”, I struggled to maintain my dignity as the tree sank suddenly and heavily into the snow, whipping a large branch menacingly up between my skis, stopping short of causing any life-altering damage.

As I twisted desperately aside she collapsed back into the seat of the car, and laughed.

Realizing that my manly pride was at risk from an acute attack of common sense, I changed tactics, defending my choice by reminding her how great the car was. She rolled her eyes. I swore to her I could get it onto the car. She shook her head and laughed some more. And so with the strength of a man whose dignity is called into question, I wrestled it to the top of the car while she stood by. It took a full fifteen minutes to get it there, and another to work the ropes until I felt it was safe for the road. In the end, we had a tree tied to a car, ready to go. Intestinal fortitude had triumphed over common sense.

I opened the door with a flourish, to beckon her into the waiting carriage. Well, I would have opened it, but the realization that the doors were tied shut with rope through the open windows transmitted itself to me through the sudden, painful, violent resistance in my shoulder. She didn’t exactly laugh this time. What she did do can only be described as hysterics. I’ve heard women with child will do this from time to time. In my prideful hurt, I reminded her of the Lamaze breathing training, and reminded her as any new father should that I was her coach. And I walked her through a breathing set. I did all this outside of arms reach of course. It was some time before her laughter became audible, but leaning against the side of the car, eventually she started to breath again and howls of laughter burst forth, echoing through the clearing.

When she was recovered, I announced with as much dignity as I had left that I had a plan. Her eyebrow raised again. And with that, I scooped her up bodily, and placed her feet inside the window, and indicated I expected the rest of her to follow. She protested, then slid awkwardly toward the passenger seat. She demanded I swear I would never tell what she looked like at the point where both mother and child were entering the car. I told her my dignity had affected my hearing, and could she please repeat that. And then we both laughed as she and our yet-unborn daughter settled into their seat.

I lashed the skis to the sides of the tree, and slid myself into the driver’s side, like a race driver. I felt the car move as if it were a whole new vehicle as we began down the road. The tree extended in front to the very edge of the bumper, and in back was actually two feet longer than the Beetle itself. But with fifty feet of rope wrapped around it, the Bug was going to follow that tree to its final destination long before they would become separated. And so we eased ourselves onto the icy mountain highway.

A 1966 VW bug is not, shall we say, the most aerodynamic of vehicles even on the best of days. When augmented by timber on its way to the mill it operates more like a hang glider than a motor car. And so we eased down the road at a top speed of about 45mph, feeling our way through gentle breezes, the patches of ice on the road, and our own mirth at our youthful idiocy. A large station wagon overtook us in the other lane, suddenly swerving and braking hard when they came up beside us, apparently not realizing until the last moment that they were overtaking an actual car, and not debris on the highway. People gawked as I nursed strained muscles and broken skin in the parking lot of the department store where we stopped to pick up a christmas tree stand. When we arrived home, I cut the ropes, and freed my wife. I had offered to slide her out the door the way she got in, I forget the exact response, but I remember something about God’s green earth.

I contemplated the unfettered tree still perched on top of the car for several minutes, before deciding to cut it in half. The top barely fit inside the house. My wife made wreaths to give away to family and friends with the rest. And in the end, that mighty little car was forever etched in my mind as the Greatest Car Ever.