The skinny white man and Indian woman fluttered about like balloons in the parking lot of the closed down coffee shop. He wore giant white tennis shoes and his pale thin and scabbed legs sprouted from them like sun-starved stalks of grain. She was barefooted, a tattoo here and there, and wore a black evening gown through which her beer belly desperately tried to escape. They both carried large duffel bags that seemed to be the only things keeping them from floating away forever. They twitched, spat, kicked at invisible objects on the ground, drifted away from each other only to collide again a few steps further down the sidewalk. I watched them from the window of the Chinese joint on the Yakima Indian Reservation in Washington state, where I dined that evening.
“Make sure you tell the waitress you want whatever you’re gonna get to be spicy,” said the young Indian host as she led me to my table, a few minutes before. “The cook doesn’t make it spicy and if you don’t get it spicy it’s…well…”
“Thanks for the tip,” I replied.
She turned away, took a few steps, then turned around. “Are you here for the hot rod show?”
“Why are you…here…then?”
“Heading back home to California.”
She smiled, walked away. I closed my eyes, rubbed them, rubbed them harder. I’d left Grand Forks, North Dakota the previous morning and had been driving straight on since, stopping only to sleep for 4 hours in my Jeep in a motel parking lot somewhere in Montana because there…
“Ain’t gonna be a motel room for you anywhere probably,” said one of the many hotel clerks I’d talked to along I-94 West. “It’s vacation season, they all headin down t’Yellowstone from every direction. And it’s construction season, too. And a course you got all the bikers headin down to Sturgis for the biker rally.”
I finally found a room at the Sunrise Valley Inn on the Yakima Reservation. $54. A dip in the mattress and a broken lamp, but a good air-conditioner. And of course, the Chinese restaurant next door with the Indian host and a leather-tanned gaunt shell of a waitress coming to my table and asking, “Hi there, honey, watch’a havin today?” just like out of some black and white TV show.
“I’ll have the General Tso’s Chicken.”
“Alright, I’ll be right back with it, dear.” Then she blew away to the kitchen like a tumbleweed.
I turned back to the window. The skinny white fellow and Indian woman had dropped the duffel bags and were moving about like pinatas being swung at by many invisible children.
I closed my eyes again, nearly falling asleep after a few seconds. I jerked my head and almost fell out of my booth. I looked around, no one among the half-dozen or so other customers seemed to notice or care. I rubbed my face, took a long gulp of ice water. It was after I swallowed the water that the decision I had to make – that I’d been able to outrun all the way from Grand Forks, ND – found me. The North Dakota Museum of Art had offered me the position of Director of Program Development. Nice salary. Insurance. Vacation. Personal and sick days. The whole shebang. I didn’t apply for the job, but I just so happened to be around when the guy who had it before gave notice. Laurel, the curator of the museum, said, “why don’t you take it?” I told her I’d think about it, then tried not to think about it. But now – in that Chinese restaurant on the Yakima Indian Reservation – take the job, don’t take the job echoed in my skull as I waited for my meal. I was torn. I didn’t want to leave LA, but the job promised creative freedom and a steady paycheck. I rubbed my eyes harder as if poking my fingers through my eyes and massaging my brain would somehow help me make the right decision. Right decision??? said one of the voices in my head. What the f#$k’s a right decision these days???
The waitress came. “Here ya go, honey.”
I dug into the plate with a fork, twisted the lo mein noodles, stabbed at a piece of radio-active orange chicken. Starving but not hungry. Tired but wired. I took a bite…oh, I forgot to order it spicy.
Back to the window. The skinny white man stood in the middle of the street, peering down the street in one direction then the other…I took a bite…his eyes were the size of silver dollars…tasteless…the woman squatted down and began digging through one of the duffel bags…I swallowed…her gown drifted up over her ass…chew, chew…she didn’t mind…swallow, another bite…she pulled a tube of toothpaste and a bottle of water out of the bag, shouted at the skinny guy…lukewarm, tough flesh of fowl…he scrambled over to her and they each squirted a load of toothpaste into their mouth, brushed their teeth with their fingers…chew, chew, swallow…then they each took a huge swig from the water bottle, gurgled, spat…another bite, sweet rubber…then they hovered down the street together like balloons not quite light enough to escape into the darkening sky.
Bite…take the job, don’t take the job, take the…chew.
An old Asian women came out from the kitchen and began wiping down tables. The gaunt waitress followed her from table to table.
“I’m ain’t gonna do that for him no more,” the waitress said to the old woman.
“Mmm-hmm,” said the old Asian woman.
“Not gonna put myself through it again.”
…take it, don’t take it…
“Not for him or any other man.”
“I’m done with other people causin me problems.”
Chew. No expectations.
The waitress came over. “You done, honey?”
She handed me a check. “Have a good evening and come back.” Then she resumed following the little Asian woman from table to table. I paid the bill and left.
“Have a safe trip back home to California,” said the young Indian host on my way out.
Home? California? Take it…don’t…
I walked back to my room at the Sunrise Valley Inn, turned the AC as low as it would go and went to sleep.
The parking lot was full of classic cars the next morning. Male baby-boomers stood around wearing Hawaiian shirts, shorts, smoking and talking to each other about their cars. Female baby-boomers were putting luggage in the trunks of the cars. I threw my bag in the Jeep and headed out of town on Highway 12.
Three of the old cars followed me, westward, through the Cascade Mountains. Sunlight wiggled through the tall pines. The morning was comfortably warm. I rolled the windows down and let the sweet wet pine scented air come in. Everything felt so fine, like that moment of weightlessness between jumping high on a trampoline and descending again. I was on a road I’d never been on before, seeing things I’d never seen before. Where I really like to be. But every time I glanced in my side-view mirror and saw the old cars, it was as if I were transported to 1962, or thereabouts…when those drivers were young, working men, not retired old fogies…hey, if you take the job, you can work for 25 years then you can be an old retiree driving a classic car with a smoking habit on top of a zipper scar on your chest from a triple bypass underneath a Hawaiian shirt, too. Ok, I will ask you what you’ve been afraid to ask yourself, are you…that would be me…SELLING OUT if you…me…take the job?
I pulled off at the next observation area to let the three old cars pass me. I got out of the car, stretched my legs, took a few deep breaths, looked out across the valley to see Mount Rainier. Big beautiful giant bald Mount Rainier. I’ve seen you Mount Rainier, you are real to me now…that weird feeling weightlessness came back, but seconds later so was…take the job, don’t take the job, take the job…
From there I hauled ass toward the coast of Oregon. Logging, logging, logging. Like patchwork over the mountains, clusters of tall trees grew next to clusters of shorter trees that’d been planted to replace the felled trees that’d been shipped down to the mills along the giant Columbia River that twisted faithfully with the highway. At Astoria, the Columbia spilled into the Pacific Ocean. There, I turned south on Highway 101 and began the long slow trek down the Oregon coast.
…take it…don’t take it…take it…
My view out the left window was of the deep green forest. The view out the right was the endless Pacific. The smell of pine mixed with the smell of salt air. The sun was high in the cloudless blue sky.
Every now and then, I’d come to a town. Most were bustling with tourists, with a few ratty drifters about, but others had more drifters, less tourists. The money just wasn’t in those towns, so neither was the heavy traffic, and I passed through those towns quickly. I couldn’t figure out why some towns had the tourists industry and some didn’t. Because you’ve never been able to get a grasp on the nature of money, Todd. But now with this job you can, though you’d no longer be your own boss. And you’d be in an office, wearing a tweed sports coat with leather elbow patches…look down from your desk…your feet are so cozy in those leather dress shoes…maybe on your two-week vacation you can come back here and be a tourist, if your boss ALLOWS you…shut up!
I pulled off the 101 somewhere south of Cannon Beach late that afternoon. I took a trail through a downward sloping meadow of high grass. The crashing of waves grew louder until suddenly I was feet away from the sharp jagged drop down to the ocean. The blue-green water below crashed into white foam against the dark grey stones 100 feet below. The sun was a couple of hours above the horizon, where the blue ocean stopped. Just like that, the ocean ended with a straight line as if everything started and stopped in straight surgical lines. No loose ends, what if’s or maybe’s. No emotional entanglement, no broken hearts. Just start…just stop…begin…end…psst…take it, don’t take it…or, just jump. It would be so easy, just lift one foot and then Geronimooooooo…
I continued onto the trail which ran along the ledge leading into a forest. Under the canopy of the trees, no grass grew. Only eons of dead limbs and leaves lay on the ground. The ocean breeze couldn’t reach me, and only a the stray sun ray could find me, peaking at me from behind a tree every now and then. But eventually, I was able to shake that sun ray, and found a place so quiet and dark where Existence reduced to a low hum and dull glow. On the trail before me lay a pile of fresh animal droppings. Too big for a squirrel, raccoon. What if it’s a bear, a mountain lion, Todd?! A pang of fear rushed through me, but was followed by total calm. I took a deep breath. My shoulders, my jaw, my back, relaxed as I let it out. A bear? A tiger? I wouldn’t run. Life’s been good. I wouldn’t run. The crashing waves sounded a million miles away. Tiny little snaps of twigs here and there. What are you gonna do? Me? Yeah, you. I’m gonna take the job. You are, why? Because it scares me more than not taking it. I’ve gotta do the things that scare me. Good answer, Todd. I know it is.
A few nights later, in Hollywood, I told my buddy Luis about the job offer, the ocean, the forest, the droppings, the decision.
“Sounds to me like you got a direct f#$king sign,” he said. “And a ticket out of Bohemia.”
“That’s what scares me, leaving Bohemia. I’m not sure if I wanna leave, or it’s just what I’m used to. You know, I saw a sign in Oregon, somebody was hiring carpenters—”
“You’ve done that, bro,” said Luis. “You know how to barely get by on building things. This is The Universe giving you something new. It’s the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new chapter.”
Luis was in between chapters of his own book, too. He’d been in LA all summer, performing for Independent Shakespeare Company’s summer festival. When the summer ended, he’d be returning to Houston to begin a new job heading up a youth poetry program in high schools across the city. He’d be drawing a steady salary, and could wear a tweed jacket with leather elbows to work, if he wanted to. We spent most of the night telling ourselves that we’ve reached the end of struggling to get by on whatever we can, that where we were headed was something bigger, better for the both of us.
“Man,” said Luis, as we walked down the dark Hollywood street – just after midnight – through it’s shadows, distant sirens and it’s eternal echoing of whispered promises, “I didn’t know I was a bohemian until somebody told me the other night that I was, in fact, a bohemian. I just called it living. But I’m done with barely scraping by, shit…I’m done starving, bro.”
We we got to my car I hugged Luis, said farewell. Then we stood there, staring at each other with something resembling smiles but more like silly, scary expressions of wonder.
“Man, we made it,” he said. “The next chapter. Travel safe, bro, talk to you soon.”
I pulled out of LA the next morning. Around noon I hit the bridge over the Colorado River and the end of California. My heart rate sped up, I grew shaky. “Man oh man,” I remember whispering. When I passed over the river, the last 14 years – LA to Chicago to New York back to LA – passed before me, and kept going. I felt like a part of me…died. Yep, died. But that’s ok, where things die, new things grow.
A fast drive to Texas. A fast week with my mom and sisters. Then a long drive straight up the middle of America. I’d left Grand Forks on August 1st, drove 7,500 miles in a complete circle around The West and by the time I arrived in Grand Forks on August 26th I was exhausted and huge chunks of me were missing. But new things are growing…