Roof Poopin’

It was a terrace Saturday and maybe we were just basking out there but Savi looked over the kneewall separating us from the neighboring rooftops and there, furtively picking a path between the terra cotta tiles, crept a little orange kitty. Being an experienced kitty rancher on the order of the Bubbles character from Trailer Park Boys, I proved once again the time-honored truth that cats will swallow their fear as long as they can wash it down with delicious, delicious meat.

At first I’d set a strip of jamon serrano on the knee-wall to see a little orange paw flash up and claim it. Maybe I’d dangle a strip of bacon or some chicken skin and let him war with his instincts and lose. Little by little, with constant persuasion-by-protein, the kitty gained the courage to leap onto the terrace. A bowl was set for him and on it the usual meat scraps or else a little white milk puddle for the lapping. Soon his skittishness became persistence and on a fateful day, he stepped through our door.

Last night he wedged himself between us in bed (no doubt the warmest spot in the house). He knows how to open our living room window and worse, the refrigerator door. We once were alerted to his presence by a quiet scratching from inside the fridge; he’d opened the door and under its own weight it’d shut on him, casting him immediately into cold darkness for we don’t know how long. We buy him cat food and give him pens to play with. He disappeared for a week and lately returned sans his male equipment, so he’s got owners several rooftops over who care for him. We’re thinking of buying flea collars in several different colors so as to fuck with his real parents big time. Of course his name is Kitty, the same as all of the cats who’ve leapt in and out of my life. The rooftops are his toilet and hunting ground, and as we’re in an arid climate rather than receive the sort of gifts given by temperate-weather cats (birds, mice, moles, rabbits) we get halves of lizards and bats. The lives of kitties are mysterious and wonderful.

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Border Dance

Putzing along as I do, making money, and then the mother of one of my students approaches me about contract work with a nearby high school, and a contract with a local Manpower-like place. All good, save for my simmering illegality, my alien-hood, and I dash for Gibraltar two days later.
The day between found me in a three-hour interview with Pilar, who among hispanohablantes may be possessed of the greatest patience…that’s right, three hours in Spanish, the language I studied for two years three years ago, never once pulling an “A” in a semester. Immersion really is magic, though, as I’ve watched from the stands as my Iberian tongue has become clearer and sharper over the last few months. Pilar offered me a 320-hour contract if I could be contracted, with a €8,000 payoff. Between her and the school, which also pays fairly well, I was feeling particularly compelled as I stepped on the Algeciras bus at 7:30 a.m.

Five hours later I’d made it to the frontera, la Linea de la Concepción, or la Linea, or simply, la frontera. On the way in Andalucia looked for the world like SoCal, and the climate on my skin proved my impression true; palm trees waving, whitewashed buildings, easy decay, all soaking in the airy flavor of stalled progress.

So what if the world’s falling apart? It’s always been falling apart, and I’m late for work again.

Thirty minutes before, I’d encountered people publicly praying for the first time. The maritime port of Algeciras is open to the third world and the man was on the sidewalk, on his knees and facing east. Odd in Spain, of course, because as conservative the Catholics are on the face of it, what with the mosques-turned-churches, the incessant clanging of the bell towers, and a weeping, bleeding Christ on your lottery tickets, they’re also birds of paradise, unwilling to reveal their downy undersides to, well, the anonymous crowd. The image stayed with me for its contrast against the pervading dodgy-ness of the port. You know the extras you see in action films, where the protagonist must snoop around “down at the docks” and these criminal stevedores are loading contraband of some stripe onto a dark freighter? You know the leather jackets and shoes that would be expensive if they weren’t African knock-offs? Right; them. They’re real, and they hang out in Algeciras. I wasn’t too sad to leave in a taxi because, after all, I had gotten off at the wrong stop.

Of all the pueblos on the line to the southern coast of Spain, only Algeciras had two stops. The woman driver tried to convince me to let her take me to la frontera, “only 28 euros,” she said, claiming that the bus would be slower and like, 15 euros. Having imbued myself with an extraordinary-if-not-spotty bullshit sensor, I declined, handed her €7, and took the bus from the  estacion de autobuses for €2 on to la Linea.

I have forgotten to explain that this move, this flight to a UK territory, was in the interest of getting my American passport stamped “out” and my Canadian passport stamped “in”.

Back to the moment of my disembarkation from that cheap bus: shortly after I stepped down, I noticed an older gentleman (not a pensioner, just older) and noting the confusion in his carriage, was not surprised when he approached me and asked in French which way to the frontier. I explained in English and Spanish that this was my first time to Gibraltar and he switched to hampered English, agreeing that he was as lost as me. Fine, I said, I think it’s this way, and off we went together toward the Rock.

Let me tell you: the rock of Gibraltar really is huge. The Prudential commercials don’t do it justice, and I suspect strongly that the rock will be there long after the last couch potato who could have associated it with an insurance commercial has blinked out of existence. Here’s some context:

Misty!

We passed the border guards and they only looked at the exterior of my passport booklet; it was blue, and my friend’s was maroon, so pass. God forbid you look remotely African, and prepare yourself for delay if any ink has polluted your bloodline. In this way, the world remains broken.

And thus it was I gained a traveling partner. He told me of France as we wandered up the street, that sometimes being better than humping it along a trajectory. Along we went sharing stories and by and by we came upon a cathedral, where my friend bent a knee for a few minutes while I, somewhat guiltily, snapped photos of the architecture. For he was Catholic, he told me as we left, like many French, but even more like all the people from his tiny country, who of course were unilaterally so. What little country was this, I wondered aloud; Lichtenstein?

“Everyone says this about Lichtenstein,” he said, “but they have not been there like me. Lichtenstein is banks. Like this,” he said, gesturing along the street at the English facades, “would be banks, not clothing, not the irestaurant – just banks. There is nothing.” Maybe I expressed disgust, but was more keen to guess correctly and preparing my shame for the moment he out and told me.

“No, no, it’s for the, how do you say…suspense! For to keep you in suspense,” he grinned, and then reminded me that time was of the essence, that I had less time than his smallish window, for tonight he would be in his beloved Morocco. This talk of time became more prevalent until it was with some urgency he asked that we find a tourist bureau, or could I use my expert English on these English because you know how they feel about the French.

Gibraltar being a British playground, of course I spied a Lutheran church. Upon entering I bent a knee and crossed myself (because isn’t that what one does in churches?) and my friend, alarmed, asked if I was Lutheran. No no, I said, and asked the girl working where we might find a tourist bureau.

“You know Casemates?” she said, and reading our ignorance went into explaining the way and off we went with a “God bless”. Casemates was the big square, bustling and on the other end of town.

“It’s curious,” said my friend, on the way there, “that we know now a good deal about each other and yet we do not share our names.”

I offered mine and he said, “Pierre. Are you Jewish?” as all people say. “Because I am friend of Jews. Except in (here my memory blanks; I don’t remember what country he was in…maybe France?), where I went to a Jewish cemetery. I stayed with a powerful Jewish family,” he said, looking over his glasses in all seriousness, “…aristocrats! The matron told me to wait and she would come on a tour of the town, but of course I must go alone as always, so I said thank you and went. I went to a cemetery, an all-Jewish cemetery with guards.”

“Guards? Of the cemetery?”

“Now, they were not real police,” he countered. “They were, how is it, neighbor-, neigh-”

“Neighborhood watch?”

“Yes, this, and when they saw me they asked am I Jewish. Of course I said no and when they saw that they asked for my passport. Well, I did not have it! I left it with the matron and they did not care. They said if I was not Jewish and did not have an ID I could not come in. What, did they think I was a terrorist? Look at me!”
I had to laugh, seeing this professor of French People Abroad in his traveling jacket and vest, tie tucked neatly and thin blond hair parted along an unyielding line.

“And so I told them that they would be happy when they heard from my host family, ho ho, and I heard that things did not go so well for them. That I won’t comment about.” Who was this Pierre? He was a world citizen, embarking upon his first voyage when he was a young teenager. He skipped school one Friday and told his parents he was going to Estonia instead, for the weekend.

“Lithuania”, he finally said, and I had to admit I’d never, to my knowledge, met a Lithuanian. “We aren’t many, and let me tell you about Baltic language. We have many, for example, Lithuanian and Poland, which is close enough. I can understand Polish people with no problem but Latvia, what do they say? I don’t know. They don’t understand me, I don’t understand them. And we are neighbors.”
After buying some postcards, we sat down for coffee and I ate some French fries. Our waitress was Scottish, and when I went to use the loo (as you must call it in Gibraltar) I begged her pardon and explained my situation.

“You mean he’s not your da?” she said, with a little laugh.

“I met him in the bus terminal.”

“Complete strangers?”

“Before today, and this is how the world goes for me,” I said. I got out of her that the taxis were pricey but a person could get to the top of the mountain by trolley car, which you could get to quickest by bus. I thanked this Glasgowan and asked her where, if I were to go, should I start in Scotland.

“Glasgow!” she said, rushing off to a waiting table.

“Of course.”

And then I made a mistake. I came back to the table and told Pierre that the girl told me all we wanted to know about transport and that, funny thing, she thought he was my dad. Suddenly my friend became sullen and quiet, looking down onto his postcards.

“Of course, she would want very much to talk to a young man like you, for you have this, this, film look-”

“What are you talking about?! “Film”, like movie-”

“Yes, like movie star, with the hair, and the youth-”

“Oh, Pierre, no-”

“Yes, yes, I am old. I know.”

“No, no, no, you aren’t old! Look at you, you are here, on your own. Do you feel old,” I prodded, trying to save him.

“No, not really. But everyone has their complex,” he said. “Everyone has a complex, and this is mine. I remember when I first felt old; it was when I was nineteen.”

“Nineteen?!”

“Yes, my peers all were out every night and me, no, I was with a book. From that time, I felt old.” I understood now that of the galaxy of complexes a person could have, I had hit upon the one that Pierre did have. I truly felt bad, and told him if he had a question that he should go ask the girl (he assumed I was making time with her), for no other reason than to prove that she would talk to him. Of course he didn’t and I chatted with her some more as we were leaving, learning through this that she hated Gibraltar and wanted more than everything to get back to Scotland and win a job with the government, as a counselor of government employees. She was a comely blonde, and I wish Pierre had just talked to her. C’est la vie.

After coffee he advised that it was always better, that as with doctors, to get a “second opinion”. Go talk to them, he said, motioning toward some pensioner ladies on a bench, painted as they may have been thirty years ago but now looking a tad garish, the way women do when they wear makeup at escalated ages. These two, they had been about Gibraltar for 30 years and had been widowed here, and maybe were now as loose with their marbles as they assumed we tourists were. I asked about the taxis.

“Do you speak good English?” said the one nearest me, conveniently disregarding that I had not asked about taxis in, say, French, or Dutch. And so it went for five or seven minutes. Nothing was accomplished, finally, and we headed for the bus, to a bus stop fortified by a brace of cannons. Thanks to me we missed our stop and Pierre fretted further about time. The bus came back around and we hopped off at the proper stop and up we went in the cable car. Along the way my friend became concerned that the woman working the ticket counter had withheld his change, to the tune of €20. I snapped photos of the Strait and when we arrived at the top, of the wild monkeys living up there. There is a saying about Gibraltar, regarding these Barbary Apes:

When the apes disappear from the rock, so will the British.

And so they maintain the apes, and the rock. The little bastards will snatch any plastic bag you have, thinking it’s food for them. Where could they have learned that? I witnessed one Brit trying to feed an ape his beer, but the ape wouldn’t have it. “Not thirsty,” I observed. With five minutes left before the last car left down the rock, we stole up this narrow road for panoramas of the mountain’s shadowed side.

“You see, Pierre has a nose for these things,” my friend said of the photo ops.

Finally, with mild concern giving way to angst, we landed at the bottom of the mountain and he dove into pleading with the cable car people about his change. They took his phone number, but haven’t called. Leaving the cable car station, Pierre commented low about the treatment of the French at British hands and that was that. My time to leave had come, and in fact in passing back through the border (unstamped, again) I missed the last bus back to Algeciras. I was forced to take a taxi, which cost money I didn’t have. I bid Pierre adieu and promised to write, and we have shared communication since then. The mission was a failure, of course. I am now an illegal immigrant, but am employed anyway and no one cares. English is too valuable to discard, or to have you worrying whether your teacher is legal or not. My successes at Gibraltar fell outside the bounds of my mission, though, or so say the weighers of experience on the celestial scales, the turners of the great wheel.

The Building that Saved Me

We were waiting aboard this modern jet for takeoff, me and several of the people from my CELTA group. There was no telling where we were headed but everyone was strapped in and specifically one of the teachers, she was seated in the back, atop this sort of sofa which stretched the width of the fuselage. I looked back at her from mid-plane and exchanged with her a warming smile.

The air was abuzz with nervous, excited twittering:

“Will it work?”

“I feel so lucky!”

“…history is being made here today.”

…and the like. The aircraft must have been new technology, and that day must have been its inaugural flight.

After a short time the lights dimmed and an engine whirred to life. It kept a low hum, and contrasted with conventional airplanes the way an electric car might with an old Peugeot. I braced myself, not knowing what to expect.

With smooth but sickening alacrity the jet whipped forward and up. Our ascent, we were making it through a short corridor of tall buildings, punctuated at the far end by two pylon-shaped structures dotted up and down with windows. As we were passing them the aircraft banked left at an impossible angle and began to extend a bit in the middle, wrapping around the left pylon like a salamander; we were breaking some barrier, possibly light as physical matter was bending as we went snugly around this huge pylon-structure. I understood then that we were to be shot like a slingshot outward at some unintelligible speed toward our destination. We’d be there in minutes.

Just as we were on the brink of coming full around, we failed to clear the pylon. The pilot had driven too close and one of the wings clipped the structure. No one could hear it as the plane cracked at my seat, and I didn’t have the presence of mind to call out, futile as that may have been. Strapped to my seat I tumbled through the air into the bay below as the plane frisbeed down and down, disintegrating in stages until it landed somewhere in the bay-side city in loose pieces without an explosion; all its fuel had been sprayed out in a mist, dissipating in the air.

I was the only survivor, bobbing in the water.

Yesterday morning I woke up from this dream and stumbled into the shower. Of course I was disturbed, trying to piece a meaning together. The only survivor of a plane crash; what was happening in my life right now and how could I relate it? As the light bulb in our bathroom is out and our hot water tank is very small, I quickly scrubbed down in the dim light, was sudsy when Savi broke in and said, “The bus is leaving in twenty minutes.”

She had shut our alarm, the one which would tell us to rise in time to shower and pack, she had clicked it off in her sleep. That day we were headed to Gibraltar for a little border magic. It was the day after which I’d become an overstayed tourist in Spain and my mission was to leave the Schengen Area on my American passport, check in to the UK’s littlest territory on my Canadian passport, and re-enter Spain a few hours later, when none of the border guards on duty would recognize me. I’d shoot a few pictures of the Rock of Gibraltar, a few of the airport runway which cuts straight through the territory (and is in fact in the middle of an urban area), all while Savi waits in a rented car in a big city park in La Linea de la Concepcion.

We ran for a few minutes up the narrow, cobbled streets of Zafra, past the baffled pre-dawn cleaning crews, until Savi couldn’t continue. Lately she’d been coughing the night through, leading me to suspect the onset of asthma. Lungs burning in the cold, wheezing cough, and both of these exacerbated by a seasonal cold…even at a slowed pace we made the bus and I outfitted her with travel pillow, eye mask, and ear plugs. In the gloaming I shot a little of the trip, up until sunrise, while she stole back a couple hours of sleep.

Fog was resting heavily over and through northern Sevilla when we arrived. I woke Sav from the depths of a sleep cycle and she only woke fully when we ordered hamburger-bun tostadas and burned café con leche at the bus station café. The old ladies at the next table sat scandalized and staring, and the trick, I’ve learned, is to stare back and outlast them, to remind them of manners. Sated we collected a map and the bus number we’d have to take to get to the car rental place. The driver eyed us a bit and collected our money, and after ten or so minutes clinging to the padded handrail I surveyed the map and learned we’d be riding nearly the whole C1 line before we’d reach the rental office a full hour late.

In vying for deals, Savi had reserved some cheap Citroën in my name. We showed IDs, we showed the reservation number, and when it came time to show a credit card, we were found wanting; we had left the card at home, in Zafra. They refused to rent to us, and our plan was a shambles. Back at the bus station, across the street from the rental office, Savi wallowed and I tried to comfort her. What had been a complicated plan had indeed been too complicated and we had no reason then to be in Sevilla. Our hostel reservation for that night would go unanswered-for by us, and the car rental money was gone. Our bus fare had not borne fruit and we were starving and tired. All of Spain was buzzing from shop to shop in preparing for Tres Reyes Magos, their gift-exchange day. If we could get to Zafra and back with the card we could have the car, they had said; that would mean four lost hours on a bus and another 40 Euros down the drain…I collected Sav and we decided to head home and think of a solution after a meal. On the way back, beautiful Andalusia and its castles were visible from the highway.

After devouring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some reheated Chinese food, and the rest of the leftover pizza, I read online stories of Americans deported from Spain. It was a short read; there was only one, and from its dissuasive tenor and cleanliness I suspected the writing team of having been on government payroll. The other, completely positive accounts on ESL message boards felt less machined.

At risk of being judged a sun-worshipper, I admit that morning’s dream returned to me then. The whirlwinds looked too alike, and the forced removal from a situation felt so natural I couldn’t help but decide to let my tourist visa lapse. Having been so buffeted twice I opted for the sea, and let come what may.

Tomorrow we make for Sevilla again, and relative leisure along its storied streets and relative peace in our rescheduled hostel beds.

Who are these wanderers?

“For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game – none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few – drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.” – Carl Sagan, from Pale Blue Dot

 

What's missing?

Recently an idea, or rather a sensation has been sloshing around my skull, lacing its way through my thoughts. The phrase “what am I doing?” has inched its way in there and has on a couple of occasions, with my higher-level students, sneaked into our English-learning tutoring sessions. I was caught unready this week for one student’s (a high school teacher) question: “Which do you like better?”, in reference to the United States versus Spain.

Happily I’ve been reading a bit of Pale Blue Dot and the light of my answer to these questions has begun to burn them away. What I’ve only thus far acknowledged as “wanderlust” I’ve blamed on what I saw as an Indiana-shaped cage where I lived out the early chapters of my life. Moving from north to south and in between traveling east to west all around the state evolved into navigating about the northwest quadrant of the globe, from San Diego to the District of Columbia, and down to the Caribbean, where the sun feels benevolent only above a certain social strata. What was I doing then?

Everywhere I went I saw things I had never seen before. I had never seen the way the sun so regularly shines in Denver. I had never seen how black the green highway signs are in Los Angeles, or the flatness of Kansas, for example. Now I know what -25°F feels like, and that the thighs freeze before the fingers in a stiff, frozen wind. I understand well the repercussions of eating anything from Varsity drive-in in Atlanta, and that the heaps of trash you see in the doorways of skyscrapers in the United States’ capitol contain people.  Okay, you may say; “so what?” Did I set out to have my heart wrenched by the dramatic things of the world? I think so, yes, is my answer. I set out to seek the frontiers of my own understanding of these images.

In these early voyages, I was stretching my wings. In my home country I saw many signs; “Mechanicsville” and “Leaving Mechanicsville” in the space of a highway minute, “The People of Iowa Welcome You”, and “Watch Your Step”. These small courtesies spoke to me in two languages; the first being beneficent and concerned for my well-being, calling me to attention, and an octave lower in concert with this a stiff warning: “YOU HAVE REACHED A BOUNDARY”. Thank you, signs, firstly, and now you have me puzzling over borders and questioning your tone.

A border, to me, cannot exist only in reality or only in my imagination; it must claim a plot in both spheres in order to function as per its designers’ intention. While to receive only the superficial, easily graspable information as borne by any environmental input represents the absolute frontier of most of the population’s will toward effort, I have come to regard impression, or implication as input’s primary payload.

The value of what is offered in the right hand is moderated by what is concealed in the left, and is too often, in my opinion, castrated outright by that latter substance.

Borders…where was I…oh yes, borders as limits. City limits, Austin, real music, intro and outro, stanza-stanza-feint-half-stanza-chorus-stanza-chorus-breakdown-chorus-chorus, intro and outro…

Subtle or not there is no denying the concussive nature of endings. The limit of an author’s patience with a story is not always found on the last page (nor a reader’s) but the limit of the medium is. The medium I have chosen to talk about today is the Earth and for my purposes, the human race is ink and its endless signs are chapters within books, which for my purposes are shaped like continents. In the United States there exists the illusion that once you pass the invisible lines which separate cities from the country your life is in your own hands, since you have elected to throw your lot with the hicks and mountain people. From where this notion derived I haven’t the energy or resources to research, but I can tell you from experience the sentiment is alive in US media of all stripes and therefore alive in the minds of the citizenry. City-bred Americans begin to hear banjos the moment they squeeze past that familiar membrane from busy toward calm. This sentiment is generally applicable to the borderline-agoraphobes reared in the sticks, as well; too noisy, too many people, they agree in their comfortable groups.

What I see in this case is a mutual respect of a limit, or a border. Impending change, the host element of anxiety’s active constituent, fear. (I see now that I’ve landed too early at the door of the monster I cannot slay for anyone save myself, and well, sit tight because shortly we’ll be coming to that great enemy of man.)

Likewise, the signs which demarcate places of transition aren’t in any way subtle in their delivery method. They are set at eye-level, or perched at some remove from the herd and don’t mumble. I challenge you to mark all of the announcements you see which ring in change and record for me the ones which don’t bellow like a Baptist preacher the day before Armageddon. Further, please scroll back up now and click on the picture of the Earth and moon, and let it load in your browser. When it has loaded, scan the picture for borders and consider those which don’t appear from this third-person perspective.

What have you seen? Some borders were missing, weren’t they? List them for yourself now, if you have a pen and paper. For my purposes, let’s call all of those missing borders “immaterial” (as they are, from space) and proceed with this mindset.

Poor, misunderstood Galactus.

 

The Earth as it is seen from 200 miles or more away can be a useful image for our coming comparison. What happens when any of us have a traumatic personal problem? What do our friends and family tell us? In many cases, they offer that we hurt ones ought to take a step back, survey the situation from a distance so to properly order all the jagged pieces in our heads. For the sake of my argument let’s designate the Earth as a stage of more or less constant infighting since life first crawled out of the steaming muck and saw that someone was about to cut it off in traffic. This steady, everlasting tumult would have its combatants ensnared at ground-level with each other, gaining and giving inches in a grand, survival-themed fugue. Often we as individuals are dragged into conflicts of multifarious shades and likewise, families, towns, countries, and continents at times harry each other with hostile technology and words.

We should all be married for we act like quibbling spouses too alike for a common home. That, or we’d benefit as a race from a departure to a vantage more suited for learning, which action in a roundabout way captures the thrust of my argument: at some remove, be it intellectual or physical, an individual may begin to see the strings of the marionettes, so to speak, or as from an airplane window the patterns cutting across the land. Said individual may then begin to appreciate that what he sees is the firmament upon which is mounted all the signage and warnings of doom. His intercourse at this remove is that of satellites the universe through; a cousin strange enough to kiss but devastating at point-blank range, for both parties.

I have learned that what I am doing is climbing up out of myself to stand upon my own head and survey life from this higher place. There can be no knowing the rhythm of someone else’s heart without reaching out to them and waiting for a beat, and thus there can be no fully local understanding of matters foreign. Ambassadors who have burned the borders in their mind have effectively kicked holes in the borders of their towns, their countries, and their lives.

“…a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam…”

Blah, blah, blah is what you may be hearing as I gush all of these words that have been sung and shouted by others before me. You’ve heard it all before, and so have I. Observations, reflections; whatever shrapnel that lodges in you may dissolve in the static of your day but there’s more. I feel as though it is my duty to help free those of my countrymen and women who would seek to share this high branch for a time, for their own benefit. Of course, the major obstacle for all is will; will to move, will to empower oneself, will to endure the hardship of flux, or whatever. This will must be present for one to access the tools of his or her own liberation. Very often, the well is bone-dry.

I will henceforth, in the year 2011, dedicate future posts here to ways in which residents of the United States might procure citizenship in other countries and thus, passports that would grant them a greater degree of freedom than they would otherwise enjoy. Per post I will focus on one country or another, and in that way illuminate and centralize esoteric, decentralized information. Let’s call it a New Year’s resolution.

In any case, it’s a project.

Tempranillo and Roasted Bananas

I heard E and N outside on the street from our open balcony window. I greeted them and called down that we’d be there momentarily. S and I gathered our coats and descended out and traded besos with our friends. N was poorly outfitted for the cold and shivered on the way to E’s home. This was our first social call to the house of a local since we’d landed in Spain, and we were excited that night to try and forge a bond. We moved past the great old stone church and through the narrow streets and when we drew close to our destination, E spoke up.

“It’s easy to tell which is mine,” she said.

She was right; of all the shoulder-to-shoulder houses on this street, the terrazza of only one was overflowing with flowering tendrils, hanging so low as to obscure the high-street side of her door.

“It’s beautiful,” S said, fingering a woody vine on the way in.

The house interior remains one of the more well-produced I’ve encountered. We shed our jackets onto an old plush, wood-frame couch in the fireplace room. Then through the dining room and its upholstered, high-backed chairs (no two the same) into the dim kitchen, with its bin of potatoes and hanging garlic, its fruit bowls and field of spice bottles atop  a florid, Spanish-tiled counter top. Five people were a crowd in that room, but we nonetheless watch D, N’s man, spill large mushroom caps onto a cutting board and begin preparing them. In a moment a liter of Cruzcampo vanished into us and the second was opened as the Irish couple vinegared the caps of one species and sauteed the others in butter.

A spliff was passed around and we poured experiences into the evening’s intercambio. E had been in Zafra for better than twenty years, and now she’d been estranged from her husband. She called her son, B, down from his video games and introduced us; I was to be his English tutor. The boy’s father was American and at the time, I understood only that he and E no longer shared time. In her 50’s, E was ornamented with crows feet and a few frizzy gray hairs. Clearly, she had smoked for the better part of her life. We got the impression that she was kind enough, and perhaps laden with stories.

N was from a town near Belfast and was a touch younger than myself, but the young of us were interchangeable twenty-somethings. Her defining feature was a protuberant mole upon her eyelid, which I imagined to affect its function. She and D had come for a her year-long contract in the institute and had left back to Ireland, only to return after a year away to remain another two years.

“Life in Zafra is easy, and mellow,” she explained.

“I do odd jobs,” said D when his turn came. “Build houses, or whatever the day’s calling is. I’ve got a dome now-”

“A geodesic dome,” I asked.

“No, just a dome,” he said, and went on to talk about the ease of life in Extremadura.

The mushrooms soon were ready. One strain in a large bowl, yellow with vinegar and salt, and the larger, meatier strain in another, shallower bowl, warm and buttery. Between the bite of winter and the final sighs of fall, a window for these huge fungus opens, and not unlike morel hunters in the US, each local hunter has his or her “spot”. Both bowls depleted rapidly and conversation, fueled by continual spliffs and standing  a little shakily on four empty liters of beer, turned naturally to the political opera in the US.

“…and this missile which was launched off the shore of California, nobody knows who’s done it,” D said, his voice raising as the question drew on. This after a few examples of our government’s loosening grasp on their traditional reins and then, handing me a new joint, he asked what we thought of 9/11.

“I watched it happen, man,” I said, behind a lungful. “I can see it now; I was in an anthropology discussion section and it was a beautiful day. We started at 9:05 and I walked in on time and there was the projector screen pulled down. The smoke and fire and helicopters had me wondering why the hell we were screening a Die Hard movie in anthro. Then the second plane came in from off-frame and slammed into the second building and that’s when my blood went cold.”

“It’s kind of weird,” he replied, “the whole thing. The sound recordings of the explosions after the impacts, and have you seen the schematics?”

On cue, E produced from a drawer or shelf in the other room some material for our parusal: some DVDs, a book, and an envelope of color photographs. The unifying theme of these materials was “conspiracy”; the government has lied to the people, and recalling its fiscal success post-WWII has sought to generate war profits artificially. In the US, these people are called “9/11 Truthers”, and are ubiquitously understood to be conspiracy theorists and thus, worth skepticism. S and I turned the DVDs over in our hands and read the book jacket. I spent a good deal of time shuffling through the photographs while someone was talking.

The first was a shot of a steel support, rising vertically behind a fireman and sheared at a sick 70-degree angle. The message was that the cut was too clean to be a mistake. The fireman was gritty, and dramatic. Next, a shot of the building plan, with red lines and circles indicating breaking points. A shot of a firetruck reduced to molten metal. A shot of an empty stroller covered in stone dust. Near the end of the stack came a shot of a bald eagle, drawn and quartered seemingly by hand, its body strewn about the floor of an airplane’s cockpit.

“This shit is shopped,” I breathed to S. “All of these are shopped.” I flipped back through the stack and began to notice tell-tale signs of photo editing: cleanliness, for one, of line definition, and lighting abnormalities which suggested long work at a keyboard gone long enough to draw a “this will suffice” from the editor. The work was good; nay, excellent, but once revealed as a product I felt as though my hands held the loose rubber of an airless balloon. There was nothing here. Not a damn thing.

With the introduction of the materials the conversation’s tone had begun eroding and then, after twenty or so minutes of listening to the Europeans speculate over my government’s niggardly kindnesses weighed against the cost in lives of its transgressions against the race, the fire began choking on all the jingo gasoline. I was not ashamed; rather, pity flooded through me when I considered the weight these thoughts must press upon these people, these new friends of ours. The anger I understood, because what right does a foreign country have to rove about the world inciting conflict with intent to profit by it? Really, it’s not a question of understanding their feelings but a question of understanding the environment within which nights like these, with discussions flavored thusly, emerge.

A small voice cried within me: “Rehearsed!” It could have been the preparation I discovered in the photos coupled with the image of rich old white men scheming against their WTC countrymen, but the arguments were coming too readily to the lips of these people, and I could sense that they smelled my skepticism, and S’s. Without beer and ganja, the conversation gave way to tired eyes and covering our departure with warm smiles and a rain of gracious words, we left E’s just ahead of the Irelanders. I remember only vaguely our volleying remarks of disbelief as S and I made our way home through the cold.

***

The next week I tutored B, entertaining fantasies that his mother would pay me in marijuana rather than Euros. Nothing strange; I used a Spanish real-time strategy (RTS) computer game as a theme through which to teach vocabulary meaning and pronunciation (metal, wood, campaign, warrior, and others of the like) and after, was handed cash and bid good day. The following week, I met B’s father.

The end of our lesson had nearly come when he stomped up the old wooden stair treads and entered the room. Like B, he was short. In his face I saw a waste, like that brought on by a development soaked in liquor or psychedelic drugs. Beady eyes and hard lines, if you know what I mean.

“Got these new boots, B, new boots, man, for eight dollars, or, Euro or whatever,” he said. He showed off his boots and sat down in a heavy armchair at the head of the table.

I greeted him and we shook hands.

“And what are you doing in Zafra,” he said.

The following conversation was awkward. He was probing me subtly, or at least as subtly as he could. In return I’d asked about his role in this tiny Spanish city, so far from his homeland.

“Been here twenty years,” he told me. “Came here twenty years ago.”

He looked at me. I looked at him.

“You have chickens, right?” I said, remembering something D had told me weeks ago about someone uncharacteristically slaughtering five chickens in a day. I had made a leap.

“Yeah, yeah I have a campo,” he said, and he dropped the phrase “Food Forest” and the word “dome” while telling me about his little plot. Everyone here has a place in town and a “campo”, which translates to “country”, which in complete English translates to “country home”. He wouldn’t elaborate on “Food Forest” and I played delighted to hear about a dome. I knew who D worked for, and I had a good idea of where he got his weed.

“Gotta spend your money somehow,” he said.

I don’t know what he does for a living, but he doesn’t till a foot of land on that campo.

His arrival had all but killed the lesson. At the old man’s prompting, B recited a phrase: “9/11 was an inside job.” Many things were illuminated for me at that moment. This was an 11-year old kid who spoke only simple sentences.

“I know it’s wrong,” the old man said, “but it’s great, I mean, I tell him something and then test him, test whether he understands.”

***

I handed B some homework and descended the steps with father and son. The old man stopped me before I could leave; he produced a skateboard-type device which is popular now in Europe. He set it down, stepped up and began swiveling his hips to make it go. Up and down the house he went, dodging around corners and always narrowly missing his son on his Wave skateboard. What’s a Wave? Here:

Anyway, when I left the place B’s dad walked downtown with me, remarking that he hadn’t spoken to an American in a long time. As we meandered up the Calle de Sevilla, he acted distracted and was largely silent.

“See some weird stuff, man?” I asked him.

“That pizza place back there,” he motioned, “it’s new.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “People have said it’s been around for awhile.”

“No, it’s new. I don’t know. I don’t come into town very often,” he said.

“No? Why not?”

He leaned in as if the Spaniards understood English. “I don’t come into town anymore because of all the willing ignorance in these, these people,” he said.

I told him I knew what he meant. In fact, I think I understand now something about the whole situation. The recluse, the old man, he’s seen CoIntelPro and was scarred, and taught E to feel scarred. He left the US twenty years ago, left a Californian life. All the ideas we’d heard that night at the dinner table were his, regurgitated from the two heads that lately, at least, had spent the most time with him. He was conditioning the boy, who can’t express simple thoughts but says 9/11 was a sham job. Ignorance isn’t what frightened this guy; he had developed a degree of agoraphobia due to his lifestyle of voluntary exile.

Next weekend we’re headed to someone else’s campo to see D and N off. They’re finally leaving Zafra, and I might be receiving calls from some of her students. It’ll be interesting.

Autumn Rising

It’s been some time since I’ve used this blog, and the other blogs I’ve been working don’t seem an appropriate place for my thoughts. Summer has folded and here we have autumn dusting us with crispy leaves and we know her by the coolness of the drafts passing between her teeth, don’t we? Where to begin?

I have left America for a tour of the world. In the end there it happened, likely because of my lack of creativity, that I became fed up not with the people of America, but of Indiana’s timbre and pitch, so to speak. Indiana, sure, but also American media left me cold, American political stories had distilled and congealed to a constant, malignant buzz and my furrows had grown too deep. Finally I couldn’t bear again to pay rent, or pay bills, or wake up and fear being late for work, or sit at work and wonder why I wasn’t doing something meaningful with my life. It was fear, I suppose, which brought me to Spain. I looked around at my compatriots and saw many beautiful, brilliant people making their way too slowly. I could not do it, and for that I suppose I haven’t any taste for “the American Way”.

So I came to Spain, the first stop of my journey. I followed Savannah here and have begun tutoring students, having just completed a CELTA certification course in Denver. While I’ve been grappling with culture shock a bit, I can feel myself growing as a person. I am changing in all the ways I sensed I could but could not through the course of a purely American life. Spain is a remarkable place:

Machines

I don’t have an automatic can opener. I don’t have a clothes dryer. I don’t have a toaster. I don’t have a microwave. I don’t have a coffee maker. Savi has no hair dryer or straightener. We don’t have a car, a motorcycle, or a scooter. We have a television that has only been dark for us and is gathering dust. A life without so many auxiliary machines feels more natural, and by consequence of this feeling of simplicity, this lack of whirring and beeping, I feel more at ease and more given to deeper, more thorough thought processes than I was in the States. I think when I return I’ll be disappointed to see machines again and even more disappointed to witness a population’s growing reliance upon them.

Socializing

Every night of the week is an opportunity to socialize in this part of Spain. After siesta, during which the wind passes through the streets unobstructed by man nor beast, the shops reopen, the cafés set their grids of chairs and tables onto the cobblestone and the people flood out from their houses in their good clothes, pushing their designer baby carriages and smoking their cigarettes. The park becomes full, with families on benches, sitting on the fountain ledge, milling together, seeing each other, and talking loudly enough to be heard in a wide radius. A woman pushing a baby cart might need 45 minutes to cross a plaza as she pit-stops a dozen times to compare her baby with another couple’s. People with arms full of groceries who might clearly be in a hurry to get home and begin cooking stop for ten minutes to talk to an acquaintance on a narrow street as small European or Japanese cars squeeze by not a foot from their elbows.

Over 28 years in the United States, and after having visited countless towns, I have never witnessed socializing of this scale. In Bloomington, for example, people make plans with their friends and go out in pods (or alone) and maybe head-nod or smile politely at others until their group arrives. Pods of people pass each other on the street, individuals say, “Hi, how are you?” and their target says, “Fine; you?” and no response is expected or given. Admittedly, this interaction has always bothered me a bit but my aim is to highlight a contrast in social dynamics; what takes a moment in the US takes ten minutes in Spain and for that time spent is more thoroughly accomplished. I am led to wonder why in small towns in the US that many people (myself included) feel a tad loathe to meet others on the street due to a creeping anti-social dread of what a given social interaction might entail. I can see it now:

You and your friends: chatchatchatchatchat, etc.

Someone looks up the street and says: Oh look, it’s X.

X, passing by: Hey, what’s up?

You, over your shoulder: Not much, what’s up with you?

X, over their shoulder, walking on: Not much!

Do consequences of shallow encounters like these include forgetting of names, feelings of isolation, and the aforementioned anti-social thoughts? After having too many of these socially significant but emotionally empty encounters and after experiencing a richer take on socializing I have forgiven myself for dreading seeing people I consider my friends and acquaintances. The dread which I felt was the same dread an unchallenged student feels when the prospect of again attending that obligatory featherweight class rears its head each morning. The path of a ten-second conversation is inherently hamstrung by its shortness while what may happen in ten, twenty, or thirty minutes is anyone’s guess. And if you’re wondering what a person could possibly talk about for twenty minutes during a casual meeting on the street, imagine that you know a good deal of news about all of your acquaintances.

This highlight of socializing makes for a nice paradigm or example of Spain’s apparent preference of humanity over responsibility. Time is money in America, but in the less-Westernized parts of Spain, time is still time, pregnant with possibility. Your boss is a person before they are your boss. Your landlord has just called and wants to have a beer. Your neighbor is up in her window and wants to talk about her weekend. There is work to do, but the sun will rise tomorrow, too; how about a café con leche?

 

Well, that’s enough about culture for now. I’m sure I’ll have more general notes on things I notice, but this is beginning to look very anti-American; on the contrary, I mean only to contrast two cultures which are at once not commonly contrasted and worth contrasting, at least to me.
We’ve just had our first couch-surfers! They were (and remain, I suspect) a young French couple on sabbatical from university. Hosting is a good time and I recommend it to anyone. It’s fun to trade stories and recipes and to make friends who share an interest in traveling. Over the course of four days I cooked a few meals for all of us and our boarders reciprocated with some delicious French cuisine. They came offering Kinder eggs and left with a 7-pack of Snickers bars. I’m becoming a fan of the whole Intercambio/cultural exchange concept, which isn’t to say I wasn’t a fan before but am much bolder a fan for my experiences.

Oh, and something else…I think a story from my life might be cast on the international stage soon. Those of you who read this blog and are aware, or who are even players in the international mystery illustrated in a much earlier post might have an inkling of what I’m talking about here. I don’t know whether this will happen this year or next year, but I’ve heard from a perfectly reliable source that the story’s going to be published for all to read.

Keep your thinking muscular.

 

Recipe – Omelette and Home Fries

Serves 4

4 eggs

1 onion

6 whole mushrooms

1 green pepper

3 potatoes

Cheese wedge

1/4-1/2 stick of butter

creme fraiche

dill

grape tomatoes (optional)

olive oil

salt, pepper, whatever other spices you’d like to taste in your potatoes

 

Boil potatoes for 15 minutes until softened.

Meanwhile, dice half the onion and slice the other half into, say, five or six segments, across the grain. Julienne the pepper, or at least cut it into planks; don’t dice! Slice the mushrooms.  On an oiled cooking sheet, spread the mushrooms, onions, and grape tomatoes about, coating them with a little of the olive oil. Season the mix to your liking. Preheat oven to 375-400 and when potatoes are done boiling, place the chopped vegetables in the oven.

Mix up a couple cups of creme fraiche and dill. Set aside.

Drain and cool the potatoes. Chop them into bite-size chunks. Toss a healthy slab of butter into a frying pan and heat on medium until it’s melted. Place potatoes, pepper planks, and diced onions into pan and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir a bit as they cook.

Throw a slab of butter into another frying pan (large) and heat on medium until melted. Crack all four eggs and drop them into the pan. Break the yokes with a spatula and mix well, until the coloring of the pan’s contents is consistently yellow. Salt and pepper, and splash in a little fresh cream, or a dollop depending on how you interpreted “creme fraiche”. Grate a layer of good cheese over the eggs as they cook.

Check on the roasting vegetables. If the edges of the onions are beginning to singe, take them out of the oven and set aside, covered if you can.

Once the eggs are solidified enough, dump the roasted mushrooms and onions into the pan. Separate the eggs from the bottom of the pan with a spatula and fold over, creating an omelette. Cook for a few minutes this way and turn over, being careful not to spill your vegetables all over the place. Cook for another couple of minutes and then cut omelette into four fat pieces and remove from pan, placing one piece on each plate.

Keep turning the potatoes, onions, and peppers over to keep them from burning in the pan. Once the potatoes are browned sufficiently for your taste, divvy up the pan between the four plates. The two which received the ends of the omelette are compensated with more vegetables than those who received the plentiful middle portions. Dole several roasted grape tomatoes to each plate and slap a dollop of creme fraiche atop the vegetables. Serve with juice, coffee, and water.

 

 

Your Tooth has Died…

-…but otherwise you’ve a clean bill of health, said the Dentist. No cavities.

Having frolicked three years free of visits to any dentist’s office, I was happy to be reaffirmed in my methods of oral hygiene. This news, though, of the tooth-gone-someday-black (my left-front tooth), set a strange tone for the Chicago trip I took this past weekend.

-See there, said the dentist, pointing out a dark vein struck down the center of my tooth on a small x-ray plate, I’m surprised there’s anything there. Usually when a tooth dies like yours has, the nerve retracts and that canal is filled in with tooth.

-Looks pretty good though, I said, even fatter than the healthy tooth’s nerve.

-Oh no, there’s nothing in there. What’s in there now, if we went in and did a root canal and sucked out the contents of the nerve cavity, would look like sticky, stinky, black cottage cheese.

-Gah! Disgusting, man. That’s in there, now?

-Yep. What actually happened to that tooth?

-Well, I was a kid, like, eleven years old or something, maybe ten, when I had oral surgery to remove a baby tooth. The adult had grown in at a forty-five degree angle over the young one and so there I was with three front teeth and the one, this one, a snaggler. They cut it out and glued a brace bracket to the adult to bring it down properly, but something must have gone wrong-

-they brought it down too fast-

-with it…yeah it must have been brought down too fast-

-and it came down so quickly the nerve separated from the tooth-

-god, I remember it really hurting-

-and at that moment, the tooth died. It probably wasn’t so yellow then as it is now, and it will, by the time you’re in your forties or fifties, turn totally black.

-Dammit!

The news that an operation which was supposed to beautify my appearance had become some kind of poor-health Trojan horse was tough to take! To my knowledge, this tooth represents the first of my body parts which has been diagnosed to need replacing (or resurfacing, apparently). Its lifespan is definite. It is slightly yellowed now; one day it will fade to black and be brittle enough to break on common foodstuffs, not unlike my mother’s front tooth which met its fated end in a potato in her late 30’s (my mother’s, not the potato’s). And it will be black. Maybe not meth-head black or lifetime-smoker black, but dark nonetheless and perhaps moreso for its contrast with the mouthful of healthy teeth I’m presently packing.

Worked a long day and finally Savi came by after and with our backpacks stashed in the back seat of her Jeep, we struck for Nashville. It was her trip, after all; our destination the following morning was the Spanish Consulate in Chicago. My parents fed us and following a go-nowhere debate on the social validity of Tea Party activists (of which my parents number two, sadly) it was road-time in my father’s maroon Chevy S10, replete with bumper stickers adhered to the cab’s back window: “Extremely Rightwing” on the left pane (ironically?) and an NRA emblem on the right. I foresaw there would be issues; just issues, nothing more, nothing good.

At the base of Sam’s Hill (atop which they live in a lovely round-log cabin) I checked the fuel gauge. Quarter-tank. I phone my dad in a “what-the-hell” tone and he says “what the hell” back and that was that. Again we didn’t see eye-to-eye. Is it not common to receive a borrowed vehicle in its cleanest and readiest state? Is that not the mode of all rental agencies and finally, just good manners? His line was that he expected it returned with a quarter-tank which just, for some reason owing to my freakish sense of order, struck dumbly against me. Why ought the front of the lessee’s mind be consumed with maintenance worries from the get-go?

Owing to stellar travel chops, I smiled contentedly as Savi laid her head on my lap for the better part of the four-hour drive. I knew where I was going until we crossed into Chicagoland (as I’d never been to Oak Park) and asked that she only navigate a little at that future time. When I woke her she was disoriented and groggy and utterly cute but also a tad unhappy with having to navigate in her state. Of course we relied on Google Maps and of course it wasn’t long before we whizzed past an informational sign which read “South Bend – 65 miles”.

-We’re going the wrong way, I said.

-Not according to…well, yep, the little blue dot’s moving away from Chicago, she replied.

-We’re going the wrong way, I repeated.

And in that way we came to the Indiana/Illinois border and retreated 30 miles and were forced then to double back along the way we came. We arrived in Oak Park sometime past one in the morning, lighter on fuel than would later prove healthy.

The Spanish Consulate was easy to find. From her grandparents’ place on Grove it’s a short hike to the L station and a long-ish ride on the Green Line to Randolph/Wabash. We caffeinated ourselves at a Starbuck’s and entered the lavish hotel within which the consulate occupies Suite 1500.

-Which floor is Suite 1500 on, Savi asked the concierge, who raised an eyebrow and half-smiled, saying flatly:

-Fifteen.

One poor girl was working the window up there on the fifteenth floor, entertaining a low, drop-ceiling lobby of Spanish visa aspirants. As we entered there was a skinny blonde mother emphasizing syllables into her cellphone, through the counter-window glass at this poor thing working solo. She was there, out of her depth on behalf of her kids, who apparently were going to Spain and HAD to get this taken care of that morning. Of course, the consulate only serves up hot visas from 9-12 daily and to even earn a look-see in that office you have to make an appointment. I’ll let you decide, dear reader, what you will about that office given that several “customers” announced not-so-subtly having been scheduled for a ten 0’clock appointment, as was Savannah. Nugget of the day: When any government office issues you an appointment time, get there early on the assumption they’re covering their ass at your expense.

Thirty minutes, though, and we were gone and up the street, looking for trouble in a warming Chicago. What a lovely city in the summer, Chicago. Just out of earshot of one group of amplified buskers are more amplified buskers and in the Millennium Park amphitheater, an orchestra committing a soundtrack to the morning air. We passed by these  while wandering up and down the city looking for the Taste (again, GPS failure) and finally found it (thirty or forty blocks later) close to the lake and teeming. Myself, I was broke but Savi bought a run of tickets (12 for $8) and in leaving we pushed through the throngs holding a bottle of water and a chocolate-dipped piece of cheesecake on a stick, and one useless ticket. The pricing was classic: each plate cost between 7-10 tickets, forcing festival-goers to purchase two strips of tickets if they’d like, say, a drink with their meal. That’s $16 a person, on average, which equates to pretty healthy margin on a slice of pizza and a 20 oz. pop, and a shared ice-cream cone.

Ghana soon would be ending its tenure as a World Cup contender, an affair which we hadn’t any stake in but pleasure in tasting cold Guinness and observing, so we ventured for an Irish pub. We wound up in the Tilted Kilt, a Scottish-themed Hooters which had Savannah stalking out the door before anyone with luscious, bodice-shaming cleavage could seat us. To give you some idea of what horrors presented themselves at the door:

/shudder. Feel for us, please. Grim as times sometimes get, we pulled through and found our coveted stout in nearby Miller’s Pub. Ghana threw their hands up after a botched handball call and we’ll look for them next time.

We passed the rest of the weekend quietly and when it came time to leave Savi related to me her family’s concern that I might be a conservative, given the truck’s hostile adornments. Her mother had been joking, of course, but I half-expected the cab’s back window to have suffered a brick’s passing while parked in diverse, liberal-riche Oak Park. Nothing of the sort, and we shoved off without incident.

On bumper-to-bumper I-94, however, six miles from the I-65 exit, the truck shuddered and instinctually I pulled off onto the shoulder, knowing only then the bottom of the gas tank. Click HERE to gain perspective on our plight. Sure, we were a little closer to Hammond than Gary, but who can say where THAT radius becomes safe? According to Quitno Press, today’s Gary is the fifth most dangerous city of its size in the country, and there we were walking into oncoming traffic on the highway which runs through it. We strolled hand-in-hand and unfed in 90-degree heat for an hour on the shoulder until we came to the nearest possible help for us; Krazy Kaplan’s fireworks, an opportunistic business venture near which we’d hoped to find gas stations.

We sprinted across two off-ramps toward the place and came finally upon the final barrier: a swampy ditch unflowing and stagnant around reeds and busy with garbage floating in filmy, brown-orange waters. Savi accidentally sunk her toes in it and miraculously has retained them. For forty minutes we searched for the narrowest crossing-spot and found it to be five or six feet from bank-to-bank. She pointed out a piece of jetsam which might help our situation; a piece of diamond-plated steel which in some historical vehicular violence had shorn from a truck and had come to rest, its edges flared and sharp, on our ditch-bank. Having set all morning in the sun, it seared me when I grasped it and so with a handful of weeds for a potholder I carried it over and set it down strategically in the center of the hell-ditch. We hopped over vis-a-vis Frogger and crossed the street in front of Kaplan’s.

The rent-a-cop posted at the entrance doors pointed to the street and said we had to follow it as it curled around and then walk a block south from a stoplight to a Speedway. We thanked him and walked single-file on a two-foot shoulder, bordered on the right by an immense swamp and on the left by whizzing traffic. The street (179th) was actually an access road which ran along what we’d later learn was Cline Avenue, the selfsame exit for which two nights previous had taken us away from our destination. We arrived at the foretold stoplight and walked along the Cline Ave. shoulder toward the Speedway, crossing finally at opportune times through traffic and stepping through the pump-area to the building a full two hours since the beginning of the ordeal. I bought a $9 two-gallon gas can. Savi bought a Polar Pop. We went outside and I began to fill up when a shiny new Honda pulled up alongside us.

-Hey, said the driver, I’m gonna follow you on this pump because that other one’s out of order!

-Sounds good, I said to him.

He switched off the Honda and stepped out. He was bald and into his fifties, looking every bit the steel mill worker he proclaimed he was. He eyed our situation and surmising it all, asked where our car was. He decided as we related the whole story to help us, and when we’d finished he told us he’d be happy to clean out his back seat and give us a ride back to the truck. Nothing, I think, at any time over the weekend, made me happier (or more relieved) than feeling that sentiment wash over me. After the requisite exchange of disbelieving and reassuring sounds, we fell down into his nice leather seats and told him where to find the truck.

His name was (and still is, I presume, barring the most unfortunate of all circumstances) Michael and on the first pass he totally missed our stranded Chevy. At my questioning he told us the story of his 4th of July weekend with Georgeanna (pronounced Georgie-anna), his girlfriend, and his close friend’s family who, over the years, have taken to calling him “Uncle Mike”. This story evolved into the story of his personal hardship, and how “the man upstairs” had been awfully rough on him over the years but now, having handed him a job at the mill making more money than he’s ever made, expects him to return the favor through extensions of kindness to folks like Savi and I (now that he’s able). Whatever the reason it’s always refreshing, invigorating even, to witness a human’s kindness toward others of their species. He asked only that we include his name in our prayers (to which we eagerly agreed) and having looked in the rearview he seemed to see Savannah for the first time and confided loudly to me that none of this help would have been possible had she been anything but a redhead.

-I’d do anything for a redhead, he cried.

-Me too, I said.

Meanwhile Savi blushed and we again missed the truck. Michael stopped on the tail-end of a cloverleaf ramp and stepped out of the car, craning over the concrete barrier to see how close we’d come. Satisfied, he climbed back in and threw the Honda into reverse (on the ramp-shoulder, mind you) until just below us, thirty feet down a flowered embankment, sat our dry truck. Mike tearfully produced a twenty-dollar bill and pressed it into my palm, reminding us that things haven’t always been this good for him and now that he’s able to help people he’s going to keep at it so as to keep the man upstairs appeased so DON’T, he said loudly, refuse the money. I thanked him dearly and passed the bill to Savi, which extracted a wife-money joke from our deliverer. Leaving the car we shook his hand and hopped the barrier onto the embankment and took large steps through the flowers down to the truck. We had gotten lucky.

Of course, however, the gas tank faced traffic. I jammed the gas can nozzle into the opening and stared each semi-truck driver deadly in the eyes to make sure each one of them would give me berth. All the right-lane traffic passed not two feet behind my back until the gas can was empty. Some passengers cat-called us, whistling and laughing, “Hey, what do you two think you’re doing?”

Finally we were off and made to the nearest exit and after refueling, used Mike’s goodwill twenty to gut-bomb ourselves at an A&W/KFC hybrid. Fried chicken sandwiches with fries and root-beer floats; these rumbled in our stomachs as we pulled away down I-65, happy to have escaped The Region, whose sun and burrs and highway had beat up our exteriors and whose fast-food was working our insides to pulp. We felt very lucky and Savi slept, head on my lap, nearly all the way home.