|Befuddled and Intelligent
© Copyright 1999 by Ali Hurley
Already I could see the end, leaning against the sofa, legs stretched out on the carpet like guard dogs stealing peace in the morning sun. Martin was fumbling through my kitchen trying to learn where to find a spoon, rummaging around (albeit neatly) for the tea bags. I could feel his mouth on me again. His hands, fumbling for comfort and hopeful, seeking approval for the exploring they were doing; the jilted, surprised spasms that dotted staccato - like a baby bird finding his balance and self-assurance to fly. And at the same time, I could see the end. The living room eerily transformed by his tenure, hoping the influences - a tea mug casually reading Paxil, the Cardizm DM umbrella hanging on the door hook, the Oxford Classics - all of them donning the broken spines of true ownership, neatly stacked and arranged knick knacks from the silly road trips we'd endure - would dissolve. As he headed for the door, dazed/confused yet detached disappointment on his face, the awkward looking around at everything but me, holding steady down at his feet. The "Right, well, I better be going then," that he would have to say just before walking out the door; it was in his archive.
Of course I could let it taper off starting now and it would not come to that, me standing there with no real reason other than I just wasn't interested anymore - truthfully I didn't even know. I just didn't want to go through all that hope (again) to find that after all is said and done one of us won't be bothered enough. Easier to resign oneself to it early on. I bit into my eclaire. Martin, congenial as ever, methodically dressing the occasion with the usual niceties, right, here you go, enjoy that, are you comfortable (more guilt than a Catholic honeymoon) set down a cup of black tea for me. If you removed the niceties and customaries from everyone's speech you might be left with substance.
"They say you are never more than six feet away from a rat in this city," he posits, matter-of-factly. "Hmmm," I hum, not knowing really what else to say nor what he just said, exactly. I am in this mode now where I can walk around, talk about the troubled youth, the weather; exchange quips with sweaty Shakey Jake (town bum-come-philanthropist through genius marketing) sitting on the curb wearing a tattered poppy from 1981.... But it's as though I am in a world of zombies; I don't quite fit in. I go through the motions and know all the queues. I am only living half a thought, innocent bystander with one hand in the till.
Martin seemed from the very beginning to be of the same bent. While we sat around the oblong, leather conference table that first time we really met (to talk about University Health Services for the Grad students, who'd been on strike since the semester started over inadequate health care and skyrocketing fees not covered by most stipends), we had risen above our bodies - which continued to work out the mundane affairs demanded by the negotiation - how much to charge for this resource, where to place that one, family focus, value for money, blah blah blah. And we watched the banter below, let it play its course, while we focused on some sublime interaction -- unique in that we were both keenly aware of it - the search for and discovery of truth. The truth was that we shared the place from which thoughts came; before they were cloaked in phrases. Before they were filtered through the experiences that colour our analogies, through the cultures that gave us our words and their connotations, through the assumption that the context for everyone was the same. Words were ineffectual and inconsequential.
Words were well-chosen.
There was a long pre-amble to our friendship. It was necessary to set a common context, and though intent unspoken, it was well and clearly understood. It began at the table and continued at a few university events we were both forced to attended. It transformed, markedly into friendship, at Moonstone's Pier, where carrots and other veg had the tenacious ability to retain money. Pea's $.69, Corn's Ear's $.25 . Martin was not tall, not big, not little, not short; though an unintended auspicious brainiac with concerns that transcended convention, save the cutesy and surprising decorative accessories he sometimes donned, always characterfully odd and pleasantly understated. Comforting. He used his smiles sparingly, but with great effect, and his lean muscle was pulled over his bones with the tender curves of a Georgia O'keefe lily and the taut sinew of an Olympic swimmer. His hair was cast off like the shackles of sin, and with the same regard. It was a point of envy for me. I used to dare my inner-city high school students to get all A's, promising to let them shave my head in front of the class if they succeeded. And I would have as well. Vanity is the opiate of the masses. A symbolic casting-aside, like a circumcision or divorce. I still get mildly annoyed on bad hair days. A failure, I know.
I was sitting on the fence somewhere between complete outcast of my own design and befuddled soul searcher. I preferred the both the solitude of the outcast and the many companions necessarily retained by the soul searcher to the complete solitude or absolute lack thereof. Fence-bound. Eerily resigned to neither and aspiring to be both, to be fearless, to flow like water but not be shaped by the Martin-cup that holds me for the moment.
He was the first man to last through at least 100 hours of conversation without stepping back, looking at me like a freak and saying an out of place, "...Uh, OK...???" as though I was speaking about the graces of child porn or enduring a bad bout of Turret's, at which point I would shut completely down and switch to the latter version of myself. Dreadfully shallow. I didn't have to filter with Martin, just spew whatever was on my mind, no matter how hollow or unfounded. I found him standing with an array of pastel greeting cards, waiting for me to witness his reading of each one, as a poet unaware of his poem's own absurdity: "You held my hand in darkness, you kissed me in the light, and without you, darling, life just isn't right..." he wavered at the last line, eyes lifting toward the clouds... glazed over face. I pretended to be tearful at his lark.
He reminded me a bit of a Jesus. We stood there in a queue at the till, intelligent veg in hand (I was looking for the carrot's stash, hoping I'd found one with more than a few pennies). I could always feel when someone was watching me, and people always turned when I traced them with my eyes. Did he notice me following the curve of his shoulders; did he see me notice the shimmering golden arc of energy all around him? When I let my eyes rest on his deep green heart, my whole body vibrated with love; not love for possession, but love for love's sake - the purest kind. Across the market a man was speaking some northern version of Creole, throwing freshly wrapped ocean perch or halibut at the tourists. Children walked invisible dogs; fat, Midwestern wives, following after their husbands, wore "country style" cowboy boots & spurs broaches and carried bookbags saying MoonStone's on the Cape against an orca leaping into the sunset. We headed for the car.
Shiny clean pretzels were strewn on the coffee table in a random yet balanced array. There was something about pretzel salt that was better than anything. Pretzel salt and a coke with ice. As I randomly tossed them to the table, iridescence tickled by the predictable antics of Friends and the opalescent moonness of night, I watched Martin out of the corner of my eye -- knuckles white -- trying to physically restrain himself from clearing up, like a gambling junkie fumbling with his last silver coin... "Lets do something", he pleaded. I was feeling antagonistic.
"What, like not rewind the video before we return it to the shop?" Yeah, it was mean, it was cheap. The dialog spiraled out of control into a if you think I can't be spontaneous than watch this -vs- you are far too organised to just go somewhere without planning every split second of it kind of thing. But to my surprise, in little over a half hour we were off - fresh sandwiches and a flask of ginger tea to boot!
Once we finally got into the Kenny-Rogers'-luvin, Tammy-Wynette-playin' radio station's broadcast range, the bounty of the American south was no longer withheld. (We'd already passed London Bridge - someone actually bought the bridge and diverted a river by 300 miles to use it, probably thinking it was Tower bridge.) For just ahead, on the horizon with the sunrise, like a phoenix from the ash, stood in awesome wonder: Sea Shell City USA. "Oh baby get your boots on!" I beckoned, like a spurred-up cowboy on the pull; licked lips and praying hands rubbing together like a hungry fly eager to puke on your baked beans. My eyes were popping their sockets as we approached the nirvana for tacky lovers... Sea Shell City was better than the Omaha Deer and Farm Animal Museum, tastier than Funnel Cakes 'n Such, bigger than Graceland, and more sublime than The World's Largest Ball of Twine. And the sign for it stood taller than the Jolly Green Giant of Duluth, Minnesota.
We eagerly parked up, locked the Escort, and trodded up to the entrance - large enough for a Mack Truck to back into. We passed a knocked-around Gremlin with the Greatful Dead teddy bears sticker haphazardly stuck to the rear side window. The driver was asleep at the wheel. His shirt said Primus Sucks. A light brown sea-shell turtle was crazy-glu'd to the dash. It had the roly-poly eyes - an artistic device of a driftwood sculptor. What treasure awaited us!
Miles of shells.
Curtains, lamps (!), knick knacks (of course), tea cozies, sea shell chain-mael vests for the D&D enthusiasts, pens, cutlery, and other horrors abounded inside. Pink-haired ladies stood patiently at the till, lovingly stoking their treasures. Someone held an Iroquois head replica with roly-poly eyes. Lecherous men wafted around the mer-maid figurines with soft, cotton breasts that fit just over the phallic antennae of their Retirement Lincolns and Cadilacs....
Martin pulled at my shirt like an over-tired 6 year old, wild eyed and all! Whenever I cast my gaze to him, I was rendered speechless, which is why I never looked into his eyes. Medusa; I would be turned to stone, a renegade with no tales to tell. This time he pulled me, dragged me to the fuzzy pencils. "Check out these GNOME PENCILS!" (he nearly yelled). The iridescent pink metallic pencil was topped with light blue "fluff" (and roly-poly eyes), which Martin neatly twisted. He lowered his hands to the middle of the shaft and turned it fast and hard until its cone-sculpted fur head went into wild bloom, with the enthusiasm of a 12 year old fondling a new toy.
Back in the car, sharing our sandwiches, I threw Mortimer (we always named our new knickknacks Mortimer) at him. "Don't strain your right arm", I said, tossing Martin the pink pencil that took such a fancy to his palms. The candor with which he approached these subjects was often shocking, but I had to take it like Emily Davison, like it was much wimpier than I expected. "I don't use it much since I've found you", he said.... Medusa.
I was tired, and had he packed the tent. What tent? I assumed he had the tent. He has everything else. Sandwiches, cola, Wagon Wheels. I hate Wagon Wheels. So there we were at Pigeon Forge Shopping Plaza, trying to decide on 3 or 2 person, Gortex or nylon, etc.
I hate how sometimes when you are tired you can hear your heartbeat in your ear, and everyone around you is like a character in a Sweet Valley High novel. The irresistible "Will you just Fuck Off!?!" phrase filling in for pauses instead of ohs and uhms. We finally got the tent, we were finally in the car, we finally drove into the cheesiest of campgrounds. I was instantly taken back to the Laugh-o-Lympics and the picnic basket of my youth with the sign for Jellystone Park Camp Ground. Yogi and Boo Boo smiled. Cindy produced a bizarre matronly wave in the backdrop (Clearly waiting for Yogi to give her a good shag). Though we had no need for the complimentary full caravan hook-ups, we were eager to assemble our new dome tent, for the first time, in the dark. In the south.
Mosquitoes the size of rats flew in and out of the nylon of our new tent. In record time and with no written directions, we assembled something to sleep in, killed the flying rats, and zipped up. Thank God they had showers for the morning. The wet heat crept in and stayed for the night. We spread my tartan sleeping bag below us like a mattress and lay there, eyes up to the sky-lite (it was a selling feature), looking at the fat, shimmering stars. And after a few minutes of deep breathing, we were in a Zen-induced heaven. His golden glow crept over me. I wanted him to lean over and bestow a kiss. I wanted his hands on me like water, everywhere, undetectable, consumed.
I imagined us talking about the strange women in Sea Shell City, about the locals eating Thousand Island Salads at the Shoney's on the interstate... laughing and cuddling, intimate like a spoon against a spoon... he put his sacred mouth on my neck and closed his eyes. We slumbered.
For hours we dreamed with hands clasped. The sun peered tentatively through the trees and stretched its arms into blues and swaying greens rocking me and cooing until my eyes opened silver slivers to the light. Heavenly cradle. I hadn't even noticed the tent flap zip open and close. I heard the slap of flip flops like a plastic heartbeat approaching with a dish of fresh blackberries.
"Hey there sleepy..." Medusa's eyes had mercy. My hair was doing a godzilla impression. I took a deep, evergreen breath. "You smell.... Minty!" Martin laughed and flashed his toothbrush. "I've dug you a hole too...its just past the car if you want to brush your teeth." I couldn't stop my eyes from rolling, nor could my laughter be told what-for. "I can't believe you chose biomedicine over dental surgery!" I rested my head on the down of the tartan and stretched back into my body like a new skin. I was so light I could have floated into the clouds. I fast-forwarded to our garden, stainless steel bowl and carving knife in hand, collecting spinach for our eggs Florentine... He was in the kitchen, oiling the wok - our only pan. Our hand-made kayaks rested nestled together in the tall grass. Cold dew on my toes... Dishes clanking against dishes, the fiery crackle of fresh garlic teasing the oil. Ahhh... time to brush my teeth. Could I ever really love someone who folded his underwear into perfect triangles?
I conjured Tom - the Toothpaste Man. Yes, Tom, it is clever that someone used your toothpaste tube as a knife to slaughter a jack rabbit and thus survive being lost in Yosemite. But what the hell am I doing here? Tom propped up his yellow wellies on the barnacle-covered beam protruding just over the dock. Arms behind his head and Live Maine Lobsters crawling about in mid-fog like a web background, he let out a rolling, red-nosed raucous, and then dissolved as I buried the snow of toothpaste spit with sweet, wet soil.
Martin's chin found my shoulder. I could feel his eyelashes sweeping against my cheek and my heart in my throat like a mad fist, when something squeezed from me like an olive and I fought tears hard. Please don't ask me how I am... Because I was so fine, so high and refreshed, so content with my bare feet against the soft soil, peace rushing through me like a waterfall. I stared out to the river envisioning that I hadn't just stood there, that I had held his face in my hands and buried myself in the L of his neck and moved to the songs that would not stop emanating from my heart.
"Did you know there is a hot spring up at Sol Duc?" Can you blink and swallow at the same time? "We should go up there now then, before it gets hellish out here." It was too early to realise I was in for nearly an hour of rolling and packing the tent, rearranging the packs, and loading the lot into the car. I wasn't about to mention the swim gear as we embarked. As the sun warmed the path, vanilla pods oozed sweetness at our feet, and mulberries, magenta and fat with seedy-sweet juice teased our eyes. As we spiraled up the mountain everything was cloaked in thick fog. We soon found the spring and took off all our clothes.
It takes ages to work your way into a 101 degree pool of bubbling sulfuric water. But in the end, and after much shrinking back on both our parts, we managed! "So, do you think aliens are just humans with a time machine?" (an inane question of mine to which a yes or no would have been fine).
"Well, I think this goes back to the discussion we were having about space and matter and their relationship to time, which I think we agree does not exist without the other two..." ...MMMmmmmm the water was nice. I was already disappointed in myself. It wasn't that I had lied, exactly. I just sort of tended to recast myself. And if he liked what he saw, I liked me. It was empty and a stupid pattern and I vowed then and there, as I engaged him in a sensible discussion about physics, to stop. I silently thanked God for the lesson. It used to be that kissing the teacher's ass would get you everywhere!
The novelty of hot stinky water quickly wore off.
We weren't speaking in the car, though I could hear Martin pondering our route as we zoomed in air-conditioned comfort through Memphis (calling at Graceland, of course), toward Natchez, Mississippi. The sun gradually dissolved into hues of blue-orange dimness.
Night is falling, come home with me. I held this phrase tenderly in my head, in the silence of the journey, exploring it like it was some incomprehensible gadget from the Graceland knickknack shop next to the McDonalds you pass before you hit Memphis city center, trading wares like Elvis cologne - which doesn't stink as badly as one would expect - and toilet shaped bottle openers. Ahhhh.... Tennessee. Night is falling, come home with me. Years ago someone had written that to me in Gaelic, though upon translation the original phrase was promptly forgotten. Appalachia has lots and lots o Scots...
The lights of countless big, rusty Buick Regals, dressed in exterior house paint and often donning brown or black bin liners as windows streaked by. The windscreen wipers squeaked on high. Thank goodness the glass in our 1990 Geo Prizm was still intact! And the wind cried Mary cried louder and louder, empty cola cans littered the back seat (mostly mine). Hendrix sat behind us, loud voice in my ear, pulling me from ever-tempting sleep and focusing me back on the silvery stretch in front of us.
Night had long fallen. I pulled off the highway at Natchez, and into the car park at The Spanish Inn. It sounded very posh, but the red and black shag carpet which lined not only the floor, but the ceiling and walls as well, told otherwise. It was 11:30pm, Tuesday evening, and we were starving. You don't find mini-bars in motels which cost $16.50 per night and remind you not to steal the towel (yes, the - as in 1 - towel). We did a quick search of the drawers and found a bible (of course) a selection of ads for local attractions - including a year-round reenactment of the Passion Play. We finally sorted out a phone book and tried to call for a pizza. As it was bible study night at Bob Jones University, which apparently everyone who worked in the food delivery industry attended, there were no pizzas. There was no point even looking for Chinese or Indian. However, they did have a wide selection of soul food restaurants, which are good if you like bacon grease (it does wonders for beans).
We dug into our VALUE peanut butter and some old Ritz crackers which we found littered in the back of the car amongst cola cans (which Martin cleared up and sorted at our last petrol stop). In ten minutes time, we fell asleep to Jim and Tammy Fae laying hands on a blind dog.
The television was still on, spraying the room with green tones as we took turns in the shower some hours after dawn when the clattering of the housekeeping staff nudged us from slumber. With our room came a free "Continental Breakfast" - a euphemism for a few stale Danish pastries and a box of Cheerios with luke warm milk. We ate like dingoes and shot off to the lowlands like greyhounds after a rabbit.
"You know we will hit New Orleans today by about 2pm if we don't stop too often," I said, hinting around. It seemed like Martin needed to pee every hour. I ensured that this would be less likely by planning to buy only caffeine-free drinks at the 7-11 (with the exception of my cola slurpee of course). I was used to deafening silence as one of Martin's responses, but this time his face seemed to be writhing, ringing like a wash cloth. I apologised for the sarcastic tone in my voice. Martin's eyes flashed at me with a sympathetic smile as if to say everything was OK, and then went back to his thoughts.
His head was so full that his silent thoughts flooded the car, pouring out his ears, from his nose in streams of colour, off the top of his head like wild flames hungry for air. I shied away but they prickled me until I had no choice but to become a part of it. "Are you OK?" I asked after much deliberation. I was half-expecting and definitely hoping he would go on about some technical enigma he'd been pondering but it felt more like he was turning inside-out like a worm, guts all over the place.
"I was thinking about Fiona." Martin spoke quietly, his eyes weightless on the roadside.
He put a magnifying glass to my heart and focused the sun right into its centre. "Who is Fiona?" I almost didn't ask. Time stood still and it seemed like hours before he came to some sort of sense.
"I met her on my trip, remember?" I remembered. I remembered about 4 different women he met on his trip, never giving any of them much weight. It is just something that happens when you travel, I figured. You meet people. You spend time with them and you part. I wanted to ask what was so important about Fiona and why the hell he remembered her on our way to New Orleans, but I stopped my tongue.
We'd passed a couple of Bangladeshi women on the walkway of the Spanish Inn before checking out, and it didn't occur to me that the faded peach of their motel-cleaner uniforms against ribbon black hair might have reminded Martin of his trip. I had seen the slides and waded through the tales. I recounted this to Martin, whose favourite portion of the trip was the time he spent in India and thereabouts. He brooded some more and contorted with his thoughts. "Look, just tell me what's going on, who this woman is and why you are suddenly so pained!" I tried to hide my concern but ended up sounding like frustration. I backpedaled. "I know that your trip was a life-changing event and that the people you met were really important and all of that..." I was interrupted.
"It isn't something with a neat, convenient cause and effect that you can just shelve and call finished." Martin asserted harshly, responding partially to my blithering and mostly to the puzzle in his head. But he promised to tell the story. He sat quietly, drawing in shallow breaths as we pulled off onto a lowlands road labeled Greenville. He was normally quiet anyway. Understated. Diving so deeply into enigmas, sometimes disappearing within... The vast expanse of obscurity...
We stopped the car in an area emulating civilisation. A woman, emaciated and dragging a red, white and blue polka-dotted bag of WonderBread curiously walked by, eyeing the car... her hair hanging like rat tales across her face; dust brown skin, hard and dry like the soles of my sandals. The flame of a nearby hearth next to a trailer reached hard to just lick the air around the rotted wood. It was littered with Budweiser cans.
"The truth," he said, drifting a bit.... The truth was that the texture of living had changed, so much so that there was nothing to prove that he was not in a dream. There was a lean-to restaurant just ahead of us with Tamales written (and spelled correctly!) on the menu with chalk. At the patio table, a little boy snuggled against his mother who stared bleakly into her cloudy glass. His shirt said Bahamas.. He had no shoes and was picking scornfully at his toast. We leaned against the hot car, my hands uncontrollably trying to comfort, rubbing his forearm like kindling.
A thread was pulled that unraveled a tapestry. We heard chanting faintly across the cotton field, and walked quietly - pressing long dead cotton plants to the ground - to a quaint, restored plantation house. Above the doorway read Om Guru Om. We followed the red carpeting on the landing toward a statue of Swami Prabhupada, the hall ceiling arched with painted sky - fluffy white clouds against a light blue backdrop. Elephants pranced trunk-in-tail, trunk-in-tail along the length of the wall. A small grey statue of Ganesh peered from beyond a beaded curtain in a door jam. He was surrounded by freshly melted wax, bits of sweets, moth-eaten off-pink and cream silk flowers hanging around his neck. He looked as though if only he could crack the mould he would dance the hula-hoop, swinging his fat trunk around and all, gyrating to the ukulele.
Ganesh's joyful eyes became hers. How he held her tentatively when they first met. Long lost friends. Later on they learned how to touch. She meekly offered a quaich of drink, signifying how tightly woven together they were. When the sun died in its sky, he lit a new one. When the earth cracked with dry, she drenched it with rain. And now she was dead; fell off a mountain, out of a plane, onto a spiked wrought iron fence, into a bottomless pit. There was blood on his coat. She was dead. Snuff the stars, erase the sky. Fiona.
"Well, maybe she didn't die." Now I was confused. Martin's elaborate story had my jaw on the floor and my heart knocking hard against my ribs like a prisoner.
But she might as well have, as it was the magnitude of her absence now. One morning in Nepal she was gone. During the night, he dreamt that he was anywhere but there, the day before having witnessed a tiny man carrying about 40 rings of heavy dull yellow plastic tubing, spiraling up a mountain trail, muscles much to large for his frame exploding all over frail bones. If he cut his bare, callused foot on a sharp rock he would have burst like a kielbasa in a microwave. Every now and again pained sighs and groans slipped from between his lips. And who was this woman exhausted asleep beside him? This woman he loved under the stars until he couldn't bear consciousness anymore, until his muscles were sore and his belly sticky. Fiona my day, Fiona my night, Fiona Fiona Fiona clouding the experience I wanted to have alone. Fiona I wouldn't have gotten along with in the long run anyway, Fiona who was drifting down a stream like a water-logged branch, latching on to whatever was in her path until her volition pushed her faster than her host. Fiona the barnacle on the hull of my quest and Fiona the unanswerable question. "So you woke up one morning and she had gone?" I asked him solemnly, reverently.
"Not exactly," Martin explained. He quietly packed his things under the white of the moon and freed himself of Fiona, who ever since has ridden him like a ghost kept quiet in a distant, dingy bookcase in the castle of his mind. Locked up like a mother-in-law who exacts vengeance as guilt when perchance you hear her quietly afoot.
The weight of the loss quickly dissipated in the improbability of the moment - a small man wearing a dhoti, in a restored plantation house in the middle of Mississippi walked out of a room from which chanting was coming, and peacefully down the hall to greet us. "Hello and welcome! You don't seem to be locals," his face a question mark.
"We heard the singing..." Gee I sounded clever.
"Well, please feel free to join us in Bhakti Yoga - it is a form of prayer which links us directly with God," The man in the dhoti smiled and walked back to the chanting room. We peered inside and saw about 10 people, quite obviously locals, and 3 devotees wearing dhotis and wont of hair, lost in a billowy harmonic, casting aside a Budweiser and Wonder Bread legacy, riding the waves of song to heaven.
"You ready, then?" Martin held out his hand wearing a reluctant and then grateful, though worn out, smile. "I guess I just wish I had realised the opportunity and not been so blind to things I didn't really consider before embarking on that trip." Martin sighed and squeezed my thigh.
"Well, you can't plan for every eventuality," I offered, trying to be helpful. "And perhaps learning what you did was the gift she was meant to give you." I glowed with affection for the familiar bits I saw in him. We sat beside each other like Uranium, our hearts just far enough apart to avoid critical mass. Just.
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