On the morning he was to leave Mortalus for the drive south to California, while walking to the library to return three DVD’s starring Theresa Wright; Mrs Miniver, Enchantment, and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, he walked into the wire-mesh fence circling a small tree in the sidewalk. It was still dark. He’d left his apartment in a daze, his brain still fogged with sleep, and was mentally checking a list of things he needed to do before beginning the drive. Returning the DVDs was last on the list. He’d already packed the Jetta. When he hit the fence it folded under his weight and he let out a “whoa!” He fell forward, dropping the DVDS into the black mulch around the tree’s base, before finding himself hung up on the bowed lattice. When he tried to regain his footing the exposed tines at the top of the pliable fence dug into his leg just below the kneecap. He gasped, gripping the tree’s trunk. He rolled off the fence landing inside it. Free of his weight the fence regained its form, springing back upright so that he sat beside the tree in the mesh enclosure, the two of them, the tree and him, like prisoners
He didn’t know what type of tree it was; only that someone felt it deserved a flimsy mesh-wire fence for protection. As it was directly in front of the homeless shelter, the sidewalk, and even the mulch he sat in, was littered with cigarette butts and malt liquor bottle caps. He understood the need for the fence, a sapling in this environment was bound to get molested, but still he was pissed off at the fence for taking up so much of the sidewalk and he cursed it for being a booby trap that had loomed up at him out of the pre-dawn grey, ensnaring him like some animal, unawares. But unawares is what he’d been and it was this that pissed him off most of all. Once again he’d succumbed to the distraction. Gone Zombie. Here he was telling students who came into the Writing Center, “Enough with the zombie stories!” –that was all they wanted to write about these days – and he was becoming one all the while. This distraction he could not beat, this distraction so great that it had allowed him to walk blindly into a chest high fence, although the fence’s color allowed it to blend into the fog. He’d been thinking about the other times he’d left Mortalus –not so much thinking about them as reliving them – and how much it had pained him to leave not the town, but her, only this time she was already gone, and what pained him in the dark, on this morning, was that she might have left because of him. And while, in the weeks before she’d moved, he’d looked forward to her departure, imagining how much easier it would be, on mornings such as this, to not have to say goodbye, now he realized that his own departure was rendered meaningless –insignificant –with no one to say goodbye to and no one to long for and no one waiting for him to return.
He patted the mulch, feeling for the DVD’s. Two had landing inside the fence with him, while the third lay outside on the sidewalk. He looked around, glad it was still so early, that no one had witnessed his tumble, and wondered if there was some significance here that he should note, his being felled by a fence surrounding a tree in the middle of the sidewalk on the morning he was to leave Mortalus. He could not think of one, other than he needed to stop thinking of her. It was her, as much as it was the fence enclosing this lonely waif of a tree, that had sprung this trap on him. If he were free from thoughts of her, might he avoid moments such as this, where inanimate objects seemed to harbor harsh designs for him?
He stood up and brushed mulch from his jeans. Clambering out of the enclosure was difficult for, although he was able to bend the fence down to waist level, it wanted only to fold inward, so that throwing his leg over the lip with its crenellated tines was awkward and painful and for a moment he teetered precariously astride it. When he had retrieved the DVDs and resumed his course toward the library he noted how much lighter the sky had grown. He needed to get going if he hoped to beat the bay area afternoon traffic. When he reached the library he put the DVDs in the metal slot and listened to them slide down the ramp and drop into the plastic tub on wheels that awaited them inside. He stood there for a moment, holding the horizontal bar of the drop box door, thinking about Theresa Wright in the films he’d just seen, how his decision to watch these films was based on her ability to convey a certain stoic purity, a certain unflappable will, which reminded him so much of her as to be uncanny. As if, by watching these films, he might understand why, on this morning, with him about to leave Mortalus there was no one to whom he might say, “goodbye.” Theresa Wright, he’d thought, might tell him something.
He sat in traffic on the Bay Bridge for an hour and a half. The drive down had gone smoothly although a deer had darted across the freeway in front of him just south of Roseburg. He’d checked his phone a number of times along the way to see if there was any word from Flynn-Renton, the community college twenty miles outside of Mortalus in Hardawl, an industrial town noted for its pungent paper mill, where he’d recently applied for a teaching position. The interview, he’d felt, had gone well, despite the sadness coursing through him as he answered questions. He’d been glad when he’d come to the passes at the Oregon-California border where there was no signal so he could stop checking for messages and wished there was a similar space that might make him stop thinking about her. As soon as he reached Berkeley everything ground to a stop and, moving across the Bay bridge with the last bit of color in the sky –a thin strip of purple, frozen like a stream of paint in mid-toss –he was faced with an endless array of red taillights inching forward in spurts, into the maw of the Treasure Island tunnel. Sticking with tradition he waited to put on music until coming out of the tunnel when he would catch the first real glimpse of the city. That always made for a powerful moment and was something he liked to choreograph just right. While he waited he thought about stories he hoped to write. The long drive down from Oregon made him think of road stories. He wanted to write one based on the first time he’d driven to Missoula from the bay area to start classes at the University of Montana. How, in Nevada, on a lonely stretch of desert highway his Chevy S-10 got a flat and he’d ridden his skateboard along the desert floor for an hour before a Mexican family crammed in a tiny Celica on their way to Church had stopped and given him their jack. The ranch in the distance, toward which he’d been skating, they told him, had been abandoned for years. He’d wanted to write a story about a car salesman in the 70’s delivering a muscle car to a rock star in France. The deal falls through as do other facets of the salesman’s life, i.e. a relationship, and he goes on a tear across Europe in the unsold hotrod winding up at Anzio, in Italy, where his father had been killed by artillery during the war. How many years had that story been in the works? And while not a road story, he had always wanted to write a screenplay for the esoteric Max Brand western, Twenty Notches. He knew it might not captivate others, but for him it would be a labor of love. And here was a strange connection, because Max Brand, having giving up his lucrative career pumping out pulp westerns in order to cover the war in Europe, was killed by German artillery in Italy. He thought of what had happened to him that morning, how while walking to the library to return the Theresa Wright films he’d fallen over the fence surrounding the tree in the sidewalk. That, he thought, he might be able to work into a story. It was while he was pondering these ideas for stories that the Jetta emerged from the luminous arc of the Treasure Island tunnel and the dark sprawl of the bay gave way to the iridescent maze that was the city. He pushed the CD into the player and heard, while eyeing the towers of light on their steep slopes, where Coit Tower appeared to be the only structure with any trace of purity, Ike and Tina break into “Whole Lotta Love,” their version so slow and steady as to not contrast with the still sluggish traffic. As he watched the neon-spangled world grow closer Ike’s wah-wah slashed and Tina’s voice, he was sure, made towers of steel and concrete undulate, and the heavy bass smooth out the surface of the bay.
His first night with his mother in her apartment at the Golden Days retirement community was not as relaxing as he’d hoped it might be and, because of this, he imagined the rest of the visit would only be rougher. She wanted to see the new Jeff Bridges film. She was obsessed with Jeff Bridges. “We’ll go eat Chinee –she always called it Chinee –and see the new Jeff Bridges’ film, Crazy Love. I’ll drive.”
“Crazy Heart.” He said.
She paused on her way to the bathroom. “You know, in it he plays an alcoholic.” She glanced at him over the top of her glasses, a knowing look full of admonition for his drinking, which was somehow meant to convey loving concern rather than condescension. Already she was moving too fast, saying too much. He’d hardly sat down. His bags were still in the Jetta. Okay, we can do this, he told himself, thinking spending the holidays with his mother at Golden Days retirement community had to be better than spending them alone in his frigid Mortalus apartment, but of this he wasn’t convinced. He thought of slipping out onto the porch while she was in the bathroom and smoking a quick bowl, but hesitated. It was when they were headed out the door that he pretended he’d forgotten something. “I’ll be right there,” he told her. He was out on the porch hurriedly smoking when he heard her yell up to him from below. “What are you doing up there?” Jesus, he thought, even at her age the woman’s got eyes like a hawk. Her vision honed by suspicion.
“Let’s go!” She hollered, waving her hand in the air like one of the cowpokes commencing the cattle drive in Red River.
“I’m on my way,” he called down, cupping the glowing bowl behind his thigh as he watched her totter off into the streetlight.
At dinner he told her about how he’d applied for a teaching position at the community college in Hardawl, an industrial town. “I’m sure you’ll get it, ”she said, nodding while she extracted an unwanted piece of food from her mouth and set it on her place. This habit of hers always made him cringe and still she told him, every five minutes, that he was eating too fast.
Driving home on 101, after the seeing the movie, she was beside herself over the wonderful job Jeff Bridges had done. Especially poignant, she felt, was the scene, where, after a crippling bender, he collapsed into a heap wearing only his underwear. “And him in those tighty-whiteys!” She exclaimed, “He is so sexy. “ Again, he cringed. In anticipation of seeing the film, he’d read the book by Thomas Cobb. He didn’t bother to comment on how Hollywood had sanitized the book’s bleak ending, not wanting to dampen his mother’s rapture. He gripped the dashboard as she swerved toward their exit.
Not far from his mother’s apartment at Golden Days retirement community was Turgis Park where, when he was twenty-two, having dropped out of college in New York, he’d lived for three months in his truck. At the time he’d been working in a used bookstore and doing lots of speed while all around him close friends were becoming serious junkies. Despite the ugly memories, the park held for him a spiritual resonance, had been a springboard of sorts, and he felt a great peace when ambling through it. A lot had changed. Gone was the backstop with its familiar graffiti as well as the dugout where they’d smoked speed and which could fit three of them stretched out beneath blankets. There had been the Turgis Olympics, consisting of the empty forty toss, log rolling -only with an aluminum trashcan, which they tried to traverse the asphalt parking lot on. And perhaps the most intrepid event; they’d found an abandoned wheelchair which one had to circumnavigate the park in while drinking a pint of Vodka. He’d once been pulled over by the police doing just that. At least the ducks remained, waddling about, darting across the surface of the pond, which they made a putrid green, in the direction of tossed breadcrumbs. He loved the ducks. In his ears their quacking sounded like great cries of defiance. In their waddling he saw undeniable swagger. These sentiments, he believed, were a result of the time his friend, Brian, who had on his back a tattoo of a large un-flushed toilet, killed one of the ducks with his skateboard. The ducks remained, while Brian was gone. He’d been in his second year of school in Missoula when he learned Brian had died of an overdose in the Mission district. He remembered how his mom would drive by the park every morning on her way to work and see his truck through the fog, see him standing beside it drinking a forty, and realized only now, how it must have broken her heart.
It bothered him that the old dugout was gone, for that was where he wanted to sit and think. Instead he found a set of bleachers, newer and nicer, and took a seat in the top row. It was odd, he thought, how during those months adrift in Turgis he never thought that someday he might be close with someone like her, or have to deal with the consequences of someone like her leaving him or that someday it would feel like his future, the success of his life, would depend on the outcome of an interview at a community college in Hardawl, Oregon. Back then it had been all about scoring speed, alphabetizing books with dusty jackets in the used bookstore where he worked, and finding a place to lay a blanket at night. Things then had been much simpler.
On the walk back from the park he stopped at the public library and picked up the DVD for one of his a favorite films, The Best Years Our Lives, in which war weary Dana Andrews wins the heart of Theresa Wright. He was ambling through the sloping gravel alongside the railroad tracks when his phone rang. He turned his back toward the swoosh of traffic on El Camino and put a finger in his ear as he answered. It was the English department secretary at Flynn-Renton telling him he’d been accepted for the position of English instructor.
When he reached the parking lot of the Golden Days apartments, he was still buoyant with disbelief. He wanted to think that his ability to handle her departure, with a minimum degree of unraveling, had contributed to this bit of fortunate news. He no longer had her in his life, but he now had a job, which meant a roof over his head, a remaining thread of self-respect. He stopped at the Jetta to smoke a bowl before returning to his mom’s apartment. He was there, seated in the driver’s seat, the door open and his feet on the ground, when he heard the shrill voice of his mother. “What are you doing?”
He looked up to see her twenty feet away staring at him in disbelief. Where the hell had she come from? There was no way to hide it. Tendrils of smoke curled upward from his mouth as he tried to exhale discreetly.
“I don’t believe it!” she shouted. “One day back and here you are getting high in the parking lot!” She turned, making her way toward the apartment complex.
“Oh, brother,” he said, his voice laden with exasperation. Why did it have to be like this, her suspicion driving her to find things she didn’t want to see –constantly. He could feel the pipe’s contents burning the palm of his hand where he’d tried to hide it from her in a clenched fist. “I got the job,” he said.
She didn’t break her stride, but threw her arms up in the air. “Great,” she said, not looking back. “Now, maybe you can stop ruining your life.”
He watched her disappear through the automatic sliding doors at the entrance to the lobby. He stood up, closing the car door behind him. Don’t worry about it, he told himself. This too, shall pass. She’ll be proud of you later on. He would make this a good day, despite whatever temporary fallout there might be from his mother discovering him smoking weed in the parking lot of her retirement community. He would start a new book, having finished John Williams academic novel Stoner before leaving Mortalus –or he would watch The Best Years of Our Lives and envy Dana Andrews when he holds Theresa Wright. The syllabi that he needed to craft for upcoming classes he could start on tomorrow. Making sure the car door was locked he headed across the parking lot toward the palm flanked entrance of The Golden Days.