Zone Tripping: a Beginner’s Guide
“Good morning, is Aaron there?”
The voice that answers you sounds not only irritated at the early hour of the call, but at the redundancy of The Question.
“I’m sorry, but nobody named Aaron lives here, or has ever lived here. You have the wrong number.”
You masterfully duplicate confused persistence. “But he gave me this number himself just two days ago, and guaranteed that he could be reached here.”
Trying to stifle a yawn, the reply comes “Well, he must have made a mistake. Sorry.”
“Huh,” you say, and hang up.
“How’s it going,” I call from the kitchen.
“I woke ’em up,” you say, coming in to join me. It was understandable that you had: it was 8:30 am. I myself was having trouble dealing with the hour, despite already having a cup of coffee in me. You open my far cupboard and contemplate my collection of coffee cups. Your first choice would’ve been my Alice in Wonderland cup, but I’d already snatched it. You decide on a chocolate brown one with a large Kahlùa symbol. Despite a full night’s sleep, you’re not handling the morning too well, either. You shove the cup into my face and grunt primordially. As I pour, you add “it sounds like they’re almost starting to get pissed off.”
“Good,” I say, filling your cup. As you add milk and sugar to your own specifications, I begin to clean my kitchen table.
“What time are they coming over?”
I glance at the clock on the microwave. “In about half an hour.”
You nod, and help me spruce up my place. Despite the fact that there are now two unabashed slobs living here, it somehow hasn’t become too messy. Still, we finish hiding dirty clothes and loose sheets of paper just as there is a knock on the door.
“Hi, Matthew,” a scarily effeminate voice sings out as I answer the door. A chorus of frightened meows follow.
The two men are such flaming gays that the temperature rises fifteen degrees when they enter. One of them comes into the kitchen to set down a large aerated carrying case. Looking at him, you notice that he has a chalky complexion offset by rosy cheeks. Make up?, you wonder.
“Hello,” he says to you, but the sound is drowned out by a frightened meow.
His butt buddy sets another case down on the persian rug in the living room, and a slew of mewings flow forth. He assumes his favorite position (bending over) and begins to console the frightened feline inside.
“What’s amatter, Odie?” he asks in a simpering tone, much like a parent consoling a crying baby.
“Need some help?” I ask.
“No,” they both say, “one more trip and we’ll have everything inside.”
They prance out my front door, and you squat down to look inside the cage. Inside is an animated clump of white fur, which immediately stops meowing when it sees you. It comes up to the front of the cage to inspect the finger you insert into the bars.
“Hey,” you say in surprise, “the eyes are different colors!” This was true: the left was yellow, the right was powder blue.
“Yeah,” I say from the other cage, “it’s the same on this one, except reversed. I guess it’s a genetic hic-up.”
“What’s your name?” you ask it in a friendly tone, though loud enough for me to hear and answer in its place.
“That’s Frannie,” I say, “and this is Odie. They’re bringing in one more: Maxie.”
Just as I speak, the two “men” come back in. One is carrying a third cat carrier in one hand, a lot of toys in the other. His companion has two walk-in cat boxes. Everything is dumped on the kitchen floor.
“Wow, just listen to them,” one of them says. His feline protégé is going wild inside. “Why don’t you come out?” he prompts, and opens the door.
There is a blinding flash of white light as the cat bolts out of the box, into my bedroom, and under my bed.
“Let’s go, Frannie,” you prompt, and open the grille. A kitten comet launches out past you, and joins Maxie under my bed.
“Not bad,” I comment. You pad into my room, squat on all fours, and peer underneath. Boxes, shadows, blankets, and four eyes.
“Hey, girls,” you call out, and reach in to pet them. They’re just out of range.
“Come on, Odie,” the more effeminate of my two houseguests was saying, “let’s go.” You walk out to see him holding the carry case in the air, the opening pointing toward the floor. He is shaking it, trying to dislodge he contents. Finally, a large tom falls out, and scrambles for purchase on the wooden floor. He first orients on the den, and then breaks the sound barrier going inside.
I begin to disburse the litter boxes strategically about the house: one in the kitchen, one hidden behind my papasan. There are three cat baskets with comfey blankets. I put one by the front door, one in the kitchen, and the third I take into my den. I put it on my harvest table next to my computer, thinking it would be nice to have some company while I’m writing.
I look around for Odie, but cannot immediately see him. I duck under the table to look, and although I cannot see him, a very distinctive hiss leads me to his location. He is behind a large cardboard box that I store my old correspondence (including yours) in.
I try to pet him, but the hissing becomes violent.
“So much for that,” I think, and go back into the living room. While I was doing this, you are examining the selection of cat toys they brought. A lot of chewed-on stuffed mice, a few giant spiders on elastic bands. You tie one to the back of a chair, another to the handle on the refrigerator. They should love that, you think.
“Well, that about takes care of that,” I am told by the actual owner of the cats. He hands me a check, and says “Now if you’ll excuse us, we have a lot of errands to attend to.”
In a flash, they are gone.
“Hmmmmm,” I say to you as the door shuts, “that was fast. I was hoping they would have stayed and play with the cats a while, to help them adjust.”
“Where are they going, anyway?”
I pocket the check. “England. One of them is going to school in London, and the other is presumably tagging along to supply him his anal fixation.”
You nod in understanding of why they had to leave the cats: England had a six-month quarantine on all incoming plants and animals.
I pat the pocket where I’d tucked the check away. “Well, can I treat you to dinner?”
“Sure,” you say, smiling. “Sounds good: I’m hungry.”
“Well, I’d cook you another of my infamous egg breakfasts, but we forgot to get bread yesterday. Care to join me on a quick expedition to the corner store?”
“Shouldn’t one of us stay here to keep an eye on the cats?”
“Actually,” I counter, “I think it might be a good idea to give them some time alone. If we’re not here, they may come out and explore. I want them to find the cat boxes and food bowls.”
You nod; it made sense. You throw some shoes on, and join me at the front door.
It’s a cloudy day, and more than a bit nippy. Having dwelt in the sun belt of Florida for so long, you are still having trouble adjusting to the temperature.
“Mind if I get a jacket?” you ask. Standing by the front door in my standard beach bum attire, I chuckle and say “Help yourself.”
You pop back inside, and go into the kitchen. Slung over a chair is an old, beat-up blue denim jacket with the Blue Öyster Cult logo on the back. It is my favorite jacket; smiling, you grab it and slip into it. Over one pocket is an Iron Cross from 1914. You wonder if anybody has given me shit for wearing a German Medal. Rejoining me, you are about to ask when you notice the ornaments on the collar.
On the right side is a big yellow smiley face with a painted-on blood smear: J
“Are you trying to circle-slash the universal smiley face?”
“No,” I laugh, leading you down stairs. It had rained earlier, and Michelle’s tarped-over bike is covered with a fine spray.
I tap the button on my jacket. “It has to do with another comic book called the Watchmen. There was a super-hero named The Comedian, and he wore a big yellow smiley face on his collar. The series starts off with a businessman being murdered, and another super-hero investigating it finds this smiley button with a blood smear on it.” I tap the button. “He figures out that the businessman was the Comedian, and starts to take a very serious interest in the case. I’ve got it back at my place; it’s worth reading because the whole story is so unpredictable. But that’s my Comedian button. So far only two people have recognized it for what it is.”
You nod; another proof of my love for cryptic inside jokes. “Let me guess, they were avid comic book readers, right?”
I turn left on Wayne street, heading for Diversey.
“You know,” I say. “At comic book conventions, they sell those pins. There aren’t too many of them, and they’re real collector’s items. Guess what the going price for one is?”
“Cheapest is $40.”
“You paid forty bucks for a button?” you cry in shock.
“Nope,” I smile. “I paid ninety-nine cents for it. You can get standard smiley face buttons anywhere, so I just got one and painted on the blood splash myself. It came out perfect.”
We reach Diversey, and I take us into a strip mall. At the end of it is a Hostess Bakery retail outlet.
You examine the other collar insignia. Flat black captain’s bars.
“Why captain’s bars?” you ask.
I shrug. “Why not.”
You’re surprised that I didn’t choose something like five-star general, though there was actually a little reasoning to my choice: lieutenants were too raw to be competent, and anything higher that a major was usually stuck behind a desk pushing paper.
The door opens electronically, and we enter the Wonderful World of Bread.
“Speaking of rank, guess what I saw a couple of days ago in a toy store?”
“What,” you ask, surveying this bastion of the second food group.
You turn form carbohydrate hell to me, a smile on your face.
“Oh?” you ask, interested in the piece of plastic that was clearly modeled after your own perfect blonde features.
“But not any Barbie Doll. You know how they have Surfing Barbie, Model Barbie, Disco Barbie...”
“Yeah,” you say, “just Barbie Dolls with different costumes.”
“Right.” I say, examining a tray of bread, “well, guess what I saw?”
You watch me select a loaf of whole wheat, wait my answer. When I turn to you, my grave expression chills you.
I pause, then utter “Marine Corps Barbie.”
“You know,” you say after a moment, “I could have sworn that you just said ‘Marine Corps Barbie’.”
“Guess what rank she was,” I continue solemnly.
“General?” you try. We are heading toward the check-out counter.
I get in line behind a white trash mother with a shopping cart full of bread, hot dog buns, and cupcakes. “Nope,” I say. “Master sergeant.”
You make a strangled noise.
“Of all the ranks to give her, that one seemed least appropriate.”
“Maybe she just likes having soldiers serve under her.”
A wiry black man in a grossly oversized muscleman tank top gets in line behind us.
“You know,” I continue, “it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that my grandfather ran the toy industry in this country back in the fifties and sixties. He worked very hard to keep the Barbie doll off the market.”
Sacrilege! you think. “Why?” you manage to ask.
“He thought it was too sexual for the age market it was targeted at, and to an...”
The man behind me taps me on the shoulder. I turn.
He points a finger at me and says “You shouldn’t do that,” he tells me. “It won’t be so obvious.”
“What?!?” I asked him, stunned. And then I realize that he is pointing to my free hand, which is resting on my hip. My elbow is pointing out at a wide angle.
“You don’t want to be so obvious about it,” he reiterates.
Slowly it dawns on me what he is implying. Having absolutely no doubts about my masculinity, I consider several stinging retorts, decide to let it pass. I shake my head sadly and put my loaf down on the counter.
The runt behind the counter asks “Will that be all?”
I examine my empty hands in an obvious way. “Yep,” I say dreamily, “I guess soooo.”
I pay him, and get out of the store as quickly as possible. The air is starting to drizzle.
“Do I look gay to you?”
You laugh. “Well, now that you mention it...”
I hit you with the bread, denting it slightly.
“Thank you, sir, may I have another?”
At the other end of the strip mall is a small postal exchange.
“That has to be one of the worst-run mom ’n pop stores I’ve ever seen.”
Walking past it, you glance in through the window. A young oriental girl who made Yoko Ono beautiful by comparison sat behind the counter, talking on the phone. The smile on her face and otherwise general air of levity indicated that it was a personal call. On the wall were various envelopes and postal materials priced identically with a standard office supply store. In the back was a row of post office boxes.
“What’s so bad about it?” you ask, as we walk around the corner, back onto Wayne Street.
“Okay, it’s a mail drop, right?”
You shrug. “Yeah, I suppose.”
“Do you know that they almost never have stamps there?”
You begin to understand my point.
“And on those rare occasions when they do remember to buy a book of them, they sell them to the public for 35 cents a piece.”
Back at the house, I unlock the door and let you in.
“Think the cats are alright?” I ask.
You duck into the den, and sure enough, Odie is under my harvest table, a dim shadow behind my box of letters. You extend a hand to pet him, withdraw it when he hisses. So much for that.
I’m putting the loaf on my kitchen table when I hear someone tapping on my window. I look up and see Laura peering in, smiling and waving. I open the back door, and invite her in.
“Hi,” she says, and holds up a yellow post-it note. “I knocked on your door as loudly as I could, but nobody answered, so I wrote you this.” I read it:
___ Routine Matter
___ Fairly Important
_X_ The future of Western Civilization hangs in the balance
Where do we get these queer notepads?
I’ll be upstairs all day (except for when I do laundry after 6) so let me know when you want to play.
I grin at her use of the Universal Smiley Face, and stick the note on my refrigerator.
You peek under my bed. Both of the girls are dug in deep, and just out of reach.
“Cats are fine,” you call, coming in to join us.
“Thanks,” I say to you, and then tell Laura about my lesson in homosexual etiquette. She dies laughing, then pulls out a small plastic baggie. It’s rolled up into a cylinder; she begins undoing it.
“Got anything to put this in?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say with a smile, “my lungs.”
“Oh, should I go get my pipe?”
I open my freezer and pull out mine. It is a small portable one that I bought for five bucks when I got sick of smoking joints. The bowl is made of black wood, and nicely sized; the mouthpiece is black plastic. Currently all that is inside it is a raggedy brass screen, dark from carbon scoring.
“Why do you keep your pipe in the freezer,” she asks.
“If the pipe’s cold, it’ll cool the smoke down.”
She nods; makes sense. You shake your head sadly.
“When I was in Athens,” I continue as I hand it to her, “one of the stores there had a display case full of pipes and bongs, labeled ‘FOR TOBACCO USE ONLY’.”
Laura finds this particularly amusing. She reaches into her bag with thumb and forefinger, pulls out a large bud. Small pieces of it—universally known as ‘shake’—fall onto the table. She ignores them for the present, instead concentrating on pressing the bud down onto the screen.
“Want something to drink?” It is an open offer to both of you.
“Sure,” Laura answers. “Whatcha got?”
“Well, I’m going to brew some coffee.”
This surprises you. “You’re going to have more?”
“Of course. I always mix caffeine with weed. I call it the wide awake high.”
“I’ll have two cups,” Laura says, catching on to the principle quickly. You shake your head, so I fill the machine up with five cups of water.
Laura continues packing the bowl with large green pieces of bud. There are tiny red hairs growing out of it, you notice.
“Best system I ever had for smoking was a big water bong that my twelfth roommate had. We used to fill it with mountain dew and ice. The ice not only cooled the smoke down, but compacted it so’d you’d get a bigger hit. The mountain dew sweetened it.”
Abstractly, you wonder what a hit off a bong full of IBC would taste like. You decide it best never to find out.
I measure out five cups worth of fresh Dunkin Donuts coffee grounds.
“I claim the Alice in Wonderland cup,” I say, indicating the appropriate cup.
“Oh, Cool!” Laura cries upon seeing it. “I love Alice in Wonderland,” she adds.
“So do I,” I add, turning on the coffee machine. “I was originally planning on doing my Master’s Thesis on it.”
“Really?” you say, deciding to sit down.
“Yeah,” I tell you. “I’ve deciphered a good part of it. I’m pretty sure that The Mad Hatter is Prime Minister Disraeli, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are House of Lords and House of Commons, the Mock Turtle is the educational system; you get the idea...”
You begin to wonder if I’m not already stoned.
Laura solves the problem by pulling out a rust-colored lighter, lighting the herbs, and toking deeply. She hands me the pipe after filling her lungs with pungent smoke.
I decide that since it will take the coffee several minutes to brew, I may as well start now. The bowl is still full of glowing coals; I power hit the pipe, and cough reflexively.
Chemicals enter Laura’s brain, and she begins to grin. She offers you the pipe.
“No thanks,” you say politely.
She shrugs, then puts her lips around the end of the pipe and inhales. Nothing happens. She looks around for her lighter.
Blowing out a thick cloud of fog, I point to its location.
“Wow,” I say, as I get a head rush.
“I just got this big book on Alice in Wonderland,” Laura tells us, “and it’s go the most awesome illustrations.” She sparks the flint, and rekindles the bowl.
“Call me a traditionalist,” I tell her, “but the only pictures I can ever see for that are the ones done by Sir John Tenniel.”
“Yeah, he’s in there,” she says, and a small cloud escapes with her words. She holds her breath for several moments, then exhales a deep breath. A thick cloud comes out. “But some of the others are cool.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” I reply, accepting the pipe. It’s still lit, and I crisp my lungs.
The coffee machine begins the dying grasps of the end-of-percolation cycle. I pull my Alice cup aside, and Laura hands me a medium-sized cup from my cupboard. It has a giant blue illustration of the night sky, with a number of stars in random patterns.
“How does the little crocodile improve its shining tail,
and pour the waters of the Nile on every golden scale?
How cheerfully he seems to grin, How neatly spreads his claws
And beckons little fishies in, With gently smiling jaws.”
You smile, recognizing the origin of what I have just recited, but Laura’s frown indicates she has no idea what I’m quoting. Despite the subject of our conversation, she misses it. I consider reciting Jabberwockey as well, decide against it.
I pour myself a cup of coffee as Laura again hits the pipe. She hands it to me as I finish pouring hers. Just as she is about to doctor her beverage to her specifications, she cries out in surprise. Her cup is now completely white, except for two constellations: Orion and the Big Dipper. After a moment, you postulate (correctly) that the blue on the cup is heat sensitive: add a hot drink, and it changes from a night sky to a remedial astronomy lesson. In Laura’s baked-out mind, however, this was too hard to grasp.
I consider tying to explain this to her, decide against it. She recovers quickly.
“Hey, listen to this,” I say, and go into the other room. Turning on my JVC, I press rewind, then look around for a matchbook. There’s one on my right speaker; I pull out a match and light a fresh stick of frankincense.
“Can I see that?” she calls, indicating the matches. I toss them to her, and she lights one, holds it over the bowl, and sucks crisply on the mouthpiece. Just as her lungs reach capacity, she hands me the pipe. Thick gray smoke billows out from both ends, and I quickly inhale, lest the precious smoke be wasted. Just when my eyes start to water, I return the pipe. She closes her eyes, grins, and wisps of smoke escape past her lips. Blowing out a noxious cloud, she glances in the pipe, sees that it is extinguished. She looks around for the matches, can’t find them.
“You’re holding them,” you point out with a sardonic smile. This causes me to laugh, and more smoke is added to the room.
Laura snaps a match open, and sets the weed on fire. Sucking on the glowing coals, she suddenly coughs out everything she inhaled.
I press play, and my voice comes from the speakers: “Two Ayee: the ascending chromatic scale... ...the ascending chromatic scale... ...and now, two Bee...”
A shrill female voice suddenly cuts in: “You sank my battleship!”
“Hey, that’s Cher!” cries Laura, delighted.
“The descending chromatic scale... the descending chromatic scale...” Suddenly a guitar line going every note down the fretboard thunders out.
The significance seems to be lost on her.
“And now,” the tape continues, “Number three, the locrian mode... ...the locrian mode, in dee sharp, alternating with ee ionian in five four.”
“What?” Laura asks, confused.
“It’s intermediate music theory,” you explain.
You hear my song issue forth immediately after.
“You probably won’t like this,” I tell Laura. “You can’t really dance to it, because it’s in a weird time signature.
Laura listens to it, and after twenty seconds, says “You can totally dance to this!”
This surprises me. “Really?”
“Yeah,” and she demonstrates for several seconds before the tempo confuses her. “Hey, this is in a weird tempo.”
“Yeah, it’s five four.”
“Five four?” she asks. I nod.
She listens to my laughable attempt at a guitar solo, then asks “Is that it?”
“Uh, it goes on for four measures,” I tell her, turning the tape off, “and then I was thinking of fading it out...” She lights a match and takes a hit. “...but probably... ...normally what I do is put in part of Blade Runner.”
“Cool,” she says around a mouthful of smoke.
“Um, I might put in part of the Exorcist, actually, because that’s what the next song’s about. I think it’d be a cute little tie-in.”
“Yeah,” she croaks.
“Can I see that a sec? Yeah.” She hands it over, exhaling.
“It’s almost gone.”
“Yeah,” I acknowledge. Accurate assessment: it looks like there’s maybe one hit left.
“It is gone,” she says when no smoke comes out.
“You think you can dance to that, though?” I ask, lighting a match.
“Yeah... ...definitely... ..why not? You can dance to anything.
I immolate ashes, and the suck heat of the match. Yuck. Putting the pipe down, I say “Cashed.”
“Babe, if you can walk you can dance,” she says whimsically.
“Cool.” She starts to reach for the pipe, but I repeat “Cashed.” She nods in understanding and giggles.
“Fuck,” she says. The expression on her face tells you that she is totally stoned. “Are you hungry?” she asks.
I laugh, and admit “I’ve got the munchies bad.”
“I have totally got the munchies,” she concurs.
I ponder the problem. “Uh, trying to think what I got.”
Remembering that you haven’t eaten, either, you hope I remember quickly.
You find this amusing. Remembering a character form the Cerebus comics you’ve been reading, you suggest “Bran Mac Muffin?”
This makes me howl with laugher. When I finally control myself, I say “Alas, I’m not the muffin type.”
“Oh well,” she says.
I pick up my guitar and start playing the Toad Elevating Moment. After a moment I stop. “Do you think that’s any good?”
“It’s different,” she says. I smile, pleased. I consider that to be a complement.
“It’s not going to be the big club hit of the ’90s, is it.”
I see that you look extremely bored, and start playing Roxanne. You smile in recognition.
“I thought you didn’t like that song,” you ask.
I pause playing for a moment, then shriek “Rooooxannnne...”
You cringe, Laura laughs.
“Youuuu doan’ have to wear that stinky dress tonight...” I croon while chunking out quarter notes. “Pleeease do your laundry...” I continue, and you quickly examine my amplifier for the off switch.
“...’Cause the smell is an aw-ful fright.”
You finally find it.
Laura joins in, equally off key: “Rooooooooooooocksannnne...”
I look at you, hurt.
“Please, Matt,” you beg.
Laura shudders. “Oh my god,” she says, “I’m soooo stoned!”
I pull out the Matt Mix, and put in another tape. You catch a glimpse of the title: “Fly By Night.”
I press play, and suddenly horrific distortion crushes you. A guitar wailing insanely, wallowing in feedback, a frantically traveling bassline, a drum kit slicing out time with military precision, and at sporadic intervals, the demonic growl of yet another bass, unbearably loud and distorted.
“Oh my god,” Laura cries in horror, “what is this?”
“Rush,” I say, and I start playing along with it.
Rush, you think. Tonya loves these guys. Listening to the unstructured symphony of chaos, you wonder why.
The jam gets almost psychedelic; it’s obviously too much for Laura.
“Oh, wow,” she says, “Well, Cher’s been on my case to clean up, so I’m gonna go scrape filth off the dishes.”
“Have fun,” you say.
“Yeah,” I add, and then hold up the pipe. “And thanks.”
“Hey, no problem,” she says, letting herself out.
I shut the tape off. “I thought she’d never leave.”
You look at me, puzzled. I go into the kitchen, and pour another cup of coffee.
You turn the tv on, then come in to join me. “She seems pretty cool,” you say.
My answer is drowned out by the television. Brooding, ominous music starts up, and then, over that, a dark, powerful voice booms out in slow, deliberate intonation:
“In Super Bowl Nineteen, the Miami Dolphins had one mission:”
We look at each other in terror.
“...find Joe Montana...”
We madly scramble for the set.
“...and PUNISH him.”
We reach the tv; on it, film footage of a gigantic man running out in slow motion against the backdrop of one hundred thousand blurred fans.
“Whew,” I say. “That was close.” I giggle at nothing in particular, which you in turn find amusing. “So,” I ask, “my offer for diner’s still open.”
You nod, smiling a little more “Sound’s good to me, Dave.”
“Not a problem. What do you want?”
You could eat anything at this point, and express this. “It doesn’t matter; you know the restaurants, so you pick.”
I ponder this.
“Well, the last time I air-lifted you in a letter to Chicago, we went for Chinese.”
You nod, remembering.
“How about this time we go to R.J. Grunts?”
The name alone sells you. You go into my bedroom, contemplate yourself in the mirror.
Knowing what you are doing, I yell “you look fine; come on.”
“But my hair’s a mess and I don’t have any make-up, and...”
“...and you look fine. Here’s a bus token.”
I hand you one, and you grab my B.Ö.C. jacket.
“God, I’m starving,” I tell you. Given my radical eye dilation, you don’t doubt it. We walk to Fullerton, where the nearest bus stop is. It’s a street corner, with a Burger King.
“This is one of the worst Burger Kings...” I start, but you hold up a placating hand.
“Matt, I’ve noticed something about you.”
“You seem to find only bad qualities in things, and expound upon them at great length.”
“What’s your point?”
“Well, I mean your pessimistic sarcasm is funny, but is it justified?”
I make a grumpy face at you. “Don’t start analyzing me, Beth.”
You smile with playful smugness. “Hey, I’m not the one writing this letter. You’re analyzing yourself, my dear.”
“So what are you saying? That I go out of my way to see only bad things around me, and make a point to be irritated by them?”
“Got it in one!” you cry. “I’m impressed.”
“But I’m still not sure what your point is.”
“Not my point; your point. Remember: you’re the one writing this.”
“Don’t quibble semantics with me, please.”
“I’m not. As I said, you’re writing this, so you’re quibbling with yourself.”
“You’re just playing with my mind because I’m high.”
You smile. “True.”
“Well please stop and tell me what the point about my negativity was.”
“Aren’t you afraid that people will get sick of it? You see only bad things round you and expound upon them at great length. The point is, aren’t you concerned that this negativity will drive people away from you?”
“Fine,” I say, throwing my hands up in the air. “Would you like to see an improvement?”
“Please. Remember, Matt: the term Christian means ‘to be Christ-like’. Jesus taught doctrines of love and compassion. For me to be more like my Savior, I would try and find good things in them, not bitch about how they never keep stamps in their inventory or complain about how bad the food and service is.”
“Okay,” I say again, and pause for five seconds. “I’ve just made a change.”
“Oh?” you say with playful skepticism.
“Yep. Quick trivia: what happened right before we left?”
You think. “You gave me a bus token, and I grabbed your jacket.”
“And before that?” I press.
You think a little harder. “You suggested we go to R.J. Grunts, and I agreed. Then you gave me the token and we left.”
I smile: checkmate. “Nope. I complemented you on your looks.”
This makes you frown. “You did?”
“Originally I didn’t: we agreed on the restaurant, I gave you a bus token, you took my jacket, and we walked here. However, at the top of this page you kept reminding me that I was the author of this letter, so I went up a page and did some editing. You looked in the mirror, and were completely unhappy with what you saw. I, however, I complemented you on your appearance.”
“Did you?” you say, stunned.
You ponder this. The whole thing was getting very weird, especially since I was playing God with my word processor again. I had just altered your past—a fact that you weren’t too comfortable with. The whole premise was beginning to get surrealistic. Or, perhaps, this was just another product of my stoned mind.
This makes you wonder if I am stoned as I write this.
Granting myself temporary ESP, I read your mind and allay your fears: “Don’t worry, Beth, I’m stone cold sober (much to my regret). However, story-wise I would be high as a spy satellite at this point, so I’m merely writing in character.”
Just as you grudgingly accept this, you remember what I had altered the past about. Turning quickly, you study your reflection in the window of Burger King.
“Oh, God!” you scream. “I do look gross!”
Putting a placating hand on you, I say “No, Beth. You look fine. I already told you: even without make-up, you’re ten times as attractive as ninety percent of the female population...”
You beam at the complement, but then turn on me with mock fury. “What do you mean, only ninety percent?!?”
“Okay,” I say, playing along, “ninety-five.”
“Much better,” you say, returning to the window. Past your reflection, you can see part of the restaurant’s interior. At the counter, a bearded man is being waited on by a short, pimply black teenager. Her hair is slick with gooey palmade and stuffed poorly into a hair net; hanging askew atop of it is a paper Burger King crown. Beard hands over a dollar bill, and she accepts it clumsily, looks at first one side of it and then the other in confusion.
“Matt,” you reprimand, “you’re doing it again.”
“Doing what?” I ask innocently.
“The lady behind the counter...” you start, then almost break into laughter at her waiving a finger bewilderdly over the cash register, trying desperately to figure out what keys to punch.
“What about her?” I ask sweetly.
She is, in fact, speaking into the little microphone, undoubtedly summoning help.
“I thought you were going to be nice from now on,” you say, trying not to laugh when she realizes that the microphone isn’t turned on.
“Is it my fault that she’s walking proof of the dangers of in-breeding?”
Quickly deciding that you won’t be able to reprimand me with anything resembling a straight face if you continue to watch, you turn to confront me. “Yes, it is. You created her, and you made me notice her.”
“Okay, fine” I say, shaking my head in disgust. Inside, the manager comes up, pats her on the back, and suggests that she take a break. “The bus is coming,” I point out, trying to change the subject.
You can see it approaching from down the block. You ready your token, and snarl “And this better be a perfectly normal bus driver...”
A cab pulls up to the corner, and the lady inside leans over to confer with the driver. After a short exchange of words (but not money) she gets out and goes inside the Burger King. Inside the building, she gets in line. Inside the vehicle, the meter is still running; the driver begins reading from a book.
The bus lumbers up and pulls to the curb, behind the taxi. Doors part, and I climb up.
“Can I have a transfer?” I ask the suspiciously non-descript driver. Silently, he hands me one. You request one as well, and head to the back with me.
Out on the street, the light changes, but the lady is presumably still inside (that, or she’s ducked out a side door and stiffed the cab.) Either way, the taxi driver refuses to move his vehicle. After several moments, the bus driver realizes this, and begins reversing the bus.
“Hey,” a young black girl says to her friend, “he’s going in reverse!”
“You’re going the wrong way!” her friend calls out to the driver. Several other passengers make similar announcements, usually accompanied by estimations of the driver’s IQ.
“Hey,” I tell you when I see you giving me a look, “this actually happened.”
Finally the bus is far enough back that it can pull into the street without clipping the cab. Feeding into the mainstream traffic, it toots down Fullerton Avenue. Looking out the window, a car passes us with this bumper sticker:
Don’t get hooked on anything but Jesus
“I hate to tell you this,” I start, “but we’ve got to make a stop before we get to Grunts.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
I take a deep breath, then half-apologetically, “My bank.”
You turn from traffic-watching to face me fully. The full dread of my words slowly sinks in. “Oh, no,” you start. You glance at your watch. It’s four o’clock now; if our last visit was any indication, we won’t eat until seven-thirty minimum.
We pass by the El station, and I pull the cord signalling for a stop.
“Don’t worry,” I say, helping you up. “Hopefully, this won’t take too long.”
You don’t believe this any more than I do.
We get out at the triple intersection. Behind us is DePaul University, across the street is the park with the newsstand that sells the obscene titles. We dart across the street, and are almost run over by a dilapidated pick-up with this on its tail gate:
May God give you double what you wish upon me
“Streetwise, Streetwise” a black barker is calling. He is holding a bundle of newspapers. “Put out by the homeless, about the homeless.”
“Must make 1984 seem a cheerful and optimistic read by comparison,” you say quietly. Traffic comes to a halt, and we can cross over to my bank.
“I’m going to play it smart,” I tell you, “and use the teller machine.”
You nod: a seemingly good idea.
I hold open the glass door for you, and we step into the small vestibule by the drive-up windows. At the other end of the room is a side entrance to the bank’s lobby, but there are two ATM terminals in here with us.
Both are being used.
At the one on the right, Chicago’s answer to Donald Trump is hitting keys in a complex banking transaction.
At the left, a doddering old man somewhere between sixty and seven hundred is contemplating the instructions.
“Enter pin...” he ponders.
I say “excuse me”, reach around him, and get a deposit envelope.
He turns to me and says “wait yer turn, sonny.”
I wave the envelope. “I’m just getting an envelope.”
I go over to the counter, pull the cat-care check out of my pocket, and start filling out information.
Behind me, a crusty voice with an Alzheimer’s accent says “what the hell’s a pin?”
“It’s your Personal Identification Number,” you say to him politely.
He nods, and you hear a series of beeps from him pressing buttons. Nine beeps, to be precise: he has undoubtedly just punched in his social security number.
A loud honk issues forth, along with computerized death threats in glowing green.
To his right, Trump is queried on whether he would like another transaction, and he keys in YES.
I endorse the check, put it in the envelope, and see how the two are progressing.
The old man has discovered the video camera above the machine, and he is rapping intently on it.
“Hello?” he says. “Your machine doesn’t work.”
...beep... ...beep... ...beep... ...would you like another transaction?
We look at each other in despair.
“Hello?” tap tap “Anybody in there?”
Rockin Nelsafeller finally completes his international finance, and walks away. Just as I head up to it, Grandpa decides that his machine is broken, and he’d have better luck with the other one. I decide that this is no problem: I’ll just use his.
As I have an IQ over ten, I can complete the brain salad surgery of automated deposit and withdrawal of funds in under a minute. As we leave, and gramps is still jabbing keys with arthritic fingers, a young lady comes in.
“There you are,” she says, and walks up to him. We decide that grandpa is in good hands now, and leave him.
Grunts is a ten-minute walk. I point out sights on the way. Right across the street from Grunts is the Lincoln Park Zoo; specifically the farm-in-the-city.
“Farm in the city?” you ask.
“Yeah,” I say. “I think it’s a great idea. How many city kids have ever seen a real cow or horse?”
You nod. “Do they have goats?”
“Goodie. Goats are fun. So are pigs.”
We cross a street, scooting around a car with the bumper sticker:
PSALMS 101:1 FM STEREO
“And right over there,” I point “is Moondogs, where I get my comic books.”
“You mean your Cerebus,” you correct with a giggle.
“And this is R.J. Grunts.”
Revolving doors to the interior.
“Cool,” you say, looking around. Hanging over the bar is a sign announcing that anybody with a marriage license gets a free drink.
“They change the sign every day. Last time I was in, it was a spare tire. Another time, it was proof that you were a British citizen.”
A really cute blonde amazon comes over to us.
“Hi,” she says, smiling. “How many? Two?”
“Smoking or non-smoking?”
“Non-smoking, white, protestant, please,” I say.
She grabs two menus, then laughs. “I’ll see what I can do.”
She takes us into the back, and as she heads toward the far wall, I begin whispering “not the Warhol, not the Warhol, please not the Warhol...”
“She seats us in a booth directly underneath a giant painting of a banana.
She hands us our menus, and says “my name’s Monica, and your waitress will be with you shortly.” She smiles and leaves.
“Do you know her?” you ask me.
“When my mom was up visiting, we came here twice and she was friendly with me both times.”
You smile sardonically at me.
“I’ll tell you, though, it’s really hard to flirt with your mother present.”
Shaking your head sadly, you begin looking over the menu. It’s done with cute cartoons illustrating each entré.
“What do you recommend?”
“Pretty much everything’s good. They’ve got some of the best ribs in the city.”
A waitress comes up to us. “Hi, my name’s Tonya. Can I get you a something to drink?”
“Why are all our waitresses named Tonya?” you whisper to me.
I whisper back “why not?” then tell her “I’ll have an I.B.C.”
You smile. “Me too.”
She disappears around the corner. You look up from the menu to see me looking up at the paining over us.
“You know what I hate?” I ask.
“Political in-fighting between the Serbs and Croats?”
“No, actually I approve of that. Especially since it’s primarily Moslems who’re getting the snot kicked out of them.”
“How charming,” you say, returning to the menu. You see a particularly cute drawing of a pepper shaker, which has sergeant stripes on it, is whispering into a salt shaker’s ears “Paul is the Walrus.”
“Of all the religions in the world, I think I disapprove of Islam most. Given a choice between Satanism and Islam, I’d take Satanism, because it’s more open-minded, less violent, and the women have equal rights.”
You disguise a chuckle as a cough.
“But actually, I approve of the war in Bosnia-Hercagovnia anyway. I’m a big believer in zero-population growth, so I’m for anything that reduces the world’s surplus population.”
“Um,” you say.
“No, it’s true! You see, the Hindu’s consider the Ganges River sacred, so they dump their dead bodies into it. And bathe in it, crap in it; and after five thousand years, it’s the most polluted body of water on the planet. And it empties into the Indian Ocean, so now the Indian Ocean is pretty much lifeless.”
“Is it,” you say, mocking interest.
“Now, in case you didn’t know, most of our atmosphere is produced by oceanic plankton, as opposed to plants, for the simple reason that there is much more ocean space than land space. And with one of our oceans now pretty much out of commission thanks to those fun-loving Hindus, there’s going to be an air shortage pretty soon. And personally, I think I’m much more deserving of what air remains than 99% of the rest of the world, so I’m for anything that thins out the population. War, abortion, the death penalty, serial murders, car accidents...”
Tonya, our waitress, returns with two frosted mugs and two bottles of I.B.C. She sets them down on paper coasters, pours both of them, and asks “Are you ready to order?”
“Yes,” I say, “I’ll have the Steak Terriaki.”
You quickly look this up. The description describes it as a char-broiled steak sandwich on grilled bread with the secret terriaki sauce. It goes on further to say that the terriaki sauce is a secret because Terri, it’s creator, won’t tell anybody what’s in it. There is a little characture of an androgynous person in a big fluffy chef’s hat, smiling over several boiling kettles. The caption labels this as “Terri hard at work.”
“And how would you like that?”
“Surprise me,” I tell her. “Somewhere between raw and Chernobyl.”
She turns to you. “And you?”
“Actually, that sounds pretty good. I’ll have mine in that hazy area between rare and medium, please.”
“Sure. Help yourself to the salad bar.” And she walks off.
“Still, back to the original subject, do you know what I really hate?”
“People who write checks in the express lane?”
“Besides that.” I cock a thumb up at the painting.
You read the signature. It’s a reproduction of the original, of course, but it’s still a famous painting.
“Andy Warhol?” you ask.
“Yes!” I shout loud enough to make several adjoining tables turn and look at me.
“I’m sorry, but painting soup cans is not art. And neither is a day-long film of the Empire State Building.”
You didn’t know about that. “What?”
“Warhol made a film of the Empire State Building. He set up a camera on a roof across the street, and just let the film roll for a day.”
“Why?” you manage to ask.
“He was trying to say that movies were unrealistic, what with made-up stories about made-up people. He was trying to show real life by showing a real day in the history of a real object.”
“I see his point, but that’s still kind of stupid.”
“No shit. He made a statement, but the final product is for all intents and purposes unwatchable. The most exciting thing that happens is when a flock of pigeons fly by around hour fourteen.”
You shake your head sadly.
“He did a thirty-hour one of the Statue of Liberty, too.”
“Yep. It’s in the Guinness as the longest film ever made. So’s another one of his: longest silent film is a nine-hour offering called ‘sleep’.”
“You don’t mean...”
“That’s right! The most action in it is when the guy turns over half way through.”
You look up at the painting. “So what’s he saying about the banana?”
“Nothing. It’s just something he whipped up for a cover of the first Velvet Underground album. I hate them, too—especially since he produced it.”
You begin looking around for Tonya to ask if we can change boothes. Not so much out of artistic protest—just to shut me up.
When Tonya does appear, she has our food.
“Oh,” you say, “We missed the salad bar.” You’d seen it on the way in, and it looked pretty good.
She sets our food down, and just then you notice her apron. It’s green, and says “Lettuce Entertain You.”
“Oh, that’s cute!”
“It’s a chain, actually. Lettuce Entertain You has restaurants all over the city, which specialize in a combination of great atmosphere and great food. There’s also Jonathan Livingston Seafood...”
You break out laughing.
“There was also an outstanding Italian one called Lawrence of Oregano, but it burned down.”
You dip your sandwich in the bowl of Terri’s secret sauce, and take a bite. Just as your taste buds tell you how outstanding it is, you’re swallowing your second bite and hunkering into your third.
We both realize just how starved we are, and so we stop talking in favor of wolfing our food down.
“Urfff,” I say after picking my plate clean.
“Can I get you anything else?” Tonya asks.
We both roll our eyes melodramatically in horror.
“No thanks; I’m stuffed,” you say.
“Urfff,” I say.
We waddle outside, where it is now dusk, and limp to the bus stop. A bus is just pulling up to the stop. I force myself into a quick trot, and rummage my pockets for my transfer.
The doors swing open, and I hand the transfer to him.
“I need it back,” I tell him.
I begin scouting for seats, and you get your transfer back as well. I spot three open seats toward the back.
Just as we sit down, a rolly polly zone tripper bounces up to us. He is wearing a Chicago cubs hat. And, of course, he sits down in the empty seat next to me.
“The Cubs won today,” he tells me.
“That’s nice,” I say, and turn to you. You look amused. He turns to the person on the other side of him and repeats the announcement.
“So, Beth, do you...”
Guido the Killer Cub Fan turns back to me. “I think they have a chance to go all the way this year.”
Rather than point out that they were something like twenty games back, I merely nod and repeat to you “When we get back, do...”
“Eckersley’s got the pitching down, and Sutter can always back him up.”
“Um,” I say to him, and try for a third time to ask you what you want to do now.
“Do you go to many games?”
At that point, I make two bad decisions: not only do I talk to him, I tell him something bad.
“No, I’ve been too busy working.”
As is often the case with insane people, they can go from passive to violent with the batting of an eye.
“What do you mean! You don’t work! You don’t even go to church!”
Rather than ponder at the coincidence of him knowing that, I decide it best to calm him down. “Yes I do.”
“Oh, yeah?” he’s still steaming. “Which one?”
“Saint Matthew’s,” I say with a smile.
“Never heard of it. I go to Saint Bartholemew’s. They have ice cream there.”
He sounds a little better now, so I turn back to you. You are close to crying with laughter. I mouth the words “why do they always find me?” but he taps me on the shoulder.
“Are they having an ice cream social this Sunday?”
I finally turn to him, glaring. “I will not speak to you again until you can identify the Isotope!”
Turning back to you, “So, beth...”
He digs into my shoulder. “Huh?”
“What’s that mean?”
He’s starting to sound hostile again: “Answer me: what are you talking about?”
You finally leap to my rescue: you reach up and pull the cord requesting a stop. We get up and move to the exit.
“Thanks,” I say.
“Well, seeing at how badly you were handling that...” you say with a smile as we get off.
“What can I say,” I reply, stepping onto the sidewalk. “Some of my encounters with Zone Trippers have been comical, some have been scary. When this had actually happened and he was yelling at me, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d gotten physical. I thought he was about to, too, which is why I decided to walk the rest of the way home.”
“Well,” you say, clutching your full tummy, “I’m not sure that I’m up to walking all the way home.”
“Not a problem” I say, walking north to Diversey. “We were going to transfer anyway.”
We get to the bus stop. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a wait this time. I assume my travel guide accent again.
“And just up that way,” I say, pointing, “is the Bel Air hotel.” You strain to look, but don’t see anything. That’s about all that there was to see in that area, so I quickly run out of things to show you.
We wait around under a street lamp for several minutes in awkward silence.
“So,” you say at last, “what kind of welding do you like?”
“I’ve always been keen on heliarc,” I say with a laugh.
The bus finally lumbers into view. This one is full: standing room only.
“Back to the question, what do you want to do now?”
“Anything on tv tonight?”
“Of course not,” I say, shocked. “But is there ever?”
You nod. “So what movie are you going to show me now?”
“Hey, when you go to England, will you have a vcr?”
“I don’t know; I might have access to one. Why?”
“Well, if you get really bored and miss American video entertainment, I can send you some tapes.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” you tell me, “but in the mean-time, what are we watching tonight?”
“You still haven’t seen Clockwork Orange, have you?”
“I suppose you’re about to show it to me.”
I pull the cord when we reach Wayne.
“I think it’s the best movie ever made,” I say, climbing off. “There are a couple of things you might find offensive, but I think you’ll like it, too.”
“Offensive? Like what?”
“Oh, for instance, one of the characters has a statue in his room of five Christs. They’ve got their arms around each other sort of spread like they’re up on the cross, but they’re actually doing the can-can.”
“Tasteless,” you announce as we walk out of the penumbra of the lamps, onto dark Wayne street.
“It is, but it’s also kind of funny, and it’s completely in character with the guy who owns it. Later on in the movie, he reads the Bible, and gives his opinion on it.”
“I can hardly wait,” you tell me in a flat, lifeless tone.
Duplicating Malcolm McDowell’s voice, I intone
I read all about the scourging and the crowning with thorns, and I could viddy myself helping in, and even taking charge of the tolchocking and nailing in, being dressed in the height of Roman fashion. I didn’t so much like the latter part of the book as much, which was all like preachy talking rather than fighting and the old in-out. I like the parts where these old Yehudies tolchock each other and drink their Hebrew vino. And getting onto the bed with their wive’s handmaidens. That kept me going.
“And this is your favorite movie?” you ask me.
“Yeah,” I say with lusty remembrance.
“What’s your second favorite?”
“Any religious imagery in that?”
“A little, but nothing serious.”
“We’ll watch that,” you say as we reach my front gate. Lurking in the shadows, Michelle’s Harley stands sentinel.
Just as we walk inside, we hear the scampering of padded feet: one of the cats had been brave enough to come out.
Just then, the phone rings.
“Hi, pumpkin,” my mom says after the beep.
With obvious dread, I pick it up.
Taking my jacket off, you hear me talking to her.
“Yes, mom... ...uh huh... ...uh huh...”
You turn on my bedroom light and look under my bed. The two girls are still under there. Reaching as far as you can, the tips of your fingers brush the fur of one. She deigns to let you pet her like that, and you can even hear a faint purring.
When your arm gets tired, you go check on Odie.
Odie was no longer under the table. Looking around, you found him hiding behind a waste paper basket, sandwiched between the wall and a bookcase. He hisses at you when you try to pet him.
Coming back into the living room, you remember what happened the last time my mother called. A lot of sudden, awkward questions about my imaginary girlfriend, ending with me telling her to mind her own business.
Obviously, mom remembers, too.
“Yeah, well mom, she happened to be in the room with me when you called,” I hastily explain “and I’m not about to answer your questions with her right here...”
I look up at you and smile.
I’ve since had time to prepare some background on “her”, so I calmly explain “well, she’s an art major at UIC... ...University of Illinois at Chicago... ...she’s got her own place in Hyde Park... ...she’s a hostess in a restaurant—oh! Robert DeNiro was just in there. They gave him a code name: ”Mr. Smith.“ So she got to go up to him and say “Right this way, (nudge nudge wink) Mr. Smith.”
You laugh at this, but fortunately the phone doesn’t pick it up.
It’s smooth sailing after that, and I get off the phone in ten minutes.
“Well, she still doesn’t know about my Athens excursion,” I say as you come back into the living room. Sitting in the papasan, you look around for the remote control.
From the kitchen: “Still, I think that this girlfriend and I are about to break up. That’s the only way to solve the issue.”
“Oh,” you call out. “Do you want congratulations or condolences?”
“Congratulations, for pulling the wool over my mother’s eyes.”
I pour myself a drink, and say “I’ll have to think up a suitable break-up story.”
I walk into the living room, and suddenly trip.
You try to ask if I am all right, but all that comes out is “Gurgle smiz nee hubba-wubba harumphanurph?”
An uncontrollable urge comes over me: I claw my way up, dive onto my record collection crying “Led Zeppelin! I must hear Led Zeppelin!”
This does not concern you. “Never mind that,” you finally manage to stammer, “I want to watch Easy Rider! Or Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.”
“Hey, Beth,” I ask out of the blue, “if British currency is called pounds, are their weights called dollars?”
“Never mind that,” you counter, “if I’m going to be going to Great Britain, shouldn’t I learn how to speak Great British?”
Because my hair isn’t as blonde as yours, it begins to dawn on me what’s happening. “Beth, I’m no sure, but I think our IQs have just dropped fifty points.”
Sudden realization hits you as well. You try to get up from the papasan, but suddenly the air in the room is impossibly thick. Fighting your way to the window is like treading water in a sea full of jell-o.
A casual glance out the window confirms your fears.
“Michelle’s here,” you say with justified dread.
I turn on the porch light and go outside. Yep, there she is.
Nor is she alone. A denim-clad tough with a scruffy blonde beard is helping her remove the tarp.
“Hi,” Michelle calls up. She indicates her friend, and introduces him. At this point I don’t remember his name, but for the sake of this story, we’ll just call him “Six-Pack.”
Six-Pack looks up at me, obviously disapproving of my un-biker appearance.
“How ya doin’?” I call out friendily.
He grunts, Michelle says “fine.”
“So where are you taking it?” I ask as you join my side.
Michelle sees you but refuses to acknowledge you. “Over to Six-Pack’s. He’s going to let me keep it there for a couple of days.”
They succeed in removing the tarp, and toss it to the side. Michelle is busy dismantling the locks and chains. Six-Pack is inspecting the vehicle.
“So, what d’ya think?” she asks him. He grunts noncommittally, then straddles the bike as the cobra lock is removed.
“Keys?” he asks. Michelle unlocks the final padlock, and hands the keychain over to him. He puts it in the slot, turns the key, then twists the throttle a bit. With great bravado, he thumbs the starter as Michelle looks on, enraptured.
The bike gives a strangled cough.
Unperturbed, he tries it again.
There is a nails-on-chalkboard grinding, which only stops when he releases the button.
He twists the throttle a little more, then tries the started a third time.
We all get to hear that stuttering mechanical cycle of an internal combustion engine almost catching.
“Huh,” Six-Pack says, then checks all the connections. He presses the button, and we enjoy the sound of mechanical gasping.
“Try kick-starting it,” Michelle suggests. Six-Pack shrugs, extends the kicker, and jumps on it.
A smile is almost starting to form on my face.
After ten tries at that, Six-Pack reverts back to manual starting.
Slowly, a smile is starting to come across your face as well. Michelle looks on non-plussed, still brimming with enthusiasm.
Finally Six-Pack climbs off and squats down by the engine. He begins to examine it.
“Would you like a flashlight?” I ask.
“And a phillips’s head,” he orders
“You know,” points out Michelle, “those are the original screws in there.” He looks up at her. “Everything on this bike is original.”
“Ah,” he says, finally understanding why she had brought it up. I disappear inside, you sit down on the top step.
“Think the engine got wet?” Michelle asks.
“That shouldn’t make a difference...” starts Six-Pack, but Michelle cuts him off.
“No—Bud said something about keeping the bike dry. He said the starter was sensitive to water.”
Six-Pack looks up from the bike to look at her. “What?!?”
You suppress a giggle.
“That’s why he told me to keep it covered,” she continued.
“Well, now I know what to look at,” Six-Pack says as I reappear with a flashlight and a screwdriver.
“Here,” I say when I reach the bottom of the steps. Six-Pack accepts them with a grunt, and begins dismantling the starter.
“Did you keep my bike dry, Matt?” Michelle asks me. She is wearing a t-shirt which says “I own a Harley—not just a t-shirt.”
In answer to her question, I say “Well, I haven’t touched it since you put the cover on it.”
Since I missed the tid-bit about Bud’s warning, you bring me up to speed.
“Oh,” I say. “Well, that’s what you get for buying American,” I say with a smile.
Michelle counters with rapier-like wit: “Fuck you.”
Six-Pack nods, almost sure of his guess. He voices his concern: “You don’t ride, do you.”
“Do you ride?” he asks you.
Startled that somebody has finally remembered you, it takes you a moment to gather your wits. “Are you talking to me?”
“Yeah,” Six-Pack repeats, “Do you ride?”
“Well,” you shrug, “I’ve read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
“Hey,” Michelle says suddenly, brightly, “I’ve heard that book’ll change your life!”
You smile wanly.
“Hmmmm,” Six-Pack ponders, “I can’t see any problems in here.” He fiddles with it anyway, and tries the button. The only change is the choking noise is now louder.
“Well,” Six-Pack mutters, “the plugs are dry,...” and he tics off a checklist of possible problem sources. None of them prove to be he culprit.
“Vrooom, vrooom.” I supply.
Michelle casts me a hateful glance; you suppress a giggle.
“Hey, Michelle,” Six-Pack says after a long silence, “do you have any voltage testers?”
“I dunno,” she says, “I might.”
“Well, could you go check?”
She walks off, and I squat down to talk confidentially to Six-Pack. Straining to hear, you hear:
Matt: “So how badly was she ripped off?”
Six-Pack: “I wouldn’t pay three grand and change for this.”
Matt: “That bad?”
Six-Pack: “This is worth at most nine hundred. It’s a good thing for her that I didn’t go with her when she bought it: I would’ve told her not to.”
Michelle comes back. “Nope. Sorry.”
Six-Pack rubs his bushy beard. “Well, this isn’t going anywhere tonight. We’ll have to wait ’till it’s dried off.”
I’m obviously upset that he bike’s going to be here longer than I had planned.
“So how soon until you can move it?”
They wave goodbye, and I walk back inside.
I blow out a breath in despair. In my den, I turn on my computer.
“Well, after they left, I spent the rest of the night alternately writing you about my mom’s phone call and Michelle’s defective bike.”
“Fine,” you say, going into my room, “I’m going to play with the cats and read Cerebus.”