Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 7)

Part 7


            Tonight, I wake up with a start.  We are in an antiseptic Motel 6 outside Barkeyville.  I remember vaguely the movie I fell asleep to:  Adam Sandler and Kevin James are pretending to be gay so that they can sidestep civic red tape that prevents the James character from naming his own two kids as his life insurance beneficiaries.  This was how the wheel of fortune decided to send me to slumberland.  But that is not why I wake up.  I awake in a cold sweat with the sudden realization of just how long we have to go.  How big the country is.
            Driving around in our hybrid Ford Escort in Salt Lake City, it was easy to think of the whole nation circumscribed by…what?  National Public Radio?  A twenty minute drive across town to Morning Edition and All Things Considered on the way home, and I had this sense that I had grappled with America, toured its sites, plumbed its depths.  But now.  Lying in bed with the too-hot/too-cold unit grinding away, Cheryl’s soft snoring to my side, the TV blank, I realize, “My God.  We’re still in Pennsylvania!”
            This isn’t just a mental acknowledgement, but a fear-based one.  It is winter.  It is icy cold.  It is Pennsylvania and we have miles to go before we sleep. It is a sentiment I once wrote about for a newspaper, this airline age where we have forgotten that the distance is the same going from point A to point B.  But we have forgotten.  We have believed that we could scoot up from Dallas to Jackson Hole, WY for a skiing trip over a weekend and back to Dallas without a hitch.  Fresh cut limes in the Bloody Marys.  But the wild cards are still there. Weather hasn’t changed, just our ability to believe it isn’t a variable to what we have to do.  Where we have to go.  Mechanical malfunction?  Vulcanized rubber and its progenitors of Michelin and Firestone have “solved” that.  The FAA mandates certain foolproof measures so that at that critical point of nose up at 180+ mph our stomachs don’t turn over anymore, only the pages of our Wall Street Journals.
            Not so, I posited.  The distance is the same.  ATC delays are the Indian attacks of my pioneer ancestors.  The dried up watering holes they relied on for their oxen and horses are now weight and balances during a snowstorm at high-elevation Jackson and a short runway and too many fat Americans toting ski boots so that we have to take everyone’s luggage off and bus it to Idaho Falls for a flight out.  To be fair, in my rant, I also indicted the airline industry.  In their attempt to win customers, they make it sound like getting to Tampa from New York is as easy as crossing the street while watching a movie.  But the fact is that we fellow travelers, fat or not, are still reliant on space and time, energy and…luck to get where we’re going alive.  Or at least with the fresh limes in our Bloody Marys.
            Why is it that I forgot my own brilliant thesis when I stormed out of Logan International the night before last and into the freezing rain with little more than a credit card?
            This Pennsylvania night is scaring the shit out of me, and the debilitating enormity of our task ticks away in my head like a metronome.
In the morning, at breakfast, again at a truck stop that is starting to look like the DNA of America, the man-boy orders coffee.  This has never happened before.  He asks for honey.  I know for a fact that his father drinks his coffee with honey.  We sit at a table watered and fed by a solicitous young waitress who even styrofoams coffee for us to go.  (What would the country do without Styrofoam?)  When the waitress, juggling plates of foot, forgets to come back with the honey, he resigns himself to drinking it black, as I do.
The walls of the place are covered with letters and photos– memorabilia of local men and women who have served our country in Afghanistan and Iraq.  There is more than one poster signed by café regulars, offering condolences to families, to wives who have lost loved ones.  In one photo a helmeted soldier hardly older than our Joe, from the waist up, is grinning wildly, an ethereal landscape behind him.  Another, in full profile and stiffly shouldering his standard issue rifle, stands looking through wrap around sunglasses at the impenetrable blue sky,
            Across from us, in a booth, a couple sit facing each other over their table with coffee and the ruins of a half-eaten breakfast.  Leaning in, his soiled down vest over a flannel shirt bulges into the table edge, he is speaking to her in tones that I can’t hear.  Short, penetrating words that are making her turn away from the room, toward the wall.  She fingers a cell phone, her own bulky coat like armor, her liquid brown hair curling over the collar.  Both are in jeans, boots with laces hastily and half-tied and the air seems thick between them.  He lazers in.  She dips her head more, and runs a finger along the white edge of a plate.  The end of each of his syllables drives home with the lift of his chin.  He takes her hand.  She pulls in more, but in that way that indicates she is also drawn to him, unsure of what to do with what she thinks she desires.  Hopeless to help herself resist. It is seven in the morning during Christmas break.  A Friday.  And I can only imagine the back story.  Their separate cars outside, hers with an empty child’s car seat.  A receipt for one night in his jeans pocket, snug against his thigh.  The buttons on the phone she fingers thread immediately to her other life.  That that life is just one press-of-a-button away makes the sweet whisperings of this man through morning whiskers all the more thrilling.  Behind them on the wall is posted letterhead from the Department of Defense addressed to someone from Clinton, Pennsylvania.
            Dear Mr. and Mrs. Butler…
I carry the Styrofoam cups which our eager waitress has insured are pint-sized through the gift shop and out to the car, while Cheryl pays the bill and Joe looks at a Rolling Stone magazine.  Outside a thin skiff of snow has covered everything and the islands of gas pumps steam in the morning light.  It is taking both of my traveling partners longer than I expected.  Plus I have to pee.  I place the coffees on the trunk of the car, turning them into the snow, and head back in.  When we return, we see that they have melted through the snow and fallen to the ground, lids and cups forlornly lying in the chocolate covered snow behind the car.
“Shit,” I say.
“What were you thinking?” says Cheryl with an edge compounded by two days on the road.  Yes, she is the coffee queen—so much so that when we started dating two decades ago, I called the perpetual mug in her hand her “prop.”
            “She went to a lot of trouble for us.  What a waste!”
            I decide to remain silent this time, smart ass defensive verbal back though I am.  Admittedly.
            This time Joe, looking thoughtfully over the scene, comes to my rescue.
”It was an honest mistake, Nana.”  He pats her shoulder consolingly.  Sometimes he can seem so mature to me, this boy who has sat behind my seat in the car for the past two days and never complained.  But always, always he is kind.  Even when I took him, at age 11, three times a week to Muoy Thjai Boxing, he would sit with Dallas, a six year old terror and patiently play with  him and his Matchbox cars.  Building him up while his mother screamed at the trainer who had effectively dis-invited him from class because of Dallas’ acting out.  This boy of mine seems to know what it means to be treated unfairly.
            I scoop up the mess.  Return to the eternal truck stop where we can’t seem to escape this morning, for two more cups of java for the road.  Joe goes with me.  The fact is, my grandson does not believe at any moment of his life that he deserves anything.  Days after the fact, we will realize that he hasn’t had lunch money, that he’s just gone hungry.  Only when we find his converse top-siders torn through, tread-less on the bottom do we ask why he hasn’t told us he needed new shoes.
            “I don’t need new shoes,” he says.  And then when we press him, “They’re expensive.  I just didn’t think we could do it.”  They are expensive.  Kids are expensive.  But, in typical Dave fashion, I am first angry at him when this happens, then the Inquisitor, then sullen.  It is only in moments like this, outside Barkeyville, PA under a gunmetal sky, that I am heartsick, reminded of Exhibit A through C; F through N; X through Y.  Little stories about when he was with his mother and his father—first together then after they separated and we were still in New York.  He doesn’t feel he deserves better than whatever he’s got at that moment.  No one even has to tell him that now.  He calculates it out on his own.  Instantaneously.
“Where’s your I-pod?” I say.  Nana is driving, leaning forward and reading all the signs again out loud.  I’ve noticed in the rear-view mirror that Joe is wireless.
            “In my pocket.”  I conjecture that he forgot to re-charge it at the motel last night.  He isn’t going to volunteer that information.  Sometimes, especially with me (chronically with me), to admit a minor oversight to his Papa is to admit being flawed.  It pains me to think that this is our dynamic:  a teenager who has somehow picked up from the alpha male that he can’t even forget to do something as minor as charge his i-pod without having it reflect badly on his character.  I do the conjecturing after all (see above).  Then again, he is seventeen.  Maybe it just goes with the territory.
            I flip on the radio.  I fiddle with the knobs.  Not really sure anymore what the knobs and buttons are for on this factory-issue item.
            “You have the bass up kinda high,” he says, and I tweak it lower.  “That’s okay, “he continues.  The music has its own bass.”
            We listen to the music in our separate zones.  Then Aerosmith’s re-make of the Beatles’ “Come Together” arrives.  I had forgotten that they did that for the 1978 film “Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  Ironic that the film was my first real introduction to the oeuvre of the Fab Four—and it was all remakes of their songs, from Billy Preston to Elton John, designed, I suspect now, to get the disco-fed babies back up-to-speed with the “real rock and roll to me.”
            I decide to play the provocateur.
            “What the hell does any of this mean, anyway?” I ask.  I strike gold.  He leans forward, his left arm on the back of his Nana’s seat, and gives me a running exegesis on Ringo’s blues roots (“Here come ol’ flat-top”) to Lennon’s increasing drug use “bad production” and “You can feel his disease.”)
            The toe-jam football, Joe explains, has to do with barefoot soccer playing, which followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with whom George had become enamored, played while  worshipping at the yogi’s temple.
            Impressive!  Not the yogi, but the man-boy’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things Beatles, through the portal of the most heady of the them, John Lennon.
            “How do you know all this stuff?” I say, turning around to look at him in astonishment.
            “He’s reading that book,” offers Cheryl.  “He’s got a good memory, just like his folks.” She glances back at him in the mirror.  God bless her, she’s campaigning still to make sure there are admirable things about his absent parents that he can love.
            “Actually,” he confesses.  “I read it on the internet.  It’s amazing the number of acolytes the Beatles still have on there.”
            Acolytes?  Do I even know what that means?  And this is a kid whose GPA, though I admit is on the rise, hovers in the 2.5 range.
            On the radio it’s now time for more year-end review, a curious national pastime that, this year, promises to make me develop acid-reflux.  There’s mention of the Ground Zero Mosque mixed with the popularity of the TV show “Glee” and the BF Oil Spill playing off Lebron James’ insanely protracted decision to move from Cleveland to the Miami Heat, stretching his 15 minutes of fame to weeks.  (More evidence from Uncle Pete that the NBA has become a league of street thugs?)  Speaking of thugs, there’s also the riveting reminder of how Jay Leno gave up his late-night gig to Conan O’Brien only to renege when in his own new show Leno started looking like he was chasing his own tail, poor bastard (he’ll never recover).  They play a clip from Conan’s gracious farewell show in which he thanks NBC, the network that in true American fashion can spin a rationale for its greed over ethics faster than you can say “Enron” or more to the point of our most recent descent into The Great Recession, “Goldman Sachs.”
“Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show,” reported Conan “…and, for seven months, I got to do it!  I did it my way, with people I love. I do not regret one second. … I’ve had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we’ll find a way to make it fun.”  Even the Will Ferrell-led Lynyrd Skynyrd song Free Bird  couldn’t eclipse the sincerity of the lanky guy with the mop hair.  But do good guys ever really win in this world, or at best do they just get told, “hey, you played hard, but you didn’t play it right, dude?”
“If I leave here tomorrow…” the dudes sang in their crackpot way, and…I remembered that as I lay in bed next Cheryl, the glow of the screen filling the room on that late February night, they really did look like they were having a good time.  To me anyway, God bless ‘em.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue. (Part 1)

We leave Boston’s Logan determined to be self-directed, free. I’ll be damned if I am going to sit there for up to four days, we were told by surprisingly kind customer service representative at the other end of the airline’s “Need Help?” red phone. Cheryl had done all the talking while the man-boy and I sat, he plugged into his I-pod, me stewing moodily in my thoughts while trying not to be drawn in by the elevated screen flashing the inevitably bizarre landscape of American “news.”

“Did you tell her we wanted to buy tickets? On any airline?” I say when Cheryl comes back to our territory marked with coats and bags, an empty sandwich box, my beer on the floor next to my seat, just waiting to get kicked over. “I think this is a good time to use that emergency credit card, you think?” Cheryl is smiling her way over through the crowds. She can manage her wan smile even under duress while I feel that at a certain point of aggravation with things, I deserve the luxury of a frown. After all, I’m now retired from the airline. I don’t have to sport the molded plastic smile anymore.

“There are no flights,” says Cheryl and sits. She is rummaging in her tote bag for something, her thumb still in the book she’s reading—a fictional meditation on cholera… “No,” I say with impatience as well as a flourish. “We’ll just fucking buy full fare. We’re never getting out of here as non-revs.” I glance at the man-boy who is still plugged in. He gets upset sometimes when I punch up my language. Something that happened in his past. But he’s still plugged in, oblivious.

“You don’t understand,” says Cheryl. “They aren’t selling anything for today, or tomorrow. We’re looking at Jan. 1, the earliest.” Three days away.

“What about American? United? If we’re going to go full fare…”

“None of them are selling tickets, Dave” she interrupts emphatically and then looks at me, waiting for it to sink in. Our situation. The man-boy is trying to read our conversation through the clamoring noise of classic rock and roll. Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd? Or his favorite, the Beatles? Classic or not, the three have virtually nothing in common with each, I think. But the man-boy is far ranging these days. Perhaps he’s turned down the volume…or turned off the I-pod which he can do discretely with his hand gripping it in the pocket of the coat he never seems to take off.

Cheryl looks at me and gives me her smile. This is the critical moment when a decision must be made, and despite my forceful language, I am going to wait for her. Being the older of us, she is the decider. What do they call it? The one who is pro-active. That way if it goes badly I can complain as the put-upon-one. And if it goes well…well, I’ll always be able to find something to harp on. Either way I won’t be the reason we’re going back into debt. Plus, I have a back up. Even if we don’t rent a car or buy three, full-fare tickets back to Salt Lake City, we’re paying a dog sitter $50 a day at, already, 15 days. Cheryl’s insistence.

“Let’s just rent a car and drive,” she says with what I’ve come to think of as Yankee, non-Western determination. “Let’s just get in a car and get the hell out of here.”

This is what I wanted her to say. The thought of sitting in this chrome and carpeted concourse—eating $15 lobster roll sandwiches—and counting my beers is more than I can handle. We’ve already had to drive from Portland at the recommendation of the gate agent there who told us our chances of flying non-rev, short-hand for free passes for airline and retired-airline employees, are better out of Boston. The agent, with carefully arranged hair to look non-arranged and bust that her otherwise tidy uniform could not hide, was standing with me in the Portland, Maine baggage claim room, the smell of plastic and sweat in the piles of tagged, tipped over and sometimes mutilated luggage—some with dust on them–the buzz of a fluorescent light above us. She was being inordinately helpful, as fellow airline employees are to each other—giving the inside scoop, the way around the problem that only those of our tribe can access.

The three of us leave the airport, gathering up our stuff that has spread out over six seats in some kind of effort to stake a claim on airport real estate while we wait. And we are at a distinct handicap. Our level of technology is woefully inadequate. I have only an old LG flip phone. No access to the internet where we can roam the standby lists, make new listings, look up passenger loads. Strategize. (Thus Cheryl’s earlier phone call to reservations.) Half of my desire to get out of the airport is based on the embarrassment of not having at least a laptop I can tool around on. But this punching of numbers on a phone whose tones I haven’t learned how to silence for my fellow, more tech-savvy Americans, is too much for me to bear.

We leave. Cheryl and I rolling our carry-ons, the man-boy carrying his for the same reason I carried mine everywhere for the first five years as a flight attendant: to distinguish myself as somehow tough, not gay like the rest of the guys in my class at Western Airlines. And we head down the escalator, through the corridor that splits off between arriving and leaving passengers and towards the heavy metal doors, complete with sentinel standing guard, through which once we traverse there will be no returning. Check Point Charlie.

We move to the door. It whisks open. The sentinel follows us with his eyes, unsmiling or just bored, one leg up on the chrome bar of his black-cushioned bar stool. What are we supposed to give him? Some kind of secret handshake to pass through?

Whatever.

In Baggage Claim I am frantically calling from the car rental booth lighted by every garish and stylish car rental logo available—which is to say all of them in this great country of ours. Frantic, because I’m convinced that the hoards of stranded passengers will be doing the same thing and that cars will disappear quickly. Cheryl and the man-boy have gone to see if we can claim our luggage (we won’t be able to; all three of them have left for Utah without us) while I stand guard over our meager belongings while trying to figure out whether Hertz, Avis or Thrifty will be our rental of choice.

Armed with a plan but with little or no accountability for making the plan, I am driven to make that plan happen, and am driven to walk out of the airport and into the rain that is about to begin to freeze, into the New England night and into the shuttle, my little family with our modest belongings slung over our shoulders, hats pulled down, I-pod glowing. We will motor over to the Mass Pike with a figurative flipping of the bird to the massively disappointing airline industry, the inconvenience of East Coast life. Yes, we will flip a collective middle finger over our shoulder without looking back. The Great American gesture of defiance and entitlement, like the glass John Hancock Tower standing on the back bay of Shawmut Peninsula and flipping off Mother England. But this time we will be shouting the equivalent of Screw Fucking You! to someone infinitely closer than Europe, or the Middle East—our touted enemies–or that great, brooding non-touted enemy, China. Someone infinitely closer, indeed. But first we have to get out of the rental car parking lot.

The attendant looks at me blankly when I ask her how best to get to I-80. For some reason, I thought 80 ran all the way from Boston across the fruited plains all the way to the West Coast. She hands me a map of greater Boston with an inset of Logan International, and keeps typing up the details of our Toyota Corolla with an $800 drop fee. She is a large girl, with an almost practiced, put-upon frown that doesn’t put up with any shit. I am more than familiar with that frown, having walked the aisles of many a Boeing and McDonnell Douglas contraption, the frown gripping my face, the beacon of a full body composition that says you are a professional but only skin deep. Don’t fuck with me, a variation of “Don’t Tread on Me,” from colonial times, but contemporized.)

I pull out my old LG, the flip phone from another age as thick with its faux-leather sheath as a bean and cheese burrito but not so tasty. We call our daughter (and the man-boy’s mother) Julianne who lives in Salt Lake with her boyfriend Travis. For the moment we are on speaking terms with her.

“Julie?”

“Where are you?”

“Boston. We’re driving home.”

“To Salt Lake?”

“Look. I need you to do us a favor.” There is little that suggests that which is life-affirming in a parking lot at night. Even less in an east coast parking lot at an airport. Something about plopping down behind the wheel of a car while vibrating to the sound of jet engines.

“Can’t you just buy a ticket?” she says. “You guys are going to be a week…”

“I need you to look up the northern route to Utah. I-80.”

Outside, the night converges as I remember dark, dirty Boston nights did when I lived here 24 years ago. Cheryl looks at me with patience. She is in trooper mode. Gonna get out of here in one piece.

I can hear Julie talking to Travis who is clicking away on his keyboard. The two of them in protracted, internally-heard cyber-speak…coaxing, thinking out loud with all the markers of our shared, webbed world.

“It’s I-90,” she says finally. You need the Mass Pike, I-90.

“Then where, where is I-80?”

“You sure you don’t want to go south to DC and across through Tennessee? The weather, you know. Freezing rain, snow…”

I persist. “I thought I-80 was a straight shot west to the Rockies, north of Denver.” Really what this is all about is that I don’t won’t to have to think beyond the nose of the car about what direction to go. Plus—and this is something I don’t really want to admit—I need the comfort of something familiar. “I wish I had a road that I could skate away on” to quote the warbling Joni Mitchell, and that road has to be I-80.

Julie gives me the directions. Cheryl scribbles them down, her glasses perched precariously on her nose, and I snap my phone shut.

There was a time when I was completely charmed by this, the colonial town of bean-ness. So charmed I didn’t want to return home after my two-year stint going door-to-door and canvassing in Harvard Square and Boston Common. But now there is only one way through my mental fix. One way out. And it is west.

The Mass Pike is broad and steely cold, be-lining in a concrete trough below the street level of the city. There are billboards flat against the cement walls on either side, one, I see out of the corner of my eye, touting the Goddamned-given rights to own a gun–a too-tidy reaction to the election of Obama over two years ago, if you ask me. Even so, in the yellow city crime light and dingy concrete canyon, there is a moment where it actually seems to make sense, this owning a gun out of some inchoate fear.

The man boy is in the back seat, legs folded sideways in the best Japanese-made car made in the U.S.A. (sort of) for our money (and good mileage to boot). It’s too dark to read his book on Lennon so he is just sitting in the alternating bands of light and shadow. He’s watching as Cheryl and I are, the world opening out in a thin ribbon of road. I am not above projecting what he might be thinking, and I am there—the man in charge—with a quick judgment of him. He can’t possibly know what lies ahead of him. For this, my live-in grandson, he can only be thinking that this is a drive a little further than Evanston, Wyoming where we have taken him to buy illegal fireworks; or Arizona where we visit Cheryl’s sister when the Maine winters get to be too much for her.

We take a pit stop at Gulf Mart, in West Framingham (or so the sign says). One of the infamous private/public partnerships: exclusive rights to road-weary interstate travelers in need of gas, or a hot dog on a limp white bun. The Pike reverberates behind us, and as the three of us cross the damp parking lot and into the brittle light of the shop, I am still in charge, having just spent more money than we have. We walk towards the chrome and glass bay of refrigerators. I can tell the man-boy is waiting for permission of some sort. “Whatever you want,” I say as off-handedly as I can. I am performing a kind of swagger motivated by a sense that I am the wagon leader here.

Cheryl is humming along in survival mode. She’s picking up huge bottles of water, one for each of us. Trail mix. Dried fruit, as if we’re in need of pioneer stores to load into our covered wagon. The next thing, I think, will be matches and a poncho. I head to the wiener department, snagging a road atlas on the way. We haven’t had anything since the $15 lobster roll sandwich at Logan, and the man-boy won’t figure out he’s hungry for something other than a candy bar until we get back on the road. I load up two hot dogs for him. One for me. Ketchup on his, but no mustard—the way he likes them. The dogs are my rough, inarticulate caring gesture for the one now taller than I am.

We get in line. The clerk is not much older than the man-boy and he is intolerably cheerful to the flannel jacket amassed in front of us, blue jeans and scuffed work boots with the metal showing through on the big toe of each. The clerk is smiling. Red vest in place. (“Can I help you find anything else.”) Eyes aglow. The man in front of us—in his late 30s—at least ten years my junior, is grizzled. Leaving work late. Probably drives a truck. The kind of Bay Stater you forget populates Massachusetts even three miles outside of the capitol. While the man-boy and I wait for “Nana” still eyeing the lip balm, I look at him and give him a tight smile. He pulses his eyebrows up, once. It is our short hand for acknowledging one another without giving away where each of us is. Our aerial handshake that, like a gangsta—knuckle bumps and fancy grips—speaks somehow as much of our distrust and suspicion of each other as it does any kind of familial intimacy. Nana arrives with everything, it seems, but a bathtub quickly filled with water.

“What?” She says sheepishly. The man-boy and I exchange another look, consummately sexist. But it is as good as it will get tonight, between him and me. A conspiracy of ridicule to elevate ourselves. The kind of vaulting brotherhood, hard-wired, even for me, a recently retired flight attendant for a major carrier who walked proudly the line between the sexes for twenty-five years without seeming condescension to the other half.

Back on the Pike, just before it starts looking like the Berkshires, we pay the exit toll and then angle south on I-84 towards Hartford. If we can just get beyond there, we can look for a place to overnight—maybe even get as far as PA. Compared to the Pike, our way now seems to be through the wilds, the Mass.-to-Connecticut countryside forbiddingly dark, towering pines on either side. Is this the real start of our journey? I tilt my head back into the narrow headrest. A sigh is in order. The way is now calmer.

I reach out to grasp Cheryl’s hand, still tight as a nut around her other hand, a fist. She isn’t ready to take my hand in return. Not yet. She pats me and says something about the number of miles we will need to log (490) if we are to make it home before we both have to go back to work on the 3rd. She is very much in charge here. What she says, we will do. I know that, and it is both a relief as well as an irritant. A contradiction that you would think I would work around, transcend, resolve here in my 49th year of life. It often means that I have to be on guard whenever we are in real, decision-making time: where to buy a house, how to think, and when to change lanes. On guard because I have to appear as though I have my own opinions, and more important, compelling reasons for them that sing with clarity.

But we are set in our ways. “Wicked” set, as her nephews back in Rhode Island would say. And so I do not, or cannot at this point, realign the dynamic. What drew me to her nineteen years ago was her certainty. Something that I was desperate to flee from after the end of my first marriage. All the certainty that had collared me into a bad marriage, a bad life and an impossible view of the world. But what is strong enough to wrest one from a certainty, of one’s youth, and of one’s family and of…everything, than another, equally certain certainty?

But all of that seems irrelevant now as we follow our headlights through the New England countryside because I am not only ordering the sigh after our harried jettison from airline land, I am inured by my beloved. It is the countryside, I confess. The land from whence she came coupled with the time that has passed—oh, I’ll just say it, nostalgia. I’m adrift in it, remembering how freeing she had made me feel and therefore how everything that spawned her settled sweetly in me. The hoary pilgrim homes, myriad hardwood trees and pine that grew without anyone having to plant them. The abrupt conversational style. Her father’s working-class-turned-upper-middle-class penchant for doing all things for himself, risking life and limb re-roofing that hoary pilgrim house with the 20 percent slope.

Cheryl, who is eleven years my senior, sometimes says that perhaps I would have been better off left alone after my divorce. That what she brought into my life has made me older before my time. But for me there is daylight in her smile even here in the dark. Even though her worried state leaning forward in the car and peering into a past life has yet to bend into a smile. And I remember that this is the place that she left by choice. This is her desert, just as Utah is mine—the place I entertain for the express purpose of someday leaving. And what has ostensibly made me older—the man-boy in the backseat, his head jacked back and to the left against the window, his mouth wide open—is, I’m sure something more than just an agent of age. But what I’m still not sure.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 4)

Part 4

Down out of the Berkshires, winding on 84 still desperately seeking I-80, down towards the Hudson River which I announce so that the man-boy will see the important geographical features of our trip.
            “Cool” he says in response.  “Cool.”
            Someday, I think.  He will remember all of this.  Or will he?  He will remember the crazy trip we took in the same clothes for four-five days with his grandparents, and he will remember it with some kind of fondness, I hope.  That is my hope.  It really is.
            On the bridge, I get a glimpse of the mighty Hudson, and then it is gone.  Back into the trees, but we like to think that New York is substantively different than Connecticut.  These days, post post-modernist days, culture which is perceived is reality, right?  The social construction of reality.  Isn’t that what we were bandying about in graduate school in the late 80s?  So, yes.  New York is materially different than its neighbor to the east because culture makes material.
            I decide not to share this insight with the man-boy.  Maybe if he goes to graduate school himself.
            New York state is short-lived.  And just as well.  We’ve done our time in the Empire State.  Seen it all.  Or at least that’s how we present it to others out west.  Been there, done that.  Burrowed about for our seven years in the subways.  Sampled all the diners from Washington Heights to Park Slope.  Done the proverbial upstate swing through the Catskills, Albany, Ithaca, Syracuse, Rochester, the Finger Lakes and Mormon Country (Important to me.  Or is it?),  Niagara Falls, then south to mid-PA where we are headed now for an extended segment of the trip designed to show the airline industry just how much we don’t need it.
            I-80 must be around here, somewhere.  The way west.  The way home.  As we turn south toward Scranton the hills pile up, the rail yards pool up against the interstate, the factories lie fallow.  The mill town struggling to re-invent itself, like Pittsfield, Mass when I was knocking on doors for the Gospel According to Joseph Smith.  Or the Irish Catholic symmetry of South Boston, row houses guarded by bathtub Marys, corner shops guarded by tattooed men sitting on plastic milk crates.  But, in the spirit of Derrida, Scranton is defined as much by Steve Carrell’s “The Office” as it is by its disposable history of anthracite coal and Joe Biden.  Anyone care to disagree?
            This is a show that we cannot share very successfully with the man-boy, though admittedly, he has eclectic tastes in film and video from “The Simpsons”—which he spent over a decade enthralled by–to “127 Hours” in which Aaron Ralston’s walk-up to sawing his arm off in a Utah slot canyon is as much about the fever dream as the detachment of flesh and bone.  I think this boy, who has his generational if not gender-specific appetite for gratuitous video violence, sees for the first time in this feature film the articulated path for why blood and gore is the necessary expression of something internal.  The terror and terrain of his life, generically adolescent but unique to his circumstances.
“The Office,” with its penchant for celebrating the inanities of life amongst the same group of fictitious Dunder-Mifflin dunderheads is the only television show that at the end of 2010 can make me laugh out loud at the end of the day.  And it is the only show that will keep me from migrating to PBS at the end of the day, after Cheryl has fallen asleep amidst shows that spend more than 50 percent of their time lingering over an autopsy.  Steve Carrell is the guilty pleasure I indulge in when I’m not turning over every stone funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and “Viewers Like You.  Thank you!” to fund my perpetual complaint-based inner dialogue with America and Its Woes.
Then, before I know it, before I’ve left the ubiquitous Levelors opening and closing as framing devices around the characters in a Scranton paper company–that regularly features cameos on Skype of the Texas CEO Kathy Bates–we are suddenly leaving 84 and the short-lived connector, 380 through the Poconos, and merging with Interstate 80.
Hallelujah! Praise Jesus and Glenn Beck.
Cheryl and I trade off in White Haven where we gas up.  I can’t tell you how good it feels to be on the asphalt that extends west through PA, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming…to Utah, “Star of all the West” to quote an old 19th Century hymn.  It’s a thoroughfare that beelines for home and allows me to go on an automatic of sorts.   No more poring over the atlas, scoping out the tangled freeway signs in green.  Now I really can settle in on cruise control:  2,080 miles.
“We’re going to want to do something fun, something rewarding,” repeats Cheryl for the third or fourth time.  “Otherwise, we’re going to hate this.  It’s going to fry us.”  She’s right of course.  What that field trip might be, however, baffles me.  As a flight attendant for twenty years, I was oriented through airports, not freeways.  You’re not really in Chicago unless you’re at O’Hare, in the shuttle or at the nearby Ramada with a report time of 5:00 a.m. Chicago is the Palmer House for longer layovers and a ride on the El to a Giordano’s for pizza or a bar in Lincoln Park.  Chicago is a walk in your layover clothes along Michigan Avenue past the Wrigley Building and the river dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day or a jog along the lake.  It’s the descent over that lake on a winter day where through the port hole, the noon-day sun is glinting off the white caps, the ice and the Sears Tower looking like a giant, latticed cattle prod black against the sky.  Chicago is the destination, not the destination plus the road to, wherever that may be.
Since I’m riding shot gun, I break out the atlas.  Other than knowing that this is our yellow brick road home, I don’t know where the yellow brick wends.  We are moving at a good clip, making good time.  The roads are dry, and even though it’s cold the light is good, lowering in the southwest, rising in inverse proportion to us above the hills of hard wood forests as we sink repeatedly into vales, mist rising above fallow fields backed by red Pennsylvania barns, dotted with houses persistently white.  We are quiet through these picturesque scenes, humbled by the static beauty that we are somehow skirting, even violating by our speed.  These are not towns, but homesteads, linked by country roads   Here and there, metallic silos, some whitewashed to match the more angular homes pin down the roads, anchor the fields…Repeatedly, I look in turn to my charge now at angles to my seat, to see where the man-boy is, what his expression holds.  Who he is.  But always, when he catches my eye, and we bump our eyebrows up in acknowledgment of each other, sometimes with a smile, it is the yellow light of a semaphore:  proceed with caution; clear the intersection.
What do I want from this boy sitting just inches from me?  What do I need?  Is it okay to need anything from a seventeen year old who is riding nearly all the way across country with you? One who depends on you and your wife for virtually everything? Filtered through the windows, the sun lies scattered on his fair complexion.  At times the light strobes.  He is there.  He isn’t there.  He is there.  He….
“Everything good?” I ask.
He nods.  “Everything’s good.”  And then he does that thing he does.  He reaches out casually and pats my shoulder.  Once.  Twice.   Now I am glad that we chose the Toyota Corolla, a small car even with its potential accelerator that might stick as we risk flying off I-80, elevated as we are on a mountain south of a scene so mysterious that it is as likely to eat us alive as it is to continue to enthrall us.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 5)

Part 5

Robert Bly

The man-boy not only knows all the lyrics of classic Rock and Roll songs, but the names of the musicians, the dates of most songs and the cultural milieu.  It’s a walk through American history.  How that is possible, I don’t know.  This musical terrain is only vaguely familiar to me; was only ever vaguely familiar to me when I was his age.  Snatches of lyrics, the steady stream of groups’ names—Kiss, Boston, Def Leppard, Mettalica, Megadeth—at which point I changed the proverbial channel for the next two decades.  It was a stream that went underground and then re-surfaced when Joe’s mother came to live with us in 1991 and she had a CD by a group called Nirvana.

             It is a terrain which has been documented, for better and for worse, in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  Having the excellent catalogue in my acculturated head that I do, I am reminded of this and mention it to get points with the boy.
“Maybe we should stop in.  See what it’s like.”
“Awesome!” he says.  Since I’m riding shot gun at the moment, I return to the atlas, madly calculating the triangle route from I-80 northwest and back while subtracting the hypotenuse.
I, the 49-year old, too-young-to-be-a-grandfather –to-a-seventeen-year-old can win points in a way that no one else can.  My above-it-all perspective from flight attending resulted in a kind of guerilla-styled touring across the nation during two decades, and it yields this:  we can make the man-boy exceedingly happy as we barrel down I-80 to home by first announcing that the hall of fame of his dreams is within a short detour of where we we’re going and that I am game enough to make it happen.  That’s what I do. It’s what we used to call “gumption”:  I’m the one who makes it happen.
“Awesome!”
The light is fading, exquisite shadings on the vast PA hardwoods.  We will not make it to Ohio this evening, so we start looking for a place to stay.  This is the beauty of America.  Drive anywhere and virtually within the time it takes to start needing to take a wazz, or feel the next pang in three squares a day, and there’s a truck stop, a convenience store and–if you’re lucky–a bona fide mom-and-pop diner.  Emlenton, Pennsylvania is one of these, but better.  The Plaza is both a truck stop and a restaurant/diner famous, we are about to learn, in these here parts.
By the time we pass the famous Emlenton Bridge which I get the impression was built first followed by the town itself, it is dark.  We pull off onto Clintonville Road then parallel I-80 West, turn left into the Plaza, move around to the south, pull into a parking place and our little Corolla quiets itself.  We are far enough from the yellow brick road so that it emits the pensive, Doppler sound that elicits reflection, and for a moment none of us move, the engine ticking, a collective sigh rising in us. None of us is particularly hungry, I realize.  It’s just that it’s that time of the day, and if we don’t find sustenance now we’ll be raiding the candy machines at the next Econo Lodge.
While Cheryl and the man-boy head in, I head out, around the edge of the sprawling complex baked in what seems like acres of asphalt where trucks the size of small  buildings feel right at home as they turn around in an arc that seems as wide as Arkansas.  I need to stretch my legs, get my lungs pumping something other than the stale air of fatigue.  Around the back of the place there’s a dumpster, old restaurant fixtures a stack of badly upholstered chairs.  The place is bigger than I think, and when I round to the north side the pavement seems to expand through the gas pump lanes and to that idling place that trucks go by default off the interstate.  The night is quiet but the darkness at the edges of the massive lot is like a wall, the trees beyond claiming a kind of prerogative for the space we have yet to claim for progress.
One more corner to round and I’m in front of the convenience store, attached to the restaurant, this not-so-clean, well-lighted place that both draws as it repels the weary traveler by its utter predictability:  the usual display of cellophane-ed bread-like artifacts that claim to be pastries, the waning end-of-day coffee against the back wall next to the bank of coolers featuring plastic bottles in a riot of thirst-quenching colors.  Seven kinds of beef jerky.
I ditch into the men’s room, and a stall worn-down with a recent coat of off-white paint.  Public bathrooms, I submit, are where American males first feel the charge of their collective manhood—like what I imagine prisons and maybe military bunkhouses elicit in young recruits.  Since Title 9, the public bathroom is one of the few (and continually receding) places where the lure to merge with what makes one hormonally male and the inchoate shame that accompanies that impulse is still obvious.  That is why the man-boy and others when they are eight or nine, often won’t go to the urinals, but hide away in the stalls.  They sense that in a public lavatory, mankind—and I mean that term “genderly”—enters a liminal space that is charged because it is unstable.
The forlorn men’s movement of the 80s tried to address that.  Poor Robert Bly.  Both were shot down by women and, most importantly, other men, who operate out of a rarified and now moribund feminism.  The men’s room has become a cross between a sports bar and a locker room, strutting and straining.  Elimination and critical comparisons made with side-long glances over porcelain.  It’s a place that has become feminized in that literal hand-washing is done in the men’s room by men first because other men are there policing and then because of the internalized thing that happens in reality-producing culture of the new century.  Real men don’t wash their hands because they’ve held their dick to piss.
I’ll take Camille Paglia any day over Gloria Steinem.  I’m not sure if this is news to me, but that I am reminded of it in rural Pennsylvania and with Lysol stinging my noise should be peculiar.  Maybe it’s just the exhaustion showing.
In the stall, behind the metal box housing the rolls of toilet paper is scrawled “BJ Tap Foot.”  But not being a senator from Idaho, I resist.  It’s nice to know that some things have never changed since junior high.
Someone enters the bathroom, and I’m brought out of this reverie.  (Don’t knock me.  The notoriously constipated father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, is said to have done a lot of thinking about things while sitting on the crapper for hours at a time.)  There is stillness in the tiled room which is strange.  I peer through a space between stall door and wall.  On the opposite, mirrored wall is the man-boy.  These days he spends a good time in bathrooms both at home and when we’re out.  It’s a rite of passage I suppose, and it buttresses my theory of bathrooms, especially public ones, as an unstable, exploratory space.  He is arranging his increasingly long bangs that spill out from under the bill of his baseball hat.  The hat is the only thing that now keeps his hair out of his eyes.  When his hat is off, in fact, the dented hair falls with some grace across his face which appeals to me.  But the hat is part of the ensemble.  At least for now, and I watch as he almost tenderly pulls at the strands, pushing them up under the bill and band while his mouth drops open slightly in concentration.  Often he ditches the hat entirely, bends over the sink and splashes water into his face and hair.  When he comes up for air, dripping everywhere, he is a different boy indeed, the oblong shape of his head in clear outline, the bones of his cheeks higher, it seems, and suddenly shiny.
Actually, Cheryl and I are often annoyed by the time it takes him to go to the bathroom as we wait with menus at hand. Sometimes as long as ten minutes.  But here, as I watch him lost in his own world, I recall my own long hours in front of the mirror, locked behind the bathroom door in my parents’ home, my shirt off, my chin tilted so that the light would reveal that new whisker coming in.  The necessary longing for myself to emerge through my body.
Suddenly I am a voyeur.  And I turn my gaze away.  I will wait for him to leave so that he doesn’t know I was here.  So that there is no risk of any kind of shame.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 6)

Back through the convenience store, I enter the Restaurant.  The place is a abuzz with locals sitting at the counter, at tables and at perimeter booths one of which, apparently, is ours, dwarfing Cheryl who is sitting with a plastic menu the size of a motorcycle windshield.  This is definitely an “experience” as we are fond of saying in the United States.  Not for the locals out on a Thursday night for a pie and company, but for the tired travelers who have stumbled in.  Over my own windshield, I notice the angled wooden beams holding up the vaulted ceiling.  On each is stenciled a different quote—from Socrates to Will Rogers.  They look like quotes that have been pulled out of a quote book.  Fair enough.  At least they aren’t scriptures from the New Testament.
            The waitress arrives.  A woman whose plastic name tag announces “Dot.”  I feel the need to imbibe.  I ask if they have a wine list.  She looks at me wryly.  Then smiles and says, a little too loudly, “Wine?  If there was wine do I think I’d be standing here?”  Because of her smile, I am inclined to think she is saying that if there were wine here at the Emlenton Plaza Restaurant, she’d be in the back drinking herself into a stupor instead of waiting on dog-tired feet for customers to decide between baked or mashed potatoes.  I smile with understanding about over liquor laws.  After all, I live in Utah.  But then, after we’ve ordered, it occurs to me as I look deeper into this place now glowing against the PA darkness outside, that perhaps she meant it literally.  “If we served wine, I wouldn’t be working here because I don’t drink and I don’t think anyone else should.”  That is a certainly a sentiment I am not stupid to.
Redux:  I grew up in Utah.
            But there are other tells that this is a place that I should not feel comfortable in.  Perhaps it is the all-white crowd of jeaned and booted men and bouffant-haired women who eye everyone, including each other, with a kind of sterility.  Perhaps it is the glass-paneled lamps on shelves next to the cashiers, each panel featuring the etched or painted image of a U.S. Marine in full-dress, sword upraised.  Perhaps it is the T-shirts for sale emblazed with “Wise Men Still Seek Him” in a biblical font at 200 point.
            The man-boy looks miserable sitting across from us, his hair still damp…but in place.  But I have come to learn that he is also the kind of boy who believes he doesn’t deserve any better than what he gets, whatever he is getting.  So he suffers silently and drifts away in his head to a place where I’m not allowed to go.  We’ve talked about it before, this place he goes.  And the longer he lives with us the more he is able to recall some of those occasions—exhibit A through Z—that aggregated for me, congealing into this modus operandi.
            When he gets like this I feel compelled to rush in.  I know I probably shouldn’t, but I do anyway, determined that he articulate something for me.  Probably so that I feel less afraid of what’s going on for him.
“How do you like this place?”  I ask.  He looks around.
“It’s okay I guess.”
“You going to order the usual?”
“What?”
“You know.  The usual–bacon cheeseburger?”  He looks vacantly at the menu.
“She’s coming back in a minute for our order.  Are you ready?”  His Nana lowers her menu, looks at me.  The man-boy flips the menu over to see what’s on the back.  He’s already taken his sweet time in the john looking in the mirror, and he’s not going to be ready to order when Dot returns, which she does at that moment.
“Had a chance to look things over?” she says clicking her pen and taking an inventory of what’s on the table:  salt, pepper, ketchup and a wire holder with sugar and sweetner packets.
“Are you ready?  I ask him.
“I’ll have the Caesar salad, with shrimp,” says Cheryl.  She is asked about sides and salad dressings, the latter of which she declines, preferring wedges of lemon.  She looks at me.
            I say, “Go ahead, Joe” for that is the man-boy’s name.  Short for Josiah.
            He doesn’t say anything.  He is stuck somewhere in one of the lower levels of his hell and isn’t having much success clawing his way up for air.
            “Do you need a little more time,” she says.  She could be here all night.
            “Is that all right?” he says, and looks at me.
            “Sure,” I say, good-naturedly.  For Dot’s sake. Don’t want her to think I’m one of these red-necks in the place.  Someone who disrespects kids to hide their own insecurity.  But, in fact, it’s not okay.  This happens all the time.  He takes off for the bathroom for ten minutes while we wait, then he can’t decide what he wants to eat. Nana gives me a warning look, which I resent.  What does she know about raising a boy?  Never mind that I’ve never raised a child—boy or girl–and that this child is not one I’ve raised, even though I, not his father, was the one who made it to the ultrasound of his mother, to see the two-dimensional wedge of protoplasm that was to become our Joe.  Our man-boy.
            But I defer to her.  I am now fuming at the menu that announces boldly that the Plaza is the winner of the regional pie contest, five years running.
I recommend the pot roast, and stab at it on his menu.  He looks at me annoyed.  Even though it is I who seek to take his emotional temperature, to understand where he is, the man-boy figures me out before I do him.  He knows I’m on a train.  It’s one of the compensations, I suppose, of his traumatic past.  He can sense what’s going on in others.  It’s a survival technique.  But what it means to me in this moment is that he’s winning the game.
When Dot returns with “Ready?” a.k.a. “Get your shit together guys, I got things to do,” I order pot roast.  “What kind of lettuce is in your dinner salad?”  She looks at me like she’s about to say something like “green lettuce, you moron” in and around the chewing of her gum.  “Good old iceberg style.  That okay?  You want Thousand Island with that, or ranch?”  I order oil and vinegar which she writes down on her pad without saying anything.
“How about you young man?” There is a pause.  The man-boy is pushing it, I think.  Seeing how far he can go.  “I’ll have the double bacon cheeseburger,” he says, and hands Dot his menu.  He orders a root beer, and we’re off.  I sigh.
On the television hanging from the ceiling over the counter, Glenn Beck is holding court.  I have only one thing to say about Brother Beck, the demagogue of our convulsing age:  fuck him.  Okay, maybe that’s two things. In fact, I have never watched a single segment of his on television, nor listened to an entire program on the radio.  All I know is that my parents in Provo, Utah watch him religiously, and that their anxiety levels over the state of humanity, the earth and the horsemen of the apocalypse are off the fucking charts.  Visit after visit, I am regaled by the latest racism of the nation’s first black president, the latest attack on the family and the latest conspiracy involving socialists.
            But. I am not going to say anything more about Brother Beck, a man who converted to the religion of my childhood because, he said at one point, he wanted to have sex with the girl he was dating, and she insisted on it.  (Of course, the first time I got married was because as a 25 year-old sort-of-virgin, I wanted to have sex too and couldn’t, without tipping over a very large apple cart, without first getting married…but that was entirely different.)
            Fortunately, Brother Beck’s show is captioned, and we can ignore him over our dinner with no wine by simply averting our eyes.
            The meal is passable and passed over by the three of us with little conversation.  After he eats half of his hamburger, the man-boy excuses himself to go back to the bathroom.  I wait for Cheryl to say something to me.  Something about not picking on him.  About, “why are you so angry?  You look like you’re about to jump out of your skin.”  Instead, she decides to excuse herself to go browse the consumable and totchkes—key chains, shot glasses and posters of American Eagles wrapped in Old Glory.  I am left to collect the bill.  And in that split second of Cheryl’s leaving and my signaling Dot, I am struck with a foreboding sensibility.  In my determination to counter what I feel is the lunatic fears of civilization’s collapse—of apocalypse—I think perhaps that I have also discounted the reality and realities of the losses to be experienced as the country and to some extent the world transforms itself into an, as yet, unknown place.
            I think this first began to take shape—from feeling to abstraction–three nights earlier, Christmas night after all the gifts had been opened, the girls gone to bed and my brother-in-law Pete and I have retired to watching the John Wayne version of “True Grit” on cable in the middle of the Maine woods.  But we’re not really watching it.  We’re drinking whiskey and, speaking of trains, Pete gets on his, his strong Rhode Island accent feathering his words.  His voice getting louder as the booze sets in him.
            Pete who retired after 30+ years as a teacher in the Massachusetts public school system, has a perspective nevertheless drawn from the trenches of the working class bloke.  Though now turned so-called middle class, he and his wife, Cheryl’s sister, are teetering on the brink of a slap-down by the powers that be—the super rich, the government, the banks and other financial institutions and corrupt politicians.
            “They don’t get it,” he says.  “They don’t understand that you can’t fuck the American middle class without starting a revolution.”  Pete is more than rankled.  He’s built more houses than I can count, including his second home in Arizona with his own hands.  Clambered through as a shop teacher for the boys who can’t manage to pass in that academic way; served his country in the army reserve.  Raised three of his own boys; managed a rest home—knocking the wind out of at least three consecutive jobs all the while smoking like a chimney.  When we took him and his wife Diane to Paris one year and Barcelona another, the wiry guy with the full shock of black hair that’s just recently gone gray, walked the streets with that kind of sprung athletic look, almost like he was walking on his toes.
I envy his full head of hair the most.
            But now he’s pissed.  Worked hard to retire early and, among other things, has been told that the money he put into his Social Security is being “off-set” because at times during his frenetic work life, he worked double duty for the Bay State.  His conclusions on the state of the American state are not rooted in the popular, ever alternating demonizing/lionizing rhetoric of the day, but are surprising to me in that they are freshly informed by careful analysis and scorching pragmatism.  He never cared that he was going to have to work like a dog.  He only cares that the government in cahoots with big business way-laid people like him and somehow convinced half of the nation that the super-rich deserve to be treated by another standard.
            “This trickle down shit never worked.  Ever since Reagan they’ve been selling us this shit and hoodwinked the lot of us.  It’s nuts.  It’s fucking nuts.  And if they don’t think that there won’t be riots in the streets before this is over, they’re dreaming.  America isn’t going to escape revolution just because it’s America.”  He finishes his drink, his thick glasses making his doe-like eyes bulge in the dim light of the candles and tree lights that Diane has so carefully arranged—but that her husband made happen.  The can-do guy from Warren, Rhode Island turned resident of Riverside to retiree in backwoods Maine and Arizona.  A guy who likes to hit the casinos now and play black jack after felling fifty trees on his thirty acres outside Farmington, Maine.
            “And you want to know something else?” he continues.  Usually when I hear rants about the government and the country it’s red-state-styled bullshit about how the constitution is a static document that the “liberals” have incrementally disassembled and that the proofs of all of this are the moral corruption of welfare moms and abortionists. But Pete is different.  “You know what else?” he repeats.  You can’t tell me that the opposition to Obama isn’t just based out of good old fashioned racism.  They hate that guy because he’s black first and everything else follows.”
            Here, Here.
            The staggering part of all of this train wreck is that the Republicanists have abandoned honest-to-god conservative paradigm—much needed, I might add, in a two-party system such as ours–for the knuckleheads of the tea partiers.  They abandoned the party of William S. Buckley and Dwight Eisenhower and convinced the lot of us on a steady diet of lunatic consumerism and reality shows that it is un-American to hold the super-rich in this country to the same standard as people like Pete.

People like me, I might add.  Okay.  Maybe not people like me.  After all, I had it good.  For twenty years I flew around the world, literally.  Three days on/Four days off before the towers came down and the industry “reorganized.”  And now?  Now, God willing, I’ll collect a pension in a few years.  And right now I have the privilege of at least having a fighting chance of getting on a B-757 for free and flying over 2,000 miles for one week of vacation over Christmas.  Not bad for an English major.

            A fighting chance most of the time.  With 10,000 flights cancelled, we didn’t have a prayer getting out of Boston.  And now we are in Pennsylvania in a rented Corolla, with three to four days ahead of us still.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 18

Tonight, I am feeling the same way I did shortly after Josiah came to live with us full-time four years ago. Josiah in need. Like the boy Denver with the match box car. And I was not patient. I was not loving. There was unfinished business.

It was four years ago when Cheryl’s daughter slipped me a personal check for a thousand dollars. That night, as usual, she left for home without her son. And I placed the check on my bureau in one of the two small bedrooms on the main floor of our house and went to bed to maybe dream about it as I might dream, again, about it tonight—Joe, Cheryl, me…and the little house we dance in.

But there was no dream, at least not one that I remember. In the morning I get ready for work, thirteen-year-old Josiah gets ready for school and Cheryl moves into the small kitchen. That’s where the dance begins. The kitchen is about ten by eight feet, if you don’t count the counters, and she makes herself coffee at the sink which is angled into a corner. Soon Joe is standing in the middle, cold feet the size of boats on the tile, his Simpsons cotton pajama bottoms getting too short. His voice is lower than it should be, almost hoarse this early in the morning. Cheryl turns from the sink, takes her cup to the opposite side of the kitchen, to the microwave above the stove. Joe steps back, yawning, hair a mess. There is the whir of the microwave, then she’s back to the sink as if she’s made a giant oval pass in a single move. There is his voice again, saying something at an improbable pitch for a boy his age. And then I step onto the floor.

This house seemed very large when we first bought it four years earlier in 2003. But then everything seemed large after our one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Now it has settled in to be the cottage that the real estate agency called it: nine hundred square feet on the main floor, nearly nine hundred in the nearly finished basement. We didn’t have enough furniture to fill it and went shopping for extra beds, a sofa for the TV room downstairs, chairs and lamps to fill spaces that looked blankly at us for weeks. Now we all live in the kitchen, it seems. Like the designated emergency gathering spot for airline crews outside a hotel, it is the space we migrate to when we aren’t sure where else we should be.

After twenty years as a flight attendant, I’m on furlough, looking for full-time work in some other industry. Meanwhile, I’m adjuncting at two local colleges. Cheryl is making lunches for me and Joe to the immediate left of the sink at the bread board above the utensil drawer which is where I’m trying to get for a spoon. She’s half way through cutting a tomato, and swings the lower half of her body for me to the left. And Joe moves back by the far wall next to the door that leads to the basement. He has an itch on his back and both arms are wrapped around himself trying to get at it through one of my T-shirts that, despite his lank, has shoulder seams dropped half way down his arms. I merge the spoon into my Spoon Sized Shredded Wheat and move to the opposite side of the kitchen—to the door leading to the dining room, but I stand there and eat. We all stare at each other for a moment, and then the dance starts up again.

I consider it a small victory when I began to think it was no longer an imposition to have Josiah in our home full time, but that I was getting something from the experience completely unexpected and filled with a kind of haphazard grace. But the conversations in my head with his mother, my daughter, really my step-daughter, continue anyway: furious, sarcastic, mean. Always I return, a bit sheepish, to the only fact I need to hang onto, a fact I share with those who ask: she is unavailable to her son. That is all. Unavailable.

So Josiah lives with us in this cottage in a Salt Lake neighborhood known as 9th and 9th, far away from the life we had in New York, and as he grows the house continues to shrink. As he moves through its tiny rooms built in 1950 in what was originally a Dutch enclave of the city, it trembles under his weight but somehow holds as he jumps the last four stairs to the basement with a mighty thud that rattles the new windows we finally had cut into the foundation—for more light in this little house with gray wood shingles for siding. And even downstairs where it is carpeted and slightly more spacious and where we congregate in front of the television for yet another viewing of Die Hard or Pirates of the Caribbean, we navigate around each other in a series of complicated steps: step back, twist to the right, step up, fold to the left. Move around grandfather Daley’s leather-strapped trunk serving as a coffee table for Cheryl who is sashaying through with a basket of laundry. Perform a two-step on the way to the office around a pile of videos being organized in the middle of the floor by Joe. Bow to your partner, one, two, three. . . .

And then there are the cats. How soon we have filled this little house that once seemed so capacious compared to the jigsaw puzzle of an apartment with boxes of Christmas wrap carefully stored with Cheryl’s framing equipment under the bed. The owner of this little house before us, a young man, actually had a punching bag hanging from the door jamb leading into the office downstairs: room to throw a punch, for God’s sake. Now, Cheryl and I share an office and Joe has his own inner sanctum with Jimmi Hendrix in skin tight pants posted on the door and the cats like a credit card ad. They’re everywhere you want to be.

Not unlike my daughter, or so it seems, whose absence is everywhere. In fact, from time to time she still makes a phone call or sends an email to inform us of something all people should know about twelve year olds–a summer program that would be good for Joe (and that we will have to pay for), how important it is that a child understand the “natural consequences of his behavior,” a new book out on Attention Deficit Disorder. I can hear the television in the background, the raucous laughter of her boyfriend, 9 years her junior; the categorically fecund breath of the university where she is a hot shot undergraduate “single mother” at 34. She graduates this June.

This is what she can do as a mother. Make a phone call.

There is a conversational arc that I travel in my head with my daughter. It is the same every time, and it comes across as self-righteous and angry, a litany of her crimes and of my woes. It ends with “tough love” demands that start with “And you will . . .” And I am the good father even though I’m hard and demanding, which is my job, damn it all, to make sure my love for her is earned, not granted as with her mother. After all, the world works that way. You have to earn the love of the world.

This is how the conversation actually goes. We are in the park the previous summer which is between our cottage and the house that Josiah does not want to live at. We are at a picnic table. I have asked for the meeting. She is smoking, nervously, and I don’t just want to tell her what’s on my mind, I want revenge, right there under the towering cottonwoods next to her bike which she rides rather than a car which is ecologically irresponsible but which she drives (the car) or rides in whenever she needs to go to Costco, or is late getting to an exam up on the hill, or needs to picked up to go bowling with her son in an arranged date we’ve made so that she actually does something with Joe at least once a week.

It actually doesn’t matter how the conversation goes. It only matters how it ends. Me pounding the table with my fist and raising my voice so that someone walking by looks at us. Her saying something like, “this relationship costs me too much” as she tries to juggle her cigarette her bike and the notes she has brought with her regarding her complaints of me and her mother. And she is leaving. If there were a door, and she had an extra hand, she would be slamming it in my face. But it is I that want revenge even though it is disguised as prescience. “You need to take care of your son for yourself as much as for him. You need to be his mother for your own sake, not his.” But she is gone. I will apologize two days later, but the damage will have been done. Revenge only triggers her spite.

That was last summer when dinner could be taken on the back deck. Now we are back inside, in the 8 by 12 dining room off the kitchen. There is a seam between the dining room and the living room where, incomprehensively, there appears to have once been a wall. Impossible to imagine one more wall sectioning off another part of the house that is already . . . so . . . small. We sit at this table for everything right now–dinner, breakfast, homework, model car making. My laptop sits here since two of the four shelves collapsed under the weight of books in Cheryl’s office where I’ve migrated since we moved Joe out of the guest room upstairs and into mine. This is my daughter’s fault as well, somehow. The collapsed book cases with my books and papers on the floor. When my books are on the floor, I can’t seem to get anything done. Another convenient excuse–along with the TV just outside the door next to Joe’s Game Cube with spider cords spread eagle–not to write in the morning before I go to work.

I consider not cashing my daughter’s check. If I do, don’t I legally accept the terms of the transaction, and in turn, the arrangement? But we need the money. It’s expensive having a grandson without child support from anyone and who the state doesn’t acknowledge is living here.

Whenever I attempt to tell the story of how we moved back here to be closer to our grandson after his parents’ divorce and how we are now raising him, it doesn’t sound convincing. Why are we being so co-dependent with the mother? Why aren’t we putting our foot down? Why aren’t we claiming our grandparent lives? Why don’t we go to court?

Why is our house suddenly so small? Why do we put up with it?

It’s now eighteen months into my furlough, the summer after my conversation in the park with Joe’s mother. Our little family of three manages to go on vacation, my first in over two years. We drive across the high desert of Utah, down through the appropriately named and plunging Virgin River Canyon to Las Vegas and into the San Bernardino mountains and land on Hollywood Boulevard. Universal Studios will claim our lives for the next two days. We are out of the house but into a single motel room in little Thailand. One bathroom, one television, one short fuse. Joe has the impossible task of exulting in movie-land while still maintaining “cool.” It’s not unlike my dilemma. How do I love this boy but not feel taken advantage of? To love him, to care for him, doesn’t that mean that I’m absolving my daughter of any responsibility? Am I not telling her by my actions that it’s okay what she is doing?

We’ve been on the Jurassic Park ride. We’ve visited the Backdraft exhibit . . . thrilled at the spills at Waterworld, eaten ribs the size of mine at a Flintstones’ eatery. And I hate this place. It represents everything that is wrong with our culture. Gluttony, living vicariously through movies, the materialism approaching hedonism of an America that must, I’m convinced, fire the imaginations of an Islamicist suicide bomber. At least Vegas doesn’t presume that you care about how the illusions we feed off are created. Joe is ecstatic. High on sugar, going ballistic over every “Back to the Future” ride—twice. He’s pushing and pulling me. Demanding this and that. In a frenzy that he’ll miss something. In short, he is a 13-year old en extremis, every angle of his body jutting out above over-sized feet. He’s in that place where he likes to slug me in the arm.

Finally, the Blues Brothers are in front of us. A half hour review of their songs built around the bare bones references of a long-lost narrative from the 70s. It’s live, and I’m enjoying the music, the singing. And I can tell Joe is jumping out of his skin, craning to go over here, busy something over there, head out for the Terminator 2 pavilion to don 3-D glasses to see the governor of California in leather. The Blues Brothers show appears to be winding down, it’s hot—LA is insufferably hot in July. And Joe starts pulling on me. “Let’s go. Let’s go.” Now he’s pushing me, this kid almost my height with elbows the size and hardness of a squash racket.

It’s time to make him cry. I’ve done this before. It’s easy to do. First, you grip him by the neck with one hand and take his upper arm with the other. You start walking him somewhere, away from where he was pulling you. You get your mouth very close to his ear, behind him so that you have the psychological advantage. He can’t see you. He can only hear and feel you. He may attempt to wriggle free, but you have eighty pounds on him. He may attempt to say something back, but the grip gets tighter to shut him down.

When he’s completely overpowered, you can actually let go and he will do exactly what you say because he’s so devastated that he can’t control the shaking. Nana has moved away, furious with me, then resigned, perhaps to the situation, at least at the moment. She knows that I will only try to defend myself to her and will be angry with her for taking Joe’s side. As if there’s a war going on. Or something.

Now that I have made Joe cry, I can become the soft-spoken psychologist that I have learned to hate. And like the soft-spoken psychologist, the conversation is designed to make sure that the patient (Joe) knows that my intentions are good, but that he’s just pushed me too far. That my bad behavior is not my fault, but his. Look good (the parent at Universal Studios quietly decompressing with a visibly distraught teenager on the wheelchair ramp going up to the Vaudeville theater), get what you want (revenge for the way my life is going), don’t be at fault (he made me do it).

It will be a long time before Joe trusts me again. His Papa is explosive, like the man whose name shall remain obscured, and does denial like his mother. The trip home allows me to mentally disappear into the Mojave Desert and Joe to venture further into Hollywood on the portable DVD player he has in the back seat. He has some good moments after Papa’s blow-up in front of the Blues Brothers pavilion. A competition of swimming underwater in the hotel pool. A retro lunch at Hard Rock Café. A calming moment at an aromatherapy salon, the two of us plugged into the bubbling bright liquids of jasmine, of lavender, of citrus. But the incident is a failing on my part that makes me want to run away from this boy, just as others in his life have done. To run back to the choices I thought I was making. To be childless, to be an artist, to be in control of what happens to me. To not have to go to Universal Studios.

Back in the little house we dance in, we are gearing up for another school year. There are school fees, clothes and shoes to buy. We need a new bed for Joe. He’s outgrown the daybed we folded out for him before he migrated over full-time. We are getting ready to take a mortgage out on the house. And there is the appointment coming up with the orthodontist who will require a couple thousand to be paid out-of-pocket: at least one thousand from each of his parents, neither of which have offered. Until now. My daughter’s check is here, waiting to be acknowledged, redeemed, cashed.

So there is the check and the myriad failings of my daughter it represents, sitting on my bureau. The latest of her failings is that she has turned me into an abuser of my grandson. Joe trusts me less, of course, digs his heels in more when I do anything other than agree with him or let him have his spurious, adolescent way. I am one who overpowers and shames, one who digs in his heels as well. Someone who wants to win, and who propels every conversation, every interaction into a competition of sorts. A sick contest between an adult and a child.

I have become the very thing I have learned to despise in my daughter.

The first day of school and we are dancing again. Joe is eating eggs, bacon and toast which I have made for all of us before the start of a new year, to start us all off on a good foot. I am standing at the stove, the frying pan spitting and hissing, and Cheryl comes up behind me with her coffee. I shift to the right even before her hand rests gently on my back to signal her arrival. She opens the microwave to warm her cup, and pats me twice so that I know she’s retreating backwards in a modified tango to our internal rhythm. I step back into my space for two beats. Then Joe comes into get juice out of the fridge which opens into my other hip which bumps it back just enough to send it closed as he turns to the counter with the jug, looking for a glass, which Cheryl gets for him since she’s now standing at the counter wiping up crumbs. From above it must look like a beehive—bees frantically filling in cells, intimate, humid. Or it looks like the choreographed chaos of a street scene in a musical. These are steps both comforting in their familiarity but terrifying as well. This is the little house we dance in, and will dance in it forever it seems. Constrained, constricted as we are but somehow calmed by kinetic familiarity.

“We need a bigger house,” I say to no one in particular and flip an egg. “I think we should look for something with a bigger kitchen at least. Maybe something on the other side of the park.” Joe stops short, a half-filled glass of juice in his hand. He is a different boy than he was last summer when he followed the patron saints of the American dysfunctional family, The Simpsons, as they waddled away from signing autographs with their four-fingered yellow hands at Universal. He had tagged after them like a puppy as they disappeared after the photo op behind a fence, and he stood, as if in jail, hands on the vertical bars, his pale forehead pressed into the cold steel, his cheeks still stained with dried tears. Now, standing with his juice held half aloft, he is something of a cross between The Beaver (a TV boy sanitized from irony) and a mountain-bred surfer dude (coolness bordering on oblivion).

“No way!” he growls as only a man-boy can growl. “We are not moving from this house. I love this house. This is our house. You’re going to give it to me when you die.” And then he grins. And those four thousand dollar braces go a-glint in the kitchen light, and I have a stab of gratitude for the slip of paper signed by my daughter and sitting on my bureau less than a simple, modified foxtrot away.

Interstate 80: A Cross Country Travelogue–Part 16

Part 16:
This is what I’m thinking about as
we speed by Lincoln, Nebraska with its sort-of classical looking capitol
building with domed tower, and its PhDs leaning into classroom corners with
growing cobwebs and head towards Kearney. 
And I have faint stirrings of regret for this first marriage to a
gorgeous Polish Catholic woman who graduated from college in physics in two and
a half years cum laude but was
alienated from her own family of birth—the only thing that mattered.  In the end what my Ex wanted was what my Mormon
faith was selling:  family.  It’s what we all want.  But what is being sold doesn’t exist anymore,
including (and arguably especially) in Mormon Utah.  This is the travesty of my pioneer ancestors
who came west, driven by a nascent faith. 
The faith matured as, it would seem, everything in America matures—into
an industry where everyone’s on message, and the sales force is out in
force.  There’s money to be made.  Illusions to be sold.  Piety and money.  The Chosen People and property.  Love all around.  “Families are Forever.”
Joe and Cheryl and I are more of
the family norm, these days.  And we’re
actually more traditional than most.  A
married couple raising a child.  We are
one of 60,000 grandparents in the Beehive State alone who are raising their
grandkids.  Most of us don’t have
custody.  Many of us aren’t getting child
support.  Retirement funds are being used
for college.  Second mortgages for food
for that extra hungry 6-footer standing at the refrigerator in his too-short
pajama bottoms.  And religion’s response
to all of this is, we’ve got to get back to Leave it To Beaver.  Damn the torpedoes.  Full steam ahead.  Never mind that we are chasing a damned
illusion and spawning even more devastation by our not acknowledging
reality.  I’m starting to sound like a
preacher myself.  Maybe I’ll start my own
religion.  Mid-wife a new persecution
complex of the righteous.  This is the
land of opportunity, after all. 
Entrepreneurship abounds.   Might
be better off just starting another multi-level marketing scheme.  “Xango Makes Your Dreams Come True!”
It’s really getting cold now.  The Nebraska sky is clear, but this place is
damned, damned cold.  It’s time to
EconoLodge.  We exit north off of I-80 on
this New Year’s Eve.  They’ve had  snow here recently, mounds of it, not only
crusting the curvilinear exit, but clumped dangerously over black ice.  The city is surprisingly far off the
interstate, and the road has not been plowed, or barely.  We dodge the drifts, slow to a crawl, tires
spinning.  My first thought is that
Kearney has been hard hit by the recession, to the point that now they don’t
plow their streets.  We find out later
that if it’s less than six inches, city plows are not dispatched. 
We wend our way to a strip mall,
park, emerge.  It’s time to secure some
warm-wear.  Or warmer-wear as the case
may be, now that we are in sub-zero Nebraska. 
For me, a change of footware after four days on the road would be
sufficient for my needs.  While physically
I’m contracting everything, including my brain, Joe is stretching outside the
car.  He’s wearing his tinted John Lennon
glasses, the ones Nana is always asking him to take off when he’s indoors or, as
we are now, in the gloaming.  Some
argument about how he needs to see where he’s going, but she doesn’t understand
that this is an identity thing unlike all the accoutrements we all buy—not
because of functionality—but because it tells us who we are.  All I can think of when I see him walk
upstairs wearing his sunglasses at home is if he’s smoking pot and trying to
hide it.  This is a conversation we’ve
had openly, many times.  For all intents
and purposes, he should be thick into the stuff.  Not only does an absent man in Joe’s life
whose name here shall remain obscured qualify as a pot-head but so do most of
Joe’s friends, including the one across the street where strange cars are
starting to stop by at all hours of the day and night.  
We head towards a Wal-Mart-styled
store, the kind of outlet that can’t decide what it is, with little order to
the chaos of stuff that ranges from peanut butter brands I’ve never heard of to
bunny slippers.  Dented cans labeled frijoles instead of “beans.”  Tonight, in celebration of the approaching
new year, we are determined to find a next generation EconoLodge—a Ramada or
Rode Inn with a swimming pool.  And so here,
in this mart filled with the rubble of our marketed land, we are in search of,
yes, staggeringly true on this cold New Year’s Eve—swimming gear.  This is part of Cheryl’s campaign to make the
cross-country trip from hell less hellish, in the same line as the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame.  Me?  I’m headed for the liquor store.  (Hey. 
It is New Year’s Eve after all.)
The liquor store is a happy
place.   Christmas decorations still
abound along with a card board stand-up of a grinning Captain Morgan.  The end caps are filled with strangely shaped
bottles on sale and people are smiling. 
Two of the clerks, a rubbery-faced middle-aged guy and a woman in her
30s in an Absolut T-shirt and hair that looks like it hasn’t moved in a decade
stand side-by-side behind the counter, ribbing each other, saying “Howya
doin’?” to the customers and shaking brown paper bags out with a snap of their
wrists.
“Biting cold out
there.  Yep.  A biting cold,” says the guy to a senior with
a blue parka puffing around his torso. 
“Find what you’re
needin’ today?  Got a party you’re goin’
to?  Looks like maybe I should join ya!”
he says, eyeing the case of PBRs and the cheap bottle of champagne.  This is definitely beer country, with the
year-end nod to the bubbly.  I feel
somewhat conspicuous standing among the wine bottles with a vague calculus in
my head consisting of our credit card balance (rising precipitously since we
left Maine), local norms (beer, beer…or beer) and what walking to the counter
with any one of these bottles of vino will say about me:  that I’m not from here.  That I’m superior than Kearney-ites, that I
am one of the chosen, whatever that means in these post-church days of mine.
            I
end up with the sort of wine I end up with in Salt Lake, though admittedly with
much less mark up (a kind of forced tithing foisted on unbelievers).  A cabernet from Sonoma—definitely on the
cheap end of that exceedingly wide continuum—with a label that looks smart
without looking gimmicky. 
            “Howyadoin?”
says the woman with the hair.  I might be
looking at Midwest Gothic, but having spent New Year’s Eve once before (along
with Thanksgiving and a few other holidays) with former in-laws , and my Ex, I
am uncomfortable operating strictly on mean stereotypes.  Or, I like to think that I don’t operate
strictly on mean stereotypes, which is to say, dear reader, that I always
operate on stereotypes, often on the mean ones, but I have a whole menu of ways
that I keep myself from knowing that. 
            “Doin’
great,” I respond, dropping my final consonant as de rigeur.  “Been driving
four days now.  Got stranded in
Boston.”  I’m looking for a response but there’s
nothing there.  Maybe she doesn’t know
how far away Boston really is. 
            “My,
my,” she says, and I can sense that the jolly factor in this place is pretty
much just skin deep.  The face of
retail.  I try to engage her on a more
local, potentially meaningful level but it just comes out snarky.
            “Roads
don’t seem very well plowed around here. 
Driving in this evening.”   This
is where I learn about the 6 inch rule. 
She busies herself with something under the counter. 
            “I
guess us Nebraskans don’t consider it worth the trouble to plow when it’s just
a skiff of the stuff.  Anything
else?”  Her smile is tight.  The same tight smile I recognize as the
flight attendant’s.
            I
look over at Captain Morgan, who seems more larcenous than ever in this fluorescent
lighting at the end of the first decade of the new millennium.  Perhaps a nip of him is in order I
think.  Instead, I reach for a bottle of
the cheap bubbly and plunk it on the counter.
            “Now
that’s the spirit,” she cackles, snapping the paper bag open with practiced
ease.  The shared experience of buying
things hides a multitude of animosities. 
Maybe consumerism really is the gear box that makes the world
turn—socially constructed or not.
            Conveniently,
the package store is connected to the K-Mart-with-an-identity-crisis, and I go
looking for the other two.  I find Cheryl
wandering, a black leotard thing on a hanger dangling from her hand. 
            “No
swimming suits.  This will have to do,”
she says.  I like her persistence.  Nothing is going to keep her from getting
into a hot tub tonight.  Joe and me?  We’ll manage somehow in our skivvies.  I look around for Joe.  We gotta get out of here.  I turn back toward the liquor store, then
wander towards the back.  There are rows
of metal shelves picked over from the holidays, cluttered with stray faux-terra
cotta planters, boxes of cheap Christmas lights, one torn open, its contents
spilling out like guts.  A solitary
artificial wreath with bright red plastic clinging rubber cranberries. 
            I
find him in the hat department.  For
miles now he’s been talking about getting what his Nana calls a “watch cap,” a
knit hat that has apparently returned to vogue for the high school set, at
least those inner-city kids in Salt Lake. 
He has a gray one on his head, and he’s looking for a mirror.  He sees me standing there with my bag of
papered booze, and he turns away, annoyed it seems, that I’m there.  I pad after him, pretending to look at the
collection of four-foot tall electric Christmas candles (for the lawn, I presume)
and wire reindeer implanted with pointy holiday bulbs.  One of them is tipped over on its side.  Road kill. 
Joe turns the corner of one aisle. 
This is where I try to remember to practice my breathing according to
the principles of mindfulness.  I’m ready
to go—got the booze under arm—and I’m waiting for my family, each lost in their
own hemisphere.  Buying things.  Re-connecting with that thread that brings us
back from our wandering across the prairies. 
This store could be anywhere along Freeway USA, from Farmington, Maine
to Cheyenne, Wyoming.  We may not be
power shopping, but we’re drinking at the trough that makes us all
American.  Swiping our nearly maxed-out
Visa at checkout is the final recognizable nodule on the familiar parabolic arc
that sends us back out into the world happy with our purchases, again part of
the collective. 
            There
is no mirror for Joe to see himself in with his new watch cap, so he pulls it
off his head, and gives me a quick, sidelong glance.  I suspect he’s worried that he doesn’t look
acceptable in it.  He ambles towards the
front of the store, looking for Nana, avoiding me, his shoulders rounded, the
cuffs of his drab green coat with the hood down to his knuckles.  I pad after him, breathing in, breathing
out. 
            Experiencing the full breath body I breathe
in…
            Experiencing the full breath body I
breathe out…

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 15)

PART 15
            As we re-enter I-80 in Omaha the detritus of American culture piles up fast and furious. 
“Donate your pop cans to the new Library”
“Unwanted Pregnancy?”  (On a black and white billboard, a close-up of a youngish woman looking into the camera with a slightly quizzical look.)
            “Get out of Debt Today!” (Credit Advisors fronted by a grinning woman—brunette—in a bright blue blouse.  All teeth.  A phone number below inviting YOU to “become a C.A. [Credit Advisors] Success Story!”
Giant murals on thirteen abandoned grain elevators near the interstate 480 exchange:  wild colored patterns; huge plant-looking images.  Some kind of art initiative.
Brookside Church, slouching toward I-80.  Huge.  Sprawling.  A “mega” church where a muscle-bound Jesus really packs a punch. 
The billboards, thankfully, begin to die out as we drive towards Lincoln, one of America’s university towns (and, here, coincidentally the state’s capital) where all of the progressive intellectuals fled to during the Reagan years.  Bastards.  Just when we needed army captains of the enlightenment and they decide to crawl into their ivory towers believing they’d been promoted to Colonel just because of their fucking PhDs. 
Here’s a question for all university professors:  after you retreated from reality, why couldn’t you be satisfied with just tipping your domino with the malleable minds of 18-year-olds and help change the world that way, or at least keep it from sliding back into the dark ages of a the current tea party?  Instead you decided to just talk the inflammatory talk of disgust and outrage, fire up the acolytes and then let them (us) walk the walk.  News Flash:  Your fawning 20-year-olds weren’t Students for a Democratic Society and what’s more America in the 80s wasn’t what it was when you were bumping around Berkeley and Boulder in tye-dye.  No, you’re little pieces of clay-to-be-formed were late boomer-latch kids taking their cues from George H.W. Bush and the latest iteration of the country’s real religion:  consumerism.  Why weren’t you there running interference by growing up yourself, instead of hanging out at the student union ?  By the time half of you–out of guilt?–decided in the mid 90s that everything, including literature, was political and that culture, including politics, religion and the family, for God’s sake, was a socially-constructed web of…blah, blah, blah, by the time you decided this, humanities majors, inflamed with your outrage and holding signs, were flying off to the West Bank to get run over by a front end loader.  Meanwhile, you’re sitting back in Lincoln, Nebraska learning how to surf the web and steadfastly refusing to enter the real world.  Thanks a lot, Noam.
This is a road I’ve traveled before exclusively in service of my first marriage back in the late 80s.  I’m not referring to graduate school in culture studies and rhetoric—although that was a complicating sub-text to the marriage—but literally.  I’ve traveled this road.  My Nebraskan wife and I used to fly into either Omaha or Denver and then motor out to McCook, four hours away from either end for family occasions which she tried to minimize as best as possible, not being particularly fond of her father.  In fact, her Polish Catholic parents never met mine—some lame excuse for not coming out for the wedding in a rural pioneer temple, surrounded by my very Mormon family.  Her brother and sister-in-law stood in for the occasion, although sitting out is a better term.  Not being LDS they were relegated to a waiting room downstairs from the sacrosanct upper “sealing” rooms where marriages are performed but only in front of the “worthy”—i.e., those who are the new chosen people. 
So this is a warning to all Americans:  go ahead and vote for a Mormon president if you insist, but don’t let your kid get serious with a Latter-day Saint.  She’ll tell your son that she loves him first and her faith and family second, but it’s a lie.  One year after the “civil marriage” (even if it’s in another house of worship) and she’ll be reconnoitering with her bishop and a couple of well-scrubbed missionaries to get her bewildered husband (a redundant term, really) into the waters of baptism and into a Mormon temple where the real marriage has to take place for eternal salvation.  It’s like some of my Jewish friends when I lived in New York who were very clear that it was fine to fuck around with gentiles till the kosher cows come home, but when it comes to getting married, he better be wearing a keepa and standing under the canopy.  We have a Mormon version of that, and many of the flight attendants of my tribe, fresh out of BYU or the UofU were just as willing to hit the hay with a pilot on a layover, move him into a Salt Lake suburb, get knocked up, then call the missionaries.  It was like a ghost at the end of the first four principles of the gospel:  faith, repentance, baptism, confirmation…converting your gentile husband. 
It’s actually a good deal for everyone.  Families are made eternal in the temple of the Lord and the corporate church gets 10 percent tithing of the pilot’s considerable flight deck salary.   The arrangement is even beneficial for the pilot, in the end, who would eventually divorce his Mormon wife and two kids in Sandy, Utah and thus acquire a second alimony which is a requirement to become a captain…that is, you have to at least two alimonies.  Unlike the Catholics divorce ain’t such a big deal for Mormons.  Yes, the kids get screwed—as they always do in a divorce—but since the days of my Grandpa John Lowe Butler, divorce was the practical antidote to all the Mormon marrying and giving in marriage. 
And so it came to pass that I did divorce my first wife, but before that I was, at least on paper, a happy Latter-day Saint in the grip, as all real Latter-day Saints are, to the cult of family.  Thus even on a layover in fucking Omaha on New Year’s Eve—mere months before my final separation from my first wife–I was dutifully driving in a rental across the prairie to be with my wife’s family at a brother’s  home in Kearney, Nebraska…without my wife in tow. Yes.  I was within duty’s distance of family, and, especially because they were not of the faith, I felt impelled to show them just how important family was to me. 
This is how it works for those who have a testimony of the Gospel with a capital Mormon “G.”  You find yourself driving three hours out and three hours back to watch your Catholic in-laws toasting the new year in with champagne, while you drink apple juice.  Your reward?  You get to report for airline duty downstairs at the Red Lion Hotel, two hours after you’ve gone to bed.  And you’re wife wasn’t even with you.  Sheesh.