Dancing at the North Yard Cafe
Frank J. Page
February 11, 2015
When I think back on those times, I can still see that white clapboard cafe. In the distance, the yellow glow from the windows gave it the look of an inland lighthouse. Not fifty yards from the rails, it sat at the edge of an endless grid of tracks and trains. There was a small neon sign on the roof. With a couple of the letters out, it clicked and flashed ever so steadily. Out front, there was a row of cars and old pickups, and the light from the neon sign darted across their windshields. Beyond them, and beyond the reach of the blinking light, the heavy trains and their huge shadows were always merging and separating. All night they'd move back and forth, and back and forth.
Down at the North Yards the air was always warm and thick with the bitter taste of steel and diesel fuel. To the north, the stacks at the oil refinery spewed out rolling balls of yellow fire that climbed high in a dark blue sky. To the south, the chimneys at the old foundry sent up columns of black and gray smoke that intertwined and then fell back and covered the yards with a layer of soot and cinders. Back then, the men at the foundry worked all night, and throughout the yard the pounding of steel on steel echoed and then vanished in the darkness. After a while you got used to it, but in the back of your mind, the incessant ring of the giant hammers was always there. Bang, clang, bang! Bang, clang, bang!
In the yards, only the movement of the trains could mute the cold ring of the hammers over at the foundry. This was their domain, and like peevish, mechanical monsters, the trains were continually groaning and screeching. At times they seemed to argue and complain among themselves. Then, as if one of them had had enough, a huge diesel would labor, and powering up, send heavy growls pulsing along the ground. No matter what you were doing, when one of the trains pulled out of the yard, deep down, you could feel it.
The graveyard shift was from eleven at night until seven in the morning. I relieved Maxine, and she had been working afternoons for as long as I could remember. Maxine was a big heavy woman with puffy white skin on her face and arms. She wore ruby red lipstick, smoked Pall Malls, and had a husky, raspy voice. Maxine always coughed when she laughed, and in her uniform she reminded you of a chubby kewpie doll grown old and tired. She told me that once she was a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies. One night, right there in front of the jukebox, she hiked up her skirt, and showed me a few steps.
Maxine was like part of the place, and I can only remember one time when she didn't show up for work. That was when her husband died. She took three days off, and when she came back, I told her how sorry I was. Puffing on one of her Pall Malls, she was sitting at the end of the counter. Without looking toward me, she nodded and tapped her cigarette on the ashtray. "Yeah, the old fart finally kicked off," she said. "Just when I got so I could put up with the old bastard, he goes and packs it in."
The first thing I did when I got at work was to fire up the old jukebox. The jukebox was one of the first to play 45's instead of 78's. Shaped something like an old roll top desk, it was made with lots of chrome and colored glass. The square selection buttons were bright blue, and after you chose a song, you could watch the mechanism slide along and pull out a record. This jukebox still gave out five songs for a quarter, and when you looked at the faded title strips, you knew that most of the records had been on there for years. Actually, I preferred the older tunes, and some of them were classics. "I Apologize," by Billy Eckstine. "The Midnight Sun," by June Christy. "Mack The Knife," by Louis Armstrong. I used to sweep up to that one, "Oh, that shark has - pretty teeth dear."
At the beginning of a shift there were routine chores that always had to be done. This included making sure that all the condiments on the counter were filled and clean. I usually started with the sugars because they were the easiest to fill. The interesting thing about filling the sugars was that after you unscrewed the metal top, you were supposed to put in a fresh saltine cracker before you poured in the sugar.
Filling the salt and pepper shakers was more of a task. It wasn't easy to pour salt out of a number ten can into a glass shaker the size of your thumb. After I finished with the salt and peppers, I'd have to fill the red and yellow squeeze bottles that held the ketchup and the mustard. Now the ketchup was fairly easy to pour, and as you poured it out of the big cans, you could guide the flow into the little red squeeze jars. The mustard, on the other hand, was another story. It wouldn't run at all, and most of the waitresses used a spoon to scoop it out, and, spoonful by spoonful, they packed it into the yellow squeeze bottles. Myself, I didn't like doing that, and after a while, I developed a way to fill the mustards that was fast and spill proof. That was my one trade secret, and I kept it to myself.
The little metal creamers with the flip-up lids were the last to be filled. They were kept in the cooler and if the cream looked stale at all, you threw it out. Nothing exasperated a customer more than to pour some cream in his coffee and then watch it set up like cake dough. After I finished filling the creamers, I'd get a damp towel and go over the entire length of the long yellow counter. As I passed over it, I could see where, through the years, thousands of elbows and arms had worn away the Formica. When I'd finished and everything was clean and ready to go, I always felt a little better. Somehow, the world seemed a better place.
While I was working at the North Yards, I came to know Ted Zito, and I always looked forward to my conversations with him. When he came in, I usually took a break. Then I'd slide up on the stool next to him and bum one of his cigarettes. Ted had worked for the Union Pacific for more than twenty years. In spite of his age, I guess he was middle aged then, he'd sit up at the counter with the enthusiasm of a boy at an ice cream stand. Ted was a great story teller, and he enjoyed history. With a wrench or screwdriver in one pocket and a tattered book in the other, he was the "philosopher king" of the railroad. At the union meetings he was the spokesman for the men.
I was in college then, and we talked about almost everything. Once he told me that he didn't think anything could be all powerful, not even a god. "Eventually everything is overcome by something else," he'd say. "It was that way in nature, and it was that way in history too." According to Ted, "If there ever was a God, and he was all-powerful like they say, with nothing to push against, he must of been damn lonely, and that's probably why he created the devil and everything else."
More often than not, Ted had a way of pulling things together with a story about his soldiering in World War Two. He gave things a reality that a professor couldn't. Once, over a meat pie smothered, he sketched out all of Europe and "The Battle of the Bulge" on the back of a napkin. He told me that he knew Patton, and that he was a son-of-a- bitch, and the men hated him. He said "it was ships and flame throwers and rolling steel that won the war, not Patton. Not Churchill or Roosevelt or any of those aristocrats who flattered themselves by pretending to write history." Ted was adamant about that. He said, "Aristocrats were above things, so how-the-hell could they know about anything. According to Ted, if you didn't experience something, if you didn't feel it, you didn't know it! And that's all there was to it."
Ted was a bachelor, and he told me that a long time ago he had loved one woman, and that was it for him. I heard a story about him coming home from the war to find his wife with another man, but I never asked him about it. Ted liked me, said I was his favorite young friend. Said, "All these other guys gave up thinking about things, a long time ago."
On the graveyard shift, the only time it was really busy was just before midnight. About then, the men would tramp in, and talking and gesturing back and forth, they would sort themselves out and then settle on the chrome stools along the counter. As they sat down, some of them would glance up at the menu. Then, slapping their large cuffed work gloves on the counter, they would sigh or groan and begin talking to one another. As I poured the coffee, an array of bruised brown hands and blackened nails would reach out and surround the husky porcelain coffee mugs. Behind the swollen knuckles and weathered skin, I'd hear talk about fishing boats and bosses and how "things weren't what they used to be." In doubtful looks and sly smiles, I heard how Charlie's wife divorced him, and how "Ted Zito was gonna set the bastard big shots straight." Pushing their coffee mugs toward me, with shaking heads, the men allowed me a glimpse of the humility and malarkey and tenacious pride that they imposed upon things.
The foundry workers sat down at the west end of the counter, and from head to foot they were covered in soot and oil. With their faces blackened by ash and grease, the clean areas around their eyes gave them a ghoulish look that would stay with them until, for one reason or another, they would smile. I was never sure just exactly what they did or what they made at the foundry. I assumed it was parts for the trains. But whatever it was, it wasn't something they did lightly or matter-of-factly. In fact, when I looked at them, it seemed that what they did would ultimately consume them, and at some level, they knew this.
Compared to the foundry workers, the railroaders were a little more jovial and outgoing, and they didn't seem quite so downtrodden. A lot of them wore striped bib- overalls, and, sitting together, they'd fill up the rest of the counter. The truckers from the oil refinery tended to come in after midnight, and they usually took the booths at the far end of the cafe. Most of them wore light blue shirts and caps that said "AMOCO" across the front in red letters. I don't know why, but they seemed to be bigger or taller than the other workers, and they always called me kid. " Hey kid, how you doin." "Hey kid, could ya get me some more coffee."
At midnight I didn't cook up much. Maybe a burger or two and once in a while a breakfast. Coffee and donuts and some pie, that's what sold. The younger guys usually kept the chatter up, and a lot of them would order the big chocolate donuts. Sometimes they'd want ice cream heaped in the middle. The older guys preferred the spiced or glazed, and some of the older guys didn't say much at all. A few of them would just sit there. With the smoke from their cigarettes drifting up to the ceiling, they would just stare off, as if there was nothing left to say, or nothing worth saying.
On the nights I worked, there was an old man and his son who came in every night. They worked at the foundry. The father had a slow and methodical, if not resigned, way about him. But his son always seemed impatient and half angry. He always complained about the old songs on the jukebox. "Who would ever listen to this shit," the son would say, and then wiping his brow, in frustration, he would pour over the selections. The father had sagging red eyes and, looking away from his son, he could never hide his concern. He talked to me one night, and he told me that years ago, in his youth, he had studied piano. Then he married and the baby came. He said he gave up a scholarship, to Julliard, no less. Said his boy "didn't like school at all." "Didn't like classical piano either."
One night, it was near the end of the midnight rush, a tall barrel-chested black man came into the cafe. At first, he seemed to just appear in the doorway, and standing motionless, his eyes moved around the room. As they looked back at him, the men at the counter broke off their conversation and fell silent. Then, cautiously, but with resolve, the black man stepped forward and sat down on one of the empty stools by the cash register. He was wearing a white shirt, and while it was wrinkled, it was tucked in and buttoned all the way up. You could tell that he had slept in his clothes, but still there was something meticulous about him. He set a small bag down on the floor beside him. Then laying his large hands palms down on the counter, he looked straight at me. "I don't have any money," he said. "Could you spare me something to eat?" His voice was deep and strong. I asked him if he wanted something to drink. After getting him some coffee, I went in the kitchen and cooked him up a chicken fried steak.
When he finished his meal, the black man pushed his plate forward and thanked me for the food. "I just came up from L.A.," he said. "It's bad there. They're gonna burn Watts to the ground. I'm headed to Chicago. I got people there." As he spoke, I could feel a resentful gaze coming from the other men at the counter. "Good luck," I said. "Here, let me get you a couple donuts." I put the donuts in a sack and slid them across the counter. When he picked them up, he nodded. Then, with weary conviction, he studied the other men at the counter. Not challenging his gaze, most of them looked away. A moment later, he paused, and, looking down, seemed lost in his thoughts. Then, like a man about to face sentencing, he slowly pushed himself up from the counter.
When he left, the door to the café slapped shut behind him, and the workers started talking again.
Later that night, around two o'clock, when the place was empty, I decided it was time for a break. Moving from behind the counter, I walked past the empty stools and propped open the front door. Then, leaning against the door jamb, I lit one of those little Red Dot cigars that they kept by the till. They had a bittersweet taste that I liked, and I had one every night. Outside, the clang of the steel hammers at the foundry was slow and steady. No longer held back by the walls of the cafe, it echoed toward me in waves. For a long time, I watched the red and gold flames coming from the stacks over at the refinery. As they tumbled upward, they would billow and then recede. In front of them, somewhat closer, but presiding high atop its pole, an American flag snapped and whipped. Then, somewhere in the yards I felt one of the huge diesels power up and, under load, begin to pull. In the distance, the trains sounded like ships in a fog bank, then whales calling out to one another, deep in the ocean. As I rolled cigar between fingers, I wondered if Ted Zito was riding the caboose down from Evanston. Then I asked myself how the black man would know which train to jump. It seemed to me that none of these trains even went to Chicago.
At four o'clock, Mr. Pentree gently pushed the door open, and peering in, he seemed relieved. In his early sixties, Mr. Pentree was a diminutive man. About to retire, he had been a switchman for over thirty years. With his lantern swinging at his side, in a long coat that swished about his feet, he made his way along the counter. After setting the lantern on the floor, he carefully unbuttoned his coat. As he sat in the middle of the empty counter he looked down at his water glass and averted his gaze. His white hair was thinning, and set behind a large pickle-like nose, he had pale blue eyes. His cheeks were splotched and pock marked with acne, and every scar seemed to speak of some past embarrassment or ridicule.
More than once I tried to pull Mr. Pentree into some conversation, but the most I ever got out of him was "I'm fine," or "How about that," and "Could I have two poached eggs and toast, please." Without giving me or anybody else more than a nod or a word or two, he sat at the counter like a man at confession. Sometimes, when he would look up, as if he was looking at something far away, his blue eyes would strain. When he was ready to leave, he'd always call a cab and then finish his coffee while he waited.
That night I had just given Mr. Pentree a refill when over his shoulder I saw the fluorescent bulb in the jukebox begin to blink like it did every now and then. When it stopped flashing, I looked back at Mr. Pentree. Then coming around the counter, I stepped over to the jukebox. On one of the old and yellow title strips "The Anniversary Waltz" by Al Jolson was just barely legible. As my nickel rattled down the chute, I pushed two of the bright blue selection buttons. Awakened, the old mechanism started up and like a miniature streetcar, it began to creak along its track. Then stopping abruptly, it pulled my selection from the rack. While the tone arm made its way toward the spinning record, Mr. Pentree was reaching into his pocket for some change. He always left the exact amount plus a fifteen cent tip. As the song began and the wistful refrain "Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed" filled the cafe, Mr. Pentree paused. Then looking down, he ran his long white fingers around the rim of his coffee cup. When the song ended and the record snapped back into the rack, he glanced over at the jukebox, and then, just for a second, he looked up at me.
A few minutes later, a cab pulled up in front of the cafe. Easing off his stool, Mr. Pentree slipped on his coat and lifted his lantern from the floor. But, when he turned to leave, he hesitated, and from his pocket, he pulled out some change. Then, carefully, he pushed another nickel up to the fifteen cents already lying on the counter. Looking out through the round glass window in the front door, I studied him as he shuffled toward the
waiting cab. After the cab pulled away, I stared at the door for a long time. In my mind, I kept seeing him. Caught in the flashing light from the neon sign, he'd turn from the cab, and attempting a smile, he'd wave.
I stared out the window for a long time and soon it was almost dawn. As I watched the orange early morning light spread across the trains, I wondered if Ted Zito would be in. He'd know if that black man could make it from here to Chicago. He knows where all the trains go. And where they've been.
The cafe was still now, and standing behind the counter, I poured myself a cup of coffee. As I sipped it, I noticed how the jukebox stood alone in the middle of the wall. It reminded me of a shiny tin soldier. Ever watchful, it seemed ready to do what it could to protect the innocent and the sacred. For a moment, I could see Maxine in front of it. Her eyes were blinking with pride. "Step kick, step, step, kick." Then I remembered her telling me why they put the saltines in the sugars. "It stops the sugar from getting hard," she said, and about to light one of her Pall Malls, she laughed and began to cough. Then, outside, I felt one of the huge diesels began to power up.
With my coffee in hand, I came around the counter and sat down on the end stool. Picking up one of the round glass sugar containers, I began to roll it in my hand. Inside, the sparkling sugar glistened as it fell away from the partially exposed saltine. The saltine looked like a shelter or some remnant of civilization protruding from the snowy and barren side of a windswept mountain. I could almost feel the icy wind cutting at the flesh of my face. When I put the sugar back to its proper place on the counter, I knew I'd have to show Maxine my secret method for filling the mustards, and, deep down, I knew Ted Zito wasn't coming in.
Stars and Stripes and Other Signs of Life
Frank J. Page
February 16, 2015
As I drove along somewhere in the middle of Nevada, the hot white light of the desert seemed to glance off my windshield. Wrapped in the drone of the engine and the rush of wind coming through the open windows, I clutched the wheel and pressed hard on the accelerator. Beside me on the passenger’s seat there was a dog-eared paperback, The Portable Nietzsche. Phil Brown had given it to me the day before. As I remember it, I was sitting in a booth in a little restaurant just off campus. Through the window, I saw the spectacle of him and his old car come to a bumpy stop in the parking stall out front. He was driving a fifty-two Buick. Black with faded paint and big chrome bumpers, it had two small, but conspicuous, American flags mounted on the front fenders. With the flags waving in the spring breeze, the driver door opened, and wearing a long black overcoat that looked unseasonably warm, Phil climbed out. A moment later, he appeared before me at the table. I didn't know him that well, and I was surprised when he pulled up a chair. Phil was part of the intellectual in-crowd, and I always knew what they thought of me. I was a working class guy just trying figure things out. Christ, I was studying sociology, while they were doing philosophy and poetry, and Phil was this suffering poetic genius type that everyone adored.
Back then I was a wreck, and that cold hollow sensation, a kind of sinking feeling inside me, was with me night and day. Sitting in the restaurant, I was apprehensive about talking to the waiter, let alone Phil, the big time philosopher. My urge was to make an excuse and leave. I wasn’t together at all, and I knew it. What could I say to someone like that?
Phil sat down as if we were close friends. Indifferent to my surprise and discomfort, he said he was glad to see me. With no more introduction than that, he reached into his coat pocket and tossed The Portable Nietzsche toward me on the table. "It's all there," he said. "Affirmation, the eternal return, and desire. That’s what life is made of.” As he spoke, his eyes flashed with anticipation. "It’s one of those things that you know, even if you don’t realize that you know it." Then his speech ended abruptly, and, patting his pockets, he fumbled for his cigarettes. His hands shook as he finally lit one. "You know, Nick," he said, “I wish I was like you. You seem so strong. Nothing ruffles you." Before I could reply, he appeared to quiver, and then like he'd forgotten something terribly important, he jumped up. "I'm giving things away these days," he said with an eerie smile. “So you have the book.” Then with a turn and swirl of his long black coat, he was gone.
Later that night, on the couch in my apartment, I stared at my own pathetic little collection of books, all five rows of them: Intro’ to Psychology, Intro’ to Sociology, beginning this, beginning that! Why the hell did I think I could go to college? I thought. And why here in Utah? It was stupid for me, and I wished I was somebody else, one of those confident people that I used to see in church or downtown or on television. Then that cold emptiness beset me like it always did, and as usual, I took a hot bath.
It was about nine when I went to bed, but it wasn't long after when the night terrors hit me. Rising up in my bed, I felt like a man in a straight jacket, and all around me people were poking me with sticks. For a while I paced. Then I tried to read some of the Nietzsche. Finally, in a complete panic, I grabbed a few things, put on my peacoat and just bolted. "To hell with it! It's all just words, " I said to myself. "I need something real!...I gotta get warm...I'll go to California, to Pacific Grove....I’ll find Julian."
With my duffel bag behind the seat, I rapped-out my old fifty-nine Triumph and I made it to Wendover, Nevada by midnight. Feeling lonely, and not sure why I was there, I hit the casino. “Of course,” I said to myself. “I was just there to gamble and have fun, like everybody else.” At the black jack table I was lucky for a while, and the woman dealing the cards seemed genuinely kind. As the cards fell in front of me, I swilled some Tequila, and for a while it drove back the chill that was still inside me. An hour later my luck had changed and my winnings and then some were all gone. When I left the table, the dealer smiled nonchalantly. In her eyes I caught a glimpse of all the souls she had seen come and go, and how she had come to accept the inevitability of it all.
Outside the casino, I stood on the steps and looked up at the towering neon cowboy that stood next to the highway. With a cigarette dangling from his lip, he winked and smiled confidently with each click of the lights. Then, beckoning to the passing cars, he pointed to the casino again and again. “It’s here,” he seemed to say. “All that you’ve been looking for, right here.”
As I walked across the parking lot, I looked out at the rock-studded mountain that rose up just across the street. In the light of a full moon, it appeared naked and cool. As if asleep, it seemed unperturbed by the little casino that like a small night flower had just popped up at its feet. Then, as if the mountain was looking back at me, I saw something akin to the knowing smile of the dealer. Shaking it off, I opened the door of the Triumph and sank down on the seat.
I gassed up at the Chevron station, and something about the routine of checking the oil and the air in the tires gave me assurance. Looking out at the highway and the blue darkness surrounding it, I sat behind the wheel with some coffee in a Styrofoam cup. For a moment, I felt an urge to turn back, but the thought of my little apartment and all its little books repulsed me. As I drove off, I spilled some of the coffee on my lap. It scalded a little, but no one saw it, so it really didn't seem to matter.
Out on the highway, the traffic was sparse. After passing a semi and a greyhound, I was about as isolated as you can get in an overcrowded world. As I drove, a navy blue sky filled with yellow stars merged with the darkness around me. Within the short reach of my headlights, reality rushed toward me in glaring signs and darting white lines. Huddled in the Triumph, I seemed to pass through a dark universe that was policed by floating fluorescent images that strategically appeared and then vanished. I wondered if that’s what the modern world was coming to--something like a video game, with lots of directions and instructions, and all kinds of technology and dimensions--but no meaning or real purpose--except perhaps to escape or avoid being trapped by the machine itself. "I'll go down to Ely," I thought. "I have to get off this damn freeway. I’ll take old Highway 50 to Carson and then cut over to Tahoe."
I was somewhere outside of Ely, Nevada, when the white stripes on the road and the yellow and red circles on the dash board began to overlap and run together. Then, I heard the rocks and the brush hitting the undercarriage. Surging and bouncing downward off the shoulder of the road, I awoke with a start. When I hit the brakes, the Triumph spun, and in a cloud of dust, it came to a halt. In front of me, in a sort of silhouetted archway, the headlights cut a path through the darkness. In the stark silence of the desert, the engine seemed to pant like an animal catching its breath. Checking the gauges, I saw that the oil pressure was okay, and I threw the shifter in first. Then, with the back end kicking and sliding back and forth in the sand, I made my way over the sagebrush and plowed back up to the highway. As I drove off, I heard bits of rock and debris fall from the car.
The next morning, I woke up to the growl and bellow of a big diesel truck.
Gearing down, the driver pulled into the rest area and stopped. Behind the wheel of the Triumph, I was huddled under a blanket. As I rose up, I watched him swing down from his rig and then head to the rest room. Beyond his truck, I saw the great expanse of the desert. In the first light of morning, everything was gold colored, and the sand glistened. Feeling kind of empty, but not as cold as the day before, I struggled out of the car. As I walked around it, I saw the scratches and dents my unwitting escape off the road had brought. In the grill, like some kind of catch locked in the teeth of an animal, there were bits of sagebrush and weeds.
The rest room stunk. Lowering my head to the wash basin, I splashed water on my face, and, cupping it in my hands, I wet my hair. In the mirror, I saw the truck driver come out of the stall. He nodded when he saw me. "It's gonna be a hot one today," he said, and then he gave me a second look. "You know that sheriff down in Ely hates long hairs like you. I wouldn’t stay there for long.......You know, I gotta son like you." Then, seeming to ponder my reflection, he turned and left. I flinched when the metal door to the rest room banged shut, and the stench seemed to worsen. Closing my eyes, I thought about turning back. "What am I doing here?" I thought. "Why am I doing this?... I'll call Sandra!...That's what I'll do...Naw, she wouldn't understand.
She'd put me down again.....She’d tell me to get therapy.....God, I hate that."
Back on the road, I'd been driving for a couple of hours, when the needle on the gas gauge started bouncing on empty. Then I saw a road sign, “Next Service 60 Miles.” "Jesus," I shrieked, "I shoulda’ gassed up in Ely?" Shifting down, I pulled off to the side of the road. When I got out the car, I turned and looked back into the morning sun. Beneath it, the road was shiny and quiet, telling me nothing. "God Damn it," I shouted, and inside me I felt the cold move closer. Trying to escape it, I jumped in the car, and spinning around on the gravel, I started back toward Ely. A moment later, I slammed on the brakes and stopped dead. "It's almost as far that way," I murmured. "But, maybe the signs are wrong," I thought. Then I wrenched the wheel, and backing up, I turned again toward California. "To hell with it," I said, “I’m not goin’ back.” With that, I stomped on the accelerator.....40, 50, 60, 70, then over-drive. Beside me on the passenger’s seat, The Portable Nietzsche, began to chatter and vibrate.
Up ahead the road began to climb. I figured that if I could make it to the top of the rise, I could coast down the other side and save some gas. A few minutes later, at the summit, I pulled over and stopped. When I got out of the car, I shut the door and sat on the front fender. In front of me, the road wound down into the desert. In the distance, I saw an arid valley that was dotted with thousands of reddish brown pines. Then, above me, on top of a hill adjacent to the road, for a second I thought I saw a horse?
In complete amazement I stared. "My God, it's a wild horse," I said aloud. Looking down at me, the horse threw its head and reared. A second later, it plunged down the side of the hill. Jumping off the fender, I watched him gallop and dart through the cedars and pines. Black and shining, with a billowing tale and mane, he cut this way and that. When he finally vanished in the pines, I stood dumbfounded. Looking back to the car, I wanted to tell someone. "Jesus, a wild horse. Can you believe that!"
As I got back into the Triumph, I felt the sun hot on my face, and somehow, I knew I'd make it to the next town. When I did, I attributed it to my driving. "But, maybe the signs were wrong," I thought. "Maybe they're made that way, to give you a little leeway, some room for error, to make things interesting."
It was dark and chilly when I finally got to Lake Tahoe. The attendant at the gas station was an older guy with a thin face and protruding flap-like ears. Tall and meticulous in his uniform, he was a talkative sort, the kind that immediately talks to you as if you grew up together. Without any solicitation from me, he told me that Tahoe was the last stop for him, that he “wasn’t goin’ any place else, ever.” Not knowing just what to say to that, I asked him who was playing at the hotels? He told me there wasn't much entertainment right now, just Liberace and Charro. But, then his face took on a sudden enthusiasm. "But, you know," he said. "I was workin’ a while back and I heard Elvis. Right over there at the Sahara.” Pulling the gas nozzle from the tank, he used it to point toward the hotel. "Don't get me wrong," he said. "I didn’t see him on the stage....It was on that balcony there....Must a been four in the mornin’.....Sounded like an opera singer or somethin'...kind of a gospel tune." Looking over at the hotel, I imagined a brooding Elvis, caped and in all his regalia, looking out from the balcony, and like a priest about to offer a blessing, he raised his hands and began to sing.
By three o'clock in the morning, I was on the Coast Highway just outside of Monterey when the fog rolled in. While I could smell the ocean, all I could see was an endless grayness that occasionally gave up a set of passing headlights. Slowing to a crawl, I watched each white line slip past the car. Wiping the mist from the inside of the windshield, I scanned the fog for the road signs, that, like apparitions, would appear and then glide past me out of sight. On one of them, I read “Last Exit - Fort Ord.” Then, ever so softly, the monotony of the fog gave way to recollections of my cousin Julian and myself on this road years earlier.
That was back in '66, in Julian's dilapidated old Volkswagen van, a van that didn't have a door on the passenger side. Laconic and always kind of mysterious, Julian was older than me. He was a musician, and he had, what were for me, pretty heavy friends. But, like an older brother, he'd take me around, and in tiny smoke-filled apartments that always had beads hanging in the doorways, we'd drink wine with serious minded beatniks and calm eyed women who smoked joints and wore kimonos and no bras. Sometimes Julian would leave with one of the women. Left to my own devices, I’d fondle a bottle of beer and try not sound dumb if anyone spoke to me.
Blond and tanned, in a swim suit and a flowered Hawaiian shirt, Julian drove with one foot resting on the dash. Listening to jazz on the radio, he ate peanuts and, as usual, didn't say much. When we passed Fort Ord, the soldiers and inductees were all out in formation. As we passed we slowed down, and both of us marveled at the marching troops. Then, looking back at one another, we saw our mutual concern, and broke out laughing. "What are you gonna do, if they draft you?" I asked a minute later. "I'm gonna marry Shauna," he said with a quiet smile. "If it comes to that. What about you, kid?" Turning my head, I watched the last of the soldiers pass by. "I don't know," I said. "I don’t even know where Vietnam is, do you?" Keeping his eyes on the road, Julian just smiled and handed me the peanuts.
When I finally got to Monterey, I parked the Triumph at the pier. It was cold and dark when I got out. While I couldn’t see much, I could hear the waves. In the dense fog, the pier seemed to trail off into oblivion, and I was struck at how it just kind of faded away. There was no clear vanishing point. Pulling up the collar of my peacoat, I strained to see through the mist. In the fog, I could hear more than I could see, and with each crash of the waves, I felt something beyond me. It was something that I knew would eventually overtake me, and it would do it patiently, like a wave on the sand. Then, like a jealous lover, the damp cold started to cling and dig into me.
Retreating to the car, I turned on the heater. "Jesus Christ, what am I doing here?" I thought, and my chin was quivering. "I must be really screwed up...I'm worse than Phil...I wanna go home." Actually, I had relatives in Monterey, lots of them. But, I knew I couldn't go see them. “No. What would they think,” I thought. “I hadn't called or written to anybody. Besides, I couldn't bother them. I just couldn't bear to bother anyone.” I hated that feeling, that dependence, that sick weakness.
The man at the motel desk looked at me like I was a derelict. When I left, I felt him watch me go out the door. In my room, I sat on the bed and stared at the phone.
Then impulsively, I picked up the receiver and dialed Sandra's number. "I know it's late,” I thought. “So what!....I needed her....I needed her now!" While the phone rang, I tried to compose myself. "What could I say?" Then, I realized, that it was ringing and ringing, and no one was going to answer, no one. "How could she.....Jesus, it’s late....really late.....She must be....."
When I put the receiver back on the phone, the room suddenly seemed foreign and malicious. For a second, I wanted to flee, so I stood up. "But where to?" I wondered. Then stumbling backward, I sat back down on the edge of the bed. There was no one and no place to go to. "Tomorrow, I'll find Julian," I finally said to myself. "Just hang on....He's always at Carmel beach in the morning....With him that's a religion.... But, first thing, I'll get some breakfast and talk to someone, anyone, for Christ sake."
My sleep was fitful. More than once I awoke with a start, and turning on the light, I’d have to resign myself to the strange room and the ongoing battle between my urge to leave and my fear of not staying. It was mid-morning when I got up the last time. When I looked past the blinds, I was relieved. Outside, the morning sun had pushed back the fog and Monterey Bay was serenely blue. Down at the wharf, people were busily scurrying back and forth. Out in the harbor tiny sailboats were making their way out to sea.
I felt a little better after I was dressed and shaved. Deciding to walk down to the wharf, I left the car at the motel. I had just crossed the railroad tracks by the little maritime museum when I first heard the music. What I heard was a brass band. Coming toward me from over the rise, a chorus of horns rose and fell to the steady pounding of a tuba and a bass drum. The music came at me like sunshine.
Everywhere, it was all around, undeniable, and inescapable. As I made my way toward the bandstand, I saw the uniforms, then the bass drum, then the horns and the flute player. Dancing about me, the music was like children playing, and with each crash of the cymbals, they all laughed. The tune was Sousa's march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," and on that morning in Monterey, it seemed as natural and as inevitable as the bay itself. On the down beat of the final chorus, I felt a smile break across my face. Then my eyes welled up with tears, and inside I felt giddy, like I wanted to hug someone. Transfixed, I stood there for the last three songs of their performance.
At the entrance to the wharf, a vendor with a small monkey on a chain had a crowd of people around him. The monkey had an apron on. For a dime or a quarter, he would run up and shake your hand. Then taking the coin and putting it in his apron, he would move on. As I watched, a little girl held out a dollar. At the urging of his master the monkey did a somersault and, like a ballerina, he curtseyed and bowed.
As I walked on down the pier, I passed many shops and small restaurants. At a small food stand, I stopped and bought a donut and some coffee. The transaction, I guess its routineness, its normalness, comforted me. Sitting at a small wooden table overlooking the bay, I sipped the hot coffee. Amid the cries of the sea gulls and the bark of hungry sea lions, I listened to the continuous breaking and crashing of the waves. Below me, riding a small swell, a large gull drifted up and down, and up and down.
When I was leaving the wharf, I stopped again to watch the little monkey on the chain. The crowd had thinned out some. Moving from person to person, there was something about him that drew me in. When, momentarily, no one offered him anything, I took a quarter from my pocket and kneeled down. Hopping over to me, he took the quarter, and, for a second, he stared up at me. His round eyes seemed sad and questioning. Then, gently, he took my hand, and rising up, he kissed me ever so softly on the cheek. When I stood up, I felt the tears come to my eyes. So as not to be seen, I looked away and moved off in the crowd. On my way back to the motel, I wondered what the monkey knew of me, and again and again, I saw him look up with his questioning eyes.
When I got to Pacific Grove Beach, the parking lot was full, and there were more people than I expected. As I went down the steps to the beach, I felt the hollow chill within me finally take notice of the sun on my back. I was working my way through the umbrellas and toweled encampments on the beach when I saw a well muscled man sitting in the sand with his back against the sea wall. Wearing a baseball cap, an old green tank top and some khaki army pants, he was cutting the top off a Coke can with his pocket knife. As I passed, I noticed his eyes. They were dark and distant, but very calm, and there was a scar that ran down his neck and on to his chest. On his biceps there was a tattoo. In red and blue, it said, 151st Infantry. He was a vet, a Vietnam vet. Then I saw the sea lion just a few steps away, and I was truly amazed. Lying in the sand with his flippers in front of him, like a sphinx, he stared out at the sea. While I looked on, a small group of noisy sun bathers began to gather around him. "He must be sick," I thought, and just then the sea lion raised his slender dog-like head and barked.
Peering through the shoulders and swim suits, I watched the sea lion survey the people around him. Wearily, he barked once more and lay back down. A second later,
a volleyball was overhead, and with a sharp slap, it bounced off him. Disturbed, the sea lion rose up, but seeming weak, he fell back silently. Then, with his whiskered snout on the sand, he looked up at the encircling crowd.
"Somebody's got to do something," I muttered, and as I turned away, I came face to face with the Vietnam vet. Walking past me and into the crowd, he was carrying two Coca Cola cans. Inside the circle of people that had surrounded the sea lion, he turned and said something. Grumbling and casting him suspicious looks, the people began to disperse and move away. Then holding out one of the cans, the vet poured a stream of silver water onto the sea lion. Raising his head from the sand, the sea lion slowly arched his neck, and opening his pink mouth, he took in the water. Then waving his flippers back and forth, he barked and seemed to ask for more. Holding out the other can, the vet obliged him. When the last of the water was gone, the sea lion paused and stared up at the vet. Finally, sensing the end of it, he laid his head back down on the sand. Looking down at him, the vet straightened his baseball cap, and then made his way out through the crowd.
Later in the afternoon, as I drove the narrow road that wound along just above Carmel Beach, I looked for Julian's Volkswagen. He didn't have a van anymore, just an old run down bug. There were a lot of Volkswagens, but when I saw one that looked rough enough to be his, I pulled over and hiked down to the beach. Finding a place next to the sea wall, I sat down and took in the sun straight on. For the first time in months, I felt it go through me, and slowly the hollow chill within me began to recede.
With my eyes tightly closed against the rays of the sun, in a field of orange and yellow, I saw the knowing smile of the dealer in Wendover. Behind her, the wild horse reared, and on a red balcony, a silhouetted Elvis began to sing. Then looking up at me, the small compassionate face of the monkey drew near, and I could feel his kiss. Then, again and again, the Vietnam vet parted the crowd and, solemnly holding out the Coke can, he let a stream of silver water fall to the sea lion.
When I opened my eyes, hot sweat was dripping down from my forehead, and Phil Brown's The Portable Nietzsche was on my lap. Opening it up, I tried to read, but the words---"The eternal return--- affirmation---desire," seemed small and lifeless, like droppings from some kind of machine. With a sigh, I tossed the book off into the sand next to me. Then, feeling a circle of heat surround me, I squinted and looked out at the ocean. On a huge swell, I saw a small figure paddling a surfboard. “That might be Julian,” I thought. “But, I couldn’t tell from here.”