Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Junebug Two-Step: an excerpt

The November darkness settled over the bayou as if someone had drawn the curtains. Suddenly the yellow lights on the other side of the front door screen to the dock were a mass of whirling, spinning bugs, especially Junebugs, crashing to the deck and twirling on their backs in a five-minute Saint Vitus death dance. Upon seeing the bugs, Jack burst through the screen door, still in the yellow rain gear and denim fleece-lined jacket. “Mr. Howard,” he blurted, “Mr. Howard come on this is real fun!” He pushed past me out to the fishing dock outside the screened-in porch and started dancing on the helpless upside-down June bugs in his bare feet, sliding around on their squishy guts, whooping and hollering in his own Saint Vitus interpretative ballet. Inside Binx was beginning to stir.
“Jack!” he barked, “Jack you halfwit sumbitch!”
“Don’t you worry, sir. I’ll take care of it,” Reggie called out as he rushed onto the fishing dock from around back of the house. Then Johnny said, “Mr. Binx, Reggie gonna get your son, don’t you worry, he’ll be fine.” His voice was soft, soothing, like a mental health professional trying to talk someone down from a fit.
Reggie ran out onto the dock under the light, his bare feet sliding out from under him as he fell on his ass with a crash, shaking the whole dilapidated structure. I stepped out onto the slick surface of the dock, holding the doorframe and extended an arm to Reggie who pulled himself up, grabbing my injured shoulder. I howled with pain, thinking I should have brought the goddamn sling. Meanwhile Jack was sliding along the sloping dock, then jumping, slipping his feet around in an uncanny display of natural balance, all the while avoiding falling on his prodigious butt. Toya and Eddie were on the screened porch, watching Jack’s crazy boogaloo and Reggie’s flailing attempts to grab him, sliding and falling until he finally got his arms around one of the crooked posts and righted himself.
Suddenly Jack stopped and stared out into the duckweed off the stern of the Sissy Mae, probably twenty yards away where the yellow lights from the dock faded into the darkness of the channel. “My pants!” he shouted, pointing at small floating pile atop the swamp vegetation. “And my underpants!”
Goddamnit, I cursed under my breath. I thought I saw those pants sink!
Then, just as Reggie leapt for the tackle, Jack ran down the dock and right into the water, unaware of the line attached to his pants and underpants. The duckweed barely came up to his middle, and he parted it with a wide sweeping motion, like parting jungle growth on an expedition, steadily sinking in the mud with each step. I ran down the pier to where I’d cleated the line and attempted to pull the bundle closer to where Jack was thrashing in the weeds.
“Grab the line, Jack,” I shouted. Then, just as he got his hands on it a deafening shotgun blast split the soft and heavy night.
“Leave him be!” Binx fired the gun into the sky again. “Leave him be, I say! The Lord has called his damaged child to the swamp, and it is there he must perish!” Then he leveled the shotgun at Jack and was about to fire when Eddie came up from behind with an almost-full half-gallon jug of Jim Beam and cracked his brother upside the head with a weak but effective blow. Binx staggered forward and fired, sending up a splash of luminescent weeds and water only two feet from where his son stood with the bundle of muddy clothes in his arms.
Binx dropped, out cold. Eddie pulled the shotgun out from under his unconscious brother and headed back inside, cursing loudly at this pathetic display of Southern idiocy. But before Eddie made it through the door Jack let out an earsplitting feral howl, dropped the clothes, let go of the line and started writhing in the water. A seizure? Puce foam formed around his flailing limbs, a greenish, ochre mass of bubbles, a bayou milkshake. Then the writhing teen was under water, drowning perhaps, then up again, wild, wiggling and screaming in the mud. “Get that boy a life preserver!” Eddie shouted, “but do not set foot or anything else in that water!”
There was a preserver hanging next to the door of the hold, so I jumped off the pier onto the gunwale, tore it off the wall and pitched it to Reggie, who in turn pitched it right onto the mass of bubbles.
“Jack! Jack! Grab the life preserver! Jack!” Reggie yelled. The boy emerged with a hellish bark, glasses down around his neck, head strap loose, eyes rolled back as he pulled a monstrous snake out of the water and hurled it onto the bow of the Sissy Mae. Arm hooked in the donut, he collapsed into the water.
“Mister Howard, get down here and help me pull him out. I don’t think he’ll let go of the donut. Come on!” So Reggie and I began to try and haul Jack – two hundred and fifty pounds of gelatinous flab – out of the muddy, weed-choked water. Meanwhile Eddie had climbed up to the pilothouse where, shotgun at the ready, he swept the emergency lamp around and over Jack as the boy sank deeper in the mud.
“Jack, just relax your legs. We will pull you out, promise,” Reggie yelled. 
“Ten o’ clock, snake at ten o’ clock,” shouted Eddie from above. I turned just as the report shattered and sent pieces of water moccasin flying every which way.
“Arghhhhhhh! Ooooh! God save me!” Jack screamed from the water, thrashing his arms to ward off more attacks. In another minute we got Jack to the pier, but then we had to get him up. His terrified screaming was as horrific as anything I’ve ever heard come out of a human – a Barney Fife possessed by demons – and there was no doubt in my mind that his hysteria was speeding the venom through his system at triple the normal rate.
After Reggie, Toya and I managed to get Jack’s whole limp body onto the dock a light approached from further down the channel in the direction of Dr. Raymond Cobb’s camp, where my sister was supposed to be staying. The boat was screaming down the narrow channel at full throttle, creating a massive wake that splashed violently against the shore, probably awakening every cottonmouth and alligator in the area. Just before arriving the driver cut the motor and coasted alongside the pier, to where we stood around Jack. The driver jumped out without a welcome or introduction and started asking questions. Have we found the bites, did we see the snake, how long since he was bit etc. Finally Eddie said, “Thanks so much for comin’ over, Ray. I ‘spose you heard the gunshots?”

“Yessir, and the caterwaulin’ from this young feller, and all y’all’s shoutin’,” the doctor replied, cutting through Jack’s muddy slicker. “Y’all know how y’all can hear a pin drop out here.”
Our group was silent as the doctor looked for the bites. “Looks like more than one cottonmouth got a piece of this boy. You said he threw one of the snakes on board?”
“Uh, yessir,” Reggie said. “I suppose that snake is up there someplace.” The doctor wiped away some mud from Jack’s calf to reveal a heinous wound, like the snake took a bite out of him. The calf was already bigger than a football.
“Well, it looks like he ripped the snake right out of his leg,” said the doctor. “See if you can find that fucker, will you please?”
Just as Reggie jumped over the gunwale with a flashlight I heard a siren in the distance coming our way; whirling lights of red and yellow flashed in the treetops, then around the corner into our smaller channel. It was an emergency airboat, the water equivalent of a police car and ambulance combined. Behind us a screen door slammed; Johnny with a small suitcase – a first aid kit. But before stepping onto the pier he quietly shuffled to where Binx lay in the Junebug muck on the dock, still unconscious. Johnny shone his flashlight over the supine body, then bent over to see if Eddie’s drunken brother was still breathing. Slowly he scanned the brother’s face, shaking his head.
“Mister Eddie,” Johnny called over the sound of the approaching airboat. “You best come over here and see ‘bout your brother. He ain’t lookin’ too good.” Eddie gave the doctor a pat on the shoulder and stepped quickly up the gangplank to the dock.
The four paramedics pulled their airboat up to the dock and rushed to the two victims, a pair for Binx and the other two for Jack. Dr. Cobb had cut off the legs of Jack’s yellow rain coveralls and after the medic took a quick look at the snakebites they called for an airlift. They quickly prepared several injections while simultaneously cleaning and dressing the surface wounds. Finally one of the medics asked me: “Does this boy have a parent or guardian on the premises?”
“Yessir. That’s his father, Binx Sublette, over there with the nasty rap to the head. That’s his uncle Eddie Sublette looking over him.” When he asked where the mother was, I was tempted to say none of your business, sonny. It was a stupid, insensitive question, but based on the available evidence to date, this was an unusually stupid, insensitive part of the world. I said, “She’s not here.”
“And who are you?”
“Howard Brown, a second cousin. Visiting from California.”
The paramedic nodded, smiling. “Oh, of course. Sissy Mae’s brother from Cali. Does everybody grow so big in Cali? I reckon you ain’t never been nowhere like this before, eh?”
“No sir, I have not,” I said with a slight chuckle, wondering how this cracker knew my sister.  The paramedic chuckled a little, then bent over Jack, unconscious from the injections. He pulled his eyelids up, then the lower part down. He opened Jack’s mouth and stuck a gloved finger under his tongue, lifted it up. Nothing unusual. But when we looked over his body there were strange concentrations of shuddering muscle, and the wounds themselves were massive bruises covering his legs, feet and forearms.
“Jesus,” I said, shocked by all the bites. “Is this kid gonna make it?”
“Hard to say. Usually a bite from a swamp viper won’t kill a man if you get to him in time, but I’ve never seen anybody with so many bites in so many different places. It was like he stepped on a nest, but when you pointed out the location...well, snakes don’t nest underwater.”
In the distant west the sound of a chopper approached. Jack was loaded onto a gurney and rolled to the dock, an oxygen mask across his quiet face. To look at him one might think he was just a typical overweight Southern teenager with shitty eyesight, a bad hairdo, and in need of a shave, though there was something about the shape of his mouth that suggested something was awry in his brain.
On the dock the Junebug guts had become white and sticky as Elmer’s glue. The paramedics had father and son, both unconscious, on gurneys under oxygen with IV drips plugged into the back of their hands. The medics were more worried about Binx; his pulse was slowed and his face has taken on a tinge of yellow ochre. The lump on the back of his head was bad, but not bad enough to cause any bleeding in the brain, according to the medics.
When Dr. Cobb – technically a psychiatrist that keeps his EMT certification up to date for swamp accidents like this one, I’m told – examined Binx he came to an entirely different conclusion.
“Alcohol poisoning,” he stated with authority. “We see it fairly often out here in the bayou, and Binx Sublette is a prime candidate, with his history.”
The amphibious chopper came into view, flying low over the channel, then pulling up and circling
above the camp. After a couple of times around it settled over the water, the wind from the blades kicking up whitecaps that crashed against the pilings of the pier and the dock like a hurricane was upon us. Once the chopper was at rest in the water with its blades still spinning slowly, a skiff was lowered and two EMTs exited from the door behind the cockpit, jumped in and piloted it over to where the two gurneys waited on the dock. The gurneys were collapsed; Jack was loaded into the skiff and taken to the chopper. Once Jack was loaded in the skiff they returned for Binx. His other son Bolling shouted over the din that he would be the family representative at the hospital and joined the crew in the copter. Slowly the whirring blades picked up speed, the waves kicked up and splashed over the Junebug guts on the dock, and the chopper, with Binx Sublette and his two boys aboard, took off down the channel.
Then, for a what felt like a long, discombobulated moment as the medics prepared to depart, I had a profound sense of complete displacement – an abstraction of real self from virtual self – as if I was not who I thought I was, but was exactly where I was supposed to be. The day’s events, especially those of the last hour, had presented a glimpse of a familiar yet foreign existence and, though I had a vague memory of my original purpose at Camp Serendipity it was being crowded out by…by what? Ancestral memories? Had this strange and dangerous environment been sucked through my buzzing Chown Hoon Dong to create a disturbance in the chakras? Where was my psycho when I needed her?
I paused to study the suddenly familiar scene – the backwards boat, Sissy Mae, tied up to the rickety pier, the yellow light throwing its beams into the all-engulfing dark of the swamp; the low droning thrum of crickets and cicadas rising up like columns of circling smoke, punctuated by the hoot of a solemn owl and the belch of the lonely bullfrog; the quiet, still water, blanketed in its neon chartreuse, smoother than silk; all of it a part of me from the day I was born and perhaps before.
And then I noticed one more thing. “Goddamnit!” I muttered under my breath. There were Jack’s jeans and his nasty briefs, still floating at the same spot, tied up to the line that was still cleated to the Sissy Mae.
I shuffled down the pier, pulled out the clothes with a few globs of duckweed, schlepped the whole mess to the dock and laid it out. Tomorrow I would get them washed with strong hopes and maybe even a little prayer that Jack would think twice before he pissed in them again. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

But...We're Not Writing Genre Fiction!

I have nothing against genre fiction.

I love Lord of the Rings, Foundation and Empire, Star Trek and Wars. I eat up detective noir, and rate Raymond Chandler's prose up there with Dostoevsky, Dickens, Hemingway, Franzen, Kingsolver...all the literary giants. By the time I was 10 I had read all the Nancy Drew mysteries - there something stimulating about strong, resourceful young women working their way out of one nasty pickle after another. I gobbled up Lt. Chee and Sgt. Joe Leaphorn and their adventures on the Big Res. Stephen King has kept me awake more nights than I care to admit, long after I've finished whatever horrific nightmare he has depicted. And Harry Potter? I look forward to reading the entire series again someday.

But that's not the stuff I want to write.

Could I? Sure. In fact I already have I, guess. During NaNoWriMo in 2008 I wrote Bury Me With My La-Z-Boy. It's about a voodoo Papa who can't die unless he's in his La-Z-Boy rocker. When a hospital orderly is ordered to go find the man's chair, he uncovers a drug cartel operating out of the swamps and bayous of Louisiana, along with a voodoo tribe that can turn themselves into animals. It's not finished and I can't say for certain if it ever will be, but if it is it would fall into the whatever genre vampire stories inhabit. Right now our heroes are trapped in an underground crypt with a bunch of zombies and may remain there forever.

But I'm not writing this to differentiate my own writing interests from genre writers, or to position "literary fiction" as being "better" than genre fiction in any way, shape or form. Maybe what we call literary fiction is actually genre fiction in disguise. Isn'tGreat Expectations a mystery, in the end? Isn't The Brothers Karamazov a murder mystery, along with Crime and Punishment? Could we call The Poisonwood Bible a "family saga?" One Hundred Years of Solitude is as much fantasy as it is real. Doesn't David Copperfield turn out to be a romance of sorts? Lonesome Dove is a Western, right in there with Louis L'Amore. Right?

(Keep in mind that all of Dickens' work was published serially in periodicals, as was much of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Flaubert. We probably wouldn't classify anything that is being published serially in periodicals today as great literature. Could it be that what we qualify as "literary fiction" is such because it has stood the test of time?)

We all know these categories are marketing tools, in the end, just as Jazz, Rock, Country, Alt. this and that are. Without labels we have chaos. Not good.

The "Author Platform" Manifesto

For the author of novels that don't fit comfortably in any genre and aren't published by one of the biggies, it is easy to be completely overlooked. "General Fiction," along with "Contemporary Fiction" and "Literary Fiction" are, to the marketer, non-categories. The audience for these novels is difficult to pin down, unlike work that falls neatly into "Romance," "Sci-Fi," "Steampunk," etc. etc. Market research can identify the profile of genre readers from demographics down to the brand of shoe they wear and the type of soda they drink.

As a result, much of the self-marketing noise out there for indy authors is designed for genre writers. The much ballyhooed "author platform" becomes tricky to pin down in character-driven fiction, unless of course that character, like Conrad's Marlowe or Jim Harrison's Brown Dog, keeps showing up in our books.

My first published novel, Hack, is about an artist who fakes his own death to drive up the value of his paintings. After his faux-demise, he returns disguised as a Mexican playboy who takes up motorcycling to be close to the woman of his dreams who happens to be a biker.

My publisher at the time suggested I build an author platform that would appeal to Harley enthusiasts, since that's what Henry Griffin (as Paco) and his paramour, Hadley, like to ride. It was also suggested that I build an author platform that would appeal to painters, since that's what Griffin does. But painting and Harleys aren't really anything more than character traits, and you don't build a multi-book platform based on character traits unless you're going to feature the same characters over and over again in subsequent novels.

John Irving has wrestlers in at least 50% of his novels, but the stories are not about wrestling, nor would they necessarily appeal to wrestlers or their fans. In One Person features many wrestlers, and those that he tracks throughout the story are either gay or transsexual. Irving, being neither gay or transsexual, needs to balance the voice of his bi-sexual protagonist with something that he knows intimately. Wrestling, along with the familiar New England setting and the focus on community theater, provides that believable ballast.

So, it's no wonder that Irving keeps going back to  wrestling and wrestlers: he knows the territory and can write about it with authenticity. Also, if you look at his overall bibliography, you will find that the vast majority of his protagonists are artists of one sort or another: writers, playwrights, actors, novelists, musicians, even tattoo artists. There are also a number of college professors and Catholic priests. And, of course, wrestlers. While there are exceptions (the OBGYN in The Cider House Rules, or the lumberjack in Last Night at Twisted River, neither of whom are the principals, or the protagonist of The Fourth Hand).

He writes these characters because he knows them or has read about them. For example, the hand doctor in The Fourth Hand has a habit of flinging dog turds at scullers on the Charles River with a lacrosse stick while jogging. I asked him where he got that idea, and he said it was in the Cambridge news.

Nonetheless, Irving's fondness for the professional profiles of his protagonists does not an author platform make, at least according to the indy author self-marketing pundits.

This morning I had an exchange with a indy-author "publisher," that went something like this.

There's a an outfit that calls itself SOOP (Something or Other Publishing). The proprietor asked me if I would like to list my latest novel, The Healing of Howard Brown, on his site. So I had a look. This is how I responded to his solicitation:

Hi W - checked out the marketplace. Now, imagine my bewilderment: there is no category for adult literary fiction. Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens, even Jonathan Franzen have no place for their stories on your site. Neither do I, nor do any of the thousands of MFA graduates with wonderful novels outside of the commercial realms of the big publishers. I understand the perception that the market for self-published books is all non and/or genre fiction. But there are legions of boomers out there that are tired of the thirty-something female fiction foisted upon us by the big publishers. opportunity? Maybe?
And this is how he responded:

Thank you so much for pointing this out. We will add the category "Adult Literary Fiction" and you can be the first one to post your book :)
We'll see if this actually happens. Meanwhile, I'm exploring angles that I hope will help potential readers of The Healing of Howard Brown broaden their experience and awareness of the overall themes of the story, which is, from what I can gather, how an author platform is supposed to work.

The Authenticity Trap

One of my PLU mentors, after reading a draft of Howard (much of which is set in Louisiana) asked me if I ever had any experience in the South, and in particular with Southern African Americans. He wanted to know if I was really qualified to write about such things, perhaps because he knew I hailed from lily white Marin County. It was a question of authenticity.

Of course, if an author's stories had to be born of direct experience, genres like sci-fi, fantasy and their many sub-genres would not exist. Neither would Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm or 1984. Thus, authenticity begs the question: where does direct experience stop and the imagination begin? Are dreams and visions less authentic than conscious experience?

In Ned Hayes' bestselling novel The Eagle Tree, the protagonist is an adolescent that is, as they say, "on the spectrum." Written in first person, the story portrays the thought processes and behaviors of an autistic adolescent so convincingly that we can't help but think the author himself must have, at one time, been on the spectrum. I don't know. Ned may be a science nerd, but I can't imagine that he was flapping his hands in front of his face at age 14.

The same could be said of many novels with unusual narrators. Forrest Gump, the original novel by Winston Groom, comes to mind, as does Walker Percy's habitation of Alison, the mental ward escapee,  in The Second Coming.

What my PLU mentor did NOT ask regarding Howard was whether I had any direct experience with mental illness. Maybe he assumed that I must, given my penchant for drooling, shuffling around the campus talking to myself, and accosting strangers with rotten watermelons. Insofar as authenticity is concerned, such a question would have been far more relevant than my experience with Southerners.

Oddly enough, in his "faculty review" of Howard, my mentor wrote:

The Healing of Howard Brown is a capacious and energetic narrative of self-discovery, delivered with an authentic voice that is supple, smart, somber, witty, ironic, self-revealing, self-doubting, and wonderfully lyrical. Themes of family, trust and responsibility to others, the national as well as personal past, and the life of the spirit resound throughout, with a cultural resonance involving class and race, the North and the South, the definition of masculine identity, and, centrally, the nature of mature love in a multitude of relationships-husband-wife, brother-sister, and father-son....
To this I added: the face of a debilitating mental illness that runs like a poison vein through the family tree.

It wasn't until after I went through the process of trying to describe the novel that it occurred to me that the central theme - or as Irving might posit, the "what-if" question - is about the notion that the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree," and that if one is to lead a mindful, fully aware and responsible life, one might do well to take a hard look at that tree. It's easy, and lazy, to assume that everybody is consciously in control of their own behavior all the time. When we assume that, it's just as easy to label those that misbehave as "problem children," and, later, "bitches," and "assholes" that are out to get us and revel in attempts to make our lives miserable.

Howard's sister, Sisi, is just such a misunderstood character. She's bipolar, BPD, and, later, psychotic. Neither I, my real sister, my father or my mother were any of these things (as far as I know). We've had our struggles with other demons, with clinical depression at the core, but I've not had any direct, ongoing experience with anybody that suffers from these maladies. I've researched them extensively, of course, just as Irving researched hand transplants in The Fourth Hand and AIDS in In One Person, and as I suspect Ned Hayes did when writing The Eagle Tree.

Does that mean I'm not qualified to write "crazy" characters? Howard has his drug addiction, his pixie dust seizures, and all sorts of other delusions and hallucinations. Jack Sublette has an unnamed intellectual disability. Alcoholics and misfits hang off the family tree like Christmas ornaments. Oh, and there are some sane characters too...for the sake of juxtaposition.

So, if there's any platform to build upon, it has something to do with mental illness and all it's anti-social outgrowths, from racism to homophobia, and what have you. And having the heart to deal with it all compassionately.

Platform bullshit aside, I suspect that all fiction writers prize a good story, well told, whether it's a western, a romance, or a LGBT erotic vampire steampunk fantasy. And, while the world of independent authors is rife with folks that think they can make a living by plugging pre-built characters into genre-based templates (and there are many that are doing just that) that's not what I, or I suspect most of the thousand or so writers that will graduate with an MFA this year, have in mind.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Road Rage vs. Marilyn Monroe - an excerpt

The following is an excerpt from my novel The Healing of Howard Brown
published by Baby Bingus Books, Aug. 2016.
Now giving away e-books in exchange for reviews!

I can picture what happened next as if it happened yesterday. I was just about to head north off Sir Francis Drake onto highway 101, but to fetch Tripp I had to go south. I looked in the rear view: there was just enough space to cut over a couple of lanes and get to the southbound exit, so I put on my blinker, shoved my gorilla arm out the window and hit the gas. Still, there was no way to avoid cutting off a couple of drivers, who started honking, naturally. Then I saw this one driver – a red-faced Fu-Manchu dude with mirrored sunglasses and an Oakland Raiders cap in a junior-sized blue Ford Ranger – getting really pissed, shouting and flipping me off violently. So, like I always did when I upset a fellow driver back then, I blew him a kiss. This was a bad idea: Mr. Fu-Manchu got so close behind me on the freeway onramp that I thought he was going to bump me. Then he pulled up alongside, shouting unintelligibly through the open passenger window. He was so close I could see the throbbing blue vein in his red forehead, but I just kept blowing him kisses like I was Marilyn Monroe on the stairs of an airliner, bidding adieu to her adoring fans. What the world needs now is love sweet love, right? Well, I was giving it to Mr. Road Rage, who I could now see had a shaved head under his mesh-top Raiders cap and was just getting more and more infuriated. Then he made his move: he cut in front of me diagonally so I had to swerve to avoid him in the heavy Saturday afternoon traffic: brake lights flashed, horns blared, tires squealed and I could see several vehicles fishtailing behind me to avoid a pileup.

Holy motherfucking shit that fucking cocksucker almost killed us all!” I hollered, dropping back in traffic until the blue pickup was out of sight. Feeling like I was having a heart attack, and realizing that I had been out in the big, bad world very little in the five years since my retirement – driving around Marin appeared more dangerous than ever – I took the next exit and pulled into a parking space beside a Chevron Extra-Mile mini-mart, thinking a beer or five on top of a little oxy would calm me down.

“Dad!” I heard Trip’s tiny voice. He sounded like the little boy that couldn’t seem to scream “DAD!” loud enough. “Dad are you there?”

“Buddy! I can’t find the phone!” I shouted in the general direction of where his voice had come from under the driver’s seat. All the swerving around on the freeway had dislodged the phone from its harness. So I opened the door and, knees on the pavement, fished around under the seat, then did the same under the passenger’s seat. No phone.

“Dad, I’m over here!” I could hear him chuckling as I peered between the passenger seat and the center console. There it was, wedged in snug and cozy. I lay my plus-sized gut across the driver’s seat with my gargantuan ass sticking out the door and tried to liberate the phone while Tripp reported on fishing conditions at the Yuba. “The water is pretty low, and it’s been a pretty dry summer up there, so we’re gonna wanna look for pools with deep channels where we can just swing a fly right across the bottom.” With the mention of “bottom” somebody gave my ass a powerful, violent shove that pinned me against the seat.

“Hey! What the fuck?” I shouted, trying to get up, but whoever it was had squashed my crotch against the electric seatback control. Suddenly, my wiener was in charge; a little shift against the button I could recline or incline the seat.

“You’re some hot shit race car driver, ain’tcha?”
Oh for fuck’s sake, I was thinking. It’s the shaved-headed Oakland Raiders fan, Mr. Road Rage. He has tracked down my custom-designed Saab and is going to chop my balls off, then jam ‘em down my throat.


“Hey, Buddy,” I said, bemused. “There’s a fella here trying to buttfuck me in the Chevron parking lot.”

“Shut the fuck up, fag!” growled Mr. Road Rage, shoving me even harder. He stunk of beer, gin and vomit so powerfully that I felt a sympathy barf welling up. I also recall worrying that the asshole had a gun trained on my bald spot, which I was told existed but had never seen.

“That’s him, the buttfucker,” I reported.
“Hey, you shut up, asshole!” Tripp shouted, picking a fight from the cell phone stuck between the seats.
“Turn that fuckin’ phone off, dickface.“
“I can’t! It’s stuck between the seats!”
“Yeah, can’t you tell, shit-for-brains?” Tripp yelled. I could imagine the sneer on Tripp’s face.

Then I felt this giant upwelling of superhuman power as I shoved my angry wiener against the seat control, inclining the seatback as forward as it would go, which enabled me to get a grip on the sides of the seat. With a bloodcurdling war whoop, I pushed myself back against my attacker who, with one foot on my ass and the other on the ground, lost his balance and fell backward, his acrylic Raiders cap bouncing on the pavement. I spun around, ready to blanket him with my immensity, when two uniformed mini-mart attendants blasted out of the double glass doors side-by-side like Butch and Sundance, arms waving and yelling “Stop! No fighting here! No fighting! You must stop!”

Instead they stopped, about 10 feet away from where I stood over the vanquished butt stomper. The station managers were looking at us as if we were combustible materials.

“Why for you like fight?” one of them shouted, almost melodiously. My rage was draining and my crotch was throbbing.

“Dad? What the hell is going on there? Dad?” Tripp yelled. The station managers were now studying my Saab, marveling at the odd configuration of the driver’s seat.

“Sir,” one of them said, “your phone. Somebody is talking.”

Mr. Road Rage was snickering and hissing like a Disney anaconda.

“I’m sorry about this,” I said to both of them, avoiding the gaze of Mr. Road Rage, who was probably fifteen years younger than me and pretty good sized, a kangaroo to my grizzly bear.

Mr. Road Rage hopped up from the ground and brushed himself off, glaring at me while he hissed, “You are such a fucking fag. You wanna kiss me now, asshole?” His sleeves were rolled up over the elbow with a dragon’s tail stretching across his freckled arm. His face was still fire engine red. I paused to retrieve the phone, telling my son that I couldn’t explain it all at the moment but would call back later.

This was not how I had planned to re-enter the world. After five years in relative hibernation – on
the patio with Mr. Booper, at 156 Woodland with parents, caregivers and my frequently ill-mannered sister, and in bed with Sandy – I had forgotten that even marvelous Marin County streets and highways were tinderboxes of pent-up frustration and rage just waiting to explode, like my new acquaintance had just demonstrated. I briefly contemplated going home and calling off the search – I was grossly unprepared for the dangers of American highway culture – but then an alarm went off inside the mini-mart: a half dozen kids were making off with bags stuffed with as much mini-mart crap as they could carry, mostly twelve-packs of Bud Light. The station managers were after them in an instant. I jumped in my car and ducked behind the dashboard. But these kids were hardly dangerous. Instead they looked like the backfield for the Redwood high school football team: ripped dudes with crew cuts, tattoos peeking out from under tank tops, shorts falling off their asses. I got the feeling that the theft was more of a prank than a serious robbery – they probably didn’t even open the cash register – so I got out and hobbled behind the running security team, when along came Mr. Road Rage from behind, streaking across the blacktop to where the guys were jumping into the back of their truck, one kid ripping the gas hose out of the tank. The station managers and I froze as the all-star wrestling Fu Manchu maniac hooked an arm around the football player with the gas hose and slammed him into the side of their big boy pickup truck, beer cans erupting out of the twelve pack in a glorious explosion of golden suds. One of the other kids jumped out of the pickup bed onto Fu-Manchu’s back, wrapping his legs around his waist and whomping on his shaved head with a free hand while Fu got the other football player by the nape and was banging his forehead into the passenger side window. Just as the glass shattered into a million tiny shards sparkling against the blacktop, my phone rang.


I went running back to my car, which waited with the keys still in the famous between-the-seat Saab ignition. “Hey Buddy you won’t believe what is happening here.” I described the scene, which, as I pulled out of the Extra Mile, had developed into a sort of scrum with Mr. Road Rage Fu Manchu getting the shit kicked out of him by a half-dozen beefy teenagers. By the time I turned into the freeway entrance, the kids were peeling out of the Extra Mile and the station managers were attending to Mr. Road Rage on the ground who, I supposed, got more fight than was originally planned when he followed me into the parking lot, as had I. And the real search for Sisi hadn’t even started yet.

I drove back into the flow of freeway traffic, headed to Tam Junction and the Shoreline Highway that would take me out to Bolinas. Soon I would lose cell service. I scanned my rear view for the blue Ranger, paranoid as always that some random nut case out there would pull up alongside me and blow my brains out with an assault rifle, or toss a grenade into my lap. “I’m gonna lose you in a little bit,” I said as I crested a hill past Muir Beach and met the broad aquamarine expanse of the Pacific, but Tripp was already gone.

That particular stretch of Highway One, after the road climbs out of Muir Beach to the ridge, revealing the craggy cliffs that fall into the seething foam of the ocean, has, in its arresting panorama, always forced a moment of reverence and reflection. Instead, on that particular afternoon, I found myself imagining how I would have loved to pop Mr. Road Rage’s bald, red head like a big pimple. Terrified by my own violent visions, I started to wonder: what am I getting into here, and why? Was leaving my patio, my chucker, Mr. Booper and my wife’s broad, creamy bottom worth a harebrained boondoggle for the sake of fostering some final family harmony?

Then, as if Baba Ram Dass had started dancing on the hood of the Saab chanting “be here now,” I finally came back to where I was, gazing across breathtaking blue-on-blue stretching across the Pacific Ocean into infinity. I wished my father could see it. I wished my son could see it. I wished my wife could see it. Most of all, I wished my sister could see it. At least then I would know exactly where she was.

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