A Very Rough Draft of Jim Harstad’s Memoir, ON HE RODE — Chapter Forty-Two

“Here you go, sweetheart, and plenty more where that came from.” Mardi curtsies as she hands me the chilled longneck. “And would the ‘here’ you reference mean here in Bryan as a place to seek ultimate solace, comfort, and wisdom or as a marker for where you stand in your life’s journey?”

“Both. And more.”

“More. Tell me more.”

The devil’s in the details, of course, as are the compensations I hope to accrue from my willingness to go head-to-head with Life’s devils at their rawest and most fundamental. Was it Conrad who said we need to immerse ourselves in the destructive element — life? So. And thus emerges the question: If I’m looking for concentrated doses of destructive elements, why am I not in Vietnam, exercising my patriotic obligation to protect our nation? I’m proud to say I’ve worked that out. It’s because in Vietnam the destructive element is death, and what we can know about death without experiencing it is zero. And what we learn from experiencing death will do us no good here and now. Or ever? Maybe?

And here I am, immersing myself in the HCL of life and hoping for — praying for — the best: survival without crippling injury plus the wisdom that must follow inevitable rumination about my good fortune. God exists, and He loves me.

Or not.

The way I will find out must be laid out in the details of my trip’s progress from here on out. Will my Chevy keep rolling along all the way back home? I’d say that from the way I’ve treated her so far, that would be a pretty major miracle, proof enough all by itself that I’d had Help. And the chances of that happening without at least changing her oil? Zero. Absolute zero. It can’t happen. Which is why the story, the proof, becomes so much more compelling if it does happen.

“If,” Mardi says. “And in the meantime, sweetheart, what happens when what can’t happen doesn’t happen? Does that mean God doesn’t exist?”

“Not necessarily. He might reveal Himself in some other way. He’ll let me know if He’s there.”

“Or She.”

“Correct. Or She. Or They.”

Mardi makes a “Ew!” face about “They” and says, “Well darlin’, I can’t lie and tell you I understand what compels you, but I try admire your temerity and want to know — need to know — how it all turns out . . . what you learn . . . you know, etcetera, etcetera.”

“You’ll be the first to know, after me. And this will be my last Lone Star, at least for now.”

I spend several relaxed, self-indulgent days with Mardi and her parents. My Chevy sits unobtrusive and silent. Resting, one assume, gathering herself for the coming challenge. One assumes.

In the meantime, I avail myself of the pool, the pool table, and the endless supply of Lone Star that lubricates most of it. I am neither a good diver nor a good pool shooter, but with a belly full of beer I am king of the diving board and Minnesota Fats combined in my own private playground while Mardi’s dad works and she and her mom retreat into air-conditioned privacy, emerging now and then to blink at the desert sun and offer lunch and/or Lone Star.

Have I said that I’m a terrible diver? I’m a terrible diver. When sober, I am well aware how ungainly a figure I am on a diving board I can be, so I stay off diving boards. But give me a few Lone Stars on a hot day with a swimming pool at my disposal and I’ll give you my best Aquaman/Fearless Fosdick impression. Don’t ask. Mere flesh wounds. Viewers may perceive a clown gifted in impersonating an ungifted try-hard wannabe, whereas they are actually seeing the real thing. If you’ve got a swimming pool, keep it covered when I’m around. Or don’t give me beer.

Mardi’s dad worked in Quebec’s lumber towns in his younger days. Compact and wiry, he’d worked both the woods and the lumbertown support communities, tending bar, etc., his training for success as a restaurateur. He tells good stories and makes music by slapping his thighs, feet, and shoulders in complex syncopation, like Samoan slap-dancing but faster.

“You’re a writer?” he asks.

“I’m an English teacher on summer break,” I say. “Besides correcting papers, I dabble in writing. That’s all.”

“We need good teachers. We’re very proud of Mardi.”

“You should be,” I say. “She’s really good.” He likes that and seems to like me well enough — maybe because he sees I’m his daughter’s friend, not her suitor.

Luckily, he’s on hand to see me off when it’s time I mosey on down the road, on toward Texarkana. After several days and nights of sitting all by her lonesome, Dame Chevy decides to pay me back. If I want her to start it’ll take some hands-on effort from me and from those for whom I forsook her. Mardi’s dad pushes the trunk lid and I push with the driver’s side door open, ready to leap in, pop the clutch, and away we go. The street is flat, straight, dry, and quiet. Perfect.

We get her rolling fast enough for me to jump in and give her a try. She pops, she farts, she wheezes, she snorts, she starts. She pops, she stops, she farts, she starts. She wheezes, farts, wheezes. Keeps on going, laying a heavy cloud of blue smudge that hangs in the still desert air of an otherwise pleasant neighborhood in Bryan, Texas.

“Sweetie,” Mardi says to me just minutes ago, “our dog’s name is ‘Guess’. Did you get it?”

“I guess so. Ha ha!”

“You guess so. I guess you’ll let me know when you find God.”

“Ha ha! Or He finds me. Ha ha!”

“No joking. I mean it, darlin’. I really do.”

And now I’m waving my left arm bye bye to Mardi and her family out the window while Chevy Baby finishes up her belching and farting and I take her out of second, into high, heading north for Texarkana.

If I had a radio I’d dial up a country music station in the hope that they might slip in Eddie Arnold doing “Texarkana Baby”. But since I don’t have a radio, I guess it’s up to me to sit in for Mr. Arnold. “Well she’s my Texarkana baby, do I love her, Lowdy Law; her pappy comes from Texas, her maw from Arkansaw.”

Mahalo for reading!

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