ON HE RODE — Chapter Thirty-Six
The truth is, I don’t take offense easily. Cleverness and subtlety, even sarcasm and irony, are mostly wasted on me. I can get too tangled up in trying to make sense out of what just happened to be offended by it — or even to know if offense was intended. Naive, I guess. Chalk it up to inexperience. Or native stupidity. Some people never learn, it seems, and maybe I’m one of them? Washington Irving had his Ichabod Crane, and I have my me-myself-and-I. Academicians. Teachers. Bad jokes all, and I could be the worst.
Just why would so apparently affable a sort as Oren suddenly insist on being let out of the only ride he’s likely to get there in the middle of nowhere? Tell me, would you likely find the answer in a book? Or in day-to-day hands-on experience? Did I give offense? Could I have? Is there an answer? Does he even spell his name Oren, as I have assumed? Couldn’t that be Orrin? Or . . . or . . . or, how about Bryan, as in Bryan, Texas, somewhere up ahead? There’s always something exciting going on in the life of your typical English teacher. The life of the mind, is it? Bryan, Texas. Dag Glockenheimer. Where can I get some weed around here, anyway? No Maui Wowie or Kauai Electric, I’ll wager. Arizona Dirt Weed? Lone Star Gold? Tex/Mex Max?
Eventually I find my way to Bryan, a quiet, prosperous-looking bedroom community — at least that’s my impression. Things are pretty closed-down because of the heat, residents taking refuge in air conditioning, leaving me an outcast stranger in a strange land. How do I find my good friend Mardi? I have her address but no map. How about a phone booth? Or how about those four or five brother dudes hanging out in front of that barber shop, a bench, some folding metal chairs?
They seem as curious about me as I am about them. Am I actually going to stop my ratty old car right in front of them? Am I actually going to get out of my ratty old car and talk to them? What’s with the haircut, and is that the start of an actual beard, or have I mislaid my razor? Goin’ talk to us? Does he know he is in The South, as in The Deep South? And he wants to talk to us? What language does he speak?
“Excuse me,” I say. “I wonder if you guys can help me locate an address?”
They look back and forth at each other and at me. Am I for real? What is this? Why am I asking them? They look to be in their twenties and thirties, cotton shirts and blue jeans. Not so different from me. “What address does the gentleman carry?” He’s tall and loose-limbed, the biggest, most self-possessed of them.
I hand him the lined sheet of steno paper. “Street name and number,” I offer. “Just point me in the right direction, and I’ll be on my way.”
“I’ll take you there,” he says, giving me back the paper and heading for the passenger door. His associates nod in agreement. Good plan. He’ll take me right there. They re-arrange themselves comfortably on the sidewalk furniture and watch us get into my Chevy.
“Take a right up there and go straight,” he says, pointing a long, dark index finger. “Gum?” He offers me a foil-wrapped stick of Wrigley’s without the outer wrapper.
“Sure,” I say. Spearmint, I guess. Wrong. Doublemint, I affirm, taking off the foil and folding the malleable stick on itself before placing it on my tongue. Is he watching me very carefully? A little too carefully? Is this a test? I’m usually a good test-taker. Did I pass?
“Take that left by the blue Merc,” he says, pointing that impressive index finger . “I’ll get out there. Keep going about three blocks. You’ll find your number on the right.”
I take the left and stop. “Many thanks,” I say. “Can I drop you off somewhere?”
“Right here’s just fine,” he says and gives me a one-finger salute. “‘Preciate the ride.” Closing the door with a firm thunk, he heads back down the street, long-striding in the same direction we just came from.
The Doublemint flavor is still strong as I find Mardi’s address and pull up in front of her house, looking closed-off and bleak like all the air-conditioned houses in the neighborhood. I should have phoned. Maybe I still could? Where to find a pay phone? Aw, to hell with it. Mardi will understand. Or she’ll pretend to.
Since we have never been lovers, we’ve managed to remain friends. Not to say ex-lovers can’t be friends, but I haven’t been good at making it happen. Ask my very ex-wife. Why let romance spoil a solid friendship? We’re too smart for that. I push the doorbell button and get threatening barks from the family dachshund, followed by the metallic sounds of a door being unlatched, followed by more barking and, finally, Mardi herself. She does a good job of not being shocked by the new me, though I’ve done nothing to prepare her. “Hey bruddah,” she says. “Welcome to our ohana.”
“Hey Mardi,” I say. “I shoulda phoned.”
“Mr. Shoulda Woulda Coulda,” she says. “Whatever for? You didn’t need my help to get here.”
We do not embrace or kiss, not even cheek pecks. We’re real friends. We square off to each other, our warm fingertips touch familiarly, our eyes meet, we smile. “It’s so good to have you here,” Mardi says. She was named after the Melville book title. Nobody seems to know why.
“It’s so good to be here,” I tell Mardi. “I really mean it.”
“Of course you do. Something to drink? Shower? Your room is waiting for you. Mom’s dying to meet you, but she’ll have to wait. ‘Just a minute dear. The gentleman wishes to make himself presentable.’ Here. You go in here — it’s all laid out for you. Go get your bags. I’m sorry. Bossy Mardi here. I’ll leave you alone now.”
“Suddenly I’m a celebrity. Life on the road has never been so accommodating.”
“You’re king of the road here, mister.” she says, and the dachshund gives two clipped affirmative barks, right on cue.
“What’s his name? Bismark? Herman?”
“I’ll think about it in the shower. You got a place I can park my car — accessible but not in the way?”