A very rough draft of Jim Harstad’s memoir, ON HE RODE — Chapter Thirty-Seven

Looking at my naked self in a full-length mirror reveals a diverse palette of possibilities, some anticipated, some not. It seems that by choosing sudden baldness over the more gradual male pattern alternative, I have opened up other coiffure possibilities. In fact, invited them. Nay, demanded them. Judging by the preliminary stubble, I will have a black beard, or at least a dark one, as I have long suspected. Eventually I’ll have to decide on a style, but that can wait. Maybe the Lenin goatee I’ve had in mind, or a sort of Van Dyke — something different from the untrimmed Mr. Natural facial shrubbery now in vogue. Or . . . oh well, who knows?

The rest of me hasn’t changed much during my peramble-in-progress. A bit too much torso from too much steering wheel torpor, as well as thinning arms and legs. My left side and shoulder show signs of poison oak exposure from Big Sur. I’ve managed it with calamine lotion so far. Some rash, a bit of swelling, a touch of itch. Everything else seems normal. Mardi’s mom is dying to meet me. Me? Who or what is this elusive, possibly illusory, me? Would that be the English teacher me? Or the everything else but the English teacher me? Me who? Who, me?

“Jacques Kerouac?” Mardi’s mom says, “I don’t think I know your Mr. Kerouac.”

“Jack Kerouac,” Mardi says. “He’s a writer from the beatnik days, the 1950’s.” Mardi’s French mom doubtless has little appreciation for the old-style beatniks my Polish grandma calls neck beats. Hippies? Still neck beats as far as she’s concerned. What are they complaining about? Why don’t they just get jobs? But who would hire them? Maybe if they took a bath?

“Jack Kerouac isn’t exactly my hero,” I lie, “but his books are interesting. They make you wonder what’s going on in the rest of the world. Being a teacher gives me summers free to explore other places and things. Last summer I bicycled through northern Europe. This summer I’m seeing the USA in my Chevrolet.”

“So, are you writing books too, like this Mr. Kerouac?” She pronounces it Ker-oo’-ic, not Ker’-oh-ac like me.

“Kimo writes very good stories,” Mardi says.

“We’ll see if they ever turn into books,” I say.

“Well you must keep a journal so you don’t lose your memories.”

“Of course he keeps a journal!” Mardi exclaims.

“I, er, not quite a formal journal,” I say. “More like notes to myself on scraps of paper. Occasionally. Important things I don’t want to forget.”

“And where do you keep these important scraps of paper?”

She doesn’t wait for an answer, this Rose, mother of Mardi. She has lived too long not to know all the questions and most of the answers. Important scraps? Why do you call them scraps if they’re important? When she asks, “Could you enjoy beer with your lunch?” she already knows the answer.

Mardi’s pere, whose French-Canadian family migrated south for reasons that remain obscure to me but probably had something to do with climate, both socioeconomic and meteorologic. He does not like the story of how I found their house, though he says nothing. I wonder, could I have set them up to be robbed or burgled? Gulp! Me?

I read his concern as I ramble on, think I read its dismissal, so I segue back to the friendlier story about the family with the flat tire in West Texas, etc. After that we get along fine, but he guesses correctly that I am not interested in visiting his bar and grill, just as I have guessed correctly that he does not wish to expose his valued clientele to the shabby likes of me. It’s totally amicable. Win-win.

My run of the place includes a recommendation to a good full-service Chevron station should I want to check things out under the hood. I thank him and he heads back to work, while I assume my role as honorary estate manager and chief beneficiary. There’s a sparkling blue tile swimming pool with springboard, a shaded and well-maintained pool table in sight of the swimming pool, and several shaded sitting places complete with lawn furniture.

Nap time for Mama, Mardi and I retire to a shaded table and chairs, iced tea for her, Lone Star for me. Another win-win. Good conversation enhancers. “So wassup, brah? How come you no tell me?”

“Your folks have a really nice place here. Tell you what?”

“Come on, Kimo. No act.”

“You mean the haircut?”

“I mean the whole deal, the facial scuzz, the . . .”

“ . . . rapidly receding hairline, the quickly accelerating timeline, . . .”

“Wait. Waitwait. Are we talking mid-life crisis? What’re you scared of, brah? Old age?”

“Yeah, in a way. Not just old age — I’m good with that eventuality, that inevitability. It’s how I’m heading toward it that bothers me.”

“You miss your family. That’s not a question, by the way.”

“Unquestionably a given. But that’s only part of it.”

Mardi and I have been buddies for most of two school years. We share movies, books, personal stories, political opinions. She’s not athletic but schools me at chess. We do not share love lives or romantic tidbits of any kind. She is a big fan of Cosmopolitan magazine’s Helen Gurley Brown, sold on the absolute necessity  of getting “under the skin” of her intended, through whatever means possible, whatever that means. Trickery, I guess. Nothing new, but I don’t point that out. She knows.

Besides chess, she schools me in the art of coolness, the ways in which real men make themselves appealing to women. From her I learned to cup my hands around the flame when lighting madame’s cigarette. I learned that matches are cooler than lighters but take more practice. Zippo lighters are the coolest, especially the ones with the raised Marine Corps emblem. But only if you are or have been a United States Marine.

An interesting and perhaps not too personal romantic tidbit about Mardi: she is fascinated by all things military, especially those handsome young heroes in uniform. The biggest reason she and I have never and will almost certainly never . . . is that I became an English teacher on Oahu’s Leeward Coast to beat the draft and remain an inconsequential man child, dithering ineffectually about the meaning of life when I should be out getting my ass shot off in some rice field. Like a real man.


“I miss God.”

“You what? You miss God? God? Really? I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it.”

“If I get you another beer, will you tell me why?”

“Try me.”

Mahalo for reading!

Talk story

  1. Fred Peyer says:

    Great story. You know Jim, the story opening about the mirror reminded me that I figured out how not to age anymore: Don’t look into the mirror!!! It works, as far as I am concerned, I am not 73, I am 37! 🙂

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