“Get his/her act together,” a statement containing the seeds of its
own refutation and rebuttal. Or seed: the word “act”. What seems to
give the statement credibility is the assumed notion that we are all
playing roles we are presumed to shape and that some of us are more
At this point, I don’t think anyone would say I’ve got my act
together. Let’s say I’m working on it. Effectively? Way too soon to
tell. But this guy reaching for my passenger-side door handle has put
together an altogether convincing package. Bland to the point of
anonymity, he’s like a composition of neatly trimmed, clean-shaven
1950’s khaki respectability that says, “Trust me. I’m just like you,
doing my best to get along. Looking for work, given the right
situation. Keep myself neat and clean. You can trust me with your
wives and daughters.”
“Where ya headin’?” I ask as he settles in. His only luggage is a
leather personal items kit, like a small snub-nosed football.
“Wherever you’re going, that’s where I’m headin’.”
“Nowhere in particular. Down the coast. Second day out.”
“Sounds good. Sleep back there?”
“Did last night. We’ll see. How long you been out?”
“Two hours?” I’ve doubtless mis-heard.
“Two. Years,” he repeats, enunciating clearly. “Nam,” he says. “Viet.
Nam. Ever hear of that place?”
“Heard of it.”
“Don’t go.” He says it with incontrovertible finality. Do not go
there. Under no circumstances go there.
“I’ll do my best not to.”
“It’s the most fucked-up place in the world.”
To which I do not reply, and we ride this bright summer’s day down the
Pacific Coast Highway in complete silence. For maybe thirty seconds.
Then, no gesturing, turning of the head, altering of facial expression
or vocal timbre, he goes, “The second most fucked-up place in the
world . . .,” and he holds it there just long enough for me to come
out with the obvious, “ . . . is right here.”
“Why do you say that?” he asks.
“Isn’t that what you were gonna say?”
“But now we’ll never know?”
“It’s all right to say ‘going to’, by the way. Not ‘gonna’. You don’t
have to be colloquial for my benefit.”
“English teacher by trade,” I sheepishly admit.
“Didn’t fool me a bit. Jack London your favorite as a kid?”
“Him. Mark Twain. Howard Pyle.”
“Robin Hood. Little John. Maid Marian. Know what makes this second-worst?”
“First tell me how Jack London made you a teacher.”
“Because we think we’re the best. It’s like a magnifying glass that
works for everybody except us. We can’t see how awful we are.”
“Which only makes us, in everybody else’s eyes, even worse,” he says.
We’re perking along in this goofily offhand fashion until I realize we
actually haven’t spoken a word to each other since he said, “. . . in
the world,” about Vietnam. It’s a kind of illusion, a vaporous
concoction your mind creates to fill in the blanks. You know,
pocketa-pocketa. Like Thurber. Walter Mitty.
My question is, if I’d never heard of Walter Mitty would I be
indulging in Mitty-esque behavior? Might I not, instead, actually be
engaging my companion in real conversation about real things? Does my
literary education create a barrier, not a bridge, between me and my
fellow sapiens? If I’d never heard of James Thurber, would I still be
pocketa-queeping along in my own head like this, or would we be having
a normal conversation? “Normal?” I dunno. Maybe something like, “Wanna
see the trees of mystery?”
We’re following a Winnebago with Oklahoma is OK plates and Sea Lion
Caves and Trees of Mystery bumper decorations. “If that’s where we’re
heading,” my companion replies.
“Next stop,” I aver. Now we’re talking.
Evers once got kicked out of a car he’d hitched a ride with because he
wouldn’t engage in conversation with his host. “I pick up hitchhikers
to hear their story. You don’t talk. Get out.” So Evers got out and
hitched a ride with someone who valued silence. Presumably. Or maybe,
experience-chastened, he suddenly became conversational? He could do
that, Evers. Smart as a whip sometimes.
What tree did “mauve” just fall from? Is it a real word for a real
color, or something I made up? I’m thinking about my companion’s
overall impression vis-a-vis the portrait painter in me: “A Study in
Mauve”? Would one pronounce that word “mohv” or “mow-vay”? Mauve on,
Driving through an almost unnaturally verdant redwood grove, we admire
these last pillared vestiges of evergreen cathedrals lost in time.
“The whole woods was like this, once.”
Scruffed-up artists-in-wood present their wares in rustic studios that
I explore for parental house gifts. Clocks. Bowls. Plates. Mirror
frames. Various varieties of Varathaned redwood glitz to let Whitey
and Carrie’s friends know their dutiful college-educated son is also
well-travelled. So there. Reparation for the embarrassment of storing
that old Shove-it-or-leave-it in plain sight? But. Sorry. No sale.
I’ve got my standards.
Driving leisurely southward, I tell my companion I’m a schoolteacher
in Hawaii, which seems to register as suspicious but acceptable. He
confirms he’s a Vietnam vet. Came “home” and immediately hit the road,
where he’s spent the last two years of his life. He does not pack
weed; does not do weed, booze, tobacco, or drugs. He’s from a small
town in Missouri, which he does not pronounce Missoura. He’s stopped
twice at the family home. Nobody there either time. He ate, showered,
left a note: “Doing fine.”
Now how do we negotiate his getting out on the road again? Does he
harbor any misconceptions about where he might spend the night? It’s
getting on toward dusk, cars turning on their headlights, occasional
traffic signals glowing bright in fading seaside towns.
Stopped at a red light, my passenger door opens, pauses, clicks shut.