ON HE RODE — Chapter Nine

“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

skillful shapers.

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 years.”

“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.”

“Never been?”


“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?”

“Might be.”

“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.”

“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,

Professor Mitty.

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.”

“You think?”

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.

Alone again.

Talk story

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