ON HE RODE — Chapter Ten

“For your service to our country,” I might have said in response to

the, “Thanks for the ride,” he did not say. I find a sort of wide spot

in the road to park and spend another sleepless night. I’m close

enough to the highway that I can anticipate cars coming from either

direction by the patterns their headlights make on my spotless grey

headliner. Both directions. All night long. Fascinating.

I think about changing her oil; should have done it miles ago. It’s

incredible that she’s gone as far as she has, her crankcase carrying a

heavy seawater additive component that shows on the dipstick as grey

sludge. Almost headliner grey. I could get under her right now, pull

the plug, and let that sludge gurgle onto the ground that has all

night to suck it down and out of my life. In the morning I can replace

the plug, discreetly lift the hood and gurgle five quarts of

tawny-fresh SHELL X-100 premium motor oil into the valve-cover hole,

all set for a fresh start on the highway of life. But I don’t do it,

don’t grasp that opportunity to continue this journey of discovery,

partly from simple apathy.

And more than partly from curiosity. We know for certain that as

delicate an item as a splash-lubricated babbit-bearinged Chevrolet

engine will not perform forever using sludge for motor oil. But how

much longer might it go, and under what circumstances might it die?

That is, if — and here’s the kicker, IF — it does die.

But what if it doesn’t die? What if I just keep pointing her in the

direction my mental/moral compass tells me is the right one, and I

pick up some weed, a girlfriend, some pals, and we head off into the

sunrise together and the car keeps running without an oil change until

the cows come home, the chickens come home to roost, and I have been

chosen, proven worthy by whatever Agency is in charge of such matters,

as witness the flawless performance of the vehicle said Agency placed

in my service? What a metaphor for celestial acceptance or amazing

grace, or something equally powerful and unprovable! In short, a real

journey of discovery.

Anyway, I don’t change her oil and end up back on Pacific Highway,

bleary-eyed and fuzzy-brained from lack of sleep. Fuzzi-er brained,

maybe? And somewhere around this time I gradually come to realize that

I flat do not give a shit about trying to preserve my life’s status

quo except to try to keep putting one foot in front of the other for

as long as I can. Without help, this car will die. With help, this car

will die, only not as soon. Why prolong its agony — and mine?

I’ll put gas in her tank for as long as she keeps burning it and stop

only when she stops. Stop and do what? Guess I’ll find out. For the

first time in my life I’ll be a total free agent, forced to rely

completely on my own resources and the kindness of strangers in

whatever situation I find myself. Pretty exciting stuff for so

circumscribed a functionary as a high school English teacher. If

that’s really what I am. Maybe this is all part of a rebuilding

process I’m making up as I go along, a heroic adventure at the end of

which I will be a far different and better person living an

as-yet-unimagined and glorious future. Oh yes, far more exotic and

glorious than the beaches of Leeward Oahu. I haven’t slept for two

nights, and I’ve never been here before. Do I have to tell you that

things seem strange?

So strange that I feel compelled to gravitate toward anything that

seems even vaguely familiar. Hearst’s Castle is near San Luis Obispo,

a coastal town whose name has fascinated me since WW II, when Whitey

was stationed at nearby Camp Roberts. And of course William Randolph

Hearst is famous for a lot of reasons, so I pull into the big parking

lot and take my place among the tourists surging with energy and high

expectations. A teeming team effort.

Do I feel robotic or puppetic? Yes, I know “puppetic” is not a word,

but, as the world’s foremost advocate and teacher of the English

language, should I not be encouraged to add to its vocabulary in any

way I choose? Or how about “prophetic”? There’s a real word for you,

and maybe it applies to me as a prophetic contributor to an

increasingly sophisticated communications tool, a pioneering guide

toward verbal realms unexplored by such admired stylists as Hemingway,

Faulkner, and Kerouac?

Or how about “pathetic”, as in the shambling, fumbling, swollen-eyed

baldy I see reflected in the ticket window where I eventually manage

to produce the entry fee that allows me to admire a rich man’s

sprawling monument to himself? Can this be the legitimate spoils of

the Spanish-American War, the reductive image of ungoverned

inspiration that leads a man to incite missions of military adventure,

the physical dangers from which he is protected by the very forces he

put in harm’s way? Unscrupulously ambitious he certainly was. Was he

also insane? At least a little? Could I also be? Somewhat?

A tiled Olympics-sized swimming pool, a poshly elegant movie theater

not featuring Orson Welles’ films, multiple bedroom fireplaces

transported piece by piece from old Italian teardowns, llamas and

other exotic pets in the backyard — are we impressed yet? Envious?

Shades of Mad Ludwig and pre-Revolution French kings named Louis. Ah,


You shoulda been downtown to hear that train go down, you could hear

the whistle blow a hundred miles. Or a thousand? Or a million? Yes,

I’m back behind the wheel with my Hohner to my lips. Train whistle

sounds are easy and fun to make, but just you try to get the rest of

it under control.

Talk story

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