ON HE RODE — Chapter Sixteen

“My dad’s better’n your dad.”

“My dad’s stronger.”

“My dad can pick up a bag of cement.”

“My dad can pick up a bag of cement with one hand.”

“Can he run with it? Like my dad?”

“Like your mom, you mean.”

“Your mom has a mustache. My dad’s taller than your dad.”

“My dad can play guitar.”

“Air guitar. How much beer can your dad drink?”

“Twice as much as yours. Whiskey too. Four Roses.”

“My dad smokes Camels. Two packs a day.”

“My dad used to smoke three packs of Luckies. But he quit. It gave him the flu.”

“Quit? Your dad doesn’t smoke? What kind of dad doesn’t smoke?”

“I smoke sometimes.”

“What do you smoke?”

“It doesn’t have to be cigarettes.”

“What then? Hollowed-out corn cobs?”

“It doesn’t have to be tobacco. Indians used to smoke a lot of

different things.”

“See where it got ‘em? Shoulda stayed with Raleigh 903’s.”

“My aunt used to smoke Raleighs. Collected coupons she traded in for luggage.”

“World traveller?”

“In her head. She raised four kids. Uncle worked in the shipyard.”

“Then they travelled?”

“Then she got lung cancer and died.”

“No shit?”

“Shit you not.”

The Raleighs, no doubt. It stood to reason. They were able to offer

quality luggage as reward for smoking their brand by cutting corners,

using inferior, less-costly, cancer-causing tobacco in the manufacture

of their crappy product. Not premium quality. I don’t know any Camel

smoker with lung cancer. Or Luckies or Chesterfield. Bit wheezy,

maybe. But no Big C that I’ve heard of. Hmm, whatever happened to my

aunt’s luggage?

Back to the present, this summer of 1968, almost exactly ten years

after my grandparents awarded me my big suitcase for high school

graduation, ten years of almost constant use, its presence should

comfort in the way trusted friends and acquaintances can comfort.

Large, square, and ridiculously roomy, it represents possibility,

enabling opportunity, an almost irresistible force pointing me in

directions I would not otherwise choose to go. Should not go?

Hey, old friend, howyadoin back there with the spare tire? Still

holding things in place? What say you to yonder flower children? Would

such company help change the complexion of the day from vague and

neutral to bright and cheerful? Is that what flower children do, show

the world a better way? A better way to do what? Avoid the draft? What

if they held a war and no one came?

“Hey, how far you going? Downtown? Me too. Hop in.”

Light patchouli fragrance, she slides bra-less next to me, and he

follows, closes the door, shakes my hand. Clean white tee-shirts and

bluejeans, they can’t be more than 17 or 18, blond of hair, spare of

limb, civilization’s discontents have left no marks or scars — yet.

Smiling, holding hands, it’s painful to observe their wholesome

cheerfulness, their perfect alignment with the good things of this

Earth. How does one achieve such harmony? By wishing? Praying?

Chanting Om? By just being . . . good, whatever that is? Can you be so

good that only good things happen in your life? No, I seriously doubt

it. But isn’t it pretty to think so?

“Have a nice day!” she chirps as they slide out the door onto the busy

sidewalk near the Haight. The sunny smiley face at the middle of her

tee-shirt is framed and animated by frisky young breasts that I will

never, ever smell or taste or touch. Or even see again. The world has

suddenly become unaccommodating. Did I once belong here? Somewhere?

Will I again? Ever?

Working my way gradually toward Sausalito, I park near the waterfront

and head for the NO-NAME BAR, where I pass the bartender’s scrutiny

and am served a cold bottle of the house specialty, Anchor Steam Beer,

with what must be described as quizzical silence. Who am I? What

nuthatch did I fall clear of? What looney bin? Do I predicate the

future. What is this world coming to? “Enjoy your beer,” he says. He’s

several years younger than me, sandy hair, unlined forehead. No

special messages of any kind here. Enjoy your beer. What you see is

what you get.

I get myself a small table near the open-to-the-sky fern-covered back

wall to enjoy my beer. It is dawning on me that my low-key approach to

acquiring weed is not working and that, really, I shouldn’t want it to

work. I have not smoked for several days, the longest I’ve gone

weed-free in a lot of months, and I’m starting to like it. It feels

like unexplored territory, maybe a good thing to add to the mix of new

experiences. At least for now. Of course when I actually run into

Kerouac and the guys and they actually pass the device, who am I to

say no?

I say yes to another cold Anchor Steam, and as soon as I start sipping

I’m joined by the neighborhood bag lady and her fat brown dog. She

sits at a table near enough to make conversation a possibility I

immediately negate by moving to a table close to the pisser, where I

pretend to be heading the whole time. Taking a long look at myself in

the mirror, am I a better match for the bag lady than I will admit,

given my somewhat indeterminate life stage. How close to old? To dead?

How many guys any age have the balls to embrace and exude this

reassuring aura of masculine maturity, much appreciated by

frizzy-haired women who escort fat dogs to fashionable watering holes

on warm summer afternoons? Only me? I gulp my beer and head for the

sun-bright street. “Have a nice day,” I tell the bartender on the way

out. “Good luck,” I think I hear him say.

Poking around the docks until late afternoon, I head back up the

street where I hope my car is still parked.

Talk story

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