An Other Mother

Posted in Prose on July 16, 2018 by 1writegirl

I’m at the local social services office meeting with my caseworker to renew my health insurance benefits. After my paperwork is complete, I ask him if there is any way I might be able to get a bus pass. I paid for my bus fare here today in pennies. I have just handed him a list of the items I’ve sold recently on Craigslist. I’ve shown him an IOU I wrote to Neighbor Jim back in April, and explained that I’m four months overdue with my HOA dues. I wonder if he thinks I’m as pathetic as I feel. “Sorry,” he says. “You could apply for general assistance though. If you qualify, they give you a bit of cash each month, and they can give you a bus pass.”

I thank him and get back in line. If I can just get help for a month or two, I think, till I can find a new tenant who’s trustworthy. Just until I can get the regular rental income again that I need to get back on the road. The receptionist gives me papers to complete, I turn them in, and wait for someone to see me. There are two ways to do this, they tell me. You can apply under the condition that you are looking for a job, or you can apply under the condition that you are not able to work at this time due to a physical, mental, or psychological disability. “Do you have a disability?” the woman asks me. “Grief,” I say, and then correct myself, using the word everyone is familiar with, the word that is recognized by the medical community when it comes to paying a therapist or psychologist. Grief is not. “Depression,” I say. She makes a note, then asks, “Do you remember the last time you worked?” 

I work every day, I think. I’ve never worked harder in my life. But she doesn’t want to hear about my emotional toil, and besides, that’s not what she’s talking about. She’s talking about working for a paycheck.

“Yes,” I say. “June 18th, 2014.” My eyes well with tears. She pretends not to notice. She is a trained professional. She asks me several more questions, culminating with, “Do you have any of the following?” in which “retirement account” figures into the responses. “Yes,” I say, thinking of the woefully small sum of money that, without regular contributions, never seems to grow beyond several thousand dollars no matter how well the economy is doing. It takes money to make money floats across the screen of my mind like a banner in a tv ad. “Can you access it?” she asks. “I’m too young to withdraw it yet,” I explain. She persists. “Are you allowed to withdraw any of it?” “A portion of it,” I say, “But if I do there’s a penalty.” She puts her pen down and folds her hands. “I’m sorry,” she says. “If you have access to it, penalty or no, then you don’t qualify for general assistance.” When I don’t say anything, she begins writing again. She hands me a form to sign, acknowledging that I’ve been denied benefits. “Pay the penalty,” she urges. Her voice is softer now as tears spill unchecked down my face. “When the money is gone, you can come back and try again.” I nod, thank her, and leave.

Outside on the street I call Neighbor Jim, who has offered to pick me up on his way home from Santa Maria today. I’m fairly composed by the time he gets there, but as soon as I get into his car and he asks how I am I start crying again. “I’m giving you money,” he insists. “It’s not a problem, and I don’t want you to worry. I don’t care when you pay me back, if ever.” I know he means it. Jim is one of the most generous people I’ve ever come across.

Back at his condo he hands me some cash. “Take it,” he says. His voice is emphatic; he is chastising me. Several times in the past weeks he’s tried to give me money, and each time I’ve refused. This time I don’t refuse. I can’t. I hug him. “You’re so good to me,” I whisper. “You’re good to me,” he responds. “When you stayed here you cooked, you cleaned, you washed the dishes. And now, you invite me over for dinner. You bake me cookies. You make me laugh!” His voice rises to a crescendo. “I owe you!!” I smile and roll my eyes at him.

When I get home I sit down at my computer and do the same job search on Craigslist I do every day, using keywords like “casual” and “temporary,” anything for which I won’t need to turn in a resume, partake of an interview, or commit. Then I look under “Gigs.” but find nothing I’m capable of doing that doesn’t require a car either to get there or perform. I’m afraid I’m going to have to follow the social worker’s advice and withdraw funds from my already paltry retirement account.

The next day on my way to the cemetery I walk by a memorial garden, filled with sweet peas, snapdragons and gladiolas. It sits in front of a tall hedge, behind which is a large vegetable garden, a farmhouse, and small shed with fruits, vegetables, and eggs for sale. I make a note of the name on the sign out front and google it when I get home. It turns out the farm belongs to a woman who runs a florist business there, and the memorial garden is in honor of her 24-year old daughter who died four months after Jackson, hit by a car while riding her bicycle home one autumn evening. I vaguely remember the story on the news, but at the time I was so caught up in my own misery that I could do little more than briefly acknowledge anyone else’s. 

I send her, the mother, an email. I tell her about this thing we have in common, and say that I’d like to meet her. I have nothing in particular to say to her, I just want to be near her, to feel from her that understanding unspoken, the acceptance of the unacceptable.

She responds with an invitation to visit so on the weekend I walk the mile and a half down the road to her farmhouse. She opens the door of her flower shop and despite the customers who have turned up unexpectedly, walks out the door and embraces me in a tight hug. “Walk around the garden,” she suggests. “I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”

When they leave she waves me into the shop. We sit at a table for a few minutes, then she gets up to prepare a delivery for a funeral. How does she do it? I wonder. Make decorations for death after death. While she works, she talks about Anna. She shows me a picture of her, taken days before she died. She was two weeks away from her wedding. Her fiancé was with her at the scene of the accident. Poor him, I think. How fucked up he must be. But no, she says, he moved away, and just last year he got married. “It’s to be expected”, she says. “Of course”, I concur. “It’s what should happen.” For the gazillionth time I think of Leilani, Jackson’s girlfriend, and hope she is that lucky.

“How have you managed?” I ask. Her work, it would seem. Her bus-i-ness. To an extent anyway. After about three years of keeping busy, she broke down. “I lost it,” she says. “I fell apart.” She went away, for a month, to “one of those places.” I assume she means a mental hospital, though these days I imagine they go by a different name. 

“What about you?” she asks. I tell her of my experience. How I began traveling as an alternative to suicide. How it brought me a measure of relief, so I kept at it. How when I come back here I want to stay, but find it impossible. How I struggle to breathe. “And books,” I add. “I wouldn’t be here without them.”

Eventually she asks about finances and when I tell her how broke I am she says, “You’re hired.” Just like that. “I need help in the garden,” she says. “Digging, weeding, pruning, that kind of thing. Can you do that?” I think so. I nod. “Thank you.” 

She waves a hand in the air dismissively. “Not at all. I need the help. Whenever you want.” she says. “You can start on Monday.”

Before I leave she hands me a plastic bag and instructs me to pick as many berries as I want to take home. I go out into the garden and pick handfuls of blackberries and raspberries. When I’m done I step back inside the shop, show her the fruit I accumulated, and smile. She thrusts a handful of sweet pea blossoms at me, and pulls me into another embrace. I hug her back. Finally we separate. “See you soon,” she says. 

Back home I put the bouquet in water on the mantel piece. I bake a berry crumble. Tomorrow, I dig.

Recommended reading: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman.

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On the Road: Week Three (the last week)

Posted in Prose on June 6, 2018 by 1writegirl

Monday, May 28

We get up early, as Bob has generously offered to drive us into the mountains and put us in the Colorado River in his two kayaks, then pick us up downstream a few hours later. Mark and I take one kayak, Bas the other. When we get to the edge of the river we strip down to whatever we don’t mind getting wet and put everything else into the dry bags. 

On the first rapid I almost fall out of the boat as Mark, in the “driver’s seat “ with the only paddle, struggles to get the hang of navigating the current, or at least keeping the kayak upright. I scream and grab the canvas ribbing atop the inflated rubber. I am holding my binoculars, which are actually opera glasses that I inherited from my mother, and I barely manage to keep from dropping them into the river. As quickly as I can I cram them into the pocket of my shirt, where they’ll remain for the duration of the ride, and zip it closed. Luckily the kayak rights itself and we both soon grasp what we each need to do going into and through the rapids, which according to Mark (who has done this several times, albeit not recently) are Class 1 and 2 with a few 3’s thrown in. Eventually I start to enjoy myself, although the water is cold and within an hour we are soaking wet. Bas too is wet, and when we pull onto a small island an hour later for a snack and a rest, he discovers his dry bag is not, after all. Everything inside is saturated, with the fortunate exception of his cell phone which was in a separate dry bag within. Too late, I realize that in spite of the coolness of the air the sun is strong, and apply sunscreen to my bare legs. Later I’ll wish I had put it on before leaving shore.

Tuesday, May 29

Bas left this morning around 6, Monique is working and Bob took Mark out for a Jeep tour of the area, so I’ve had the place to myself this morning. I am grateful for the time alone to read, write, talk on the phone with my brother, and think about what the hell I’m going to do for income when I get back to California until I can find a lodger. 

When they return Bob goes off to do errands and Mark tells me I missed some of the most beautiful scenery so far. When I look at his photos I have to concur. 

Moab

Wednesday May 30

Monique has left for work by the time we get upstairs to eat breakfast, so I don’t get to say goodbye to her. Bob good-naturedly hops on his motorcycle and escorts us first to the bank so Mark can get cash, then the gas station, then rides with us a few miles out of town before he turns off and waves us on our way. He and Monique are friendly and interesting people, and exceedingly gracious hosts. I hope to meet them again.

We ride as far as Escalente today. We cross the Dirty Devil River on our way into the small town of Hanksville, which is surrounded by lush green fields. Further on we see several antelope, a heard of deer, and a giant jackrabbit as we pass through some of the most varied and stupendous scenery I have ever seen. As I gaze out at canyons, mountains, red rocks and trees in every direction as far as the eye can see, I am reminded that I love this country; that I can be here seeing this, and I can have this experience again and again in place after place. There is much wrong with the U.S. but when it comes to the wilderness we have set aside, we did something very right. 

We spend the night in a dispersed campground called Hole in the Rock, a lovely setting with pinyon trees all around. Unfortunately the few other campers that arrive after us all congregate in the same general area as us, in spite of all the vacant sites to be had some distance away. Why do people do that?

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Thursday, May 31

We each eat half an avocado and a hard boiled egg for breakfast, then we leave the campground and stop in Escalente at Boots Cafe, which advertises free wifi. Saddles hang from the rafters and there is a stuffed grizzly in one corner and a lynx in the other. The bear is wearing a cowboy hat. We order coffee and Mark gets a second breakfast of granola and yogurt. Both are clearly store-bought and it costs $6.50. There is no half and half for the coffee, only the liquid creamer crap, so I ask for milk. I can’t be sure but I think she rolls her eyes at me before turning away. On the plus side, the restrooms are clean, the wifi is strong, and there is an outlet where I can charge my phone.

On our ride today. I see a female wild turkey.

We camp in one of the three campgrounds within Great Basin National Park in Nevada, which does not charge an entry fee. At the site next to us are three motorcyclists traveling together, two of whom are English. They come over to greet us when we pull in and invite us to share their site, but we don’t see a flat spot so opt to pay for our own. After checking in we visit them for awhile before dinner. They offer us a cup of tea and interesting conversation. 

Friday June 1

We stop in Ely this morning for coffee, where Mark receives an email that his friend Cecelia just died. His eyes are moist but he doesn’t cry, nor talk about it. He is a “stiff upper lip” Englishman after all. We are riding along Highway 50, the “loneliest road in America” when I am suddenly hit with a wave of sorrow. For Cecelia? For Mark? I can’t say, just that I am familiar with this emotion, which descends quickly into desolation followed by a physical pull to hurl myself off the closest metaphorical cliff, in this case Mark’s BMW at 65 mph. I concentrate on breathing and assigning a pictograph to these thoughts as my grief counselor has advised; a hot air balloon that I can release into the air. I watch it growing smaller and far away in my mind’s eye. It keeps coming back. I keep releasing it. Eventually there is space for something else, at which point I say “Be here, now” to myself. Gradually I become aware of the warmth of the sunlight on my face, the smell of sagebrush all around me. I inhale deeply and close my eyes. When I open them I am looking past Mark’s shoulder and there in the distance are snow-capped mountains. My heart leaps. Within the space of a few minutes I have gone from having lost the will to live to feeling grateful to be alive. This is my emotional life these days.

We camp in a dispersed camping area near Spencer Hot Springs, Nevada. There are a few other campers in the vicinity but when we walk over to the closest of the several pools in the area shortly before sunset, the previous bathers are just leaving so we have the “tub” to ourselves. It’s murky and silty but quite hot, which at this altitude and after a long day’s ride, is welcome. 

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Saturday June 2

We continue on Highway 50 today. In Fallon we pick up Highway 95 going south where Mark has found us a place to sleep on the ADV Rider Tent Space thread again. Our host is a young man with a large house, a collection of motor vehicles and two large dogs. He lives a short way from the town of Silver Springs, at the end of a gravel round, surrounded by dirt and sand. 

Reid is the son of a midwestern farming family who chose an alternate career path, leaving his brother to follow in the family tradition. His parents visit from time to time and leave him with a freezer full of steaks and cinnamon rolls. He pulls a few steaks out now and they thaw while we make small talk. This is my least favorite part of the day, in spite of the fact that I very much appreciate the kindness of these Tent Space people, offering a bed in their home to a complete stranger and sometimes even, as in this case, a meal. Fortunately this evening the conversation doesn’t stray far from the topics of travel and motorcycles. A friend of Reid’s named Nate from Carson City shows up, keen to talk to someone with exactly the same bike as his and compare notes. He listens raptly as Mark recounts the places he has been with his R80G/S and what has and has not gone wrong with the bike. Nate as it turns out has not taken his bike outside of Nevada yet, and is still becoming acquainted with the personality and quirks of this older model BMW. When Mark begins to nod off after dinner I take the opportunity to say how tired we are and slip off to bed.

Sunday June 3

We leave Reid’s house about 9:30 and head south into California. Again we see antelope, rabbits and herds of wild horses, as well as a few burros. We camp in the only campground within the Stanislaus National Forest that we can find clearly marked from the road. During the night a bear raids the dumpster. I hear it but think it is someone banging the door open and closed to the toilets. In the morning there is trash scattered everywhere, which a ranger comes and picks up.

Monday, June 4

We are headed home today. It is increasingly hot as we descend in elevation, until we get to Sonora and I have to remove the lining of my jacket. As we approach Merced we pass a farm with several exotic animals, including this guy. Mark tells me this is called a “zedonk.”

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A digital display on a bank clock in one of the small towns we pass through flashes 97 degrees. Riding in this kind of heat is decidedly unpleasant when you are dressed in full gear. It’s not until we approach Morro Bay from Highway 41 that the temperature drops, and by the time we get there it has plummeted. Suddenly I’m trying to stay warm and recalling how it felt, only an hour ago, to feel like I’m melting.

We get to my condo about 6:30 pm, three weeks to the day since leaving. 

On the road: Week two

Posted in Prose on May 29, 2018 by 1writegirl

Monday, May 21

We leave Flagstaff around 10:30am and take the scenic route to Phoenix to visit my brother and his partner. We expect to stay just the one night but we don’t arrive till 5:00 so I ask if we can make it two and they say fine. 

Their apartment is small and in keeping with their history, cluttered and in dire need of a good cleaning. In the bathroom I see a spray bottle of all purpose cleaner and have to restrain myself from asking for a sponge. 

What they lack in cleanliness however they make up for in hospitality. They take us to dinner and insist on paying, and when I can’t eat my fish tacos (a big disappointment, as I was really excited to see them on the menu) because they were too spicy, Ellis offers to make me homemade tortillas and salsa when we get back to their place. I’m touched but it’s late so I decline his offer and make do with watermelon instead. 

Tuesday May 22

We have breakfast with Mark’s friend Al a short distance from the house, after which Mark walks to the hardware store and gets what he needs to move the left foot peg on the bike two inches further out. I have so far burned holes in two pairs of boots because the peg was set so close to the exhaust pipe. We go for a ride later and I notice the difference immediately. I pick up a lightweight compact sleeping bag and Mark buys me a sleeping pad. He really is very good to me.

Wednesday, May 23

We leave Phoenix about 9am and ride to Tortilla Flat, about an hour and a half to the east. I want to stop there for 2 reasons. One is I read they have prickly pear gelato. The other is this town was the setting for one of John Steinbeck’s novels, though I can’t remember which one off the top of my head. The town is itty bitty, just three businesses and no obvious residences, but it does have a lot of character in its history. The restaurant where we use the restrooms is papered in dollar bills (what’s up with using currency as floor and wall coverings?) and the ladies room has paintings of saloon girls in frilly costume all over the walls and doors to the toilet stalls. The gelato is just okay.

tortilla flat wc

From there the next 22 miles are dirt and gravel washboard, jarring and painfully slow going. A surprising contrast to the brand new black tarmac we rode into Tortilla Flat. By the time we get to Globe we’re hungry, tired, hot, dusty and thirsty. We pick up food and find the local ranger station where we ask about camping in the area. The ranger refers us to a campground about an hour further north on Tonto National Forest land called Jones Water. The campsites are just off the road but spacious and few are filled. Each includes a large picnic table and bbq grill. Vault toilets but no potable water. Because it’s considered primitive and on NF land, it’s free. Recommended.

Today is my other brother’s (Eric) birthday.

Thursday, May 24

We ride some very nice roads today, with vast forests of saguaro cacti on either side, some of which are huge misshapen creatures, a dozen or more arms twisting in all directions and lovely white flowers atop each one. A fox runs across the road. We’re in and out of Apache territory. Stop for gas in a tiny town and a brown dog comes up to us, whining with imploring eyes. I cup my hands together and Mark pours water into them. The dog drinks and drinks. I’m sure he’s hungry too, and there’s a big fat tick on his head. Mark says he probably belongs to the gas station owners, or is a local dog, and I agree that he isn’t feral but I suspect he’s been abandoned. He looks too hopeful and scared at once to have a home. I would love to be able to scoop him up and take him with us. You can just tell he would make a great pet, loving and loyal. I can only hope someone will take him in. 

Later in the afternoon we stop in Springerville and ask at the ranger station again about camping. The ranger takes awhile to warm up, gruff at first, but eventually becomes forthcoming. Warns us to camp before we get to the Navajo reservation, saying it’s rough land, “not safe” and there will be no place to camp. Directs us to Lyman Lake, about 15 miles north. We camp there for $20, which includes hot showers, some very cool Indian petroglyphs, and an obnoxious Rv about 60 feet away in which a man, woman and their dog yell at one another, play country music nonstop, and bark incessantly. I see a cottontail.

petroglyphs

Friday, May 25

We pass through magnificent scenery on the Navajo reservation land in the form of red, red rocks, columns that look like one smaller rock has been placed upon a bigger one over and over for hundreds of feet up; narrow pillars that are thin and tall with eroded etchings all across them. We see a roadrunner and an antelope. As we ride along I notice the hogans amongst the more modern ranch style houses and mobile homes, some with the open doors I might expect after reading Tony Hillerman’s novels. I look around for Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn or Detective Jim Chee.

Navajo land 

Everywhere I see signs for Christian churches, Red Rock Baptist church this way, Lamb of God church, turn left. We stop at a gas mini mart with a sign on the front door that says “Help our community, don’t give handouts to panhandlers.” We’ve seen panhandlers lurking outside markets and gas stations all day, and this stop is no different. We no sooner return to the bike when a Navajo man approaches us. “Nice bike,” he says. Mark tells him the make and year, and the man asks where we’re from. He slurs his words and is wobbly on his feet. After a couple minutes of chitchat he asks for money. Mark replies that he’s just spent his last $2. I doubt if the man believes him. I know I don’t. He then asks if we have change. Mark gives him his coins. We both know he’s more likely to add it to whatever else he’s accumulated and buy a bottle of booze than food, or a book, or anything else that might, even temporarily, improve the quality of his life. Still, it’s hard not to give something. Everyone we meet, the alcoholic panhandler included, has been very welcoming and friendly. As an American of European descent, I can’t help but feel ashamed. As if it wasn’t enough to eradicate as many of the indigenous peoples as we could via outright slaughter, we had to further reduce them with poisons like small pox, poverty, religion and alcohol.

Further along we meet a pair of cyclists on the road from the UK, going around the world. They are allowing a year and a half. 

We ride to Navajo National Monument where there is free camping in Sunset View campground. In spite of the ranger’s caution yesterday, it is safe and accessible, with potable water and even flush toilets. In the campground we meet another cyclist, from Germany riding across the US to raise money for a children’s charity. Also a motorcycle rider, on an Enfield, from South Korea. 

I keep thinking about the dog from yesterday.

Saturday May 26

Today proves to be a hard day. We decide to stay in our campground for a second night as it’s so nice and free, and take a ride up to Monument Valley and around a loop back to Kayenta from the east. It starts out okay but by early afternoon the wind is blowing hard, and the majority of the ride is grueling. It’s the most uncomfortable I’ve been on a motorcycle so far. 

Sunday May 27

Today we are headed for Moab. We ride again through Monument Valley, which seems to take less time today in the calm, cool morning air. We get to Moab by mid afternoon and locate the home of a guy named Bob whom Mark found through the ADV Rider tent space forum. We’re prepared to set up the tent in his yard because he said someone was already in the spare room. But when we arrive, Bob tells us we can sleep on the floor in the basement instead, so we go for it. Inside we meet Bob’s wife Monique, who is Belgian, and the other motorcycle traveler, Bas from The Netherlands. He’s tall and thin with a friendly face, and like so many Northern Europeans, his English is impeccable. He’s on his own and seems eager for companionship so we invite him to get dinner with us. We wind up at the Moab Brewery where both men order burgers but I get a veggie wrap, saving myself for a grass fed burger tomorrow night at a place I saw on Trip Advisor. I find I can’t stomach meat any longer if it comes from factory farmed animals. It might smell good and even taste good, but I know too much about how the animals are raised to be able to consume it.

Bas is a nice guy and well traveled. I am anxious as always when around strangers that the conversation will move into dangerous territory. I never seem to manage to have a pat answer at the ready for the hard questions. Fortunately we talk easily throughout dinner, and Bas doesn’t pry into my circumstances when I mention I’ve been traveling for some time, by backpack, public transportation, and motorcycle. He seems like an easygoing guy and when he mentions wanting to go to Central and South America, I fantasize momentarily that he’ll suggest I might want to accompany him part of the way. I sense that we’d be fairly compatible and given our age difference (his face is unlined and youthful but there is grey in his whiskers and hair, so I’m guessing he is in his 30’s), I can feel fairly confident there would be no doubt in either of our minds as to the strictly platonic nature of the relationship. But he makes no such suggestion, whether the idea occurred to him or not, and I wistfully let it go. When I picture his bike parked back at Bob’s house, a KTM dirt bike, which would make for a very uncomfortable ride, not to mention it’s so high I don’t know how I’d get on it, I feel slightly less wistful.

 

On the road (for a bit), Week One

Posted in Prose on May 22, 2018 by 1writegirl

Monday May 15: We take 101 to Santa Margarita and pick up Hwy 58 East. Funny how the desert begins almost immediately once away from the coast. I see an antelope. We stop in the tiny town of McKittrick for a cup of coffee at the unimaginatively and unaptly named McKittrick Hotel (it has no rooms). It redeems itself with its friendly waitress, humorous signs on the walls, and creative decor, namely a bar tiled exclusively, floor to ceiling, in pennies. If the sign is to believed, one million of them. This is on the wall in the women’s bathroom:

wall

Further on we pass “something-something ginnery.” I don’t know if  this is a distillery, or a facility to do with cotton and/or cotton gins. We drive on through a green irrigated valley of fruit trees in stark contrast to the brown hills in the distance. Looking at them brings to mind the song by Kate Wolf, Here in California.

A few miles outside of Bakersfield I see the longest freight train I’ve ever seen. I will see many more today and tomorrow, as highways 58 and 40 parallel the railroad tracks.

We stop at Tehachapi for gas and wifi, then find a campsite in nearby Tehachapi Mountain Park. 

Tuesday May 16: I didn’t sleep last night. At all. This morning when Mark got up he threw his down sleeping bag over me and I finally drifted off for about half an hour while he made coffee, tea etc. I brought some melatonin with me and took 5mg before we went to bed, but either it wasn’t strong enough or nothing was going to let me sleep being so cold. 

On the way to Kingman AZ today. Several miles before we get to Barstow I see Joshua trees. To the unfamiliar, from a distance they resemble an evergreen, but closer up they look more like skinny palms gone berserk, with branches shooting out in all directions. Then as quickly as they appeared they are gone, replaced by sage, mesquite, and a big scraggly bush with yellow flowers I feel I should know the name of. Creosote maybe.

I’m dismayed to see continuous trash along the roadway. There’s the cast-offs and remains from vehicles, like shredded tires, broken glass, hubcaps, pieces of plastic and metal from accidents; even entire tires. Then you’ve got beer bottles, soda cans, water jugs, plastic cups, plastic bags, styrofoam containers, cardboard, newspapers, and all manner of trash, as if people just roll down their windows and eject whatever happens to be close at hand. In addition to general detritus I see: a pillow, a five gallon gas can, a plastic bucket, a broken chair, Mylar balloons, and even a shopping cart. I see no warnings of fines for littering like there are along the CA coast.

In Barstow there are no clear signs for directions to Highway 66, which Mark wants to take. We drive through town and at least 10 miles beyond before he realizes by the position of his shadow next to the bike that we’re going west rather than east. (Evidently I’m riding with a Boy Scout; I should pay attention.) Here we see a yellow road sign: “When flooded turn around don’t drown” and a white lizard by the side of the road.

Somewhere along the way I begin to see signs for washes, with names like Lava wash, Siberia wash, Orange Blossom wash, Old Dad wash, Van Winkle wash, and Holy Moses wash. None of these contain a drop of water.

A billboard outside Needles announces that in Lake Havasu Arizona we’ll find “Guns and ammo! Indoor machine gun shooting range!” 

We get a motel room tonight in Kingman. I sleep.

Wednesday May 17:

In the distance, the hills have become mountains, rocks with deep etchings and iron ore deposits tinting the vista. Gradually the west has turned into the southwest. We pass a dead coyote on the road, and more washes: Rattlesnake wash and Peacock wash among them. In the historic old town of Seligman we stop for coffee at the Roadkill Cafe. Sitting at the table next to us is a young man who owns the Suzuki parked out front. His name is Chris, he’s from the Bay Area, and he too is headed to Flagstaff for the Overland Expo where, like us, he’ll be a volunteer. On the wall of the women’s bathroom is this poem:

rte66poem

We get to the park in Flagstaff by around 4 or so, where we check in with the Volunteer Coordinator for Expo then ride downtown to the place where the vehicles in the “Cool Ride” contest are displayed so people can vote on them. The winner will receive a $500 gift certificate. Mark’s BMW motorcycle is one of 8 finalists.

May 18-21. Overland Expo, Flagstaff 

Thursday: It’s fucking freezing here when the sun goes down. After my first sleepless night, I mention to Tiffany (a friend of Mark’s, I met her at the HU event in Wales last summer. She has just rolled in from Los Angeles where she gave a travel presentation) that I don’t have a decent sleeping bag and she spreads the word. Before long a small woman with dark hair in braids named Nicole shows up at our tent with an emergency blanket, a sleeping bag, and an inflatable pad. She calls me Angel. Over the course of the weekend I overhear her talking to others and realize she calls everyone Angel. 

Throughout the day I see Chris, riding around the park on patrol, his 3 volunteer shifts of 4 hours apiece rolled into one. The Volunteer Coordinator, named Cyan, has dyed her blond hair to reflect her moniker. She is adorable.

Friday: I wake up a bit late and can’t find my badge, turn the tent upside down looking for it. When I show up for my shift I’m assigned traffic duty. In the afternoon I attend two presentations, one by Sam Manicom and the other by Elspeth Beard and three other women (including Tiffany) about their travels by motorcycle. Later I attend Ladies Night, where I’m offered free wine and chocolates and meet a woman named Jane who works for BMW. She is the 8th generation from the mother of Thomas Jefferson, and if that’s not enough, also related to Pocahontas. I speak briefly to Carla, who will be squeezing as many women into a Ural as possible tomorrow. I bow out, but offer to do my part to encourage Elspeth to join in.

Saturday: My shift today consists of helping out in the Authors and Exhibitors tent where, between fetching water and chairs and covering for bathroom or coffee breaks, I spend a good deal of time talking with Ted Simon, the legendary British journalist who rode around the world on his motorcycle twice, and wrote several books about his experiences. I am impressed with how easygoing and down to earth he is. He lives in France these days and I mention going to visit my friend Enza one day soon at her new B&B along the French Camino. I hope he will invite me to stop and see him on my way. He doesn’t.

Sunday: Today I have no volunteer shifts to perform so I go to presentations instead, talk to other travelers, and drink Pims at the drinks party Tiffany organizes in the afternoon. Tomorrow we will head south to Phoenix to spend a couple of days with my brother.

The people whom I met here and will remember:

Elspeth Beard, the first British woman to ride her motorcycle around the world (1982-84). Her book Lone Rider is now on sale in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is gracious, charming, and incredibly talented.

Sam Manicom, another world traveler and writer, who is warm and witty and a wealth of good information.

Jane, of lofty ancestry.

Tiffany, who is funny, generous and genuine. I like her more and better every time we meet.

Chris, fellow volunteer, a musician, setting off on his own overland adventure. 

Dave, a guy selling storage/organization cubes for travel who lives coincidentally a few miles down the road from me, possessed of a great smile and twinkling eyes.

Nigel, another British friend of Mark’s who was great company all weekend.

Nicole, to the rescue.

Maggie, a young woman who has taken to living in her Land Cruiser with her dog almost full time; we swapped stories of depression while traveling compared to depression “at home”, and the pull of the road.

Ted Simon, aforementioned, who said to Mark and me upon hearing that we hadn’t had a shower since Wednesday, “I’m leaving tonight so you’re welcome to take a shower in my caravan. Hell, you can sleep there if you want.” (We did.)

And this memorable guy,

dog at expo

Today without slitting your wrists

Posted in Prose on May 13, 2018 by 1writegirl

It’s Mother’s Day. Again. Fuck. Last night I dreamt of Jackson, then of meeting people I used to know, telling them “the news”, fielding their expressions of sympathy. I wake up exhausted and hurting all over. 

Of the particularly difficult days of the year – Jackson’s birthday, his death day, Christmas, Valentine’s Day – I think Mother’s Day is the hardest. My mother is dead, my child is dead. I lie in between two sets of memories, bereft in both directions, the heavy publicity the day receives surrounding me, advertisements on billboards, store ads, across the internet reminding me to do what I cannot do. Reminding me of what I am not, and who I was.

Mark drops me off on the edge of town at the cemetery, then he returns to my place to finish packing his clothes. Tomorrow we leave for Flagstaff Arizona and the Overland Expo. We have done a dry-run pack, stuffing the panniers with balanced loads, filling a small backpack with water, food and toiletries to strap behind my seat, on top of the sleeping bags, pads and tent. His stove is so compact he can fit it into his pannier with his clothes, as well as the one pan he uses for everything.

We have looked at both paper and online maps, and come up with a vague route encompassing the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon, before returning to California: a small circle encapsulating approximately one-third of the vastness that is this country. We had hoped to go all the way east via the southern states then return through the northern, but I have not yet found a new renter for my condo, so the lack of funds as well as the need to be in California again has led to this abbreviated road trip.

I traverse the short distance to Jackson’s grave carrying a handful of sage, rosemary, and a plant I can’t identify but picked because of its delicate golden flowers. Usually the tears wait, but today I am crying from the moment Mark drives off. I pass a dead crow lying on the grass, his little feet straight and stiff in the air, and remember finding a wounded one in this very cemetery on Mother’s Day a couple of years ago, which I took, with Jenn’s help, to the wildlife sanctuary in Morro Bay. Weeks later they called me to say they had healed him and set him free. I marveled that they’d go to so much trouble for a crow with a broken, what? Wing? Foot? I took him there hopeful they’d help him but almost sure they would euthanize him.

When I get to Jackson’s grave I lie on top, as usual. Someday – in an instant, a cosmic blink – it will be mine as well. For the first time in almost four years I talk to him. I don’t mean mumble, or whisper “I’ll be back,” as I always do before I go, I mean really talk. I tell him how badly I miss him. How much I think he would like this or that, and about my upcoming road trip with Mark. It’s not that I think he can hear me, it just feels good to pretend for a few minutes that he can. Or maybe it is just a new release, I don’t know.

As I walk back home I see a dog, clearly lost and confused, making his way alone down the highway. He’s walking in the same direction I am, toward town, but on the other side of the road. I fear he is going to get hit by a car, though he seems to understand the danger himself, and keeps looking at the cars as they pass. It would only take a split second, one false move; the cars are flying by. My heart lurches. He looks hungry, and scared, hunkered down. I want to help him. I feel like I have to help him. How I might do this I don’t know. I don’t have a car to transport him to the local animal shelter, and Mark’s motorcycle certainly isn’t up to such a task, assuming I could even convince him to follow me home. Suddenly a vehicle pulls over on his side of the road and two women climb out. I call across the road to them, “Hey, are you going to help that dog?” They wave in response, and begin to run toward him. They call out to him and he turns. At first he is reluctant, but clearly he wants to trust them. He hovers on the edge of decision, and I know he could go either way. He isn’t feral, I’m sure, or he wouldn’t be considering them as a viable option. As they inch closer and closer, lower to the ground now, he makes up his mind, and wagging his tail a few times, meets them halfway. I think they have done this before. When they meet, the first woman gets on her knees and reaches out her hand for him to sniff it. He does, and she cautiously reaches out and pets him. The second woman approaches and the scenario is repeated. Soon he’s trotting along beside them back to the car, looking up at them as they go. I sigh with relief. We are set to leave tomorrow morning. What would I have done if they hadn’t come along? I know I could not have done nothing. Not today, of all days.

When they drive away I call Marian, feeling the need suddenly to talk to someone who shares my dread about this day. When she answers I burst into tears again, and for several moments I can’t speak. But her voice is soft and her tone is calm. “I know,” she says, again and again. When I’m coherent again I tell her about the dog. She tells me she’s been reading emails wishing her a Happy Mother’s Day. “But it’s not!” I shout into the phone. “It’s Sad Mother Day.” And I think there is a small army of us the world over who would concur, who would rather be wished “Hope you can get through today without slitting your wrists.” It would at least be realistic, and genuine. It might even make us laugh.

When I get home Mark has done the dishes, vacuumed the carpets, and finished the last load of laundry. I take his hand, and tell him how much I appreciate his support. I tell him I know it must be hard for him, being around me. That I realize he probably has never met someone in my situation before, and that I hope he never will again. But he has, he tells me. “Who?” I ask him. “My own mum,” he says. “Three years before I was born my sister died.” I remember the stories he’s told me of his difficult childhood, his remote, emotionally distant mother, and I wonder how much of what he experienced was a result of the death of this sibling he never knew. One might think his mother would have loved and cherished him more, not less. “I’m sorry,” I say, meaning it for both of them. She took the direct hit, but he suffered the collateral damage. 

Eventually the day is over. I lie in bed and think about Jackson, and of the many people who loved him. I think about Marian who is almost certainly in bed right now thinking of her daughter Maddie. I think about Jenn with her new baby, and the promise he holds for her. I think about a group of young women I read about yesterday, struggling to adapt to a new life after being rescued from the sex trafficking industry, and finding out that sometimes who you are is bigger than what you’ve done or what has been done to you. I think about the crow that got a second chance and the dog today, and wonder if I will get my second chance, knowing only that it starts with a seed, turns into giving to someone or something else, and probably looks a lot like redemption.

My Life of Crime

Posted in Prose on April 28, 2018 by 1writegirl

My friend Mark from Devon, England is here and we’re in the library. He has applied for a library card so he can check out books during his stay, but more importantly, so that he can download ebooks and audiobooks to his tablet when we take to the road.

Next to the checkout desk is a big bin full of non perishable food. It’s for the library’s annual food-for-fines event, where for every food item you donate they will reduce your fine by $1. I have several cans of food at home that my tenants left behind and I know I won’t eat, so this seems like the perfect place for them to land. I haven’t wanted to just throw them away.

“Excuse me,” I say to the librarian. “How long will you be collecting food?” 

She shrugs. “The drive is over,” she says, “but as you can see the food hasn’t been collected. You can donate as long as it’s still here, but you missed the deadline for reducing fines.” 

“I only owe 25 cents,” I reply, “so that’s okay. I just want to give you some food.”

She smiles. “If you get back here with it in the next couple of hours, I’m pretty sure you’ll be in time.” 

As Mark and I turn to leave, I spot a can of Trader Joe’s coconut cream. That’s just what I need for the recipe I want to try out in the new ice cream maker I found at a yard sale a few weeks ago. Every time I’ve gone to Joe’s to get some they are out of it and can’t tell me when they’ll have more. And I can’t find it anywhere else for less than $5 a can, which is way beyond my budget.

A few hours later we’re back at the library, with a small box of canned food in the pannier of Mark’s motorcycle. “Here’s the thing,” I say as we walk across the parking lot. “I’m going to put this food in the bin, and then I’m going to take the can of coconut milk out of the bin.” He raises an eyebrow, then grins and opens his mouth to say something, but I shush him. “I might need you to distract them,” I tell him. “You know, if they’re standing close by, and watching or whatever, just tell a joke or something.”

“Tell a joke?” he asks. 

“Yeah, you can think up a joke, right?”

“Uh, no,” he says. 

“Fine, just ask a question or something. Get them to walk with you away from the food bin.” By way of answer he rolls his eyes.

We walk inside and I see the food bin is full to bursting. Not one, not two, but three librarians are standing nearby. I discreetly walk over and kneel down on the floor, setting my helmet down and opening the box of food. I stand up with a can of food and lay it gently on top of the pile. Three pairs of eyes gaze at me. “I’m just donating some food,” I say. They all smile as one. I bend over and pick up another can, and another, until I have only one can left. They are all still standing there watching me. I look around for Mark, but he’s sitting at one of the computers with his back to me. So much for distracting the staff. Slowly, I move my hands over the food in the bin, as if I’m trying to find just the right place to put my item. I gently lift up and resettle a jar of spaghetti. Now one of the librarians is helping a patron at the counter, an elderly gentleman with a large pile of books. Another is on her computer. The third one, however, is still standing there, with nothing better to do it would seem than to watch me. “You’ve gotten a lot of food,” I say, as if this weren’t obvious. She nods. I place my can of beans next to the can of coconut cream, and spend a few seconds making like I’m pushing it securely into the pile. “Thank you,” a voice says, and I look up to see her nodding at me as she walks past, heading towards the children’s department. “Oh, you’re welcome,” I reply, and as soon as she turns away I quickly grab the can of coconut cream and duck back to the ground, dropping it into my small box and closing the lid. But not before I see that there is a second can of coconut cream buried under the first. 

How much coconut cream do I need for my recipe? I wonder. Surely two cans would be better than one, I can make twice as much ice cream. I stand back up but it’s too late, the first librarian has finished helping the old man and while she isn’t exactly staring at me, she is looking in my direction. I smile at her then pick up my box and my helmet and walk pointedly over to Mark. The single can of coconut milk is rattling around in the box. “You were supposed to distract them,” I whisper. “I’m busy,” he says. “Besides, you got it, right?” “Yeah,” I tell him. “But there’s another one.” He shrugs. “You’ve got time. I’m going to be another few minutes here.” I sit down and think about it. I don’t want to be greedy, maybe I should just let it go at the one can. A few minutes pass. I did leave at least six cans though. And two boxes of food coloring. If I took the second can of coconut cream, they’d still be up four cans. And really, how many people are going to want coconut cream? Isn’t that kind of a specialty item? It’s not like beans, or rice, or spaghetti-os. We’re talking about poor people here, people who are hungry. They’ll want cans of food they can open and eat outright, not cans of something they have to cook in some exotic recipe. I glance over to the checkout desk and see there is only one librarian there. Nonchalantly I walk over to the food bin. I spot the can of cream and edge close to it, pretending to be just hanging out there while Mark  finishes up. I wait for my moment. 

Finally there’s no one at the desk. Quickly I step toward the bin and reach my hand in. I don’t see the coconut milk right away though, I must have dislodged it earlier. Glancing furtively around me, I rummage around for it. In my haste I bump a can close to the edge, which falls to the floor with a loud thud. I freeze and close my eyes. Suddenly I know what’s going to happen. This gigantic tower of food is going to collapse, and I’m going to be arrested for shoplifting. “Look,” I’ll say. “It’s not how it looks. I put the cans of coconut cream into the bin by mistake. I didn’t mean to donate them, they got into my donation box by accident.” 

“Those cans of Trader Joe’s coconut cream were already in the food bin,” they’ll say, calling me out on my lie. “You didn’t donate them.” 

“Okay, you’re right,” I’ll admit. “But it’s not what you think. I need that coconut cream. I’ve been to Joe’s no less than five or six times to buy coconut cream, and they’re always out of it. It’s not like I’m stealing, I mean I gave you six cans of food and two boxes of food coloring. That’s eight for two! Some of them were even organic. And I’m poor too,” I’ll remind them. “I’m one of those people who could easily qualify for food from the food bank. I have no money!! I could go to the food bank and get the coconut cream from them, I’m just saving time, that’s all.” They won’t care though, they’ll handcuff me and set bail and I won’t even be able to pay it. 

When I open my eyes Mark is standing beside me. “Be quick,” he hisses. He is standing between me and the closest librarian. I look into the bin again and there is the can of coconut cream. I reach in, snatch it up, and drop it in to the box with the other. Tentatively I look around, ready to start protesting, apologizing, explaining. But nobody is paying us any attention. “Shall we go?” asks Mark, and with a sigh of relief I follow him out the door.

The next day I make butter pecan ice cream. It is fantastic.

At Last

Posted in Prose on March 24, 2018 by 1writegirl

For three and a half months I am homeless. Not by way of wandering, as I’ve been these past three or so years, but by the deliberate, willful denial to my own property by others, i.e., the unlawful occupation of my home by tenants who signed a month-to-month lease, then refused to vacate and/or pay rent. It is entirely different in every way, and I am overwhelmed with a sense of injustice combined with futility. I learn all I can about tenant/landlord laws in California, but I can neither change the bias against landlords nor circumvent the crawling pace of the eviction process. I’ve done nothing wrong, yet I’m being punished and I feel helpless to right this wrong. It is familiar, and it is very reductive. It would be so easy to slide backwards, into emotional chaos, disarray, oblivion. I wonder if I’m strong enough to resist.

Then somehow I get lucky, I am reminded that there is hope, there is good, by Neighbor Jim. He takes me in, says “Hey, I’ve got a couch, sleep here… stay here for as long as you like.” He is 85 years old. I arrive in early January, expecting to stay a week or two, at most. But by mid month he has reassured me again and again: I like your company; I don’t like living alone; you are welcome here. I realize he is not dotty, he is sincere. He tells me about his wife of 30 years, dead now since the early 2000’s. His eyes shine when he speaks of her, sometimes with happy memories, and sometimes because he still can’t quite believe she is gone. It’s as if he woke up and found her missing and can’t figure out where she’s off to. He’s baffled, discomfited, then quietly full of dismay. He knows about Jackson, and there are moments when our sorrows bounce off one another. Somewhere along the way I stop feeling like a burden, and start feeling like a friend.

We fall into a routine. He rises early and goes out to get the newspaper. He returns, quietly boils water for a cup of tea, and retreats to his downstairs studio, housing a piano and several stained glass projects in various stages of completion, to read the paper. After awhile I get up, moving slowly, make coffee, and read for a bit, after which he comes back upstairs and hands me today’s crossword puzzle and Sudoku. We occupy the small space of his living room, which is almost exactly like my own (the condos in this complex all identical in layout) in quiet companionship until one of us is hungry enough to mention breakfast. I make us eggs, with or without bacon, or a smoothie, or toast for Jim and a scoop of almond butter for me. I have recently read a book by a cardiologist who recommends the elimination of all grains and sugars from the diet, and because what he writes makes sense to me, his discussion of our evolutionary eating habits and history, I have decided to follow his advice for six weeks and see how I feel as a result.

In the afternoon we go to the local farmer’s market, or I take a walk, or he takes me to see my grief counselor, grocery shopping, or to a doctor’s appointment. We ride in his 1998 BMW Z4 convertible. It’s not airtight, far from it, so when he speaks to me I find myself yelling to be heard. Back at his place he plays the piano and I read, or write, or finish the morning’s puzzles. In the evening I cook us something for dinner, and we watch a DVD, something from the library, usually a mystery. We both like Agatha Christie, so more often than not it’s Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. He falls asleep midway through it, but I keep watching alone. He typically wakes up just as the show comes to an end, and announces, as if he’s been awake the entire time, “Well that was good, but I think I’m ready for bed now.” And off he goes.

When I’m not at the condo with Jim I’m walking. To the library, the nature preserve, the bay, around town. When she’s available I meet my friend Jenn, who has just had her first baby, a boy. At 41, she’s 10 years older than I was when Jackson was born. She is lithe and vibrant again, or maybe still – I can’t be sure, not having been around during her pregnancy. I try and remember how I felt then. I recall with clarity feeling tip-top during my pregnancy, but after? Was I this energetic and in shape, as if the challenge of birth now over, I had one hand on the starting line and the other behind my back, rocking back and forth as I listened for the whistle? She has a partner, whereas I was on my own. Did I pace myself? I know I tried.

Declan is just over ten weeks old now and every time I see him he looks the same size to me, an odd thing, because I saw him as a newborn and have seen him on a regular basis since. Meanwhile Jenn remarks frequently on how much weight he has gained, or how long he is now. I stare into his sweet blue eyes and remember the pull, the enormity of it, and I have to look away.

This is the first time I’ve been around a baby since Jackson died, and it’s simultaneously better and worse than being around the older children of other friends. Or maybe I should say simultaneously easier and harder. Easier because Jackson passed through that phase of his life intact, if not unscathed. It is less distressing to look at his baby pictures than his high school graduation photos. Harder because while older kids remind me of what I had and lost, Declan reminds me that I will never have the chance to fill that void. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that children are replaceable. They are not, by a long shot. But the being a mother part, that doesn’t have to end if you have other children, or if you are still capable of having more babies. My status now as mother is wrapped up entirely in sentiment rather than activity. I am a Mother Emeritus.

I meet Jenn whenever I can for a walk or a cup of coffee, and no matter when we last saw each other, she greets me with a hug and a kiss. I am only now getting used to this, and I revel in it. The only person before now from whom I could count on for a hug, at least on a regular basis, was my son. Almost every evening before bed we’d run into one another in the kitchen, the hallway, or the stairwell, and after a brief exchange about what was on the agenda for tomorrow he’d say “Goodnight Madre.” (It was always Madre except when he was emphatic about something, or angry, then it was Mother. When something was wrong, when he needed me, it was Mom.) Then he’d lean into me and throw his arms around me in a bear hug, sometimes lifting me off the ground, taking my breath away. Since his death, I crave affection even while I am afraid of it. Crave it in the way that an almost-alcoholic can live without his drink, but really doesn’t want to. Afraid of it in the way you don’t want to get used to something that you want, or possibly need, from someone else because you know it could disappear at any time, and then where will you be? Life lesson after life lesson has taught me to count mostly on myself. Trust, hope, disappointment are all feelings I seem to be ill equipped to handle these days. Yet they are inevitable if we are to truly live rather than merely exist.

Finally March 14th arrives. I meet the deputy sheriff at my condo at the prearranged time of 10:15am. I’m pretty sure my tenants are gone, as I saw a moving truck a week ago outside the garage. But I follow the rules: I wait for him to arrive; I arrange for a locksmith to meet us there in case I am locked out; I hand him the keys and wait for the all-clear. Finally it comes, and my home is my home again. Christ it’s a mess. There is junk scattered throughout the yard – pile after pile of clothes left out in the rain, now moldy and stuck together. Old wood, pieces of furniture, and trash, in a heap by the fence. A heavy couch, torn and bleeding, smack dab in the middle of the yard. A rusty grill, lawn chairs, car batteries, hand weights, discarded cosmetics, dog shit. No pets. Never mind. As I step inside I take a deep breath. I quickly look around, assess the situation: a gash in the stairwell wall; old, spoiled food in the kitchen; the skeletal remains of plants upstairs, death by thirst; boxes of yet more soiled and mildewed clothes in the garage. I take a quick inventory of my furniture and discover several pieces missing, but thankfully none are my mother’s antiques, pieces I will never again leave in the hands of strangers. Most importantly however, my son’s room remains intact. The deadbolt is still in place, and the door itself gives no sign of violent disturbance. Heart pounding, I turn the key and go inside. It is as I left it. I breathe in deeply, and when I smell him I fall to the floor in tears, so thankful, so happy, that I can still, again, have this.