They canned pork and beef and potatoes and peas to survive the Kansas winters during the Depression. It was as the two old women were retelling these trials that at last I discerned what long I've sought in my maternal grandmother's speech: The diphthongs. The I in nice has two vowels, not one. Not nice, but nigh-eece--softly said. The same with the A of face. Not face, but fay-eece--again softly, barely distinguishably. But it's not universal. Take, for instance, is Tuk. Instead of "I can't remember," my grandmother says "I cain't thay-eenk." And maybe I should go on and on until I've devised a pronunciation scheme for her language. Yes, my grandmother would be immortal then. I would have the warmth of her character and home all wrapped up into a sheet of paper to be examined and re-examined like some sacred religious relic.
Betsy, the other old woman, brought me cookies. I scribble these words sitting before their empty plate at my grandmother's round dining room table. It is very warm in here. Too warm, really. A warmth that numbs you, soothes you. Your hunger leaves you. You're massaged into passivity, into lethargy. This in contrast to the shock of frigid days between Albuquerque and here. Cold verging on the unbearable, that. And twenty-four hours longer than it should have taken.
Betsy said she knew a woman "as wild as a March hare." She said her sister "could not sew a hem on a tea towel." Both of these old women reminisced over the "gove'nment men" canvassing western Kansas during the Depression and killing all the cattle. "Shot them in the head," Betsy said. And my grandmother said it was forbidden to butcher and eat the meat. This she never understood. "Everyone was so poor and hungry," my grandmother said. I pondered the point. The cattle must have been sacrificed for some higher purpose, for market prices or something.
I caught my shoe on fire trying to warm my feet over the Winnebago's stove burners. I pulled into a snow-drifted rest stop in the New Mexican mountains to do so. A draft funnels through the pocked floorboard of the motor home's cab. I couldn't feel my feet. I just wanted to warm them enough to feel them. Poof, I'm aflame. Somewhere between Albuquerque and Amarillo this happened. It is a rickety horse, mine.
Lots of snow there.
The television discusses some minor government scandal. "Those politicians..." my grandmother just blurted. She sighs now in front of me, leaning over the Junction City News. "Our paper's not very big, Johnny," she says to me quietly. "But always Wednesdays we get quite a bit of paper." Ten pages maybe lie beneath her heavy round glasses.
My first load of laundry is dry. My grandmother offered to help me "double" them. And we did. And now I'm back...to disappear again for two more chocolate chip cookies and a grilled cheese sandwich.
The mechanic's name was Tom and he kept a guitar under a counter against which neatly sat a compact refrigerator with a glass door. The refrigerator was empty. Tom did not play the guitar often, he said. He only played it when business was slower than usual and he thought to. I was standing in front of a Coke machine next to the empty refrigerator and beside another would-be writer who wore a black beret, ponytail, and reluctantly graying beard. Tom strummed and picked out recognizably--even to me--an old Rush tune. "How long you been playing?"
"A long time," he said, peering over the fret board and his fingertips. "But not seriously."
"You sound pretty good."
He strummed a little more. He strummed through a second tune. Then, "The Maya," he said. "They eat some kind of mushrooms?"
Tom had heard me conversing with the other would-be writer; but not really about the Maya; and not about mushrooms. And yet for some reason that I will probably never understand, I answered, "Yeah, they use them in religious ceremonies like peyote and some other drug--hallucinogens. They are hallucinogens," even though this is probably not true. At least I don't think it is. Peyote is used ceremonially by some peoples in the southwest United States and the northwest of Mexico. I was thinking of Don Juan and the Yaqui way of Knowledge. I had in mind Carlos Castañeda. I saw Castañeda "seeing." I saw him understanding the mystery.
Tom did not comment. Strummed. I felt strangely exposed, misinterpreted. The other would-be writer exited without adieu or apparent cause. He thinks I use drugs, I mused. Doesn't like it.
"Psilocybe Cubensis," the mechanic pronounced. "I saw it in a book."
"I have no idea," I stated, establishing my abstinence.
He strummed a little more.
I asked, "Was that first song you played by Rush?"
And the mechanic began strumming it again, picking it out.
Standing next to that empty refrigerator, in front of that Coke machine, I enjoyed a panoramic view of the station's two gas pumps, of interstate 40, and, across interstate 40, of my derelict Winnebago stranded in a parking lot between a Taco Bell and a Wal-Mart. The front of the station was all glass. I could see everything. The air within the station smelled of gasoline, anti-freeze and electric heaters.
And with which of these two men would I have a better rapport? I spoke with the would-be writer for some time. He was pony-tailed, as I said, black-bereted, bespectacled and en route with his Labrador from Reno to Nashville to "do a poster" for his New York publisher. He said he bumped into a movie producer in a bookstore in Sedona. He assured me that the producer was giving his idea for a screenplay "serious consideration." It was a science fiction tale of extraterrestrials chauffeuring the leading man to the destination of his choice. That was it. Once my interest in Mexico became known he expatiated quietly but quite fervently on the possibilities of extraterrestrial intervention in those indigenous cultures. He was quite adamant about a spaceman image that had been carved into an ancient Maya sarcophagus. And he had never heard of Magic Realism. And the more poetic and fantastic he waxed, the less engaged in the conversation I became. I let him talk. To this one I could never mention The Don Quixote Piece or The Sandra Texts, or this research trip for my unfinished novel. And I definitely could not discuss how I am keeping careful notes on this journey in hopes of unriddling some incomprehensible secret. To the other one, to Tom, the unshaven one in coveralls running the gas station, I might actually say such things. His bald curious question made him much more congenial--that query on mushrooms.
Twenty degrees. At one point during the night my left foot woke me, aching with cold. I drew it up closer to my body and tried to warm it with one hand--the other staying clamped in my right armpit. I was buried under the three saddle blankets I bought my father and his wife in El Paso and two other blankets. I was wearing a t-shirt, a sweater, a coat, blue jeans, sweatpants, and the two Baja jackets I bought my sister and her husband. At some point during the night--not at the time of the aching foot--I unburied my head to read the thermometer. Twenty degrees, it quivered. I once improvised a way of making my body its own heat source. It served me well here. Bury yourself, as I had, in blankets, and then pull yourself up into the fetal position so that your breath warms the air in the open space beneath the blankets. This works well enough to prevent hypothermia to at least twenty degrees sheltered. About 2 a.m. my foot woke me. I was trying to sleep in a parking lot between a Taco Bell and a Wal-Mart. I'd considered letting the motor home idle while I slept. I was afraid though I would gas myself. I didn't let it idle. I would be sorry.
My grandmother browses television channels: Cooking. Hockey. Carlos Santana. The nativity. Mary Tyler Moore. She pauses--I distracted. A Christmas Carol--colorized. And continues on.
Three mechanics: Tom at the "till" (as he called the cash register), Don repairing the other would-be writer's motor home, and Richard, who helped Don and serviced tires. They had worked on the other motor home for two days. They worked on it through the one full day I was there. They would be working on it still when I left them to continue on to Junction City.
The bespectacled black beret invited himself into my Winnebago that second night and showed me his itemized bill--over sixteen hundred dollars! I was intimidated. A bill like that would effectively end my trip.
I said, "I'm going to tell them I only want the thing started so I can move on."
"That makes me nervous," I said. "They seem like honest guys. But a bill like that! Did you ask for all that?" I asked.
He had. The would-be writer was charging the repairs to his publisher's credit card. "He can't expect me to travel around in something that threatens my safety," he justified indifferently.
The black beret seemed to be craving more of his conversazione fantastique. I was averse. I craved a night's sleep. Then, while leaning against my refrigerator door, I stretched. The would-be writer leaned into me and offered a back massage. He leered ruttishly. I'm not adventurous that way. He went back to his paints and his cameras.
Don and Richard were in and out of the lobby area constantly, working on the other motor home, making parts runs in a small white four-door, warming up their hands. I exchanged only a few words with them. But Tom, he stood in front of the till all day long, taking money for gas, watching weather reports on a small television screen, strumming his guitar, postulating.
He spit into the trash can.
"I think it's because they don't have no fathers to teach'em how to use guns."
The other would-be writer exited, again without adieu, again without apparent cause.
"If they had a father to take'em out in the woods and show'em what a gun is for they wouldn't be shooting each other. As it is, they get hold of a gun. They've never had one before. And what are they going to do? They are going to shoot it. So they shoot at each other."
He spit into the trash can. He had a pinch of snuff between his lip and teeth and spit into the trash can maybe twice per minute.
"He didn't want to hear my ideas about gangsters," Tom said gently, gesturing with his shoulder toward the writer who was not there. He mused, "I used to spend so much time in the woods when I was a boy. With a bee-bee gun. My dog."
"Yeah," I offered. "My step-dad is a gunsmith. I grew up around them, too."
A man entered and paid 7.48 for unleaded.
"He got mad when I said I hated niggers."
I said nothing.
"He didn't like that. And when I said it seemed to me AIDS was a man-made disease that got out of control--it seemed to pick on drug users and homosexuals--he didn't like that at all." Tom paused. "I think he may be funny."
I did not mention the leer.
That second night I fashioned a makeshift tent inside my Winnebago. Tom and Don and Richard had towed my horse to the station. Tom told me I could hitch it to the garage's electricity and loaned me an electric space heater. But the cold was relentless. The heater would only warm my feet. I built the indoor tent to better contain its warmth. It worked well and a bleary fatigue crept through me. I peeled away my coat and shoes and slept exhaustedly in the same clothes I had slept in the night before. Profoundly I slept: The blankets tenting me, the heater cosseting. I slept better than I had slept since leaving Tucson. I slept in front of a garage.
My grandmother watched COPS. Now she watches Taxi.
"Pump the gas then turn the key," Don instructed.
The mechanics had warmed the engine with a large heater and recharged the battery drained by my counter-productive starting attempts.
I turned the key. It did not turn over.
"Yeah," I said.
I turned the key. The engine caught this time but it did not turn over.
"Pump it and then when you feel it starting to turn give it gas."
I turned the key. It almost turned over.
"She'll go," Don said matter-of-factly. He began to roll up the heater's power cord.
I tried the key again.
The engine turned over. It started. The engine was sputtering suddenly beneath me sputteringly.
And so the problem was just incompetence. Mine. I did not know how to start an old engine in cold weather.
The engine warmed. The charger charged. While I let this go on Tom and I shared a last exchange on the end of the world.
"The Roman empire fell," I said. "All of the great civilizations of the past have fallen. Makes you wonder."
Tom mused, "I've always had a weird preoccupation with Armageddon. All of this killing and violence nowadays. One day it's all going to snap. I'll go into Wal-Mart over there and get all kinds of ammunition."
"We've got it made, man. We've got everything. Makes you wonder how it can all come apart."
"I bet I've got enough canned goods to feed two hundred people for a day. Beans and corn might get old but you can eat them."
And he spit into the trash can.
An air of the departing fell over us. It was not a melancholy. It was something more masculine than a melancholy. We liked communicating.
I gave Tom thirty dollars cash, and, without shaking his hand, without looking him in the eye, told him I appreciated his hospitality.
Six hours later, which was about ten hours ago, I stood shivering at a pay telephone in Junction City, Kansas. My grandmother gave me directions to her new address. The ache of my feet was thawing as she heated for me potato soup, as she built for me an enormous ham sandwich. Warm in here. Warm enough to make you sleepy. Marty Robbins on Austin City Limits.
I scribbled all this to catch up. When I've nothing to tell I'll explain how this trip began all those weeks back.
"Goin' to bed, honey," my grandmother says.
"Going to bed?"
"Sorry I was so preoccupied."
"Well...that's all right," she says.
"Trying to catch up on some notes before tomorrow."
"That's all right," she says.
And the I of "right" here is like that of the "nice" of earlier. "Righ-eet." Like that, but very softly.
"I love you, grandma."
"I love you, too," she says.
I will consume now another grilled cheese.
turn page >>>