Thursday, October 22, 2009

Last Trip

IT WAS THE BIG BROWN NOSE and demonic, toothy grin that I recall most vividly. The eyes were concealed behind leatherbound goggles, and the entire assemblage capped by a half shell helmet. He was easing up on my left on a BSA twin, a Lightning, I would guess.

We were already rolling along at a pretty good clip, somewhere west of Glorieta. The acid was starting to wear off, but I was still high. I glanced over at him, and nodding a greeting, goosed the throttle.

Coming from the east coast, the landscape still seemed bleak. The high desert is reluctant to share its sparse beauty with newcomers. Mary Ann was helping that process along with this ride.

She had gone out there a year or so earlier, solo, on a sweet little CB350-4. Rented a flat on Galisteo Street, just below the Paseo. Got a job at the Harley shop. I stopped off to visit, on my way to Alaska-so I told myself.

Quickly, things got too comfortable. Within a day or two of arriving—broke—I got a job at Boddy’s Honda, turning wrenches. Richard, the shop foreman, was skeptical of my ability—maybe because when he asked my name, I told him my old friends called me Gonzo. So, first morning on the job, Richard gave me a new CB750.

“The transmission is bad. Can you overhaul it?”

No big deal. In Honda school, you had to tear down a transmission and reassemble it, without the manual. But it’s really not hard, once you learn the system. All Honda trannies—large and small—share the same configuration, which is logical and intuitive.

“Sure,” I replied.

“OK. Let me know if you need a hand.”

All I had to work with was the set of hand tools I carried in my saddlebags, but by lunchtime I had yanked the engine, split the cases, and inspected the transmission. However, there was nothing wrong with it—the trannie was in perfect shape: shifters, dogs, gears, shafts—all sleek and gleaming. So I poked around, and found the problem: the shift linkage was fouled. A tweak with some channel locks and it was back in the groove--there had been no need to pull the engine. By late afternoon, I had the engine back in the frame, and was hooking back up the last of the cables when Rich walked by my bay.

“Need a hand getting the engine out?”

“Nope. It’s back in. I’m going for a test ride in a few minutes.”

“What about the transmission?”

“It’s fine. The clevis from the shift lever was bent. I straightened it. Sorry I didn’t find it until I had it all torn down.”

“No kidding—you had that engine apart and back together in one day—the flat rate manual gives it 24 hours! Who helped you lift the engine out?”

“Nobody.” I demonstrated how you sit astride the rear seat, lay forward with your chest on the gas tank, and ease the engine up onto one of the frame tubes. You dismount, balancing the engine with one hand, then squat beside the bike, and roll the engine onto your haunches. Then you hump it onto the bench.

“Well, if you want to go by Gonzo, you’re Gonzo, alright. If you want to call yourself Jesus, you’re Jesus.”

It’s no big deal, really. I worked with some serious flat raters in big shops back east, guys who were faster than me.


That weekend, Mary Ann wanted to show me one of her favorite spots. We loaded the bikes with a small tent, sleeping bags, and some food and water, and set out for the Pecos Wilderness.

In my pocket, I had a couple of squares of windowpane, powerful stuff. I had tried a dose, back in Takoma Park, just before I left. I went for a walk along the creek, and the acid came on with the rush of a jet engine. Nearing the road, the sound of the passing cars took form, growing as the car approached, and dissolving from sight as the sound receded. I walked up a hill, along a little street I never new existed. Some old bungalows backed up to the park. As I walked beside them, one of the bungalows, with a low slung, wide eaved hip roof, became a merry, portly woman, who hitched up her long skirts and danced a jig for me. I was eager to share this stuff with Mary Ann.

We must have camped above the tree line, because I remember taking off my boots and all my clothes, and running through a meadow, and down a hill. The sun at that elevation was dazzling, and as the acid came on, clouds, mountaintops and trees took on new forms, merged, and recombined. I felt scree and thistles cutting my feet, but did not perceive it as pain. It was like I was shaking off the demons of the past.

But Mary Ann held back. Maybe she was worried that I would leap off some crag and try to fly away, or some local might see us and freak out and shoot us, so I chilled out. Although she was always more adventurous than me, she was a lot more circumspect. Plus she knew I had no common sense.


I started pulling ahead of Brown Nose, and he gunned his machine in response. We were heading up a long incline, and my mildly tweaked R-60/2 was pulling him all the way. But after we crested the hill, the BSA overtook me. I had to watch it anyway, because the beemer got a little wobbly over 95.

And so it went, I’d pace him up the hills, and he’d gain it all back going down. Soon, I could no longer see Mary Ann’s 350 in my mirrors. Brown Nose was in the lead when he peeled off onto the two lane spur into Santa Fe, and I had to yield to a couple of cars. Trying to catch up, I roared up the shoulder, slinging gravel and passing traffic like crazy until a bridge abutment blocked my path. Never caught back up. It was over.

I killed the engine and waited for what seemed an hour for Mary Ann to catch up. When she did, she wasn’t so much angry as disgusted.

I suppose it was a good thing, though, because then and there I decided that I had experienced all I needed of the psychedelic state, at least for the time. In the thirtyfive years since that trip to Pecos, I’ve never dropped another hit. Even tapered off of mota, and finally quit that, too.

But I reserve the right to try it again some time. Like if I were diagnosed with terminal cancer, maybe.

Or if Brown Nose blasted out of the hills again, to give me another chance.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

time ripped away

It took a moment to recognize the name on the answering machine, and when I did, a shadow passed over; this cannot be good.

Kevin Starke, the brother of Cheryl, an old girlfriend. Maybe it’s about a project—Kevin had studied architecture, and had been doing some construction in the area. A day went by, and I forgot to call. Today, I returned the dreaded call: Cheryl died this past weekend. Breast cancer. Kevin said she went unusually fast, so was spared a measure of suffering. So he says.

I met Cheryl when I was turning wrenches at Cycle City; this would have been back around ’71 or so. She had a beauty of an R-60/5, silver, with an Avon fairing and nice bags. A serious road bike.

We went on a few rides together, me on my funky Earle’s fork machine, Cheryl on the R-60, and at some point I found myself in her apartment one night. But I wound up sleeping on a spare cot. There was some gulf I could not cross, to really reach her, to connect with her.

Not that I didn’t try; not that I didn’t want to. She had an angelic face, and I’m fighting tears as I picture her smile. Her body was luscious, marred only by a jagged scar, horizontal above one knee—from when an unseen driver ran her off the road one night. She had the affectionate disposition of puppy, but the persona of a kitten.

But I couldn’t find a way to talk to her, much less to touch her. It’s not that she was holding me away—she couldn’t reach me anymore than I could reach her. And at best, in those days, I was a moving target.

For a while, she was hooked up with an older guy, whose nickname belied a high degree of intimacy. When I moved out west, we exchanged some letters, and she would tell me about the cross-country rides they took, Cheryl on the beemer, and her man on his glide.

Some years later, when I was living back here, we got in touch again. She was dancing in a topless joint, working her way through school. One afternoon she called to see if I was home, and I invited her over. It didn’t seem important at the time, to mention that my friend Tom was visiting. Without any warning, she burst in and ripped off her coat, and wearing little more than a g-string and some pasties, she jumped on the couch and broke into a dance. I can’t recall at what point she realized I wasn’t alone, but she went on with her dance, refusing to be embarrassed. Still, we were all a little unsettled by it, and she did not stay long. That may have been the last time I saw her, except for the few times we’d bump into one another.

My brother Art liked her; he’d visit her from time to time, maybe every other year. She was a serious gardener, like Art; they had that in common--but not too much else.

The last time I saw her, she was manning a booth at the folk festival, promoting a cohousing community. She told she was living by herself, in a house she designed and built out there, by the foot of Sugarloaf. The house was built on sustainable principles, and had solar panels on the roof. She’d finished school, and gotten a pretty good job in the school lab. Finally quit riding. She let me know she was still looking for a man, but not having a lot of luck.

I would have liked to have visited, to catch up on our lives apart, to see her house. But I never got around to it, and the time slipped away. In this case, it’s like the time was stolen, ripped away from a woman who will always seem young to me.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

By the Light of the Moon

LAST THURSDAY NIGHT, a few steps inside the slender park, and just out of the streetlamp’s reach, I paused to take a leak. The night was overcast, so I’m not sure if the moon had already risen, but it was light enough to see a faint mist rise from the issue.

I was on the lookout for horned owls, despite the early hour. It was not even nine yet. Annette had gone to the theater with her old library buddies, so I worked pretty late, left the car for her by the train station so she wouldn’t have to take a cab, and started to walk home. I could straighten up a little, do some reading. But approaching the pub, I recalled that Rick would be behind the bar tonight. Some bartenders pour scotch like it was nitroglycerine, so fearful they are of barely covering the bottom of your glass, but Rick serves you a double if not more. Because there was rain in the clouds, I ordered Laphroaig. But I digress.

It was Steve who—moments before—tipped me off on the horned owl. Steve lives on the corner, just outside the park, and has a keen eye for the local wildlife. He knows when the red fox goes on morning patrol, and keeps close tabs on the hawks—the coopers, the sharpshins, the redtailed and redshouldered—as they pass through the region.

Steve was out front as I walked by, with his ancient ginger cat weaving between his legs, tail erect. I stopped to tell him about the pair of dove-sized hawks I saw on my way in last week. He agreed that they were probably sharpshins—not redshouldered fledglings, as others suggested. Then he told me how he encountered a horned owl—twice in the past week—while riding his bike, just a few miles up the creek.

“Are you sure it was a horned?” I asked. Annette told me many times, of sleepless nights, listening to screech owls, hunting their way up the creek around midnight, and back down again before dawn. She’d repeat their call, that quavering whoo-oo-oo-oo-oo, in a descending tone.

And last year there was that barred owl—Annette recognized his call, which to me was just another dog, barking at passersby, from a yard backing up to the creek. But I stumbled into the bamboo and poison ivy, and caught him at close range in my 10x42’s—the breast as majestic as a Bourbon king in flecked ermine, the unmistakable headlamp eyes. When he took flight, revealing a wingspan nearly as great as Annette’s height, my heart paused.

“No, I saw his horns against the sky. No doubt. Second time, I came around this curve and he’s flying low, right towards me. I must have surprised him, because as he passes over my head, I see something fall, and plop! I look down and there’s a headless rabbit lying there, right smack in front of my bike.”

“No bull, man, that’s something else.”

I was searching for something meaningful to say when I felt something brush my pant leg. It’s the cat. I bent over and kneaded the flesh behind its ear, and smoothed the fur over its arthritic haunch. They were both just looking for some company, I guess, but it was time to get going. I said, “Dude, I’m half drunk and headed home,” and shoved off.

Still no rain. The Laphroaig was a good choice, however, because I was in shirtsleeves and the wind was picking up. It was going to be one drink at first. The bar was crowded, but quiet, because it was a solid, dreary line of men. I joined the line, and started watching a tennis match. Monofils edging out Nadal.  I wanted to check out their moves, but the camera covered the whole court, and the only time it zoomed in was to show Monofils shaking his wild afro, slinging sweat in great arcs.

The scotch disappeared into the man, and the man into the match. Presently, a blistering forehand by Monofils drove Nadal far to the right--his backhand side--and the return was wide. Set over, glass drained. My feet were ready to find some sidewalk.

I caught Rick's eye and drew my forefinger across my throat. He came over and picked up my glass.

"Thanks, Rick."

"My pleasure. I hope things are going better for you."

"Well, things are starting to pick up. There's a good chance I'll be in the black by the end of the year."

I was reaching for my wallet when the guy next to me gently intruded.

"Pardon me, would you mind if I asked what business you are in?"

"Not at all. It's about the worst business you can have in a recession." I explained briefly what I did, but did not offer him a card. "What's your name?"

"Carter Adams. And you?"

I told him.

I had noted his presence earlier, working on a huge hanger steak and washing it down with a martini. He was a short, compact fellow--a wrestler once, perhaps, built for power and for speed. Wiry, closecropped black hair sprang from a round head. Dark eyes and a genuine smile displayed confidence. That he did not crush my hand when we shook intimated a refined temperament.

"And what do you do?"

"I teach and coach football."

"Public system?"

"Yes." He mentioned the name of a local high school.

"My cousins went there, late sixties and early seventies."

"Hah--that was before I was born, man."

“What do you teach, physed?

“Tenth grade English.”

“Wooohhh! Do I detect some cognitive dissonance here?”

I caught Rick's eye again, and lifted an imaginary glass to my lips. A new glass arrived.

“Not in the least. Do you have something against English teachers?”

“No way. I’m the grateful product of some inspired public school English teachers. What books do you teach?”

Carter told me that his school gives the teachers wide discretion. At least a third of the kids are college bound, reading at adult levels. A similar proportion struggles at an elementary school level.

“There’s only one required book: 1984.”

“That’s a hoot. Not Silas Marner—which by the way, I faked my way through.”

“You and most of your classmates, for sure.”

“Still, Orwell seems a little edgy for a big school system.”

“If you think the book is edgy, let me tell you about how I taught it last year. I knew from previous years, that when you pass out the texts, and the kids see it’s 300 pages, you lose half of them before you even start.

“So I cooked up a little conspiracy with the school secretary and the security officer. The next day, I walk into class, looking and acting terrified. They pick up on it right away, because normally I’m pretty laid back, really happy to be in the classroom. Then I announce that there is concern about my teaching, and that I have been accused of violating chapter 451 in the teacher’s code—a failure to ‘adhere strictly to the prescribed curriculum.’ It’s totally bogus of course—but I explain that I might be at any point, ‘removed from the classroom.’"

"Holy smokes--I know what's coming."

"Right. I start to take attendance and the secretary walks into the classroom, up to the podium, and announces, 'I'm sorry to interrupt, class, but Mr. Adams will be leaving us. Your substitute will arrive shortly.'"

"She leaves, and I stand up, looking crushed. Before I can speak, the security office walks in, announcing that I am under arrest for 'a 451' and handcuffs me. Then he grabs my collar and walks me out."

"Cool. And the 451 reference is beautiful."

"I let a few moments go by, and then I walk back into the classroom. Several students are in tears; others are slackjawed. I explain the hoax, and then tell them that in the book we are about to read, incidents like that are a matter of routine. To the ones in tears, I ask, 'for heaven's sake, why didn't you protest?'

"Anyway, every one of those kids devoured that book. They all got it--that a population can be brainwashed, and subdued."

The conversation paused. The hanger steak was almost gone. I'm proud of this guy. I thought of Riefner, who taught 9th grade English in my button-down junior high school. The first time I encountered him, I was a skinny undeveloped kid, fresh out of elementary school. Rief was serving as hall monitor, leaning back on a wooden chair, watching students on their way to home room. Two girls in front of me walked by him. "Skags!" he hissed. They giggled. Then I walked by.


I stopped in my tracks.

"Where's your belt?"

Before I could reply, he snarled, "YOU! Report to me tomorrow morning wearing a belt. If you don‘t, I‘ll find you!"

Next morning I dug out the only belt I had, a hideous thing with beadwork on the back that spelled out Miami Beach, given to me by my mother's maiden aunt. I went to Reif's classroom, but he was not there. I asked a girl--my god, she was a woman--where he was. She started calling, “Mr. Riefner, Mr. Riefner,” and looking around, attracting the attention of the other students. She leaned over and opened the doors of a credenza, peered in and called, "Mr. Rieeeef-ner!" As she leaned, I peered down the scoop neck of her top, deep between her breasts.  The view made me lightheaded.

She closed the cabinet door. "He's not here." The classroom was ringing with laughter.

I blurted, "Could you please tell him I came by, and I'm wearing a belt?" Another peel of laughter. I spun on my heels and ducked back into the anonymous hall, unsure of where I was, or where to go, or how to take my next breath.

When I got to his English class, two years later, he was still working on me. In the middle of a session, with no warning, he'd fire out, coal black eyes blazing, "ABRAMS! WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INNOCENCE AND IGNORANCE?" But he'd also take me aside in the hall, putting his arm around me, and give me a copy of The Painted Bird, or A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. His breath reeked of tobacco, and the tweeded arm was scratchy.

Once I asked him why he gave me an "A" on a composition. "I really didn't think it was that good."

"It wasn't. But I grade on the curve, and your classmates are idiots."

The hanger steak was gone. The martini and the scotch were dwindling. I made a V with my fingers, and Rick brought up reinforcements.

We talked on, mostly about families. How his three nieces, each just a year apart, were so different in temperament.

“I used to think it was all about upbringing. These girls were brought up in the same household, same parents, same circumstance. But if you met them on the street, you’d never think they were sisters. It became clear to me that there’s something in our nature, that makes us who we are.”

I told him about Annette and her twin sister, who complete each other’s sentences, and of my own brother, so alien to me. Again, our glasses were empty.

It always seems like there's craziness in the air on Thursday nights. Good craziness. But the craziness could turn bad with a fourth scotch. Monofils had shot his wad; Nadal had come back. I asked Carter how to find him again; he said “Come by the school anytime, I’ll be there.” I knew I probably never would.


After the piss, I was walking across the footbridge—the one where, whenever Annette and I cross together, I always embrace her and kiss her—and I thought of Killer.

Killer was a cat that belonged to a former girlfriend of mine, back in New Mexico. The name was meant to be ironic. Household mice and crickets were in little danger. I still have a snapshot of Anna Marie in her chair, reading a book, with the Killer asleep in her lap.

In the fall of 1974, we rented half of an old adobe house in Chimayo. The other half of the house, split down the middle with an adobe party wall, was owned by a family named Martinez. I never knew the parents very well, but the son introduced himself one day, while I was out front, replacing the ball joints of my truck. I saw his boots first, and slid out from under the truck. He greeted me with a 35mm film can of mota, and we got along fine until one night, when, like so many of his cohort, he drifted across the centerline of the twolane. It seemed like there was a wooden cross and a wreath of plastic flowers at every curve, all the way to Espanola.

Anyway, the Martinez’s had a big tomcat that would torment Killer. He’d come in with tattered ear, or a festering abscess. One afternoon, the tom caught Killer by surprise, and they went tumbling down the hand dug well that Mrs Martinez still pumped from every day. You could hear them fighting as they were falling, and two hellacious yowls as they thumped to the bottom. But it was Tom who bounded out of the hole first, with Killer in savage pursuit. I don’t think he was bothered much after that.

I concentrated on keeping my wobbly gait within the three center planks of the bridge. My right foot is freedom, my left is slavery. Right is innocence, left is ignorance. Right, nature; left, nurture. Killer B. Killed, I called him, after that journey down the well.

Above the dark rim of tree canopy, the moon winked through a gap in the clouds. Just then, a rushing shape hurtled over my head, heading up the creek.

“Who-whoo-oo-hoo,” it called.