Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Sixteen

 

May 1974

The toothless driver left me off by the entrance to route 80. I was still unnerved by the electric fence and the collective stink eye that had been coming my way since I’d arrived in Salt Lake.  Outside of Phil, the health food motorcyclist, nobody had been close to friendly.  I wanted out of Salt Lake City. And then along came Maurianne in a Volkswagen bus.  She stopped said “hop in.” I hopped in.

Maurianne looked California, talked California, and was travelling all the way to San Francisco.   Blonde, blue eyed, friendly, and maybe a year or two older than me.  Jackpot.  Maurianne in her blue jeans, peasant blouse, and easy morning smile was what I needed after having been jolted backwards by an electronic fence.

She had to clear the front seat off for me and did so by tossing assorted junk behind us. I saw that the seats were down in the back of the van. Blankets, pillows, and sleeping mats were there without much order. A guitar case was open and in it was a guitar on one side and what looked like clothes ready for a washing machine in the other. Scattered around, I noticed an opened road map, candy bar wrappers, the board game “Chutes and Ladders” and a few YooHoo bottles that looked like they had been careening off the walls of the van like drunks in an elevator.  

I settled in and we headed toward the Nevada border. We got to talking and I told her where I was going.  She opened up easily like someone who wanted to talk. She had just dropped her kids off with “her old man.”  I wasn’t sure if she was referring to her dad or her husband, but it soon came out that she and her husband had separated. He was from Salt Lake and the kids were going to be spending the summer with him and his family. They had been living together in Pacifica, a suburb of San Francisco.  And it was to Pacifica that she was returning.  Leaving her kids, she told me more than once, was not an easy thing to do.  In an indirect way her burden resulted in my good fortune. She had, in large part, picked me up because she, now without husband or kids, did not want to face the very long 14 hour drive through the desert by herself.  

I did keep her company and think she did not regret her decision to stop for me.  But I disappointed her on at least two fronts. She thought maybe I played the guitar and we could sing together as we drove.  Also, she’d hoped I could share with the driving. Now a committed driver of standard transmissions, then I’d never driven one.   I did drive for a stretch, jerking it into fourth, and then driving for about 60 miles.  It was not a relaxing 60 for her since every time I had to slow down it was an adventure, so she took over the wheel for nearly the entire 14 hour drive.

There was not a whole lot between Salt Lake City and Reno.  It was miles of nothing despite exits appearing now and again that seemed to take drivers nowhere. We were both amused by the signs for exits and then the ramps to them.  Nothing at the end of these ramps. No Texaco, McDonalds, motels, nothing, just ramps that went nowhere.  She and her old man had made this drive before, but still she chuckled as did I when we saw an exit for nowhere and a ramp off the interstate that took you there.

Things had not gone especially well with Maurianne and her husband.  Alternately she described him as a dick and then moments later “basically a nice person.”  She told me he had a mean streak and had hit her—more than once.  This I felt was cause enough to dump the guy, but she was not so sure.  “I’d been messing around.” She told me.  “Not right. Still no reason for him to hit me. He scared me. I didn’t want to be frightened anymore. He sorta was a good dad. But he had this mean streak.”  Maurianne teared up, got a tissue, blew her nose. “It’s hard,” she said. “Hard.”

There is so much nothing on route 80 that we stopped whenever there was a bonafide something. Wendover, Wells, Elko, and Winnemucca—the four somethings on the way to Reno. We hit them all.  Got out, stretched our legs.  

It was around one when we approached Elko.  By that time we were getting along and joking at the same things.  When she decided that I was not a bad guy, Maurianne announced that she had a buddy who lived in Elko and we might stop and visit.

We exited off the interstate.  Maurianne found a pay phone, made a call and soon we had directions and an invite.   I got the back story on Barbara.  She had been wild, “like me” said Maurianne.  A partier and city person in San Francisco doing her share of drugs. Then, and Maurianne relayed this with a degree of incredulity, she met this guy close to twenty years her senior who was visiting kin in San Francisco but lived in Elko. Within no time, Barbara decided to move out with Shel to the middle of the desert and share a life.  Maurianne could not really get it. She said they were apples and oranges, she a hippie, he a redneck. 

Barbara hugged Maurianne when we arrived and gave Shel a hug with a little less oomph to it. I was introduced: “This is Alan—he’s riding with me.”  So there I sat with a stranger, Maurianne, in the home of someone stranger still, and her redneck husband Shel.  Barbara made bacon and eggs for us and Shel regaled us with tales of Elko. He said that there were times in Elko that were more fun than “you could shake a stick at. They’re called Indian Days.  Lots of tonto around here.  Sometimes not so much fun with tonto if you know what I mean. But Indian days are great.”  

A teenage kid stopped by.  There was a knock on the door and then the door swung open.  The kid had not waited for anyone to answer the knock. She just came into the foyer holding a handful of mail.  Bathing suit top and cut off shorts.  Big California smile.

“Whoops. You’ve got company.”

“No problem. Come in. Come in.”

“They delivered the mail to the wrong house again. Mom just asked me to bring it over.”

Barbara took the mail. While sifting through the items she absent mindedly introduced Maurianne and me. Referred to Maurianne as “an old friend” and me as “a hiker.”

“Hey,” said the teenager, “I’ve done my share of hitch-hiking. All over.  Great times.”

“They can be.” I say. “Not so much fun in Salt Lake City.”

“They don’t know the meaning of fun in Salt Lake” says Shel.

“Well, off I go. Nice to meet you all.”  And out she went, seeing herself out the door, and bouncing down the steps.

This Shel was nice enough to me, but there seemed something not quite right there.  Like, Maurianne, I could not see the attraction between Barbara and him.  She seemed kind of cool, and he was like the guy you see at the bar who has been sitting there for hours with a sourpuss not saying anything, just pushing his glass toward the barkeep when it was time to reload.  We ate in silence after the teenager left.   

When we got back in the van, Maurianne told me that she did not want to say anything before we got there, but that Shel had spent some time in jail for stealing and assault.  “He’s calmed down now,” she said.  “At least I hope so.

“It was very nice of them to make us lunch, particularly for me”, I said.  

“Yes. Always liked Barbara.  I think she’ll be okay”, she said, but I could tell she was not so sure.  

It would be two and half hours more to Winnemucca. About halfway into this stretch, after speaking disparagingly about her own husband and how he had given her a shiner once, Maurianne paused and said, “Damn, Barbara is out here in the middle of nowhere.  I hope she’s okay.”

“Seemed okay” I said, not that I really felt she was or was not.

“The girl,” she said, “the girl who came in with the mail.  The neighbor.”

“Yeah,”

“Barbara took me aside when we were in the kitchen.”

“Yeah, so.”

“She thinks Shel is doing her.”

“What? Come on. She is a kid.  Probably not 18. He’s got to be pushing 40.”

“She’s 17. Shel’s 43. Barbara thinks he’s doing her.”

“Wow. Come on. I mean, she’s a kid.”

“You see that tattoo?”

“Well, sure, you couldn’t miss it.”   

“I bet you couldn’t miss it.”

Monday, March 1, 2021

Fifteen

2019

The phone rings in my office. I say, hello.

“What is it, Alan?”

“Becca?”

“Rebecca.”

“Rebecca?”

“At work I am called Rebecca."  

“Are you being paid by the syllable?"

“What is it, Alan?”

“’ What is it Alan?’ No hello. No how are you?”

“Alan, we haven’t spoken in years.  The last time I saw you was in Harvard Square and, if you want to know, you were not exactly welcoming.”

“You were with Richard.”

“Yes. I was married to him.  We are allowed to go out together.”

“Was?”

“Am.  I meant that at the time I stopped to say hello to you in Cambridge and you barely acknowledged me, I was married to him.  Look, I feel a little uncomfortable talking to you.  But, the message you left sounded like it might be important.”

“It is.”

“Okay.” She said.

“Okay.  I was in Las Vegas a few weeks ago.”

“Your kind of town.”  Becca had little use for Las Vegas. People throwing their money away, and half-clad women serving free drinks to keep people gambling, sports betting, and late nights.  Nothing about Las Vegas seemed to be attractive.

“I was there for a conference.”

“Bet they had to drag you there.  What happened in Las Vegas?”

“I was sitting in the airport waiting for my flight and I saw a newspaper article about some parents who have been looking for their daughter for 40 years.”

“Ok. Yeah, So.? Get to it. Richard is nearby and he doesn’t like me talking to men”

“Any man?”

“Look what is it?

“Any man? That limits networking some.”

She snorts even though she did not want to. “What is it?

“Do you remember when I came back to Buffalo after hitch-hiking across the country”.

“Yes. I remember how you left me for the month we would have had together, before you went to work in Pennsylvania for the rest of the summer.  I remember that you came back for a week for sex and then left.  Is that the time to which you refer?”

This was not getting off to the start I’d hoped, but it was not far from what I thought would happen when I called.

“We were not exactly getting along before I left for California.”

“We never got along except for when we were having sex or about to have sex or had not seen each other for a while and therefore had forgotten how we do not get along.”

She was not off target with any of this.  But still. “There was a there, there.”

She paused. “Yes, Alan. There was a there, there.”

“Can we meet somewhere?”

“Not sure that is a great idea.”

“I need to talk with you about this.”

“What? What is this about?  So, you read an article and it reminded you about your hitch-hiking trip. And what?”

“Do you remember what I told you about the trip?”

“Some.”

Then I asked her about a few events that I had relayed when I returned.  And then I described the article I read in the newspaper.  It took her a while to get the connection.  When she did, she asked the same questions I’d had that prompted my computer searching.  When I told her what I had discovered there was silence for a spell.

There was a joke that had circulated when we were together that we both had gotten a kick out of and repeated now and again when apt.  The joke was about newlyweds. The woman was shy and inexperienced. She did not want to talk about sex and was totally frightened about failing at intimacy. She asked her husband not to initiate sex by speaking openly, but by asking in code.  

“If you want to, you know do it, say something else, say ‘you want to do the wash.”  So, on their wedding night, the husband asked if the wife wanted to do the wash. She said that she was too nervous, another night. The second night he again asked if she wanted to do the wash, again she asked if it could be postponed.  This happened for an entire week until such time that the husband just gave up.  But by the end of the week the newlywed wife was getting frisky herself, so when the husband failed to speak the code words, she asked slyly, “don’t you want to do the wash?”  His response: “No, I already did it by hand.”

We had gotten a charge out of that joke.  And Becca apparently remembered it. When I asked her again after the silence if she would meet me for coffee, she said she would. But then added quickly, “I’ll meet you for coffee, okay, but no doing the wash.”  We both laughed at that, agreed on a place and hung up. Damn if I didn’t feel a buzz after the call.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Fourteen

14

May 1974

When he told me how to get to I-80 from his home, Phil, the motorcyclist godsend, had drawn a map.  I’d been turned around, the way he explained it.  I was now closer to the highway than I’d been when I was floundering near the Truckstop.  Once I found my way to the interstate it would be a straight shot out of Utah, across the state of Nevada, and into California.  It looked like I was going to make it across the country in four days.

It is early Sunday morning in Salt Lake City.  I begin to follow the map, walking toward the interstate. I have my thumb out.  Initially the only reactions to my thumb are unfriendly stares from those driving by in their Sunday duds en route, it seems, to church.   My hair is long; my clothes suggest college student leaning to the left and my thumb is out. I must be a heathen.

Eventually, a middle-aged fellow stops and tells me he will take me to the best entrance to 80 West.  Very good. However, it turns out that he is not quite sure about where to go. He is lost, he says eventually. He has taken me to a place that is nowhere. He apologizes, tells me he can try to find the way to the highway and, with his nose wrinkled up, points in the direction where he now thinks I-80 is. I decide to get out and find my own way.

Again, I stick my thumb out, now disoriented.  It’s been an hour at least since I left Phil’s and I’m not sure if I am closer to the Interstate than I’d been when I left his house.  I can’t follow his map anymore since I got the ride to the wrong place. A police officer stops.  He wants to know where I am going. I tell him California and I hope he will give me a lift to the Interstate. Not a chance.  He is not interested in me much and tells me to get the hell out of town.  No hitchhiking is permitted in this municipality he said. Am I no longer in Salt Lake City? 

“What municipality?” I ask.  He does not respond.  He snorts, and shakes his head either to mean there is no answer forthcoming or I am subhuman. There is no offer to drive me to the interstate ramp. No offer to drive me anywhere.  It is before 9 a.m. and I am unnerved.

I think I see a way to get to the interstate without walking on the roads where, apparently, in this municipality--wherever the hell I am--I’m forbidden to be. If I have my bearings right I can walk through a long field, probably 300 yards, and over a fence I see way in the distance, and then that would get me to the I-80 ramp.  

I trek through the high grass and eventually get to the fence.  There is barbed wire at the top of the fence, but I do see a ramp on the other side.  I have hopped over barbed wire since I was 8. A Brooklyn boy and then a suburban New Yorker, hopping over fences to retrieve baseballs that went off course was a regular occurrence. When I worked in the Catskills I hopped over a barbed wire fence every day for two months.  

When you confront a fence with barbed wire, you get to the top, put your foot on the top rung of the barbed wire, make sure it is on there securely and vault over.  Not hard. Hardest part is landing on the other side without spraining an ankle or splitting your head open.

I can see the ramp, so the barbed wire fence is almost welcome.  I want to hop that fence and get to that ramp as fast as I can and then flee from what seems like the most unfriendly place on planet Earth.  I toss my bag over the fence and begin to climb. I get to the top rung of the iron and then put my left hand on an un-barbed part of the barbed wire.  I’d then swing my right leg to the top of the three strings of barbed wire. Once I have that foothold, I’d launch myself over the fence, grab my bag, scram to the ramp, and get out of Dodge.  But I don’t do that. I don’t do that because as soon as I place my left hand on the un-barbed part of the wire I am flung backwards onto the tall grass and weeds of the field from whence I came.

The damn wire is charged.  Not charged enough to electrocute anyone, but charged to discourage people like me, I am thinking, from coming or going. Maybe to discourage animals, but I do not see any strolling livestock.  I am flustered and frazzled.  It doesn’t matter if the barbed wire is charged for animals, humans, or sub-humans.  I have to get over this fence. All my stuff is on the other side—my wallet, map, change of clothes, everything. Who knows if I could figure out how to get to my bag by going around the field.  And even if I could find the spot after circling around, who knows if the knapsack would still be there by the time I got all the way around.  I am panicky.

I have sneakers on.  I figure if I can get to the top of the iron portion of the fence, and then carefully not touch the barbed wire with anything other than my insulated foot, I will be able to vault upward and over the barrier. So, I try that-- but I am trembling.  I get to the top of the fence, see my bag on the other side, put my sneakered right foot on the barbed wire and, bracing myself for the charge that might come through even my sneakered foot, vault up in the air, clear the wire with the rest of my body, and fall clumsily to the ground.  I am unhurt and safe, but am  buzzing internally like I have had a dozen cups of coffee. I don’t stay on the ground long.  I grab my bag and start to run, just run away from this scary place.

I arrive at the ramp and then, to my horror, see that this is not the ramp to I-80 but to a secondary road.  This morning is like one of those bad dreams where you cannot get to your destination because something or someone keeps getting in the way.  I grab my Rand-McNally and see that this road will connect me to I-80 but not for a while.  I have no choice but to stick my thumb out. Almost instantly, a car stops.  It is a long hair and that is comforting until he starts to speak.  The guy has no teeth.

He says “howdy’” and looks like maybe he was an extra in "Deliverance.”  Another bizarro character in this bizarro morning. I tell the toothless guy that I’m frazzled. He laughs and mumbles something like I bet you are, being down here in redneck country. Then, he half chuckles while he drives me the few miles to the ramp for I-80.  I am still shaking a half hour later as I stand on that ramp trying to get a lift through Utah to the desert in Nevada en route to California.  Before I get out, no teeth gives me his card.  He is a rock band promoter, and he knows a band that will be bigger than the Beatles.  He’s always looking for new talent, he said to me.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Thirteen

Ever since I returned from Las Vegas I’ve come to recognize that I need to lose some weight.  Not in the conventional sense. I don’t have problems with that kind of weight. What I need to purge is the weight I’ve accrued by justifying behavior that I knew was not right at the time I behaved as I did. That sort of thing, even when it is minor, can create an unhealthy foundation.  One extra jelly doughnut, okay not such a problem. But there is a cumulative effect. After a while you stop noticing that you are knocking back the jelly doughnuts. And it becomes difficult to maneuver around this life with the extra pounds.

I’ve done some rationalizing in my day. Since Las Vegas events are surfacing.

Sixth grade.  Early months of 1961.  I’m a newcomer to the neighborhood having moved into town less than a year ago.  I’m still learning the ropes of the new hood, making friends, doing okay in that regard, but most of the kids in my class have been at this school since they were in kindergarten.

There is a hot television show which is now in its second season. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  It features Dobie, his beatnik friend Maynard G. Krebs, Dobie’s mom and dad, and assorted young women that Dobie would like to meet. He has limited success.  

The kids in my sixth-grade class are crazy about Dobie Gillis.  This enthusiasm is encouraged by our teacher who also claims to be a fan of the program.  On the show, Maynard is regularly referring to Dobie as “good buddy” as in “how you doing good buddy”.  Our teacher Mr. Hatfield likes the “good buddy” handle and so do we.  

What happens is that a group of the cool boys in the class form what they call the GBA, the Good Buddy Association.  This is a male only club, and it consists of charter members who regularly refer to each other as Good Buddy Jim or Good Buddy Joe.  About eight fellows in the GBA. It’s all in good fun.  I don’t feel particularly like an outcast because I am not in the GBA and the teacher is not fostering any kind of in crowd out crowd.  

We are often asked to go to the front of the class and solve math problems. Mr. Hatfield will call on four students to go up to the board, stand strides away from each other and, for example, divide 2121 by 11.  Each kid would then write their name on the board and proceed to do the long division.

The GBA group affiliation ratchets up when a really good kid, who went on to be a solid citizen as an adult, goes up to the board and writes his name, Bill, but above it writes GBA.  The teacher gets a charge out of this, so whenever a GBA kid goes up to the board they write GBA Joe or GBA Jack before solving the problem.  Again, all in good fun.

One day I get called to the board and decide to be a wise guy.  I write my name on the board, but next to it write, Anti-GBA.  Hatfield really gets a kick out of this.  I was probably a little ahead of the curve so the teacher has to explain to some of the others what I’d done.  Well, I created a following. Every kid not in the GBA, goes up to the board and writes Anti GBA Charlie or whatever when it is their turn.  There are now two groups in the class. The GBA and the Anti-GBA. The GBA, the cooler group for sure. The anti-GBA is a loose confederacy of newcomers, iconoclasts, pariahs, stinkers, and several fledgling delinquents, one of whom grew up to be a bona fide nogoodnik and has even spent some time in the slammer.

In gym and at recess when we would play games it was the GBA against the Anti-GBA.  We’d come back to class after one of these contests and Mr. Hatfield would ask about the score. There would be a running tally of how the GBA was doing against the anti-GBA on the blackboard.

I caught a break with the jock genes.  Pretty decent all-around athlete. One thing I was particularly good at was catching things. In touch football I was terrific at judging where the ball would come and could catch passes easily and also intercept them. But what I truly excelled at was little kid Dodgeball.  The way we played two sides competed by throwing a ball or several such balls at the opponents. If you hit someone that someone was out.  Or if you caught a pass thrown by an opponent, the person who threw the ball would be out.  Once a team was out of players, the opponent was the victor.  

Well, I was an asset to the Anti-GBA in most athletic contests, but in Dodgeball I was a killer.  Not so much in throwing the ball, but in catching the balls.  My teammates might get eliminated but I had a knack for catching most everything that was thrown my way.  We were playing Dodgeball regularly in gym, and the misfits who were the anti-GBA were dancing through the halls and could not wait to tell Hatfield that we had beaten the GBA again.

One morning we were lining up by what passed for artwork that was taped to the walls of the school. This was a daily drill. Lining up by class before being led to our classroom to begin the day.  I was tall for my age then, so I was at the back of the line when a GBA fellow came to pay a visit.  He wanted to know if I wanted to be in the GBA

This was flattering but startling at the same time. I was the face of the enemy contingent having started the whole Anti-GBA thing. I thought, they must really like me, respect my courage, and leadership. I must no longer be the outsider. The GBA was cool. They had already organized a trip to Yankee Stadium and were going to a game in April. To be sure, the Anti-GBA probably could not organize a trip at lunchtime to the vending machines in the front of the cafeteria.   

Still, would it be right to abandon the anti-GBA? I knew I was the glue to the anti-GBA.  Without me the anti GBA would become not much of anything. I told the kid I would have to think about it.  The emissary said okay and walked back to the front of the line.

I started to consider the offer.    

I was going back and forth in my head, when less than a minute later the GBA kid returned to where I was standing in line.  “Look,” he said, “We need you to make up your mind, now”

“Right now? Why do I have to tell you now?”

“We need you for Dodgeball at recess.”

Oh boy. Well, that was it. Charm was not my ticket.  The GBA had not gotten together and mused that I would be a valuable character to add to the group.  Nothing like that. I was good in Dodgeball.

Maybe this was not a big deal, but I knew they were asking me to join for the wrong reasons. I should have told them to hold on to their GBA invitation.

But they were going to Yankee Stadium. And they were way cooler than the Anti-GBA. One of the girls had come over to the GBA lunch table and dropped off tootsie rolls. There were perks.

By the time we were led into our classroom that morning I was a member of the GBA.

One of my first jelly doughnuts. A small one, but a start.

Have to lose some weight.  If you get really heavy, you're probably capable of justifying anything.

In a few minutes I'm headed to a meeting where we intend to discuss the department's values.  We will be posting a value statement on the college website.  I know this is all for the optics.  I feel like I'm on line waiting to get into the all you can eat buffet.

 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

12

May 1974

I fell asleep in the car en route to Salt Lake.  It was probably not what the driver was hoping for when he picked me up.  You rarely get drivers who are looking for silence, because they already had silence. Usually there is a desire for conversation.   A few years later on the way from Ellenville, New York to Buffalo I was picked up consecutively by women who unearthed heart breaking stories about men in their lives. The first told me, after a spell, about her husband who she found out after twenty years of marriage, was more interested in men than women.  The second provided a very long monologue about a rat bastard that she had married who had threatened to kill her.  When she said the part about being threatened with death, she turned and faced me eyeball to eyeball so that I would understand the severity.  I did, but wanted to tell her--without indicating anything less than compassionate understanding--, that if she did not return her gaze to the road we both would be a statistic in a matter of bone crushing seconds.  I lifted a finger and sort of pointed at the road. She nodded and raised her brows as if to say, “I know. I have this under control, but my husband was a menace.” When she looked back at the highway nodding her head again for emphasis, I wheezed a comment about how awful that must have been.  “You have no idea” is what she said, and again felt a need to stare right at me risking both of our lives.  “He was a rat bastard,” she said deliberately. “Rat bastard,” she repeated. One more rat bastard and I figured we both would be through the windshield.

The fellow driving to Salt Lake was actually traveling to Layton, Utah a destination twenty miles further North.  He dropped me at a Truckstop not far from the intersection of I-15 and I-80. By now it was after midnight.  My first two nights finding a place to stay had been easy.  This was different and I did not know what to do.     

I tried to get someone at the all night Truckstop diner to tell me where the University of Utah was, but I could not get a straight answer when I received an answer at all.  I had wild curly hair and looked the part of an anti- war protestor.  Not many sympathetic faces at this diner.  I ordered something to eat and took my time essentially killing time.  The vibes emanating from the twenty or so others in the joint ranged from apathy to antipathy when I was able to sense any reaction to my presence. I left the diner about 1.

I started walking around to find a spot that felt safe where I could put down my sleeping bag for the night. There just did not seem anywhere suitable that would be off the beat of someone who might be a ne’er do well.  I tried to check if I could find a school yard or park but the area was commercial. There was a strip mall with a grocery, an out of business hardware shop with wooden boards where windows had been, a bank, and a dry-cleaner. All closed of course. The bank parking lot had some possibilities.  I found a corner, not far from a streetlight, but not so close that it would keep me up all night.  There was a level place for the bag and I tried to get some sleep.  

I couldn’t. I was not there for more than twenty minutes when I decided this was not so good. If I did fall asleep and a police officer came by and put a light in my face I thought I might panic.  So, I got up and started walking, not hiking. I thought I knew how to get back to the interstate and figured I would walk towards the ramp--somehow kill the four hours or so until first light.

This plan, as I hatched it and as I started to implement it, was only a little bit wiser than trying to hike from Colorado to Utah. I was nowhere and would not break my no hitchhiking at night rule. I did not see anything approaching a university or a motel.  So, I walked around in what amounted to circles for a long while. And then a godsend.  A fellow pulled up next to me in a motorcycle.

“Lost?”

I explained I was hiking cross country and was looking for some place safe to sleep for the night. And asked for recommendations.  He could not suggest any place safe—“not around here”-- but asked me to hop on the motorcycle. And then this motorcyclist from heaven, Phil, took me through the streets of Salt Lake to his suburban home.  I’m not much of a fan of motorcycles, but I was that night.

It was close to 3 when we got to his mother’s house.  He had the late shift at some factory and was coming off work when he spotted me. Phil could not let me sleep in the house because he figured his mother might wake up and have a fit, but he fixed me a sandwich for breakfast that he called a nature sandwich with sprouts, told me I could sleep in his backyard, and I would do just that. It had been a scary night.  There was one fellow in the Truckstop who especially made me nervous.  A buzz cut guy who had eyeballs that were staring at me, the long-haired stranger with the backpack.  I thought that Phil might have saved me just at the right time.  He was going to sleep late, he said, but showed me on my map how I could get to route 80 from his house.  I’d explained that it was my goal to get to San Francisco, a 14-hour drive away, by the following night.


Tuesday, February 23, 2021

11

2019

Becca did not answer the phone. No surprise there.  Becca did not answer the phone before there were answering machines. Caller ID and voice mail must have seemed like a gift from the almighty to her. I left a message after hearing a predictable Becca message.  Flat voice, matter of fact: “Richard and I are not here now. Please leave a message.”  

I knew there was a Richard or knew that at one point there had been a Richard. Apparently, there still was a Richard.  I’d met him a couple of times, once only a couple of years after Becca and I had stopped dancing.  Another time about a decade later. Not much to Richard. Did not say much. Lugged a camera around his neck and grunted hellos.  A doctor of some sort.  The kind that made money unlike the kind that I had become.  After the beep, I said hi to them both.  Then I asked Becca to call me, trying to relay an urgency without ratcheting up anxiety.  Must be an urgency she’d have to think. I had not called her since the Carter administration. 

The first thing that Becca did when I got back from the trip in 1974 was suggest I take a bath.  I did not think I was that ripe, but she met me outside her apartment, gave me a hug and a kiss that reflected longing but also some reluctance.  We walked up the stairs to her apartment and she immediately turned right and headed into the bathroom. She left the door open and started running the water in the bathtub.  It was only about 5 in the afternoon. I looked at her. She nodded her head and said, “You need a bath.”

Then afterwards we had sex, pretty good sex as I recall it.  A month without sex when you are 24 kind of sex.  Becca was a prig in many ways for sure, but she liked to dance.  It was in fact she who first seduced me.  We had gone to Niagara Falls for a date. Probably our third or fourth. Drove back to my apartment and had a drink.  We were kissing in the living room on a couch that came with the apartment and looked like it came with the place when Al Jolson starred in the Jazz Singer.  The living room/couch was right on the beat of anyone who came into the house.  After two of my roommates-- strangers to her--plodded through the living room and did not even register our necking presence she nudged me and whispered that we should go upstairs to my bedroom.  She came into the bedroom, told me it was sweet, and then went into the bathroom. When she came out I could smell the spermicide used on diaphragms.  I figured either she liked me, or this was the 70s, I was available and—as far as she could predict—I was likely to be armed.  

I asked if we were going to have sex when I smelled the stuff. She looked at me and said something like, “well it does not have to be right now.”  Usually right now was fine with me, but that night for some reason I felt we might be rushing it a bit.  Then after a couple more passionate smooches I stopped wavering.

I had a tiny single bed in a room that was probably 10 by 8.  A single bed, a small dresser, a desk, a tiny closet, and that was it. Roll out of bed, take two steps and you are out the door. One more step and you are in the one bathroom for four men, bathroom.  

She must have just about died having to use our bathroom to put that diaphragm in.  When I stayed at Becca’s apartment, nothing was out of place. She lived with two other students, none of whom got along with any of the others, but the place was dust free.  The bathroom had three toothbrushes standing at attention, the soap in a proper soap dish, some knick-knack around the sink for who knows what and a picture on the wall, again for who knows what.  

Despite the apparent uniformity suggested by a tidy three-person apartment, the tension between the women became such that by April Becca had moved on to a place she had by herself.  And it was there, where she ran the water for the bath when I returned, and it was there that she listened to some stories about my trip.  Not sure how much she heard as, being a child of the 60s and 24 herself, and also having gone a month without a fellow, she was sort of anxious for me to soap up.  But I told her about the trip while I was washing. I left out the scary parts then.

The next day, I showed her the map and the log.

10

 

May 1974

The record collector did not have success in Grand Junction and seemed blue about the lack of luck. It is hit or miss he tells us.  “Sometimes there is a bonanza.  Not today.” We hear a good deal about the tribulations of being an itinerant record collector.  I listen puzzled about why he chose this line of work or hobby if the very activity of driving about and sleuthing brings him down.  Strange; driving cross country, stopping in towns, looking for old records. When I asked him why he does the collecting, he snorted a noise and waved his hand forward. “Long story” he said.

Because he is headed for Las Vegas, the driver will stay on I-70 once we pass a town called Green River. At that point, I will hop out and veer North on route 6 on my way toward Salt Lake City.  It is late in the afternoon now and I figure that we will hit the junction of 6 and I-70 with about an hour left of sunlight.

Of all the places I remembered on this journey, the stretch from Fruita to the Utah border, and the next 70 miles or so to Green River was the most desolate.  More desolate than even Nevada.  There was nothing west of the Colorado/Utah border on I-70.  No exits no gas stations, nothing. The signs that we saw were for Green River and because of the absence of everything else, Green River seemed like it would have to be a haven, a large town of some sort.  A few hours earlier I’d considered (and begun) walking from Colorado to Utah to avoid the cop’s warning.  Had I continued on that walk to the promised land of Utah I would have died since for seventy miles past the border, I did not see a single human made thing besides other vehicles until we got to Green River.

My hitch-hiking partner opened up during this journey through nothing.  From Baltimore originally, he’d had it with college, his parents, his siblings, his fair-weather friends and was seeking some place where people were, “you know, true.”  Fellow’s name was Billy and Billy did not seem to like much of anything.  During the time we were on the ramp in Fruita he had not said much though he often spoke disparagingly about the vehicles that passed us.  “Bleeping station wagon”, for example, “Bleeping Chrysler. 

“Let me tell you something about Chryslers. Forget about Chryslers.”   

The driver seemed to be developing a connection with Billy, muttering “I know what you mean” regularly after some comment about a problem with this or that. “Don’t talk to me about guidance counselors” he said a couple of times in a row when Billy discussed how he had wound up at “the wrong school.”  “Just don’t talk to me about guidance counselors.” The driver said again.

We arrive in Green River expecting gold in the streets after all the signs and found it hardly worthy of our anticipation. There was a gas station with an attached grocery.  Across the street from it were a couple of stores and around this hub were homes scattered in an elevated area.  Green River was a something in the midst of nothing.  They were not going to get a major league baseball franchise. Doubt if there were enough kids to field a single little league team and I wonder now where the kids went to school.

Billy and the driver were up in the front and began to schmooze like old buddies.  I was glad, and so were they, that I’d be leaving the car when the road split.  When it did, we said our goodbyes and I was not out of the car for a few minutes before another car stopped.  I was disappointed to hear that he was only going a few miles down the road but was nevertheless considering taking the ride, when not one, but two other cars stopped.  I’ve done a good deal of hitch-hiking in my day and this spot, though I was only there once, has been the luckiest.  I guess if you have been driving through nowhere and you are about to pop because you have had nobody to talk to or even see except the soul selling coffee and pumping gas and stocking the shelves in the superette in Green River you might get itchy for some conversation.

I had my rule about not taking a ride after dark and there was probably only an hour before the sun would be down for good. It was great news that I now had my pick of rides.  One of the drivers was going all the way to Salt Lake City and I thought that this was one lucky moment as I threw my gear into the backseat and hauled my body into the front.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

9

 


9

2019

It is difficult to make out my scribblings.  The ink on the cover of the phone book is blurred as if I had used a pen near the end of its run.  

I see that I wrote down a license plate, the make of the vehicle, and where the driver was headed.  There’s a phone number but no indication of whose and more importantly I can’t make out one of the digits.  The rest of my writings describe the conversations we had. I must have thought that his comments were sufficiently damning, and they would be enough to convince a police official that it might be worth their while to take preemptive action.

One thing that recurred, and I would have remembered this without any scribbled notes, was how the perp claimed there were lovers in a number of cities.  This, as I must have guessed at the time, was just baloney bragging but it was a topic that very regularly surfaced.  Lots of talk of this one and that one and how each lover would wait for his arrival lusting to engage.

I thumbed through the old phone book and saw names and numbers of people who were nowhere near my current orbit.  Old buddies, relatives who had died twenty years previously, a professor or two.  Several names reminded me of a story, and I found myself holding the booklet and staring into space for a couple of hours after I had scanned the phone book. Each of the people in that book contributed to the theatre flats of my life.

When I was a kid I’d gone to a summer camp.   There was a recreation hall which served as an indoor basketball court, square dance hall, boxing ring, movie house, discothèque and theatre.  The rec hall, as we called it, had a stage. Five times during a camp season the stage was the set for musicals performed by the campers and counselors. One week, Brigadoon, then My Fair Lady, then Half a Sixpence, then Guys and Dolls.  For years the directors used the same flats for the various performances. Some artistic counselor would be asked to paint the flats to look like a grassy field one week, and then a pool hall the next.  In the dozen years I went to the camp, those flats must have been painted and repainted one hundred times.  And like that, our histories are painted and repainted. I look through the names of my address book and I see a sweetheart and a college crony, and a professor, all gone from the day to day of my life, but they are back there under some layer of paint as backdrop to the set of my strutting and fretting.

I haven’t spoken to Becca in decades, but I find her coordinates on the internet and go to give her a call.  I pick up the phone, think of maybe contacting her by e-mail instead, but go ahead and push the numbers on the receiver. It’s a local call. According to the address on the internet, she lives less than five miles from where I last saw her, and a short drive from where I now sit.

8

May 1974


Getting out of Denver took some doing.  I have found that many people are not as knowledgeable as they claim to be about local highways. I’ve been living in and around Boston for over thirty years and I’d be hard pressed to describe routes to places not on my regular beat.  

A driver who picked me up near the university where I'd slept said he would be able to get me to the highway.  We drove in circles before he scratched his chin clearly lost.  “Hmm” he muttered, by way of apology.  This sort of thing happened on several occasions during my journey. People certain they knew where they were going, but drove circuitously ending up nowhere near where they had set out to go. And where I knew I needed to be.  The guy in Illinois on the way back was the worst, but I’ll get to that. Eventually, I found my way to I-70.

Day 3 was not like the first two.  I had more than ten rides before I got to the other side of the Rockies. It had taken me only three rides to get from where Becca dropped me off, to Denver. Four if you counted Nelson’s lover taking me the University. Not today.  In and out of cars all day long.

 I-70 goes right through the mountains and the scenery is spectacular. My most vivid recollection of that multi ride snowcapped stretch (in May) is of a stoner who was, go figure, holding onto a joint and smoking dope like an extra in Easy Rider.  One hand on the wheel, one hand on the smoke as he chattered on while driving through the mountains.  At one point Easy Rider dramatically exhaled what he had been holding in,  and wheezed, “Hitch-hiking cross country. Far out, man.”  A hippy from central casting.  Probably a Republican now. One of the many strange ducks I rode with that day.

On the other side of the Rockies I met up with Ted. Ted, not a schmoozer, was going to LA.  We happened to be left off at the same spot and I tried to chat him up.  Not much luck there.  Ted probably said less than 100 words to me in the hour or two we were together through two rides.  At one point when we were waiting on the side of the road I asked him if he wanted to share a sandwich I’d bought at a convenient store. His deadpan response I will never forget.  “No. I ate yesterday.”

After the first ride, Ted and I met two women who were wild.  Very bouncy, drug inspired happy, and wearing not a whole lot.  One was named Marnie. And the other kept calling her Marnie. "Isn’t this cool, Marnie.  The mountains, Marnie, are so beautiful."  Marnie and her chum got picked up before Ted and I did.

I lost Ted somewhere and wound up in the town of Grand Junction, Colorado.  A fellow who was an old record collector had picked me up.  He said he travelled to small towns looking for hard to get 45s and was now going to spend time in Grand Junction hunting for records. After Grand Junction he would be off to Las Vegas.  He deposited me at the Grand Junction ramp when he exited to do his sleuthing.   

I could not get out of Grand Junction.  Stood there for a long spell and, to make matters worse, another hiker was dropped off at the exit.  It is always more difficult to get a lift when there are two of you unless you happen to be hiking with someone who looks like Marnie.  It was late in the afternoon when a fellow driving a pickup truck stopped.

We, myself and the new companion, were not sure if this was good news.  The fellow was going only one exit to a town called Fruita.  He was a local so we asked him if there was much traffic in Fruita.  Oh sure. Plenty of traffic in Fruita according to this young fellow.

We take the lift one exit to Fruita. And we are standing there twenty minutes before a single car drove up on the ramp. Plenty of traffic in Fruita. Sure. An hour later and maybe three cars have driven up, the last of which was a state policeman.  The officer told us that hitch-hiking was illegal in Colorado unless you were on the interstate itself.  I knew this. Each state has its quirky rules, but Colorado’s then was the opposite of others. Most states allowed hikers on the ramps to the interstate but not on the interstate.

We were not sure what to do.  Our first inclination was to wait until the officer took off and get back on the ramp hoping that we could get a lift before he returned.  This seemed risky to me, so I decided on another approach which was then, and is now, on the very far side of foolish.  Fruita was only 17 miles from the Utah border where hitch hiking was not illegal. I thought I would begin walking to Utah and perhaps get fortunate to get a lift part of the way by a local driver.  Within twenty minutes the absurdity of this approach became evident. I needed to walk back to the ramp which I did while muttering a mantra of “what-could-you-have-been-thinking.”  

I was not thinking of metaphors at the time, but in retrospect the idea of going nowhere while still moving around surfaces.  How much of my life have I been moving, but going nowhere? It is something I thought about on the plane after I found the newspaper article. Now when I reflect about my time in Fruita, Colorado-- the experience seems analogous to how I’ve spent too many years.  And the next step of the journey was even more symbolic. 

I returned to the Fruita ramp where my hiking colleague still stood hoping the cop had gone home for the night.  He wiseguy asked me if I enjoyed the walk.  I did not say much of anything. Then a car stopped and we both thought that finally we would be out of Fruita and on our way west. Yes, we were out of Fruita but the driver was going back east to Grand Junction.  My hitch-hiking buddy and I decided to go back to Grand Junction. So we wound up back where we had been when the record collector dropped me off.  And then as if it had been prearranged, up drove the record collector again. Done with his search for 45s. He was ready to continue west to Las Vegas.

Friday, February 19, 2021

7


2019

I remember that I had made some notes at the time.  It was after he had driven off.  I’d had a personal phone book, the kind the phone company used to give you when you rented a phone from them.  I’d taken the book with me as some sort of link to the people I knew in the world.  As if I had friends in my pocket.

I must have just yanked the book out and scribbled information about the incident on the white cover. I planned to write a letter, a warning, but I never did.  My guess was that it would be useless to try to find that phone book now, but it was worth a try. And, to be honest with myself, I knew I went looking because the activity would take some time, time that would not be used to take any action.

If you went into my basement you would find, among assorted paraphernalia, plastic containers filled with keepsakes. I hold onto things.  You’d have to get through the portable clothesline, air conditioners we no longer use since we splurged for central air, a bunch of suitcases none of which have all four wheels, a duffel bag I bought for a hiking trip I took with my brother over a decade ago and have used for nothing else since, and a damaged cabinet which we were able to get replaced.  I thought that I would find some use for the damaged cabinet.  I thought that seven years and three months ago. It still sits like an item on an obstacle course near the center of the basement.  

But if you maneuvered past these items and others, you could find boxes that have magic markered labels on them.  Alan’s nostalgia pre 1975 reads one.  When I was a kid such plastic containers did not exist. You put things in cardboard boxes and when you went to get items from them, they smelled—no matter what you did—of basement and age.  But progress. These plastic containers surfaced. Remarkable the evolution of things when you dwell on it.  For years, diners banged and shook glass ketchup bottles trying to get the stuff to come out. Someone puts the ketchup in a plastic bottle and you can effortlessly squeeze.  Why did it take so long to think of this?  I found out a few weeks back that there is a patent on the cardboard sleeves you get when you buy a cup of hot coffee. The name for the item is a zarf. For decades people burned their paws trying to carry their drug sans zarf.  Someone wakes up and says, “put a piece of cardboard around the coffee and you won’t burn your fingers.”    A Jay Sorensen has the patent on this zarf thing for twenty years. He does not have to worry if the cost of a cup goes up. 

There are no zarfs in my Alan’s nostalgia pre 1975 bin.  I come across a card and a gift from the summer of 1966 sent by my camp sweetheart.  I find college fraternity mementoes.  I spot a high school paper I wrote that, apparently, I thought reflected some wisdom. There’s a huge bed sheet on which supporters had written an encouraging sign before what we considered to be an especially important football game. 

And then somewhere between a hockey puck, a picture of bunk 8 from Camp Chicopee when I was 6, the program for the “Teahouse of the August Moon” the senior play in high school in which I had the minor part of Sergeant Gregovich whose biggest scene involved a drunken stumble across the stage, a feathered hat from the 1964 World’s Fair, the scorecard from some meaningless New York Mets game, and a poem on pink paper that concluded with the words, “Don’t forget me” from someone who forgot me--somewhere in that cluster of nostalgia, I find the phone book with my notes scrawled on the front from 1974. And I also find the log and the map. I’d forgotten about the log and the map.

Friday, February 12, 2021

6

 

6

May 1974

In the morning, somewhere in Iowa, Nelson showed me pictures of his two daughters.  “Twelve and ten.” He said, “I don’t get to see them as much as I’d like.  The mother can make it difficult at times.” He pauses for a moment. “Can’t say I blame her, at least not 100 per cent.”

He tells me their names. One is a gymnast. “Gonna be like that Ilya Komenawhatever, that Russian pixie.  The younger one, that one there” --he points to a blonde kid with curls--“She is a really smarty pants. Reads like you would not believe. Been reading since she was five.”

Nelson talks some about the difficulty about being a truck driver and raising a family.  “You’re away a lot.  Some guys bring their wives with them, but what kind of life is that?”

The topic of his Denver sweetheart surfaces regularly. She too is divorced and, according to Nelson, is a barrel of fun.  He is hoping this relationship will last.  Problem is that she’s got a couple of kids of her own and that can be, he tells me, a real source of conflict.  Their father, he claims, is a “no good fat assed drunk” but the kids seem to like him.  This makes Nelson feel like a dork when he is around her kids.  

“I also don’t like the bozos her kids hang around with. So sometimes we fight about her kids.  That’s the only bad side, though.  I swear she is an angel otherwise.”

Nelson is as much of a chatterbox today, as he was yesterday.   He knows someone at nearly every truckstop where we pause to get gas.   My original plan was to stay on route 80 all the way to San Francisco. If you’re travelling to Denver you would exit 80 at Ogallala, Nebraska and take a southwest highway to connect to 70 and then Denver.  So, Denver was out of my way, but who knew how long I would be standing in Ogallala waiting for a ride.  

By the time we hit Ogallala, given Nelson’s penchant for gab and regular meals, it was getting dark so whatever thoughts I had about getting off there were out. I’d promised myself that I would not take rides after dark.  If we ever got to Denver, I’d find a place to sleep and set off the next morning.

His comments about the sweetheart increased in frequency the closer we got to the city.  She was going to meet him at a truck stop where the vehicle was to be serviced.  Then they were off to tryst. He told me he’d ask her to give me a lift to the University of Denver campus where I figured I could score a couch to sleep on.  Yet creeping into the conversation about what she and he would do once they were in mile high, were wistful self-critical remarks about how he’d messed up his marriage. “Not that she was an angel” he regularly added.  “Not by a lot. But…” he said as his voice would trail away, “I could have been a better guy.  And the kids.  Don’t know how much I’ll get to see them.”  He showed me the pictures again, and then there was the one with his ex wife, the four of them a smiling happy clan.  

We finally arrive in Denver. I am beat though I did nothing much but sit in the car and listen.  I meet his sweetheart at the truck stop.  They hug like horny lovers. She is not much what I thought of when he was describing her.  Annie's tall with some heft that would make it tough even for a big guy like Nelson to lift her.  She was polite when he introduced me to her and willing, sort of, to drive me to the University, but Annie clearly had some other things on her mind.  

We get to the University. I said good bye to Nelson and he handed me documents to read. They were anti union broadsides with a petition. “Read about this and if you’re willing, sign on.” I said I would, but never did.

I found the campus dormitories easily enough. It was the end of finals at the school. I knew this drill well. I had been an RA in college and it was common for traveling hikers to lug their knapsacks into the dorms and find a place to crash on a couch.  In the 21st century, this would be unthinkable, but then not uncommon.  I asked some partiers where there might be a quiet lounge and I was sent to a spot which served my needs.  Slept easily on day two of the journey.  A couch in a dormitory at the University of Denver. Better than the side of the road in Iowa but not by a whole lot.

5

 5

April 2019

 
I am able to push away the thoughts of the newspaper article when I get back. There are over forty e-mails that I need to address and others I need to go through to discard. And I am not that important. I wonder sometimes what people who are in loftier positions and more connected do when they come back from some kind of break.  I’d responded to several messages while I was away but those that I had not addressed and those that had accrued during the flight now awaited me.  So, I didn’t need to dwell on what I knew I had to do because I had all these e-mails to answer.  

I had a meeting at 11 which, unfortunately, gave me time to day dream since the discussion, as is often the case in academic circles, was going around in them.  I’d brought an I-pad tablet with me and pushed some more buttons.  I was able to find magazine articles from the period and a few newspaper clippings that I’d not yet unearthed.  I’m on Facebook and typed in names.  Most came up empty but there were times when I connected.  I looked through the “about” tab on those Facebook profiles I could access. There was even more evidence to support that what I thought I knew, I knew.

A bomb went off a few years ago just about a half mile from where I sit.  During the running of the Boston Marathon some coward destroyed lives by planting a bomb where spectators were huddled watching their loved ones cross the finish line.  I typically go to watch the marathon with a buddy. That year, however, we were lazy in the morning and did not get going towards the finish line until mid afternoon. Shortly after we began our drive into town we heard the news that there had been an explosion.  Three dead and scores of others injured. Ruined lives by a coward.

Let’s just say you knew that a coward was considering hurting another. You were privy to some information and you could do something about it ahead of time. And you didn’t.  Who would be the greater coward, you, or the sick individual who subsequently committed the crime?  Anyone who considers planting a bomb in a crowd is deranged.  And if you are sane, and are listening to someone planning, something insane, are you then more culpable than the perpetrator if you are silent?

A friend I know or knew had a drinking problem. I write “know or knew” because I have not seen my friend in years.  I know his brother and the brother can’t find him either, so I don’t know if my friend is alive or dead. The brother, Harold, told me that the last he had heard from Marty he was living on the streets and Harold was unable to convince his brother to get off them. When I saw Marty a quarter of a century ago he was trying to stay sober, but he told me that he often was unsuccessful. And when he got drunk he would take out the car and drive.  His wife hid the car keys, but when drunk he would scream maniacally and threaten their infant daughter—so she would succumb to the demands and give him the car keys. 

I remember a conversation that made me nervous.  The driver was talking about something that just flat out seemed to be baloney.  It was a classic what was being said was inconsistent with everything else I could detect.  References to family were muttered with a combination of anger, loss, resentment, and something that sounded like a “just you wait” determination for revenge.  I'd heard this kind of emotional rant several times on the trip. 

My meeting ended and I only realized it when committee members started to leave. I’d managed to grunt at appropriate intervals and nod sagely every now and again so I looked like most of the participants.  I closed up the tablet, went back to the office, and started to make a list.  One item on the list was to call Becca. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

4


May 1974

Becca drives away.  She was teary at the end. I was not.  It has often been the case that I’ve missed out on moments that were precious because at the time I was not wise enough to realize that these moments were so.  In a way I am glad that she is away. I can begin the journey unencumbered. An illusion, that, I realize now.  Our journeys are forever encumbered when we are under the illusion that we are liberated when unencumbered.

The third ride is the charm.  The first was a couple that was off to a suburb no more than ten miles away.  The second was a fellow in a station wagon who was going to Dunkirk, a forty-minute drive from where I stood with my thumb out.  He was a trucker home on a vacation.  He told me that I might be in luck when he spotted a truck parked on the side of the road.  He pulled over and woke up a driver snoozing in the back of the cabin.  These two were apparently buddies as they went back and forth kidding each other. 

“Never going to earn your pay that way, Nelson.”  

“Just practicing what you taught me” is the sleepy response.  

They kid each other for a spell when my ride number 2 asks the sleepy fellow if he will take a rider.  

“Why the hell not? Bet he’s eager to get the hell out of your car.” 

“Yeah well.”

“How ‘bout some breakfast?.” says Nelson.

Nelson’s buddy has a place he needs to get to, so he cannot have breakfast. Nelson says “Your loss, buster.”

I have not been on the road for fifty minutes when Nelson and I drive a few miles, park at a rest stop and go in for breakfast.  Nelson is a big fellow. He reminds me of the Randall Patrick McMurphy character from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest before Jack Nicholson got the part.  Big red headed fellow. Broad shoulders and a belly that suggests he stops now and again for big breakfasts but could have once been a high school football player.  About my height at nearly six feet, but easy 75 pounds heavier.  Got to be 240 pounds with that gut I figure.

Nelson knows a bunch of truckers that are also having breakfast here.  Very gregarious is Nelson.  We join a table of others and they schmooze about their destinations and issues with the union.  I want to get moving, but Nelson has told me that he is going all the way to Denver.  One ride all the way to Denver is or seems to be a godsend.  I wait out the chatter at the breakfast table.

We’re both wary of each other.  I don’t know this big guy. Nelson was concerned too.  He told me that if I proved to be a jerk, the ride could be a short one and said that he once dropped a fool on the side of the road and figured “to hell with him.”  That news was not especially comforting, but Nelson did not seem like a bad egg to me.  And he was going all the way to Denver.

We get back in the truck and I discover over the next few hours that he is a big reader, is divorced, has two daughters whom he does not see enough, loves the freedom of driving a truck, thinks that four wheelers (cars) are driven poorly, and that he has a sweetheart waiting for him in Denver with whom he intends to frolic when we arrive to what he regularly refers to as “Mile High.”  I also discover that this guy likes to eat and talk. We stop at many places on this first day of my journey and in each, he eats a big meal, knows someone or other from his crisscrossing the country, and can carry a conversation without a problem.

I have calculated the distance to Denver and I figured, before I discover how many times he likes to stop, that I might get to Denver in the afternoon of my second day and could conceivably make it to Salt Lake City by the end of day 2.  Not a chance, as it turned out, given this guy’s personality and appetite.

Nelson does not like unions.  He’s an avid fan of Ayn Rand and when he discovers that I too have read The Fountainhead and can converse about the novel, he’s relieved of whatever tension he had previously about the content of my character.  I think he is a pussycat, but am unnerved when he talks about busting the heads of anyone who tries to take away his freedoms. He makes a point of commenting that the unions, despite their claims, are as enslaving as the bosses.

I figure we could have been in Nebraska when he decides, for the fourth time since we met, to stop—this time for an ice cream. There, just over the Iowa border, he encounters what I think of now as groupies. Teenagers in Iowa who know Nelson and have waited for him knowing, pretty much, when he is likely to stop by.  He knocks Iowa with them moaning and groaning about his depiction of their state.  Their parries about Colorado miss the mark but it does not seem to bug them.  

We get back on the road and it is now dark. We are only half way through this very long state when Nelson declares that he is too tired to proceed.  He pulls off to the side of the road, hops in his cabin.   I lay my sleeping bag behind the truck protecting myself from traffic and flying pebbles by the enormity of the vehicle. I have not done much but listen and sit all day, but I fall asleep fast enough and awaken an hour or so before dawn.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Prediction (Just kidding)

I interrupt my serial novel entries with this pick.




938 pm--I was kidding 



The Chiefs will prevail.  Leonard Fournette will fumble and Brady will throw a pick.  Either Kelce or Hill will have a big game.

The accident with Reid's son may. take a toll, but I still like the Chiefs.  When the Patriots played the Chiefs, Belichick was able to contain Kelce and Hill.  I do like Arians as a coach, but I think he does not have the wisdom to figure out how to stop those two studs.

Watch the Bucs will win by a dozen.

I took a walk today and was dispirited at around noon to see an evolving superbowl party starting up a full 6 hours before kickoff.  

We are almost at the finish line with this pandemic. At least it is in sight. Don't be stupid.  My understanding is even if you have had a shot, you can still get it. You may not get sick but you can pass it along.  I think there are a number of selfish people who figure, I can't get it now, so to hell with being careful.  

Wear a damn mask. Stay home.  We'll only be in this cage a short time more. I am getting nutso (some would argue I don't have far to go) from staying put--but I'm happy to be alive--and would like to watch next year's superbowl in a crowded bar. For now, watch the events by yourself with your immediate family. 



Saturday, February 6, 2021

3

April 2019

Lately, I have begun to view mundane phenomena as metaphors that might be meaningful. 

If the traffic is bad on the way to work, I wonder if my life is essentially a series of stops and starts, a bumpy impeded journey. And I consider how I might pursue a less trammeled life.  If I get behind a garbage truck, I think that on our life journeys we are, periodically, compelled to smell something foul. If shifting the manual transmission becomes annoying, I wonder about the merits of living a life on automatic without having to bother making adjustments.

The flight is bumpy on the way back to Boston.  And even though we were warned by the pilot, still, two hours into the trip I am jarred by the turbulence.   The flight becomes comfortable after we pass Denver but when we hit Chicago we’re again told to check our seatbelts and not move around the cabin.  We are sure to get jostled by this or that.

There are similarities between this flight and my path.  I'm comfortable. A tenured professor. A nice roof over my head, steady income, people who love me, an enjoyable job...but I know that something is not quite right.  It is as if I have a meter in my heart and head that registers the extent to which I am self-actualized and that meter has been at a mid point for some time.  A comfortable ride lending itself to periodic jostling.  Things settle for a spell and then I am reminded that I am not what I could be and fear that what has kept me from what I could be is the courage to take the steps that would get me there.  I wonder if I have not done the right things at a number of crossroads and have just taken a paved route. Not necessarily an evil path, but one that is not entirely ethical either. 

And now I see an article in a newspaper and I know that I can do something and should do something that will be difficult.  It will take me out of my comfort zone.  And I also know that if I don't do what I should do the comfort zones for me will be forever illusory and I will be reminded with a jolt now and again, that there is something I could have and should have done.

Where I am and where anyone is can be a result of luck. I was in a restaurant with my nephew one day sitting across from him at the table. He was sitting there because decades prior I needed to buy a book and decided to buy it at a particular moment.  I got on a line at the university bookstore and stood behind a woman I’d never seen before. She liked my hat. The line was long and we talked.  We got the books and decided to meet the next day. We started dating. We each had younger siblings. We introduced them. We broke up. They got married.  My nephew is sitting across the table from me.  Had I gotten on the book line thirty minutes later the kid is not there.   

Yet where I am and where anyone is can be a result of conscious decisions we have made as well as luck. I didn’t have to talk with the woman on the book line. She could have decided not to comment on my hat.  I saw the newspaper in the airport. I noticed the article. I read it. Now what. 


1

April 2019

I am at the Las Vegas airport. McCarran.  I am here in plenty of time for the flight and am sitting in the waiting area by the gate.  A woman across the way from me has no fewer than four bags around her, set up like some sort of barricade. Apparently, the one piece of carry-on rule has not had the desired effect.  Behind me a man sleeps and snores with his head sagging to the right as if someone snuck behind and clubbed him.  A kid about eight is doing frenzied laps around a row of seats. He is, in no time, going to take a header tripping on one of the suitcases surrounding my neighbor. I imagine the launch and enjoy the image. A fellow standing to my right is talking to himself, or at least twenty years ago I would have thought so.  Now I know that he probably is talking to someone else using a wireless gizmo. Still he looks funny walking two steps one way and then shuffling in another direction.  

If I had something to read I probably would not have noticed the characters.  I consider getting up and buying a book or a newspaper, then scan the seats to see if someone has left a magazine or something behind. Not much around.  This is a sign of the times.  People don't read newspapers anymore. I have one of those phones that has Siri in it.  If I really need to know what is new I can just ask the librarian in my pocket.

There is one discarded Las Vegas paper nearby. It’s not all in one piece. I see something on a page that makes me go and pick the paper up more quickly than I would have otherwise.  What has got my attention is an article about an elderly couple well into their 80s.  They're trying to find their daughter who disappeared forty six years ago next June.  They swear that before the anniversary of the disappearance they will find the person who ruined their lives.

It's a long article and I read it through.  The couple is from Nevada.  There's a photo of the daughter.  I read the article again more carefully.  I take out my computer and punch in some information. Then I ask Siri a few questions.  Then I spend time Googling this and that.  Then I no longer focus on the woman with the bags, or the guy who is asleep with the sagging head, or the kid doing laps or the guy to my right talking to himself doing a fox trot.  

I know that this couple will not find their daughter, and I am chilled and perspiring because I know why.  And then, I wonder if I will have the courage to do anything about it.


2

May 1974


I am standing by a ramp that leads to the New York State Thruway near Buffalo.  Exit 50.  I'm with Becca.  She and I are kissing and muttering nothings.  That we are standing here together given the argument we had the night before is a testament to our attraction, something inexplicable since we are an unlikely couple.

I met Becca after classes one day in a parking lot at the University of Buffalo.  I'd seen her in class once or twice and, on the occasion of our parking lot meeting, she pulled her red Pinto up to where I was standing with another woman, a mutual friend.  She got out of her car ostensibly to say hi to the friend.  The friend introduced us and there was enough there to make me think of calling her.  I did, we went out, and there proved to be a reason for the initial spark.   

When you try to explain how love can evolve despite an absence of similarities, you could use Becca and me as an example.  She was very structured, I haphazard.  The bottom of her car was spotless. You wouldn't want to know what could be at the bottom of mine.  She studied for our exams very carefully.  I went about preparing in a way that regularly caused her to roll her eyes.  Still, when we went out we felt physically connected and that force always seemed to trump the tensions that regularly surfaced because of our differences.  I have not seen Becca for decades but if we both were in the same place at the same time, and allowed natural forces to have their way, I think we might stare at each other for a spell, let out some air, and then figure we better get on our way before we got into trouble.

Becca had short blonde hair, very blue eyes and strong opinions. She wondered aloud, when confronted by what she considered incompetence, how a barber, policeman, service station attendant, or chef could have received a license.  She came by this honestly. Her dad was unequivocal about everything and her sisters outspoken. June shocked me, even though I had been warned, when at the Thanksgiving dinner table on the occasion of my first meeting her clan, she stared at her sister’s chest and said, "Are you on the pill, Becca?. You’ve gotten so big.” June, I'd been told would say anything at any time. But this took the entire family aback. All laughed nervously.  "Have you met my daughter, June?" her father said trying to move the conversation along.  But where could we move it?  After a moment her mother asked me if I was enjoying Buffalo.  

Our argument that preceded the kissing at the Thruway had taken place after we'd gone to a dinner party the night before.  The dinner was a bon voyage gathering of sorts. I was leaving in the morning to hitch-hike across the country.  The whole idea of this trip did not seem wise to Becca and she had a point.  I had gone about my business getting ready for the journey on my own and she had muttered all week about how I was not prepared.  When someone at the dinner asked me what I had in the way of a backpack, I said that I’d be using a laundry bag.  This did not seem like the best vessel to Becca and while she did not say much I knew her well enough to see that she was steamed.

When we left the party she opened the door to her clean car and said, “Get in”.  I took offense to the harsh directive and right there on the street we discussed the wisdom of back packs versus laundry bags, the concept of preparation, and the merits of shouting "Get in" to one's boyfriend as if he was a child.  What constituted who was, and what was, childlike then got some play in the discussion.  

Eventually I got into the car and we rode, in silence, back to her apartment.  There, despite the lingering anger, our passion took over though you couldn’t call it love making.  In the morning she drove in a mist to the exit ramp.    

“Let me hear from you” she said after our last kiss.   I told her I would do that.  She left and I held up a sign.  Shortly thereafter I got my first ride.


Thursday, February 4, 2021

Remote

 When I was a young man and started teaching I would walk into the class with several items on a piece of paper. I'd write the items on the blackboard and use the outline as a guide.  Probably took me about a half hour to create the outline and review my notes.

Now, many more years around the track, with much more experience, having taught some courses dozens of times--it can take me, easily, two hours to prepare for the same class. And then subsequently an hour or two to process what took place and get ready for the next time.

Add to this the fact that I am teaching remotely during COVID, and at the end of a day when I have only one 100 minute class I am whipped, and on the days when I teach two 100 minute classes, I am ready for the sack at about 930, 10 at the latest.

This is my second semester teaching remotely.  Last March when the world changed, I had no idea how to do it. I had, in fact, taken a remote course on how to teach remotely, and did just fine in the class--but it was like taking Russian in high school and then being plonked down in Moscow.  I needed to learn how to speak Russian in Russia.

For both the Fall and Spring terms I had to start a half month ahead of time to prepare the documents that go on CANVAS, and to arrange my class sessions to have them make sense in a remote format. I think I have it now, though I am still learning.  (A tip of the hat to our I.T. people who have been stunningly patient--particularly given how ornery I imagine some faculty can be).  I have some very good students this semester and the students last semester were similarly responsible.  The students are responsive to the assignments and come prepared to discuss the content each day.  Yet for 100 minutes I am on. Remote teaching requires engagement and interactivity that is not necessary to the same extent in on ground teaching--at least it seems to me.  If I had weak students I don't know if I could make it through a semester.  

The good news is that my commute is an hour less and I don't have to pay the otherworldly charges for parking.  I nearly have to remind myself how to fill the gas tank when, every few weeks, I am near empty.  Also, I am not standing for an hour which, for a fellow in need of a hip, is a blessing.  Our campus is compact, but still one can have a class in a building half a mile away from the next one you are scheduled to be at.  

It will be interesting to see how I feel when I go back in the classroom.  For now, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn the new technology, though of course wish the reasons were different.  I wonder how 26 year old me would have handled the same challenge. Coming in with an outline that I worked at for a half hour, would not be a viable approach.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

the three

 I watched the last three quarters of the Nets Clippers game tonight. Then I saw the first few minutes of the second game of the double header with the Celtics playing the Warriors.

When the NBA first initiated the three point shot in 1979, most teams commented that the three was a shot that would be implemented only in situations when a team needed a three to tie a game--likely at the end of a game.  Teams identified players who could take the three--Chris Ford was such a player on the Celtics--and setting up for the shot was often a result of a set play.  The ABA had used the three previously, but when the NBA adopted it, many coaches and players thought of it as a gimmick.

The next time you are on a basketball court with your ball, go to the college three point line and attempt to hit a shot. If you are a shooter and you are warmed up, you can make an acceptable percentage.  But even if you are a skilled player, but not a shooter, it is a long shot. It was the type of shot my coaches would tell us not to take because it was low percentage. Of course my coaches told us not to take the shot when it was worth only two points.  My guess is that, if not immediately, my coaches would have been less discouraging when the goal was worth three--but only encouraging those who had a decent outside shot.  Before I became an old man, I could hit the three, but not automatically at all.  Even twenty years ago when I would play pick up, and the three in schoolyard games was worth two you did not take the three--often because the chances were that you would miss it, the opponents would get the rebound and--in a game when there was a group with winners (there was a team waiting to play and would play the victorious team) you did not want to lose and sit, so you discouraged a teammate from taking the three unless you had a shooting stud.

Now go back to the college three point line.  The court may also have the pro three point line, but if not take a few steps back and you will be in three point territory for professionals.  Unless you are a real stud or played some serious basketball, that shot is a heave.  A real heave.  I played in a league when I was in my late 30s, that used the pro three point line.  I was the guy who--when we were desperate at the end--they wanted to take the three.  If I was hot, maybe I could make one out of three, but typically it was more like one out of five or six or even eight. It is a heave from pro three point land. Excellent division 1 college players have trouble hitting the pro three. 

The Nets and Clippers players tonight were tossing up threes as if they were layups.  Not just the stud shooters, nearly everyone with a uniform was bombing up the threes. And in the Warriors/Celtics second game, Steph Curry hit three threes in a row without breaking much of a sweat.  If he was open it was automatic.

So, what is the point.

There are a number.

(1) When my dad was alive and we were watching a game he would often marvel and say, "these guys are so good." He was so right. Sure, they are the best of the best, but a three is a long long shot, and they are putting them up effortlessly and successfully. Gone are the early days when the shot was only used in an emergency. Now, it is used as if the game was more like warmups (and warmups during which players were not practicing good shots) than a competitive contest.  This leads me to the second point.

(2) The game, at least during the regular season, is losing some of what makes basketball great.  Perhaps the contests tonight are aberrations, but gee, we are talking run and gun--and little to no defense. There was a stretch about twenty-thirty years ago when it was difficult to break 100 points in a game. The three was in play then, but so was defense.  It is true that now players are taking threes off of fast breaks, eschewing high percentage shots for lower percentage shots which can gain the team an extra point. In these cases the players are earning their opportunity to take uncontested threes. But gee, it sure seemed to me that sometimes in a possession, very quickly into it, some player would bomb up a three and nobody was really giving the player a hard time.

(3) The most significant point is this. The game has changed because of the three such that the game of my childhood is a different game.  Not commenting with this comment that it is for the worse--point here is that it is different.  So different that some of the great players of the 50s and 60s would not be stars in the 21st century. Bill Russell was the greatest player in the earlier era. He was a shot blocker and great rebounder. He could not shoot a lick. Wilt Chamberlain was a force--once AVERAGED 50 points a game for a season.  He parked himself down low and was so strong that he could take the defender and the ball to the hoop. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had more of a touch than either Chamberlain or Russell, but his points were all around the basket. These three greats would not have been central to their teams' success in the 21st century. You don't really need a big guy, unless the big guy is like Kevin Durant who can shoot from the moon as if he is dropping a peach into a basket.  Look at the teams who are successful.  They are led by shooters--Steph Curry who scored nine points tonight in what seemed like less than a minute. James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard--sure they can drive and finish, but they can also hit the three.  LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Jayson Tatum.  All shooters. How many teams in the NBA have their games centered around a center?  Bill Russell would not be the most valuable player in today's NBA. Neither would Abdul-Jabbar.  When the Bucks drafted Jabbar in 1970 they immediately went from the worst team to a playoff contender.  Draft a big guy with a hook shot today, and you get a bounce but not a huge bounce.

All games evolve, but the implementation of the three point goal has not resulted in basketball's evolution as much as it has created a different game.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Snap Out of It

In the film, Moonstruck,  Nicholas Cage is smitten by Cher.  Their relationship cannot continue but Cage is still slobbering his affection for Cher.  Cher feels she has no recourse but to whack Cage across the face and say, "Snap out of it."

I just finished reading Scott Spencer's novel, An Ocean Without a Shore.  I've read several of his books and a number focus on unrequited love.  The protagonists in these novels, Endless Love, A Ship Made of Paper, are filled with longing for another who, for whatever reason is elusive. An Ocean Without a Shore is of the same ilk in terms of plot except the protagonist is a man and the object of his affection is also a man.  Otherwise it is a similar story.  The guy can't escape from his affections.  

I thought Endless Love was terrible. I only read it because it was heralded and I had read another Scott Spencer novel, Man in the Woods, which I thought was terrific.  After Endless Love I thought I would give Spencer another shot and read A Ship Made of Paper which was very good.  Then three years ago I picked up River Under the Road Also good.

While I felt like telling the characters in A Ship Made of Paper and An Ocean without a Shore, to--like Cher said to Cage--"snap out of it"  I highly recommend An Ocean without a Shore with my only reservation the repetitive story line.  That the character in A Ocean lusts after a man, as opposed to a woman in A Ship Made of Paper or Endless Love seems irrelevant--the point is the same.  Once you get hooked, according to Spencer, you're not going to get unhooked.  

Yet this book is much more than the story line.  Brief synopsis below that gives not much away.  Skip the next paragraph if you want to know nothing.

The same characters that appear in River Under the Road are back twenty or so years later in An Ocean Without a Shore.  Thaddeus and Grace live in a big house in Rhinebeck (which is called Leyden in the book).  They now have two kids, one in college and one a teen.  The book opens with Thaddeus calling Kip-a New York friend from the earlier book--because he needs money to keep the house.  

Essentially that is how the book launches. But what is special about the book is how Spencer creates dialogue and reactions from the main characters which seems so spot on.  He describes Thaddeus and then, whatever Thaddeus does and says from then on seems so precisely what Thaddeus would say or do or even how he would gesture. The reaction to Thaddeus and his parents, his interaction with his wife, his suspicions about his wife's affairs, his reaction to his kids' behaviors, I wanted to shake my head and say, how did you possibly capture this?  Then certain peripheral characters--a lawyer, the caretaker on the property, the parents, a rich neighbor, Kip's boss, Thaddeus's uncle--all have limited parts, but I felt like they were so real. Like I know them or know of people like them, and yes, that is how they would speak and react.

I get the sense from reading Scott Spencer that he got his heart broken but good as a young man.   I do think that at some point you stop commiserating with someone who can't let heartbreak go. Not suggesting you forget whom you love, but rather you should be able to make a piece of toast or have a pizza without running face first into a wall of longing.  But all that is an aside to why I recommend the book.  Spencer just nails relationships between friends, relatives, parents, and enemies.  I'd recommend reading A River Under the Road first, since this is really a continuation.  But An Ocean Without a Shore can stand on its own if you choose not to.  I read somewhere that this will be a trilogy and the way it ends I think the next book will be about the caretaker's wife-an unreconstructed free spirit.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Husband

 There are people who like ice skating, not because of the points a skater may earn, but because of the aesthetic quality of the skating.  I feel similarly about gymnastics. When I watch gymnasts, I do not care a whole lot whether a subjective reviewer gives them a 8.9 or 9.1, I am just wowed by what these athletes can do.

I just completed a collection of short stories called, To Be a Man, by Nicole Krauss.  I'd read a positive review of the book somewhere and looked up the author.  Then I requested both the new collection and a novel she had written previously.  I did not think the novel--which came first--was, as my grandfather would say, so extra.  It was called Man Walks Into a Room.  I believe the current word used to describe my reaction to that book is, Meh.  About a week ago the anthology came through and I went to pick it up.

There are ten stories in the collection.  For the most part I do not think the stories are that profound, but the experience of reading the stories was akin to the experience I describe above when I marvel watching gymnasts. The author writes so well that I found myself stopping every so often to wonder how in the world she could have strung the sentences together in the way that she did.  

One of the stories is called "To Be a Man" and the book is named the same, though that story is not representative of the others nor is it in my opinion the best either because of the story or the writing.

The one that has stuck with me both because of how well it is written and the story itself is called, "The Husband."  I don't think my summary below gives much away as the story is not a suspense.  

A woman who is a psychologist lives in New York City with her two children.  She is divorced and grew up in Israel. Her mother still lives in Tel Aviv and her brother about twenty minutes away in Jaffa.  Her father died of a heart attack about five years earlier.  Regularly the mother and daughter speak on the phone, and on Fridays typically face time.  One day her mother calls at an unusual time to tell the daughter that she won't believe what has happened.  The daughter is not especially interested except the mother is eager to relay what has occurred. Someone from Social Services rang her apartment bell and asked to come up.  The mother, uncomfortable with a stranger coming up, asked for the business to be stated ahead of time. No, it was private, said the representative.

Eventually the mother says, okay.  And up comes the man from social services with a small elderly man who has a little brown cap.  The social services man is beaming, and says, well I bet you can tell now why I insisted on coming up. The mother said she is clueless, Well, look, he says, we found your husband.

This of course was ridiculous to both the mother and the daughter.  They keep referring to the little guy with the brown hat as The Husband even though the idea that the husband has been found is preposterous since the real husband/father is dead and buried.

The problem for the daughter is that the next time she calls the mother and asks facetiously how is the little husband (I may be blurring some incidents but this is the gist) the mother happily says, he's still around--and whispers conspiratorially--he's not so little.

Well, the daughter is flabbergasted and upset. She calls her brother who says he knows about it, but what is the big deal.  Mom kind of likes "the husband." But he's not the husband sputters the daughter.  The daughter can sense over the phone her brother shrugging "so, big deal."  After facetiming with her mother one Friday and sensing that the husband is in the apartment, she gives the phone as is customary to her 10 year old son and walks out of the room, only to come back in and hear that the husband is showing the kid card tricks.

It goes on from there and I'll stop the narrative, but the point seems to be that we become attached to people for reasons not so far removed from how the mother became attached to the husband. (You don't learn his name until near the end).  The daughter who is content, sort of, to be unattached from her children's father, finds the mother's quick connection with the husband worse than disconcerting.

The Husband is the longest short story in the collection--about forty pages  I may be doing justice to the events, but not how Krauss has presented them.  The writing is very far beyond meh. Really remarkable.  So, if you feel like being wowed with how someone writes I might suggest reading the stories. Not much novel in there, but even the Russian judges would rate the work close to a ten.