JUNE 1997 Part 3
Once again, I show up at the department store, money in my fist, eager to press it into the palm of the first clerk who shows up with something I can wear, and once again I leave seething, trailing red spiky tendrils of fury. After a cursory check of the pants and shirt departments, which turned up nothing I could wear - unless I wanted to look like a little boy wearing daddy's clothes - I went to the shoe department to check on the status of some shoes I'd ordered three months ago. (The store had decided not to stock my size, so I'd had to order them from the factory.) The clerk found my order slip, then said "I'll go check the status on the CRT." I wanted to say "Gosh! You have a cathode-ray tube back there? You guys are certainly a modern store in every way!"

He came back with a grim expression.

"I have to apologize," he said. "We really, really screwed up." It seems that the factory did not make the shoes in my size, after all, and they'd known this for, oh, three months. But no one had called me. Usually I don't get peeved at the clerks for not having my size - it's the damn buyers who believe that people of my dimensions don't exist - but now the clerks had confounded me, too. There followed a brief colloquy with the salesman who sold me the order in the first place; he remembered my order, which I found amazing, and he was solicitous in that oh-my-God pained way that only a man who truly, really enjoys selling quality footwear for his career can be. I don't say that to be insulting: retail needs men such as this. He vowed to pry a similar shoe from the factory within three days by means of airplane and courier service, and I eked out a tight thank-you. I left, well aware that there is nothing less impressive than an angry short man. But that's what I was.

On to the Gap, where there were clothes that fit. Unfortunately, I had all of them already. To J. Crew, where nothing fit me. Not the suits, not the shirts, the pants. All that fit me were the socks.

"Can I help you?" said a clerk.

"No," I said with unnatural cheer. "Just confirming that you don't have my shirt size, my pant size, my suit size or my shoe size. And you don't."

He looked stricken. "We get a few smalls in," he said. He was very, very tall. "But they go so fast."

"Which means what?" I said, smiling now with Joker-like hideousness. "That someone wants them! And they sell! Meaning?"

He stared.

"Meaning that you should carry more of them," I said. "Sorry. Sorry, I've been through this at every store today, and it happens all the time, and the last clerk of the day always gets both barrels. Sorry."

"I understand," he said.

They all do. Every clerk says the same thing, in the same hushed tones: it's the buyers. The Buyers believe that no man with a waist size of 28 should shop anywhere but BabyGap. God, let me run into a Buyer at a dinner party some day; let me just have one opportunity to calmly, logically, and rationally reduce them to a quivering blancmange.

 

Lovely day, again, if dry. Sat outside and finished "Black Dahlia" by James Ellroy, which I've read a few times before. That's summer: I forget to buy new paperbacks, and end up taking out old books I've read and loved. I made myself read all of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Hugo by taking the books out to read in the sun, and with no other entertainment I plowed through them all. All my favorite books have the faint exotic scent of coconut oil on them. Today a ticket stub fell out of the Ellroy book - a stub from a train trip, DC to Penn Station. I closed my eyes for a moment, and I could see the scrapyards of Baltimore, the dank hole of the Newark train station, the long clattering haul through the tunnel under the river into Manhattan, with the real work ahead: manhandling my bag off the rack, staggering along the platform, up the escalator into the stinking din of Penn Station, then the long walk to the cab stand, the long wait for the cab, the long drive up to the hotel, the long night ahead. Then I opened my eyes and I was home in the backyard, pure empty sky above, dog dozing at my side. Best of all, I still didn't remember how this book turned out.

 

My wife asks how work was, and I get to say this:

"I named the dolphin. And I think Jeremy the Chef got super powers."

It's a good job.

We got knocked off the air tonight, and that's the first time it's ever happened while I've been on it. Coming out of the news, the red light went off and the bells started ringing, a horrid clamor that spells Doom. And doom it is; if you're not on the air, you're not in business. It's not like a newspaper that's late, it's a newspaper that shows up with 78 blank pages. Jeremy grabbed the tattered photocopy of What-To-Do drill (first line: "Don't panic.") He yanked open one of the wall panels, revealing some dials and gauges straight out of a Tintin-on-the-Moon comic book. No good. It took five minutes, time enough for me to craft a tale that would fit the Diner cosmology.

It was one of those nights where everyone was calling with an addendum to the Diner story - from the identity of the owner, the whereabouts of stock characters since vanished, the break-in of the Confounder's HQ, the details of a character introduced last night by a cab driver who calls while he prowls for fares. (He'd called to warn of a fellow wearing green who dines and dashes, and I incorporated him into the tale of the island of Simulacra, where all things faux are made. Decaf coffee, wood-grained plastic, etc.) It's hard sometimes to keep it all together, and keep it mine - the storyline has to evolve, and it depends on outside input, but I have to hold the reins.

It would have been easy to blame the power outage on any of the usual suspects we inveigh against each night, but I decided to chalk it up to a Chupacabra, one of the storied beasts Art Bell talks about on the show after mine. I had a Chupa gnawing on a powerline, being fought off by one of the Diner's pack of well-behaved dogs (singed fur, nothing serious; he's now known as Smokey.) And then like a character out of a Homeric epic, Jeremy personally held the arcing ends of the cable together and taped them up. The huge electrical shock should produce, naturally, super powers. We don't know what. But another bit of lore will result.

None of this, I know, makes much sense at all. You really have to be there.

Another day of half-summer, with clouds and a shifting wind. The temp spiked up to 80 after supper, so Jasper and I went looking for dogs. None to be found, again, except for Lily the Timid Shepherd, who is twice Jasper's size but unaccountably spooked by little Jasp. Back home for coffee and some fetch in the backyard while a storm rolled in overhead. The light changed to that odd luminous storm light, with everything etched with preternatural detail. The rain came as I was driving to the Diner - pounding sheets on the pavement, with a smear of clear sky to the West. When I drove home one impossibly tall cloud rose from the horizon and swathed the moon, wrapped it in a hood of frozen smoke. I nearly drove off the road looking at it. Now it's quiet and cool, the only sound is the runoff pattering down the waterspout. There's a wet wood smell I always prize in the summer, and can never name. I'm glad. It has more mystery this way.

 

All the baby birds are still alive, so far. The nest outside the window is loud with hungry peeping.

That's not the real news of the day. Ohhh, no.I bought a car today, and Lord, this is the finest machine I've ever owned. And to think I was considering an Escort. To think I was even intrigued by the Mustang. The 'Stang looks like a Ryder truck next to this car. It's a Mitsubishi Eclipse, pearl gray, and it goes about 7,000 MPH in third gear. And there are two more gears after that. I wasn't planning on this. I filled the Ford Catatonia with gas before I went to the dealership for a look-see, a sure indication I didn't have car buying on the mind.

I was met by a cheerful fellow who had the rough glee of a happy mechanic, not the smooth palaver of a car salesman. We wandered out to the lot, and he pointed to a gray model - my heart fluttered slightly, because up to now I'd never seen one sitting still, just briefly glimpsed as it passed me. It had a rear spoiler like the St. Louis Arch, a low sleek profile that made the Probe look like a Range Rover. It looked like a bigger, stronger, sexier Miata; it looked as if it could beat up male Miatas, and it was the car female Miatas would want to date. (It's impossible not to impute personalities and sex lives to cars. That's the genius of the whole industry, right there. It's a bunch of metal and wires, but it's oddly alive.) We took it for a spin, and on the highway it just ate the road, as the cliche goes. I was sold, right there. When I punched the pedal to pass someone and the car leaped to 85 without a second thought, I realized this was the replacement for the Probe, right here. Crisp and fast and better. Now all I had to do was be nonchalant, and pretend the car was, well, acceptable, so we could bargain.

Lesson #1: they don't bargain on this car. They stop making them in March so there's only a few around. You buy it or you don't.

I would. I must.

When I got back in the Probe, the gearshift felt like I was stirring mud.

Such a decision must be bounced off the spouse, of course, so I called her at work when I knew she would be busy and briefly told her my plans, slurring my words while a plane went overhead. She gave me vague distracted approval. Hah! Mission accomplished. No matter if she thought I was asking if she wanted burritos for supper; she said Yes. I polished the Probe - which, in a way, is a perfect double entendre for how you feel when you buy a new car - and vacuumed the interior. I felt no parting sorrow. It had been nine good years, with intermittent hell. The car had too many memories of DC, with all the annoyance that goes with having a car on the East Coast. I drove it to the dealership and flipped them the keys without looking back. They gave me $1500 for it. No tears.

When I got home, life became a car commercial - the dog running from the house, yapping happily; the wife coming out beaming. (Sara loves the car - for all its low speedy appeal, there's something cute about it as well.) All the neighbors came out - Mark, whose Miata purchase a while ago started the Car Wars on our block; Nancy, whose husband raised the bar when he bought a five-billion dollar BMW convertible, came out and oohed. I basked and preened as though I had not only bought it, but personally designed it as well. Sara and I drove around the lake at sunset, just what you have to do in Minneapolis with a new car - then stopped at the Giant Swede's house; he'd made dismissive noises about the Eclipse before, and I wanted to see if he still felt that way.

"It's just small, that's all," he said on the way out of his house. "And the look isn't exactly my cup of - whoa."

He paused, gaped.

"That's not the car I was thinking of," he said. And then he did what all the guys have done: he swore, profusely, in a voice of love.

It's a miracle I haven't cracked it up yet. I set all the radio buttons while driving home, occasionally looking at the road; later, when I tried to figure out the sunroof, I nearly plowed through a red light. I drove to the Diner tonight without my headlights on, because I couldn't figure out if I had the brights on. (As is usual with a new car, the first attempt to turn on the lights made the windshield wipers go on.) But by the time I got to the Diner I had it all figured out, waiting the first drive home through the empty highways. I took one of the CDs we use for bumper music, the one with the theme from Route 66. I turned it up loud and flew.

This car was made for me. Yes, I'm in that magic state: the car smells new and I haven't gotten the insurance bill yet.

It's a precious time.

 

Now this feels like a summer night. It's warm and humid with a full moon above - actually warmer than it was for most of this dank day.

 

Still in car heaven. I did what I did last night after work: roof open, "Route 66" playing, the road all to myself. There are times when you know you're assembling a moment you'll remember for years - a combination of circumstance, mood, place, time and music, and if you're lucky you don't spoil the moment by trying to polish it before it's put on the shelf. I didn't. Nothing could spoil the mood, except a speeding ticket. And even then it would probably cement the event as something special: Our First Citation. (Come to think of it, that probably explains the lack of popularity of the Dodge Citation. Who wants to get one of those? What sort of slogan did it have: "You need a Citation for driving!")

 

I decided to visit Lake Harriet before going home, drive around slow with the moon peering through the roof, a little mumbling Sibelius on the 58-speaker system. (I exaggerate, but there are speakers everywhere; I swear the tubas come from under the seat, and the piccolos peeped up from inside the ashtray.) The lake was dead calm, with the moon scudding along as I drove, not a car or another soul in sight. Eventually I picked out what must be the late-shift of the lake denizens - a couple of scrawny pale guys running, a knot of four rollerbladers, the occasional bike. A quarter to one in the morning. They probably feel as proprietary about the lake as I do at noon - their place, their hour.

 

Went downtown this afternoon for lunch at the Foshay Tower with the braintrust of NnOOnline (you too can subscribe to their brisk snarky newsletter of Minneapolis politics and culture; it's NnOOnline@aol.com. I think. If it's not, I'll hear about it.) Had a fine time, and enjoyed looking at where I'll be spending my time: downtown. Another block of the Nicollet Mall has fallen, a collection of two-story commercial structures from the 20s hammered to dust. In their stead will rise the corporate HQ for Target, a building of acceptable banality. I passed a few other doomed structures such as the Handcraft Building, one of those undistinguished brick collages that no one mourns until nothing anywhere looks like that anymore. I had a few minutes to examine the memorabilia in the lobby of the Foshay - one of the most peculiar skyscrapers built in the 20s. It's modeled after the Washington Monument, except it has windows. Twenty-nine stories tall, a big gray perforated phallus, the tallest building in town for 45 years. It was built by a local businessman of such inventiveness and drive that he eventually spent a long time in prison. But his name is still etched on all four sides, and lit up at night. Damn good thing he didn't call the building after his first name, or bright white letters would say WILBUR to the world, and Minneapolis would never be taken seriously.

Woke early this morning, hauled from Lethe by the call of nature. Two hours later, Sara woke me up - she'd grabbed my keys instead of hers, and had to buzz the door to get me to let her in. Then the phone rang - it was Eight-Ball Rick, with more radio advice. I perhaps got three hours of contiguous REM sleep, so I bedded down for a nap before supper. Slept a deep, deep hour and a half, and had a horrible dream: I had forgotten to tape the Deep Space Nine finale. In my dream I was shouting and weeping and slamming tapes into the machine to get the last few seconds. It was horrible.

Now I go find out if I actually did set the machine. Otherwise, shouting and weeping. I'm terrified I set it but didn't get the right channel, and I have an hour of action-packed school menus on cable access. Or, given how often they update that channel, snow-emergency parking restrictions.

Let us pray.

 

Some days I resent growing up in the post-photography era. The phrase "pretty as a picture" implies that the picture is the standard to which the rest of the world must measure up. Tonight when I took Jasper to Dog Heaven to romp with the impromptu pack, I had to stop and drink in the beauty of one simple scene: the long expanse of grass, the tall trees, sunlight pouring through the canopy and illuminating every drop of moisture in the water, making the whole world look as though it was shot in soft focus, lit by a master stage designer. The light and shadow gave the scene a sense of conscious composition; in the distance, some people and their leaping hounds. For a second, I thought that this would make a good ad for life insurance. Or something that sells warm moments of peace and contentment. When you live in the age of pictures, you see the fake more times a day than you see the real thing.

I shook it off, grinning as I watched Jasper run at full clip towards the dogs, the sun sparkling in the sprays of water as he galloped over the grass.

Every time I go to Dog Heaven, it's a different group of people. I don't know where they all come from. There are hundreds of them around here - all young, middle-class, with good-job grooming and purebred dogs. Tonight's assemblage was a gigantic terrier named Beacon and a slobbering mad lab named Beacon. I threw the ball - there's always a ball - into the creek, and all three dogs went after it in frantic yapping pursuit, all three diving over the bank and into the creek at the exact same moment. I wish I had a picture of that, I thought again, and then told myself to stop ruining the moment by wondering how I could preserve it.

Readers of yesterday's Bleat will be happy to know I did not screw up taping the season finale of DS9; I watched it late into the night, issuing quiet grunts and whoas! during the battle, not wanting to wake Sara. I did a frame-by-frame examination of the last shot, the formidable fleet steaming towards combat, naming the various classes of ships, looking for a Sovereign class. (I think I found one.) My geekness having been sated, I went to bed, thinking: summer's end has consolations. All the stories start up again. Mulder comes back to life to save Voyager from the Dominion! If you know what I mean.

Hot day, humid. Mowed the lawn and sweated gallons in the process. I like to mow the lawn. It's the only way to make sense of it, to level the weeds and dry spots and clover patches down into one contiguous swath. I love the smell of fresh-cut grass mingled with gasoline. I love shoving the mower into a spot and forgetting that I'd buried an electrical cord back there, and wondering for a split second if I wasn't about to be lifted off my feet with a good sparky jolt.

Took a walk around the lake, cleaned the floors, did the laundry, had an exceptional pizza, walked Jasper again, dived into a deep strenuous nap, then dredged up by spirits with a potent batch of coffee. Off to the Diner for a nice relaxed show - although one moment was a little terrifying. I went out back during a break to see if the moon was full; when I tried to get back in, the keypad on the doorlock would not accept my code. I was stuck out in the back with no way in. And Jeremy was inside in a soundproof room. I banged on the glass for a few minutes, and with horror heard the show music come on the loudspeakers. This did not strike me as the height of professionalism. But he heard my pounding and rescued me, and I was only ten seconds late to the mike. Took a few minutes to get back on track, but since there's not much of a track to begin with, that's not entirely difficult.

Tonight's show: snipe hunts, gangster toys, orange pornography, and another graphic beating of the hapless soul who vandalizes vehicles in the Diner parking lot.

Tomorrow: sun. A picture-perfect day, the skies will be bright as an allergy pill ad. Lots of driving tomorrow. Lots of fast, fast driving.

06/22/97

This is the ancient lake, gouged out by glaciers, filled and refilled by millennia of summer rains, ringed with old trees and bordered above by endless blue. Can we ruin it in one afternoon? Why, yes.

No, not ruin, not really; no matter how many jetskis rip across the surface, the lake heals fast. If a Coke can should fall overboard, it will sink 190 feet, and it will take many to build a hull-shearing aluminum reef. There's a fire on the south shore, and it looks untended - but the rain will put it out. All the houses on the shore look solid and sure, but one good tornado will rip them to tinder. One house high on a bluff is a testament to the folly of trying to ruin this place - the owner cleared away all the trees from the top of the cliff to the waterline, and to keep the land shored up he put in a retaining wall made of thousands of railroad ties. It must have looked like one of the seven wonders of the world, the Hanging Gardens of Pelican Lake, before it collapsed. The wall now looks like a giant child tired of playing and left with his Lincoln Logs strewn on the stairs. People putter by trolling speed to point and gape, and no one feels sorry for the owner.

This is the old lake of my childhood, the place where we went when we didn't want to fight the crowds at Detroit Lakes. We first launched the boat from this place more than a quarter century ago. I named that boat the Haddock, after a brave and bilious sailor in the Tintin comics. Now - more than 20 years since I last got on a boat with the family - I'm back. When we first went out - Mom and Dad, my sister, and myself, a pale nerdy junior-highschooler - we came in one car, dropped the boat in the water, drove around, took it out, and went home. In between we might spend a few nervewracking moments after we sheared the cotter pin that made the prop spin, and we waited to see if Dad had brought a spare. (He did. Usually.) Now it's three vehicles from three directions; less one parent, plus two spouses and a grandchild. Everything's easier and, hence, far more complex.

This is the modern world, after all, and I live in a family in love with engines and gadgets and play, which leads to this tableau: brother-in-law Dave is sitting on a bright blue innertube, trailing from a length of cord made up of seven different colors. The boat motor - huge, three times the size of the Haddock's - is burbling underwater. Dave is shouting something, but I can't tell what it is because the CD player in the boat's dashboard is too loud. I tell my dad to turn it down so I can hear Dave's message, which is the cellphone number of my sister's carphone. He's twenty feet away shouting a series of numbers that I poke onto a keypad so I can call my sister and learn exactly how peeved she is about something.

"FOUR! SEVEN!" He shouts, bobbing in the wake. "SEND!"

My dad nudges the engine up a few revs while my sister picks up the phone on the interstate thirty miles away.

We have to shout over a jetski.

Add a few gadgets and a few details change, but really, it was just like any other trip. Except that this boat goes very fast. I took the wheel for a while and was initially a little skittish - it takes a while for it to plane, and you have to feed it more power to get the nose down, and for a second it seems like you're about to launch up off the surface and flip around like something on America's Most Horrible Stunts Gone Wrong. But once I got the feel of it I braced myself, stood up, opened the engine all the way and let the 45 MPH wind pull the tears out of my eyes, striking a Man of the Sea pose that was as silly as I feared it was. Sara sat in the front, relaxing in a way that only a lawyer who has managed to completely, utterly, and almost forget about her upcoming cases can do. We spun around for hours, slapping the waves, trolling in the shallows to peer at the cottages, nosing into the weeds to head to other bays. For a while we beached at the sandbar in the middle of the lake, hopped out and socialized with other boaters. One of them knew my dad, of course; someone everywhere knows my dad. (This guy read my column in the local paper, which was nice.) A few waterdogs were bounding around; a few middle-aged beach-bunnies well-etched by past summers, complete with barrel-bellied husbands and bored slatternly daughters. Everywhere, jetskis like gnats. The water was warm, the sky was clear, the sun was hot and that is just as perfect as life here gets.

The clouds slid in around seven, a flat gray bank that closed overhead like a convertible top. We headed back, putting the Haddock II (no one else will call it that, but I will) on the trailer and bounced over thirty miles of small roads to the highway. I had taken these roads every weekend for years and I didn't remember and inch of them. This will have to change.

 

Supper at the Lone Star Cafe. Yes, when in Fargo, eat at the Texas-style restaurant. I was starved for food and starved for coffee, two conditions that make me owly. In fact "owliness" was my usual mood on the way back from the lake, a result of the strange exhaustion that comes when the sun beats on you all day like a tinsmith. I wanted coffee, and now, please. But the staff had to do their line dance. Once an hour they turn the country-western music up to brain-pureeing levels and all the wait staff assembles to dance. I sang along with my own lyrics, which in a flash of exhaustion I committed to memory for future visits:

"And the food's gettin' cold as it sits there in the kitchen / and the customers are mortified and silently they're bitchin' / that we have to sit through all this mess just to get a piece of meat / now start servin' with yer hands and stop dancin' with yer feet."

No one heard, much to my wife's relief. I sort of liked my version, though. (Can be sung to any C&W song.)

Dad showed up, and we all ate steaks the size of oven mitts. Halfway through my exhaustion intensified, and for the rest of the evening I was convinced I was either immensely weary, dehydrated, or coming down with the fast-moving infection that killed Jim Henson.

At home we slept in my old, old room. When I went to college my stuff was moved into my sister's room, and she got my larger abode. Since 1976, her old room had been my familiar room, a little sliver filled to the ceiling with a vague reconstruction of how I'd had things. It had never felt right, but I'd gotten used to it. Mom slept there in the last year when the pain kept her up all night. The last few trips home I would see her motivational tapes piled up - a little stack of classical tunes, some lectures from the Bluegreen Algae hucksters who sold her bogus pills, some New Age music. I never could fall asleep in that room. I used to read old comics until they slid to the floor from a boneless hand.

Now Dad has put a bigger bed in my old, old room, and that's where we slept. In the moonlight I could see the closet where the monsters used to live; the streetlight hit the copper doorknob, and I recalled that I'd put a Marvel Comic decal on there. I checked in the morning to see if it was still there. Just an arm and a leg. Blue. Captain America, perhaps.

Breakfast at the Holiday Inn. On the way out, my sister nudges me to notice the man walking in. By God, it's Mr. Garilla. My junior high school gym teacher. I went up and introduced myself and said that I could never do any push-ups in his class, but in later years I had taken his advice to heart, and now I could. We laughed. He still looked as if he could pull me limb from limb.

Goodbyes, and back on the road. Home in four hours. Ran into a listener to the radio show at a rest stop, a friendly fellow named Mike. I walked away pleased by the compliment, but wishing I'd combed my hair; I probably looked ridiculous, all windblown and wearing a tanktop about 17 sizes too big. Once home I collected Jasper from the Giant Swede's house, and as usual Jasper was not himself once we came home. A little resentful. When I went to develop the film I bought a squeaktoy hedgehog and some Frosty Paws dog ice cream. All is now forgiven.

It's raining now, and I'm on the back porch. Next time I waterski, or at least innertube. But I used to say that then, too. Back then it was only 40 miles and 50 minutes to the lake. It's three and a half hours today. Two hundred miles and 25 years away.

.