Somewhere in Steinbeck Country

Rebecca and I were in a rental car heading north on 101 through the Salinas Valley Sunday before last. We had gone down to San Luis Obispo the day before to have a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving with my brother and his wife Mona. Mom was there too, at least as far as her current presence of mind would allow.

Rebecca was driving. She was a little rusty, having not driven a car for over three years, but she did fine. I would not have done fine. It had been 12 years since I had driven and I was never a good driver to begin with. My ego is fine with Rebecca being the better driver. I’m sure I’m better at something else, possibly a guy thing like pissing on a wall.

I used to travel this road fairly often back when my dad still lived in Paso Robles and back when my dad still lived. He died in 2000. I was married at the time and my then wife did most of the driving when his condition became terminal and I became a nervous wreck. She’s gone now too, not dead, just gone.

Rebecca fiddled with the radio dial. She was doing the driving so she got to pick the music. It made sense. This was not an agreement we negotiated, but rather one that occurred naturally because neither of us are total selfish assholes.

Satellite radio is largely alien to me. I did a fair amount of road trips in the 80s and 90s, and back then your options were limited to what was available on the local FM dial. I listened to a lot of country on those trips. The songs about drinking, adultery, and murder were pretty enjoyable, but the easy-listening-with-a-twang stuff bored me.

With satellite radio, you are less restricted by your current location. Having programing beamed down from Earth’s orbit does not ensure quality and this is not merely the opinion of a grumpy old man. Rebecca is a grumpy young woman and judging by the way she stayed tuned to a station for half a song on average, it was a reasonable guess that she agreed with me. We continued north with musical accompaniment a peppering of pop, hip hop, modern R&B, and an assortment of golden oldies.

Up ahead lay King City, known for being a speed trap as much as anything else. It’s a modern speed trap though with the CHP writing the tickets. If you’re looking to get pulled over by Buford T. Justice or his ilk, you’re in for a disappointment. It was our plan to stop there, preferably without the urging of law enforcement. King City had gasoline and caffeine. We had cash and urine. It was time to make a trade.

We exited the freeway at the south edge of town.  There was a Chevron station and food mart right when we got on 1st Street, but we decided to continue our search for more amenities. An In-N-Out Burger would be ideal. Rebecca had never been to one. While there are many of them in the Bay Area, the only one in SF proper is at Fisherman’s Wharf, a place to be avoided unless you enjoy being around tourists, yacht snobs, and frat douches.

We found no In-N-Out in King City. A later Google search would show there are none between San Luis Obispo and Salinas, which came as a surprise. I didn’t notice an In-N-Out when we stopped for coffee in Gonzales on the way, but we weren’t looking for one at the time. We planned to gorge ourselves on turkey later that day. With a Starbucks, a donut shop, a McDonald’s, and a Denny’s all within view, I just figured one would be lurking somewhere.

And if there wasn’t one in Gonzales, I had assumed there had to be one in Soledad. There’s a big truck stop there with parking spaces big enough for 18 wheelers. I ate at a McDonald’s there decades ago. It’s a relaxing place to eat knowing that the nonstop shankings and ass rapes at the nearby correctional facility was kept contained by armed guards and barbed wire.

The good news for Rebecca and me was that neither of us had our heart set on In-N-Out Burger. The bad news was that King City had very little else to offer. Flat, dusty, and low rent, it’s not the sort of place you move to if you have a whole lot of options. I’m sure the residents are decent, rural folk, neighborly to a fault. Rebecca is from a town in Georgia that’s much like King City though more humid. She knows what places like this are like, which made her adamant that we gas up the car and get back on the freeway as quickly as possible. It was the one time on our trip that what  was playing on the radio didn’t matter at all.

We pulled into a Shell station, which had neither more or less going for it than the Chevron station we saw earlier. I got out of the car and right before feeding my debit card into the pump, a wave of paranoia hit me.

What if it had one of those skimmers I’d heard about? Someone could steal my information then drain my checking account to buy whatever people shop for in King City. Huffable chemical solvents and Slim Jims was my guess. There was a green plastic thing in front of the slot you put your card in. Maybe that’s what a skimmer looked like. I batted at it with my hand, trying to knock it loose.

“What are you doing?” Rebecca asked.

“Making sure it isn’t a thing,” I said, blanking on the word “skimmer.” Brain farts like this usually hit me when I’m drunk and I usually laugh them off.

They’re less funny when I’m sober. A lot of things are, but this was particularly disconcerting because it reminded me of my mother’s confusion over lasagna the night before. She said it was Mexican food.

“I think it’s Italian,” Mona said, trying to be helpful.

“It’s certainly something Hispanic,” Mom said, doubling down. She certainly should have known the difference, having both made lasagna and traveled extensively in Italy. On the other hand, old age has a way of scrambling your type.

Maybe I was experiencing the beginning of my own decline at that gas pump, helpless against an imagined menace I had forgotten the name of. This didn’t seem all that far fetched considering I didn’t even trust myself to drive.

We were back on the road for a while when the Police song “Message in a Bottle” came on the radio. Rebecca was about to change the station, but I asked her not to. I don’t even like the song that much, but it was familiar to me. That was good enough.

Privilegemobile 8: Cold Veal Conundrum

The commute home has just entered its second (and hopefully last) big slowdown. The bus had made its stop at Millbrae BART and ran into a traffic snarl just north of SFO.

I stare out the window from my usual seat at the back of the bus. Daylight-savings time has just ended so it is dark out already. This suits me fine. There is nothing worth looking at in this part of the peninsula anyway. It is a perfect time to pursue my thoughts.

One of the nice things about privilege is that it allows you time to ponder the hypothetical. We can mull over a scenario with the kind of intelligence and evenhandedness that only comfort and distance can provide.

The less fortunate are routinely faced with personal and pressing matters, and it shows in their work. Much has been said about why the poor do such stupid things, but I’ll provide one more example for those of you who have missed out.

Imagine some piece-of-shit apartment building catches fire due to “faulty wiring” (aka “landlord arson”) and one of the residents flees said building as it’s being consumed by flames. “Oh no, Fluffy!” she cries, remembering her cat. Rather than relaying her concerns to those on the scene who have flame-retardant clothing and are trained in both fighting fires and cat rescue, she runs back into the building, which collapses on top of her. In an ironic twist, her tragic death fails to gain the attention of Fluffy, who is idly licking his butt half a block away.

There are two lessons to be learned here. The first is how a crisis situation can cloud your thinking. If every day is one breaking point after another, you are not going to make the best life choices. The second lesson, and the one that means the most to me, is how a cushy desk job and a relaxing commute can imbue even a near dullard like me the wisdom to conjure up pithy fables to illustrate the challenges of our troubled times.

Traffic is still at a crawl so I have plenty of time for other hypothetical situations. One springs to mind that goes head on against the big issues: death, passion, innocence, and how our sense of right and wrong is put to the test when all three intersect.

I picture a mother and her daughter sitting in a car inside of a garage. The garage door is closed, the car’s windows are down, and the engine is running.

“You know mommy loves you,” the mother says, clutching her daughter’s hand.

The daughter is about nine, old enough to sense that something is wrong but not old enough to know exactly what.  If nine sounds off for that level of cognition, the age can be adjusted to fit. Another correction option is to either make the daughter a gifted child or give her Down syndrome. I decide to keep her age at nine, but bump up both her IQ and her chromosome count. Why not? The kid is going to be dead soon anyway.

The mother is intent on spending her last moments in this world justifying what she’s doing, though to whom is uncertain, so she talks on and on. However, she doesn’t want to let on to her daughter that mommy’s going to kill her so she expresses herself in vague, high-minded concern.

“Evil, rich men are destroying our planet, but there is a better world just for you and me,” she says before she and her daughter succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning. Citing pollution as her reason for murder-suicide is an odd choice, considering her exit plan. If she were really so eco-conscious, she’d own a Tesla and the two would be sitting in the car unharmed while the battery ran down.

The husband finds them when he gets home from work. He says boo hoo, wipes a tear from his eye, and grieves an appropriate amount. This is not his story though I do wish him well in his journey through the healing process. The real story, the one chock full of moral gravitas, begins when the two bodies arrive at a funeral home owned by necrophiles.

Frank and Hank Gooley nominally run the business together, but it is Frank who calls the shots. He is a tall, lanky fellow with a professional demeanor that reminds one of a kindly Boris Karloff. His ability to say “My condolences” in a reassuring tone was without peer. It is he who chose the name for the mortuary, “Bon Voyage, Port of Call for Your Loved One’s Final Journey.”

His brother Hank is shorter, wider, and resembles Benny Hill. He has a disconcerting habit of licking his lips while saying “My condolences” so at Frank’s urging, he no longer utters those words. He has also been instructed never to call the mortuary “Bone Voyage, Home of the Boffin’ Coffin” in front of the bereaved as such levity is seldom appreciated.

The siblings stare at the mother and daughter lying naked and supine on the embalming tables. The two cadavers had been cut open stink to sternum by the medical examiner at the county morgue then haphazardly sewn shut after the autopsy with what looked like kite string.

“It’s a shame their beauty had to be marred when the cause of death should have been obvious to everyone,” Frank says.

“I like their whore makeup,” Hank says, referring to the redness of the lips and cheeks caused by the carbon monoxide.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll have my dance with the mother,” Frank says. “Only 38, such a shame. At least she will never have to suffer the feminine indignity of growing old.”

“Fine by me, I wanted the tiny tart anyway,” Hank says. “I can’t wait to make her little cooter sing like this.” Hank then proceeds to imitate the sound by shoving his hand into his armpit and flapping his elbow up and down to produce a series of fartlike noises.

At this point, it is hard to believe that such a refined man and one so utterly boorish could possibly be related. However, the difference between them quickly evaporates as the two siblings disrobe and commence their respective tasks at hand. Both men bare their teeth while savagely pounding away at their lifeless paramours. Both wheeze like chain smokers and grunt like sports fans on their uphill climb to climax.

Just then, a SWAT team bursts into the room and the question of how Frank and Hank might differ in the afterglow will forever remain a mystery. An anonymous tip from a disgruntled ex-employee has sealed the Gooley brothers’ fate and they are hauled off to prison.

Neither get a lot of sympathy from the public, but it is Hank receives the harshest condemnation. He is labeled a pedophile, a stealer of innocence, and the lowest of the low.

But is he really? I’m not going to justify necrophilia. There is an implied lack of consent that makes it a transgression. Whether it is more like rape or trespassing is open to some debate, but it is still wrong.

Even if it is rape, I am not on board with making it the moral equivalent of fucking a living child. What makes pedophilia truly reprehensible instead of just icky is the lasting damage that it does. Last time I checked, corpses don’t need much therapy.

I’ll concede that Hank Gooley shows room for improvement. He is as bad as his brother, but no worse. It’s not like  he killed anybody. That distinction goes to the mother, but the outrage over that has gone missing, upstaged by a lesser but more lurid crime. Apparently killing a living child has become better than fucking a dead one. It makes no sense and yet that is what we as a species do. It is a riddle of the dead-girl diddle, a puzzle of the perished preteen and the pizzle, a cold-veal conundrum if you will.

Traffic eases and the bus is once again moving at a reasonable speed. It is just as well. I have taken this story as far as it can go and I can tell you that I weep for humanity and how our hypocrisy has damned us all.

“Je suis Hank,” I say aloud, not caring if anyone on the bus is listening. In fact, I am proud of what I said. These are good words. These are the right words. These are pretty much the only words I know in French. I sit back and stare out the window at the approaching city limits, basking in the glow of my own sage wisdom.

Je suis Hank. Damn I’m good.

Future Poo

Homeless Bob had a beastly itch. He shoved his hand down the front of his pants, not caring that he was standing at a crowded bus stop on a busy intersection. He began to scratch himself. The initial rakes from his bite-trimmed nails brought him some relief, but not enough, so he started anew with ferocious vigor.

His body odor alone was enough to keep people at least a foot away. This radius increased as the sight of his arm thrusting up and down into his trousers made those nearby take at least one step back and often two. Homeless Bob was unconcerned. He had lice and they needed to be dealt with. It was not long before the poppyseed-like bite scabs in his nether regions began to fetch loose and have the wounds bleed anew.

“Hoo doggy! I got me a Crab Nebula going on down there,” Homeless Bob said to no one in particular.

The bus pulled up and people crowded around its front and rear doors to board, hoping that Homeless Bob would not be joining them. They need not have worried. Although he often rode the bus and not pay the fare and sometimes would be confronted by a ticket inspector and given a fine, which he would also not pay, it was not going to happen this time. He had just pulled his hand from his pants and was too busy inspecting what was under his fingernails to bother with public transit.

There was uprooted pubic hair, dead skin, dried blood, not so dried blood, and a single louse that had gotten evicted by the scratching. Its tiny legs vainly attempted to gain purchase on thin air, but it seemed to be in pretty good shape for having survived a literal bloodbath.

“Howdy little feller,” Homeless Bob said to his newfound friend. “I think I’ll name you Buster, Buster Crab. Get ready for blastoff, Flash Gordon.” And with a flick of his finger, he sent Buster airborne. The trajectory carried the insect over several feet of concrete before landing on the head of the last passenger to board the bus. Buster held on for dear life and would soon settle into its new home where it would feed and lay eggs.

The bus pulled away and Homeless Bob was left standing there all alone. Though perhaps he was not as alone as he first imagined. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a bowel movement laying on the sidewalk. It was not terribly remarkable in itself, a single sausage-link deposit with a size and coloration consistent with having been produced by a human. It was an altogether typical sight in this part of the city except for one thing: It was not there just a moment ago.

Homeless Bob was certain about this. Life on the streets required a certain level of situational awareness just to survive so someone dropping a stool would not have escaped his notice. Besides, no one who got on the bus would have done such a thing. The only probable suspect was Homeless Bob himself and he was able to vouch for his whereabouts.

Yet the poo was right there plain as day. He could not deny its existence. It merely had no explainable origin, no past. Homeless Bob remembered this Sherlock Holmes quote:

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

It stands to reason, Homeless Bob concluded, that something that exists in the present, but did not in the past, must have come from the future. This was not just a poo he was looking at. It was a future poo.

The question remaining was why. What possible reason could people have to send their poo into the past? When Homeless Bob was younger and not yet homeless, he used to hurl his feces at old people for sport, but he had a suspicion there was something more significant at stake here. There had to be something very wrong with this poo, something that required its total removal by any means necessary.

Homeless Bob crouched down and scraped a small amount of the poo onto his fingernail. He then waved the sample under his nose and sniffed. Not surprisingly, it smelled like poo. He poked at the sample with the tip of his tongue. It tasted like poo as well. The smell and the taste did seem a little off, but he couldn’t tell exactly how. To find the answer, he had to make use of his keenest sense, his sense of pain.

Homeless Bob, like most homeless people, did not have a dental plan. As a result, his upper-left canine had rotted and had half of it broken off, leaving the nerve exposed. When he pressed the turd dollop on his finger against that nerve, the effect was immediate. A white-hot arc of agony shot between his tooth and brain. It was the brilliance of that arc that shined a light on the truth about future poo and once illuminated, that truth became both irrefutable and obvious.

“It has no nutrients!” Homeless Bob cried.

What made shit worth a shit, he figured, was its being a natural fertilizer. We eat and make poo. That poo goes into the ground where it helps grow the food that we eat. And round and round it goes.

Until it doesn’t. Human beings are a greedy bunch who are always finding new ways to skim off the top. In time, we would no doubt find a way to extend that to the very food we ate. That had to be what happened here. After multiple laps around the track, poo would eventually be robbed of what made it good fertilizer and it would become as useless as unrecyclable plastic. Landfills would brim beyond capacity with the stuff and humankind might well be faced with its own extinction if no one had invented the time machine along the way.

The past would become their new landfill, but it too would fill up after a while. Homeless Bob decided then that he was not going to wait around until the city streets became nostril deep in future poo. He had to do something, but what? How do you stop a crime when the perpetrators haven’t even been born yet? Well, maybe some of them have. Seeing a woman pushing a baby carriage, he picked the poo up off the ground and made his move.

The woman stopped in her tracks and her eyes widened when she saw the shabby man approach her with excrement in his outstretched hand. Homeless Bob saw this and realized that despite his good intentions, he sometimes had an unnerving effect on people.

“Cool your tits, lady. You’re too old for what I’m after. It’s your baby I’m interested in,” he said, hoping these words would calm her.

Homeless Bob saw the baby as an ambassador to the future and a possible connection between the present and the posterior of posterity that will one day birth this future poo. He knew it was a long shot. The dawning of the future-poo era might be centuries away. However, it was a chance he had to take.

He looked at the sleeping infant in gender-identifying blue pajamas. This was an ugly baby, uglier than most, but Homeless Bob needed a messenger, not a model. The trick was getting the baby to understand. He couldn’t simply explain himself, not to a kid who was too young to know how to talk. He needing him to reach that as he had, through profound discomfort.

Tooth decay on a par with Homeless Bob was out of the question, but the kid was probably the right age for teething pain. That would have to do. He scraped a fresh sample of future poo onto the tip of his finger and stuck it in the baby’s mouth.

“What the hell are you doing?” the woman screamed even though the answer was quite obvious.

“Back off, bitch. I’ve got a gun,” Homeless Bob said. He disliked having to lie to her, but it was a fib told in the service of imparting a greater truth, which made it OK.

The baby was awake now, wide eyed and vainly trying to force the finger out of his mouth with his little tongue.

“Ah ah ah, not until you’ve seen the light,” Homeless Bob said and pushed his finger in deeper. Tiny tonsils contracted involuntarily around the fingertip, which prompted him to remark, “Way to shake hands with it, kiddo. You’ll make a fine altar boy one day.”

Homeless Bob made eye contact with the baby and it was clear that the point had made. There was such seething hatred in those young eyes. It was obvious that the baby loathed future poo as much as Homeless Bob did. There could be no other explanation. Feeling satisfied, Homeless Bob pulled his finger from the baby’s mouth and wiped a shit-and-spit “V” for victory on the blue pajamas.

“Just one more thing,” Homeless Bob said. “Both you and this poo belong to the future. You’re going to have to take it with you.” He drove his finger into the future poo and dug out not just a sample but rather a big, thick wedge. He changed hands this time because he thought it would be more sanitary.

“Hey lady, you want to help getting the diapers off? I kind of have my hands full here.” He certainly did. Most of the future poo rested in the palm of one hand except for the freshly dug wedge on the crooked finger of the other. This finger had a hangnail that looked fully capable of slicing through any piece of sphincter that refused to yield.

When the woman did not answer, Homeless Bob looked around and saw that the woman had flagged down a police car and was was gesticulating wildly at the two officers inside.

The cops emerged from the black and white. One was a policeman who was built more or less like Rosie O’Donnell and the other was a policewoman who was built more or less like Rosey Grier. Officer Grier moved off to the side out of Homeless Bob’s field of vision while Officer O’Donnell stood front and center with one hand raised in the air.

“Stop what you’re doing,” the policeman said. “I just want to talk.”

“Well that’s splendid,” Homeless Bob said. “I appreciate it when law enforcement is willing to listen to reason. It benefits you as well. It will save you the embarrassment of arresting me when you’ll just end up letting me go. Now I’m sure there’s a law on the books about shoving things up a baby’s ass and it’s probably is a very good law. The problem is that it doesn’t apply here. Poo is defined as a substance that has come from pooping. Am I correct, officer?”

“Sure,” the policeman said.

“Well then, what I am holding is future poo. The pooping has not yet happened ergo the poo does not yet exist ergo any laws involving this poo are not yet enforceable. I’m sorry this woman wasted your time. Maybe you can arrest her for crying wolf.”

Homeless Bob smiled and nodded at the policeman, who smiled and nodded. Well that wasn’t so hard. Homeless Bob congratulated himself for being a veritable Perry Mason, which continued until Officer Grier came up behind him and put him in a chokehold.

He struggled in the policewoman’s grasp, but she was too strong for him. Saliva bubbled from between her clenched teeth as she tightened her grip. He grimaced. She grunted. He passed out. She belched out a chuckle.

Officer O’Donnell took a brief statement from the woman while Officer Grier loaded an unconscious Homeless Bob into the back of the police car. Soon the cops and their suspect were gone, leaving the woman to take deep breaths and try to regain her composure.

The next sound heard came from the baby carriage, but it was not the sound a baby would make. It had a deeper voice. It sounded gravely from years of drinking and tobacco use.

“What the fuck was that shit?” it said.

“Not another word, Time Dwarf,” the woman said. “You know you’re under orders not to talk.”

“But you saw what he did to me.”

“But nothing. I swear to Christ if you blow our cover, I’ll make sure you’re brought up on charges and executed by the High Command. Now shut up while I report the situation to HQ.” She began talking into her wristwatch. “This is Field Agent Dietrich. It looks like our operation has been exposed. You’ll have to suspend fecal transfer until you get the all clear. Fortunately, the arresting officers were two of ours. They’ll make sure he dies in custody so you shouldn’t have to wait too long.”