Location: marengo, il, United States

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

An Attempt at Social Suicide

Drive south from the city of Corpus Christi, and in less than thirty minutes you will reach uninhabited Padre Island. There you will find a narrow strip of land that hugs the lower Texas Gulf coast, extending all the way down to Brownsville. Sunbathers, surfers, beachcombers and fishermen alike come to the island often, while the more-adventurous folk in their four-wheel-drive vehicles take to exploring its miles of untamed wilderness for their pleasure. Driving on the beaches is allowed, as is tent camping.

Carolyn leans both of her stout forearms on the steel countertop and begins to drum her long fingernails incessantly. She looks totally bored with everything, as she usually does.

“So what are you doing after work?”

I have my back turned to the girl, and I am trying to figure out her sloppy handwriting.

She keeps at the irksome noise, knowing how it irritates me.

“I was thinking of going out to the beach Saturday. Would you like to come?”

I ignore her prattle by hurrying over to a locker to take out two steaks I need. The things both sizzle nicely as they hit the hot metal surface.

She cups her chin in both hands and watches me.

“Me and my cousin went to see Poltergeist last night. Have you seen it yet?”

A second waitress comes by and slaps a ticket down next to Carolyn before darting off.

I ladle an amount of oil in the proper spot near the back, and then throw a fist-full of shredded potatoes on top. Ice crystals melt and begin popping loudly.

Carolyn stops her drumming for a second.

“How do you like my new nails? See, I just had them done.”

I turn to grab the other ticket, barely glancing at her dancing, painted fingernails.

“I’d like to get you back here and put your ass to work, if you don’t stop that yakking.”

She scoffs and tosses her head as she walks away.

At least she didn’t run off crying and quit like that other twit did. Some of these waitresses we have are plain silly.

Carlos returns from the back room carrying a full bucket of pancake mix which gets stored up under the prep counter behind me, and as he stands, he looks out over the diner while wiping both hands on his apron front.

“Carlos, if you want to play…”

“Yak, yak, yak!” He grins and picks up a tomato and a knife.

It’s five o’clock, and the rush has yet to start.

We have a new cook we are supposed to break in tonight. Deever is his name, and he is the only other Anglo working here besides myself. Quiet and studious-looking, he handles himself well during the shift, so we two go out to the back to share a joint afterwards.

He motions toward the closed door with his head.

“So who is this Carolyn chick?”

I shake my head and try snorting back a reply while trying to hold my breath.

“Man, she is all yours, if you want her.”

That brings on a coughing fit for the both of us, and since the younger man owns a car, we start to pal around over the next few months.

Deever lives with his aging grandmother. I start spending some of my free time there, and he soon introduces me to an odd little book called The Screwtape Letters. From that point, the two of us get involved in several deep conversations about religion and theology, which frankly, begins to depress me. I am really not in the mood to examine the state of my life right now.

The old boardinghouse starts to become a strain. A pensive man named Harley moves in, and right away this guy smells like trouble. Tall, blond and broad-shouldered, he carries within him a smoldering attitude he hides in plain view behind a walrus-sized handlebar moustache, and even Johnny tries to steer clear of the brooding bully.

I attempt matching wits with the stranger a couple of times as we sit at a chess board one afternoon, but after winning a couple of games and receiving only his disconcerting looks afterwards, I decide to stop having anything to do with Harley altogether. I have even taken to using my up-stairs window to come and go, just to avoid bumping in to the man.

Jennifer lets me know that it’s fine with Jim if I want to come and crash on their couch across the street, and after giving it some thought, I decide to do just that. Neither one mentions any need for money, so as soon as I am able to pack, I leave Luis and the wild bunch gratefully behind.

Jennifer laughs as I set my backpack near the front door, and tells me I can use the living room window to come and leave, if I so wish. Things go well there for the first month, but I seldom see either Jim or Jennifer anymore, since she works days now.

And then I arrive at the apartment this very evening, after getting paid and being given a rare night off, and I find a weird scene awaiting me.

I had swung by a bank earlier to cash my check, and then stopped off at a pawn shop where I spent a few bucks on a second-hand guitar, and being anxious to try it out, had raced home for a quiet evening of putting on a new set of strings, and then plunking out a few tunes afterwards. They, however, have company over tonight, my friend Jim and his lovely Jennifer, and Jennifer is fairly dancing around the living room with excitement.

“This is Molly. Molly, this is the guy I was telling you about.”

Molly looks young and is a complete unknown to me, and she also looks rather used.

Jim hides behind a shy smile as Jennifer goes on to explain how they are about to indulge in a threesome for the night, and I, of course, am invited to join in their fun.

(You might well raise an eyebrow at this point of the story -- I would have too at the time, were I able to do that smart trick. But let me finish describing the remainder of the evening by stating that I simply re-string my little flat-top and do a bit of fun finger-picking on my own, thank you very much, and all the while sitting cross-legged and alone on the floor against a wall. And, I should add, with most of my clothes still on.)

The worst part is that several hours have to pass before I am able to turn in and fall asleep on my couch.

The next day, I wake up before anyone else, and my father’s words are running through my head: Look before you leap, son. I reach for my shaving kit and count up the roll of money stashed there. I have an ample amount saved up, I discover, so I am thinking now is a good time to make my next move.

I leave the bike parked next to the wall near my backpack. I cram the cash in my pocket, and after slipping on a pair of sandals, I exit quietly through the window and walk across the highway to call Deever from a pay phone.

“Come pick me up. I’ll be waiting at the counter.”

He arrives shortly, and I ask him to take me around to do some major shopping. Later in the day finds him, myself and my belongings all speeding along down a hard-packed beach road out on Padre Island. We have gone way past all the beachfront homes, way farther than the hotels and other commercial signs of tourism, and way beyond the last of any man-made structures, and at this point, Deever is beginning to look a little worried.

“How much further?”

I tell him to keep going.

“Man, this is pure craziness.”

And he shakes his head, but he keeps on driving, for Deever understands my state of mind. I have had it up to here with everything. I have had it with stupid people. I have had it with humanity, and I am sick of them all.

I had been out to the island before, mostly on the weekends and during weekdays, and if there is one thing that Padre has to offer, it is seclusion for the asking, and that is exactly what I plan on looking for, and that is what I am taking.

“Just keep driving, Deever. I’ll tell you when it’s time to stop.”

We pass a lone tent pitched near a dune, and I smile. I own a brand-new one of my own now, laying back in Deever’s trunk, along with my bike and the rest of my possessions. The orange backpack rides in the seat behind me, and it presently bursts at the seams with a load of canned goods.

“How about here?”

I motion him on, so we keep riding. What feature am I looking for exactly, I cannot say, but I remain confidant I will know the moment I see it.

Strange Magic is playing on the radio when I sight a series of sand dunes that rise higher than the rest.

“Slow down some, Deever.”

He stops when I hold up a hand.

The pair of us then carry all of my gear up into the hills. After arriving at the crown of the second one, we arrange everything in an orderly pile, and then we both stand and face each other. The air feels hot and dry, and only the slightest breeze moves. I look around and see nothing but the wind-sculpted dunes surrounding me.

Deever cocks his head just a little, but his expression is unreadable at this point.

“You sure this is what you want to do?”

I nod, and so we shake hands firmly, and then he turns away and trudges down the side of the hill.

I turn around and begin breaking open the carton that contains my dome tent, and in a very short time I have a new home set up. Then after placing the heavy pack, my sleeping bag and the guitar safely inside, I step back out to look around the immediate area.

I begin to think, this is all free. Free of people -- free of worry, and I spin around in a circle to scream it out loudly,

“Free! Free! Free!”

I kick off my flip-flops and go running down the hill and up the side of the dune closer to the beach. At the crest, I plop down to catch my breath and sit while looking out over the magnificent blue gulf waters that spread out before me. I hold both arms up to the stiff breeze for a while and let the sun shine down on my bare head, and I rejoice in my surroundings for some time.

From here I can catch the sounds of waves as they each crest and fall on their march to the shore. Far out to sea, a line of puffed clouds extends off to my right and far to my left. Down below, a lone sanderling runs along the wet strip of the beach as it feeds, and I feel content to do nothing but just observe and be warm.

After awhile I leave my seat on the dune before the light begins to fade, and go down to walk the beach in search of firewood.

And later on, after building a fire and heating my first meal here, I feel compelled to do something extraordinary as a full moon rises high into the sky.

Strange magic

I remove all of my clothes, and I spin around naked across the sand while sparks from the fire rise and twirl into the night.

Oh, what a strange magic

I dance as I sing.

Got a strange magic

Got a strange magic

And I am feeling completely free.

The next morning comes softly. I open my eyes to see the ceiling of my tent overhead. The circle of light there glows brightly from the first hour’s sun. I want to lay still and take it in longer, but something forces me to get up instead.

I slip on just my jeans, and then I unzip the screen flap and crawl outside. Nothing around the camp appears to be disturbed. I walk a safe distance from the tent to relieve myself, and I study the sky. There is not a cloud anywhere. Then I realize -- it is the absence of any sounds that awoke me.

After making a quick cup of instant tea (with lemon and sugar already included in the mix), I take the cup and go up to the other dune to sit and drink and watch as small waves come ashore. The scene is restful to my eyes, and the tea I drink tastes palatable. But as I sip the last of it, an unexpected and disturbing feeling begins to nag at me.

I am looking to my left and up the beach. It lays empty of life and void of moving objects. I glance to my far right where my eyes follow the curve of a coastline that simply disappears into a haze of nothingness. I lean back and look up to stare at the sky for awhile, and I see no birds up there; no gulls hover, close by or even far away.

I have a too-active imagination, I tell myself. No, everything on the planet did not die overnight, and then vanish off the face of the earth. That is an absurd idea; don’t even think about it. Then the last swallow of lukewarm tea seems to go flat.

I wheel the bike down to the beach first. I park it there and make two trips back into the dunes to collect all my things. With the added weight of all the food, the bike acts wobbly from being top-heavy, and it is extremely difficult to pedal, but I manage somehow. Panic can be quite a motivator, as I have learned, and it takes me half the day to arrive back at the Malaquite campsite where I spotted the last tent yesterday.

Needing people, I have determined, will have to do.



Blogger Gone Away said...

People. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. I love this chapter, Harry. It expresses so well just how I feel about people too...

11:25 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

Do I hear you oiling up a bicycle, Gone?

11:29 AM  
Blogger Gone Away said...

Not me, Harry. I like my wheels to have a motor attached. ;)

1:24 PM  
Blogger Stranger Ken said...

Endless beach, sunshine, girls and ...lots and lots of food. The American way? I knew a guy called Harley once ... say no more. It's impossible not to admire the detailed way you evoke the world you live in, Harry. You really do know it and you make a lot happen, too, either from memory and your own experience or your imagination. Who cares? It reads well either way.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Jodie said...

I've camped out at Padre Island National Seashore 5 times now. Thanks for evoking that again for me. :)

5:40 PM  
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