7—Labor Day Sanity Cruise, 1978.
One year later.
Fuck Labor Day, it’s just another sunday in disguise.
“For $220 a month, it’s probably pretty basic,” Veronica told Mick the day they went to inspect the cottage for the first time. She knew more about renting than Mick did. At that point in their marriage, the sophomore year, Mick didn’t care what it looked like; it was about half the going rate for rent and within walking distance to the cliffs overlooking the surfers. He knew it was going to be good enough for him before they ever saw it. The alternative was to continue living at his parents’ home, which, after three months, was already too long for a young couple used to being on their own. When the Churchbuilder said he wanted to retire in Sanity Cruise and fix the cottage, he meant in that order.
Mick sneaked along slowly in his Austin America, showing steel belts on the tires and leaking fluid from the hydraulic shocks. Low-riding before it became popular, out of necessity, he had to drive around a bottle or a rolled newspaper in the road. Pine cones were risky. Fortunately, the Austin turned on a dime, even while holding a chocolate covered french cruller donut—which he was. With a grocery store nearby—and a pizza place, hardware store, laundry, bookstore, Sears, movie theatre, and the donuts—the cartoon-cottage was at the very least well situated; another reason Mick had lobbied for its approval.
Since they didn’t have a washing machine of their own, they preferred to store up laundry a few weeks and make an afternoon of it—filling up eleven washers and folding, folding, folding… Dishes in the sink were mostly handled in this manner as well, though they didn’t wait quite as long. Once the couple discovered four very different and distinct armies of ants living under the house, the practice of dirtying dishes stopped altogether—followed by the cessation of eating solid foodstuffs. Pretty much only the cats and ants ate there.
Two blocks away, an empty reservoir gathered dust.
“What do you suppose that’s for?” Mick had asked Veronica, Ms. Know-it-All, on that fateful day they went to look at the place for the first time. She didn’t know. In fact it was a giant run-off ditch for an underground stream that liked to swell on occasion.
Renamed ‘Meltdown Street’ after the Three Mile Island disaster (at least in Mick’s mind), their street had a ragtag collection of different shaped beach cottages on an uneven road with no sidewalks, while the next street, ‘Immaculate Boulevard,’ was all newer homes on a well-paved road with perfect sidewalks. Across the adjacent street was the Pink and Lime Mobile Home Park for retired citizens, which were more like piñatas on wheels. For all the activity Mick had seen from that place, they might just as well have been coffins on rollers. The real action was up the block at the massage parlor.
The cottage itself was pink on the outside, the wood walls inside painted yellow. There were four rooms, if one included the green kitchen. Each room was small. Everything about the cottage was undersized, appearing as if viewed through an inverted magnifying glass. There was the small gas heater that smelled like sautéed litter; the tiny ‘Wonder Bake’ oven in the kitchen which Veronica had pronounced unfit for service; and the refrigerator that was hardly more than a large green snowball maker.
It was a sunny day when they first looked at the place, and the light inside seemed bright and warm enough for Veronica’s painterly considerations. That was a good selling point. Mick was willing to turn a blind eye to certain, shall we say, glaring deficiencies, in order to get their own place. The front yard was a ‘no growth’ zone. Low maintenance, he thought at the time, another rent-able point.
Mick skirted a fallen leaf in the road on his way past Immaculate Blvd, probably blown off Owen’s yard with a 40 hp leaf blower. The Churchbuilder warned him about their backyard neighbor, Mr. Owen, who had convinced the last tenant to chop down a walnut tree, as well as an old willow, because to him they were simply ugly. The walnut never came back, but the willow sprouted seven new trunks, none of them very pleased. Since Mr. Owen watered more often than anyone, the venerable old willow’s roots were slowly breaking into the foundation of his garage. Mr Churchbuilder was okay with that, but Owen complained about it whenever he saw Mick, which wasn’t very often, as Mick was hardly in the backyard to hear it. The tree was long, full and beautiful on Churchbuilder’s side of the fence but hacked clean on Owen’s side—like a guillotine had come down and sheared the whole backside off. It was a patient, vengeful tree, biding its time, working its way through Owen’s garage and a hail of ever-present, miniscule white flies to get into his house.
There were two apple trees in the backyard as well, on the side of the house facing the Pink and Lime trailer park. Churchbuilder was right about picking the apples early, because someone knicked them before Mick could get any that season. A newspaper and a plastic bottle stuck in a row of hedges bordering the street. He left them there and considered it ‘artistic.’
A low, rickety wooden gate guarded the dirt driveway running alongside the cabana-like cottage to a tiny, mostly dilapidated garage on the back of the lot. Dry bramble stuck out from behind it to the end of the yard, which bordered the back side of Owen’s house.
For some reason, the backyard was a good twenty inches higher than the rest of the lot. This was inexplicable and summarily ignored. The spongy, clump-like grass sprouted smaller patches of wavy, tall grasses, which Mick thought looked very nice around sunset.
Veronica wouldn’t go near the backyard. She knew there was something or someone living in the spongy greenish stuff and didn’t want any part of it, thank-you-very-much-indeed. No way. “Johnson grass,” she called it, wrinkling her nose. No one told Mick that he might as well try mowing sea grass when the time for that came. Intuitively, and for no other reason, he had expected it to grow slowly. It reminded him of his old hair, in that it might just grow fuller rather than longer. That was autumn; with any luck, the severe drought conditions would continue and he wouldn’t have to trim anything until the end of summer. Here it was autumn again and, frankly, he didn’t give a damn. To Mick, it looked natural.
The yard was bigger than the house. It went behind the garage, where there was a pile of weatherized wood with rusty nails in it mixed with wild nasturtiums. Mick had virtually no caretaking experience, nor did he necessarily wish for any. Innately, he figured to improve the place simply by occupying it. Fact was, it was a squat little dump when they moved in and nothing so far had changed that sad fact.
Mick pulled in the driveway, stepped over the small mud puddle, and took a deep breath. It wasn’t that good. The nearby mushroom factory was fertile.
He remembered that first day…
The Churchbuilder kept a key hidden in a loose brick on the patio. Brushing away some spider webs, Mick muttered something resembling ‘yuck’ and shuddered as he did what he had to do to get it. The lock on the front door was as mushy then as it was now, like there might be oatmeal in there instead of tumblers. He had to shoulder the door open, trying to be delicate, but ended up stumbling inside like a drunk.
“Smells musty,” Veronica had said upon entering the place for the first time. Mick wasn’t sure what must smelled like, but took her word for it. Veronica was from East Rainforest Texas and knew her must. “It needs air,” she said. Of course it does, it’s been shut up for weeks.
The unpruned juniper bush still blocked virtually all the view out the front window, which was still molecularly melded shut with paint. Veronica would continue to point that out for years to come. “Don’t worry, we can hack at it later,” Mick had promised her, without quantifying ‘later.’ The other window in the room, facing the mud puddle, had already been opened before they moved in. By rocking it back and forth, it opened roughly ten inches, maybe eight. The spindly fuschia outside popped a few straw-like branches inside.
“No screens,” Veronica had mentioned a year earlier, implying bugs. Now that’s gonna require a tool.
Mick didn’t own a tool of any sort. Up until that point in his life he hadn’t needed one. He never used one before, except a screwdriver, and had trouble with those before the phillips head came out and saved the ape-man from extinction. It was the only tool Mick was even vaguely familiar with—that and a hammer, which he used successfully to build a wall in Everett’s Stress. Mick felt confident about someday owning a power stapler, though he never tried one. It’s time. I’m gonna have to buy some tools. He shoved the chocolate covered french cruller in his mouth and walked between the junipers to the door lost in thought about hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, tape and power staplers.
A hummingbird flew to a tiny red fuschia bloom outside the window. “Say goodbye to your security deposit,” it sang, and flew away. Labor Day my ass….
The heater sat neglected in the far corner of the room. “It never gets cold here,” Mick had assured his Mrs. before moving in. This wasn’t San Francisco, it was the beach! He walked to the Wonder Bake oven and turned it on. He could steam a giant pot of clams on it if he covered all four burners with the steamer. Mick thought about clams as he finished his donut. He loved fresh clams. Looking around the kitchen, he decided he hated ‘avocado’ green.
Public school green….
A box of stale pretzels and a quart of milk sat in the presumably dark Frigidaire, giving it a reason to be plugged in. Whether the ants couldn’t get at it, or didn’t want to, was an exercise in conjecture.
They didn’t have any kids, so what did door knobs matter? The fact that none of the doors met the doorframes well enough to close meant that the job was out of Mick’s handyman realm. In practice, Mick had no realm. The Churchbuilder would have to take care of that as the landlord. Mick was off the hook; he could wait.
After factoring all the variables and options based on their pitiful income, he weighed those against the bottom line: rent. At first, Mick wondered if he was domestically qualified to inhabit this dump. He knew now that he wasn’t. Originally he had hoped his wife was, but she wasn’t either. He had to buy tools. Veronica emerged from the bedroom. “You’re going to put screens on the windows today, aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’m just going to get some things I need, some tools… Here, have a donut.” Veronica raised an eyebrow. Before she could speak, he left.
Mick pulled the front door closed, grinding it against the door frame by pulling harder on the wobbly knob until he finally heard the latch click. He wound through the squeeze-track of bushes and over the mud puddle back to his not-so-trusty Austin America, the one that had thrown a U-bolt sixty miles outside of San Angelo, and drove away slowly without looking back.
Except for Toulouse, who could be heard half a block away, and the train that passed every morning around o:1∂, it was a peaceful, if somewhat crappy, street.
Between small breaths of mushroom, Mick glanced a bit wistfully at the massage parlor as he passed. Veronica ignored his longing, but it was no less there than gophers under the house and a pile of ants on the cat food. And, walking distance to a temporary, fleeting, hour- long diversion. He wondered for the thousandth time how much a nice massage was these days, then grinned at the old Karnac punchline: Regular, or Ethel? The tiny neon sign beckoned to him. He slowed, as he did twice every day, but didn’t stop.
So this is what ‘struggling writer’ means. Mick shook the thought off quickly. I’m not even writing anything… just struggling.
No one knew of his secret longing to be an author; no one took him seriously, that is. Mick harbored that sad fact, hibernating in books, more books, in an effort to gain a literary influence as elating as anyone he had ever read—and had inspired him enough to make his fingertips twitch over the typewriter.
There is no illusion, no trick. Just say it like it is; life’s a bowl of cat food covered with ants.
The problem was, Mick was more familiar with writing under duress. That is, something had to happen in his life that motivated him to write. Whether it was to express love, frustration, fear, loneliness, or whatever… there needed to be something to get out of his system. None of what he had written was any good, literarily speaking, but it relieved him like a vigorous shit.
Now, there was nothing. All was white, like the weather, with no clear beginning, middle or end. He had dwindled from hundreds of hand-written pages to a few hastily scrawled literary doodles in less than two years. His dreams and ambitions to that end slipped underground, surfacing only to bump him awake in the early haze of morning and forgotten over donuts and coffee.
Books were, in fact, Mick’s only friends. They stood by him side by side, between the wood and cinderblock shelves, always ready with encouraging words and flowery flights of phrase to inspire and motivate. Douglas Adams’s The Long, Dark, Teatime of the Soul sat on the plank as if to say: ‘Hey, if I can do it..!’ Miller’s first edition (US) Tropic of Cancer whispered: ‘All you need is a chair and typewriter.’ Doctor Zhivago looked Mick square in the eye and asked if he had the passion. His science fiction books opened a mental box to creative infinity.
He also had anthologies of authors he thought would never achieve anything beyond mediocre urging him to ‘put up or shut the fuck up.’ Mick would smugly wave his most dog- eared friends, his Webster’s and Roget’s, in their spines and tell them, ‘These are more interesting than your claptrap!’ and rest his case with a thud. Much of what Mick found at the bookstores to read he considered ‘suppository writing,’ made to shove up the author’s ass.
After a heated debate with his verbal friends on the shelf, a silence would prevail, revealing a quiet, singsong humming in the corner of the bookcase. Mick’s Cowgirl studied her large thumb and its relation to the railroad effect of the road disappearing in the distance. She was unconcerned, and not in the least bit self-conscious about her mis-shapen beauty.
My darling, Mick would tell her again and again, I shall never be as lovely as you. Then he’d smile at The Lord of The Rings and tell them not to worry, they were still the prevailing royalty, with a sly wink to his Nine Princes in Amber.
It all played out in Mick’s world with a good-natured competitiveness, for the pages were worth their weight in flesh-and-blood friends—Greg R. Greg being his only one of those, and not quite as interesting (although he did share traits with some of Mick’s Time/Life artist friends). A late 1950s throwback to the beatnik printer and sculptor of the nude female figure, and a Korean War veteran to boot, Greg-Greg was as close as Mick would get to male comraderie in Sanity Cruise—a common plight among the local gender, which had been known to cause certain, but not all men, to rename the idyllic seaside resort ‘Insanity Cruise.’
The lesbians, along with the rest of the women, didn’t get it and never would. The notion of male comraderie was the flipside of the male-female record and, as such, not meant to be understood, among other things, by either of the opposite sex about the other. If you played it backwards, it said: Just go about your business, nothing to see here… It followed in Mick’s mind, however convolutely, that attempts at relationships between any sexes is moot, or, one could say, no more than packing material for your coffin. And that being said, Mick ignored the gender of a relationship. For him, though, the Gay life never entered his head, not like the massage place up the street often did.
Whenever he saw the sign in front of the massage parlor, he hoped to catch a glimpse of a lovely coming out the door and bending down to pick up the morning paper in the afternoon, revealing a soft, loose bodice of lacy design… but the walkway was always bare. Strangely, Mick daydreamed of giving a massage. The female body was a map to the promised land. Words floated through his reverie.
“Start in the South, in the foothills and the tiny spaces between the toes. Spaces are key, never neglect the spaces between. From there you can see the peaks of Mother Nature, known since the Ages to be a place of soothing warmth, sustenance, and delight: The Empyreal Palace. Do not rush to embrace this hallowed property, but rather stroll your way toward the top, imbibing in felicitous fragrances along the way. Let the path ooze from between your fingers, sliding in easy passes of pressure and release, pressure and release… and as you waltz and gaze into the eyes of beautitude, you are healing as well.”
Passing the dusty reservoir, he drove toward his new tools, breathing impressions in silent, cerebral color.
“Bend at Wounded Knee, and tally there. Find its underside and whisper to it, you will know what to say. Pay your respects and pray to all the Gods, for there are many to satisfy along the way to Elysium Place. Collect forget-me-nots in abundance there; you will use all of them to get into Heaven.”
Poetry danced in Mick’s frontal lobe, never escaping lips that moved wordlessly:
Arise and realize With Promised eyes (And a growing delight!) Her heavenly design.
Maidenly thighs, In attractive guise, Offer their Surprise.
Breasts floated in front of his eyes, blotting out the road. A double yellow line led a trail up a giant, bobbling cleavage to Sears. He followed the maracas from heaven in a literary daze.
“Arise until the earth is a receding speck of truth on the map to your destination and you are in the constellations. Look for The Lotus—the delicacy of which can be hidden by its luminescence. Alight there, and gaze upon The Lands of Milk and Honey. Behold the swelling peaks and the nourishing valley they form. The canyon celebrates the summits. Tread softly to get there; linger for a time in the empty space of their design. Savor both pinnacles with an open mouth of moist prana, warm them with your breath. Dally but don’t dawdle there; lay your head on the pillows of the valley and you will see your path clearly from the embrace of their contours.”
He plowed through the cleavage in his mind….
Adore, and be pleased. From here, you are nearly there, (You sense redolent zephyrs in the air!) Savor the anticipation of the moment you are already upon. Close now, encircle your prize, With an easy glide and open eyes.
“I’m coming!” the tool-less Mick called on his way to Sears, wallowing in his lust for life.
“You will come upon a forest, pruned with care and fashioned into an arrow pointing south. It will rise on your occasion. Devote yourself to its maintenance, for it is Creation itself that resides within its mossy covering. It is the Source of the Big Bang and shelter to a smaller world tucked away inside, hooded and shy, awaiting your practiced husbandry. Plant your forget-me-nots copiously inside its sacrosanct walls. Bring it to fruition with the patience of a gardener who feeds his dear with two-lips of love. Devote your life to the service of The Promised Land and you will one day come to know God within.”
He pulled into the Sears lot and parked. The car rattled, sighed, rolled over and went to sleep.