Kaleidoscope of life and death on the PCT

PCT, Washington section between Snoqualmie and Chinook PassOn the fourth day we rested only a couple hours from the last camp, still in the burn area. It was already getting hot by mid morning and I got there before Brad, eager to secure a camp. There was a stream right by the trail with a pipe sticking out of the ground trickling into a pool where you could crouch and bathe. There was that sound, the trickling, and then another collection of sounds: the dead trees cracking. That, and no other sound.

In three days we’d come about 45 miles already, the last two especially hot and dry. We’d toughed it out through the driest section of trail, about 11 miles with no water, had to haul it, and didn’t plan well enough…so we went several miles rationing out a liter.

The night before I’d been despondent, and Brad gave me the last of his water and reminded me about the magic beans I had. They were a kind of “sports bean,” a jelly bean with electrolytes. I drank Brad’s water and ate the bag of beans and soldiered on to reach camp at last, another 18 mile day. We did two days like that and then on the fourth day decided we could spend the day resting.

But what kind of place was this to spend the day. I realized the ground where I laid my pack was burned so bad it smudged it black like soot from a candle. It got all over your hands and sleeping bag too, anything you touched turned black, including the trees. They’d been burned alive, many leaning or hollowed out to where the only thing keeping them standing was maybe a root or two, just barely. Brad said we could probably push these trees right over.

It didn’t seem like a safe place to camp, I knew that. I studied the nearby trees within range of our tent but all of them were basically fucked. It could be like a javelin or spear, one of those branches falling through our tent. Some of the trees looked like grilled plantains split open, the peels charred, the fleshy meat underneath orange-red.

Feels kind of bleak, I said to Brad. All this death. And it did: a burned out forest years later, crumbling still. But Brad said there’s a lot of life here, too. Along the stream, alpine flowers in yellow and purple-blue. Mountain ravens, some strange insects too. One, a wasp-looking thing with blood-red legs and a black cape that came picking through the bark looking for something to eat. We were here the night in their land, a part of it and apart from it too.

I asked Brad if he thought it was okay to camp here. I deferred most responsibility to Brad, which wasn’t fair. I think given the choice, he would have kept going but I was worn out from the last few days and needed a break. There was no shade at the camp and as the sun got higher, we’d have to get creative finding some. We couldn’t really use the tent as it got well over a hundred in there. We wound up laying our bags out in the long shadow of a tall dead tree and then as the sun angled its way down we shifted our bags in the shadow like hands on a clock, slowly clicking through the day.

We got to talking about death, the chances of it. Brad said the way I look at it, it’s about risk and the actual odds of it happening. Freak cases of people getting struck by lightning: a woman getting hit by a meteor while sitting in her living room. A group of girl scouts wiped out on some field trip. There was only so much you could control. We resigned ourselves to that, to fate. And Brad told the story of being on Rainier, that route where you have to go under the ice cliff, the fact that it could give way any time and you just have to hurry through and hope it doesn’t. Maybe spread out in case it does, so the whole party doesn’t get it at the same time.

All that made me feel more alive somehow. It felt foolhardy at the same time, but a dark part of me felt clever, like I’d outsmarted death. There was no whistling sound of a tree broken off and come to flatten us in the night. No moon, no wind. Brad snoring, shifting in his bag. Breaking camp in the morning, boiling water, saddling up for the next one.

I went on ahead and came to a ridge where the burn continued, it went on for miles, all those blackened out trees twisting and standing there still. The trail curled around to a pass and disappeared. There was no one in any direction, just me and the sky and the land below it. And I knew my time was like that too, but it didn’t feel that way to me one bit. It just felt like it would go on forever.

 

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The phone can’t see what’s really real

Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Mount StuartThe month wore on. Though it was cool at night I left the windows open to hear the rain slap the patio. The light was different now, and struggled to make it over the trees. The grass had gone to moss with the scant mushroom popping up, autumn’s blooms. They were just putting out Christmas stuff but it was hardly even Halloween. Continue reading

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How I spent the back half of my summer, unemployed

I took my time shaving, flossing, folding the laundry and putting away dishes. I took long, indulgent showers. In short, I slowed down. Stopped checking my phone. Went through things in the garage, reread old letters, threw out none. Sifted through old photos, threw out lots. Cut back the dead in the garden and sorted it, bagged it, tied it for removal. I’d been away from work so long, a good six or seven weeks, I didn’t even feel off, I just felt removed. I had to wait in line longer than expected at the pharmacy and didn’t get upset. Running errands I took the long way. I listened to the afternoon radio show. I cooked stews and deep cleaned the refrigerator, bought a fresh batch of candles, replaced worn pillow cases, started building a disaster recovery kit but stopped short. I read Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I rotated the house plants in the windows and fed them ice. I restocked the liquor cabinet, pressure washed the patio, sent out RFQs for an arborist. I deleted low quality photos from my hard drive. I got my eyes checked. I blew leaves and made kindling with the last of the wood, took the hammock down. I mailed a book to my uncle. I learned the difference between mezcal and tequila. I sharpened knives. I stood outside in my socks under the eaves as it rained, admiring a rainbow. There was so much life to be had outside of work it was hard to believe I ever managed to do both. I savored my time and knew its scarcity and loved it hard.

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Letters and passageways (5): trial runs

This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.

You wear it on your body, and you don’t even know what it means?

Allanah grated potatoes onto a newspaper and used the paper to gather up the peel. I told her it’s a wyvern and two sea serpents on a coronet. That’s how my step-dad John always referred to it, how I memorized it: the way you would a phone number, by the rhythm of the digits. “A wyvern and two sea serpents on a coronet.”

I don’t know about other parts of the world but in the West, the wyvern symbolizes war and the devil. Relative to the lindworm when you take off the legs. Allanah studied me from across the room and softened her tone for added effect. War and pestilence.

Allanah’s hair was coming undone and hanging in loose, gray strands around her face, above the sink. I looked down at my ring and studied the symbols: two sea serpents mirrored each other with open jaws, perched on a crown. The wyvern had its back to them, a dragon’s head with two wings and a coiled tail. Eagle’s talons for feet.

It’s John’s family crest, I said. They came from Wales and the north of France. I think it comes from Percy.

So you carry the emblem like it’s your own. Have you showed it to your real father?

I haven’t. We don’t see each other much, and I’m not sure he’d notice.

That part wasn’t true, because I had a memory of my dad asking me about the ring. I took it off and handed it to him, and he turned it at different angles to study the figures on the face.

It’s a wyvern and two sea serpents on a coronet, I said.

Dad handed it back to me and said that’s neat. After they got divorced I changed my birth name to Pearse and talked with my dad about why I was doing it and what it meant. The talk was brief though, he seemed shocked. We were at the old house in Bethlehem and I got out of there as quickly as I could.

I kept my birth-given name but moved it to the middle and only used it on government ID. I’d started going by Pearse, and John referred to me as son. I referred to him as dad. That summer in France was like a trial run for us as a family: John, my mom, and me. It’s a trial run for any kind of family; you don’t get to decide whether you’re going to stick with it or not, you get what you get.

I’ve talked about this with John before. Allanah set the grater on the counter and spoke out of the side of her mouth, gathering her hair back, holding the tie between her teeth.

He needs to have a conversation with your biological father. Have they?

I don’t know. I think John sent him a letter.

Well I think it’s sweet John feels the way he does. You have to decide how you feel about him, and if it’s worth it to you to cut off ties with your real father. You can’t have it both ways.

Gregory called from the other room, something about the TV remote. Allanah called back in the tone she reserved for him, the sound of a mother talking to a child, a bossy mom. Gregory allowed it.

On the program, a humpback whale and her calf were being hunted by a pod of killer whales. The narrator was that same, English voice. Gregory had a satellite dish put in to get English programming, the BBC. Allanah finished the potatoes and took off her apron, folded and set it on the marble countertop. She sat next to me on the sofa, Gregory on the recliner.

I’m a having a glass of wine, Allanah announced.

Gregory told her which one to open and she did, and brought back three glasses. The mother humpback whale was bigger than the Orcas, but outnumbered. There were half a dozen Orcas and they looked ominous with that white patch by their eyes.

The humpback calf was a bit bigger than the size of its mother’s head, two tons in weight. Still feeding from its mother, the milk pink in color and 50% fat, the narrator said.

Gregory, Allanah and I sat in silence sipping our wine, watching the situation escalate. The mother humpback fought the Orcas for five or six hours, but had gotten separated from the rest of her pod. At last the Orcas wear her out, and corner the calf.

After all that, and all they take is the tongue? Gregory brought up the home screen with the other program listings and refilled his wine.

Surely enough, the calf was dead and all the Orcas ate was its tongue and lower jaw. You could imagine how the mother must have felt.

Well just think about all the life at the bottom of the sea that’s going to live off that calf. Allanah came back from the kitchen with a bowl of olives and put it between me and Gregory.

Circle of life, she said. And then she circled the air with her finger and studied me, repeating herself: Circle of life.

***

I drove the 45 minutes to Snoqualmie Pass, the sun coming up more slowly now. John would have turned 80 this week. For the first time since he died, 11 years now, I listened to one of his CDs on the car stereo. The year is 1970, and he’s playing with Olivia Lyons and two German guys. Olivia is English, the one true love of John’s life, mom thinks.

John sounds distinctly like himself, but his voice is still a young man’s. He would have been 21. Olivia starts the set off and the recording is shrill, you can hear the musicians talking to one another on stage and to the audience. John says they’re going to play a tune but none of them know what it is yet, they’ve never played it before. Key of G. It’s a song about the after-life, what it’s going to be like on the other side. John is singing about playing a harp, in heaven.

When the CD is over it seems like it ends too soon. They spend a good amount of time tuning between songs, a convention that wouldn’t be accepted nowadays, with everyone in such a hurry. The show took place in a German village called Pforzheim, not far from where my mom and John later settled. It makes sense why John gravitated back to Germany for all the memories he had touring there.

The symbols are empty, waiting for us to inhabit them with meaning, to give them life. They take on meaning and value as assigned and in a sense, so do we. We come to represent something more to one another over time.

Signet rings were used to sign letters and documents as a seal of authenticity. John offered me his name and family legacy as an expression of love, and I accepted. It didn’t matter as much what was on the ring, just that it came from him.

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Letters and passageways (4): Cathar country

This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.

Allanah and Gregory seem to me a bit bats. It’s more Allanah with her self-taught fortune telling, Gregory’s bats by association. They’re Canadian and buy old houses along the south of France, fix them up and then flip them. They don’t have much competition as the French don’t seem like real entrepreneurs to me, even though they should be (it’s their word, entrepreneur).

My only work since I’ve been here is working for Gregory. Since I have no real construction skills I just hang around Gregory and fetch stuff, with my dust mask. Gregory demonstrates how to use a vise grip to pull out rusty nails, how to saw off carriage bolts, how to use a hammer and chisel. At the end of the day my hands are swollen but I can’t feel them because of all the wine we had with lunch. Gregory seems amused by the fact that I’m a writer, regularly saying put THAT in your book. His tone grows aggressive the more times he says it, often punctuating the ‘that’ by throwing a piece of rotten wood or using his nail gun. Put that in your book!

Allanah’s into art and history, the pathways between mysticism, the occult, ancient religions, and the Cathars: a 12th-century Christian movement that took on the corruption of the Catholic church (and lost) with related stories of hidden treasure, the Holy Grail, an infamous priest in the hills. It’s the same priest and patchwork of conspiracy theories Dan Brown later wrote about in The DaVinci Code. She has an American friend named MJ who lives in a nearby village (recently divorced) and researching cults, writing a book. Allanah’s got a lazy eye she employs in an almost comic, trance-like face she puts on when she pre-cognates: she predicts I’ll find my soul mate at a paella party in the country this weekend.

Laurent picks me up for the party at 9, it seems nothing starts here before that time. I’m eager, and wait for him out front. His car is so small it’s hard to believe he can fit inside. He smokes and shifts, never losing his cool when driving. It’s one of my first times outside of Collioure, a half an hour inland to a town called Elne. We cross an old stone bridge with Roman archways and a river below reflecting the red sky. Allanah said something about crossing large bodies of water, that it has an impact on the spirit we’re not aware of, and it takes time to recover from that. Maybe that’s my problem, and why she’s having bad dreams about me.

When we get to the party it’s finally dark, and looks like the guy has a farm with an old barn. I have trouble tying together how we know the host, it’s Laurent’s sister’s fiancée Bruno’s childhood friend, a veterinarian. They have a bonfire going and a tent with a large cauldron of paella, everyone drinking red wine mixed with Coke. I ask Laurent about the girl, and he says “I sink it would be perfect,” puts his arm around my shoulder and leads me to her, then points with the same hand he’s holding his drink, “Zat one.”

But the girl doesn’t speak English, not a lick, so we smile and just exchange phrases, sipping our drinks. In the absence of verbal language you have to rely on the non-verbal, and there is a fair amount of light touching on the arms and shoulders. Her name is Muriel, a name that sounds awful in English, but musical in French. She’s from Toulouse and writes her number in my notepad, hands it back to me, smiles…

For the days that follow, my journal details the pained planning for the follow-up call. I have three English-French dictionaries face down on the coffee table, and triangulate between all three. I have to script everything out so it will sound natural. It’s almost 10 PM, and my skin feels hot from the sun. I think of telling her that, but fear it won’t come out right (my skin feels hot). I take a cold shower, a “let’s-go-team” shower, and decide to call her just past 10. But it’s a bust. She says something I don’t understand, so I say ‘quoi?’ like I didn’t hear her, but it’s not going anywhere so I just hang up.

Put that in your book!

Allanah’s friend MJ needs a two-story wall on the outside of her house painted and offers to have me do the job: in return, she’ll show me around the region and share her research about a church in the strange town Rennes-le-Château. There’s also the medieval fortress where the Cathars were slaughtered but may have snuck something out before they were besieged (a painting or treasure, religious artifact?). MJ says the church is dedicated to Mary Magdalene and there’s a line of thinking that Mary was pregnant with a child from Jesus who went on to lead the Merovingians (and ruled most of modern day France and some of Germany, and wore their hair long). There’s a statue of the devil in the church she says, but someone sawed its head off. 

Allanah does my number charts, says something life-changing will happen when I turn 45, because I’m a 3 person and that’s the culmination of a life arc or major series. She accuses me of holding a latent violence though, and says this in a distrustful tone like she’s looking at X-rays and found something she can’t put a name to. She calls it an air of violence. In her dreams about me there is the girl from the paella party and MJ, other women (faceless)…all of us levitating, me trying to climb on their shoulders. I have to bite my lip from laughing when Allanah rolls her eyes back, as though she’s scanning the universe, a mental divining rod looking for a hidden stream. There’s an interference she warns, and that could be me or it could be my step-dad, John.


It was early summer but we were high enough in the mountains it was cool and I remember most days needing a jacket. MJ lived by a river you could see out back from her bathroom, the most beautiful bathroom I’d ever seen. There was a large window right by the toilet she kept open all the time, and when it blew the curtains it seemed to beckon come relax by the river…a vase of fresh-cut wild lavender on the sill…an old bath tub (no shower) and a deep, porcelain sink with knobby handles that looked like miniature hands.

I wasn’t good at painting or interested to learn, and I think MJ wound up doing more than she planned to that week. I learned the French word for scaffolding, échafaudage, and relished the sound of it. MJ was a good 20 years older than me and I realized I’d stepped into a kind of fantasy scape of hers, but didn’t feel the same. We’d share a bottle of Blanquette at the end of the day and it would go right to her head. She got me to recite a poem one night in the doorway of my bedroom with the evening breeze coming through and the sound of the river but I wasn’t feeling it; I had to say goodnight and return to the collection of horror stories I’d brought from Collioure.

On the day we drove up to the church where the priest went missing, maybe it was my imagination or the altitude, but the fillings in my teeth vibrated and I had a strange sense from the place, like something bad was buried there. Conspiracy theories played out a number of scenarios explaining how the priest came into all the money needed to renovate the old church, that he was being blackmailed by the Catholics to keep quiet about something he found.

But when I went back and researched it, I found all the history, even some of the books, took elements that were true and distorted them into fiction. Even Mary Magdalene had that done to her by a pope, who conflated her with a different Mary, a prostitute, maybe as a genuine mistake or (more likely) to debase her. Hundreds of years later now, and some people still believe that.

My own history has the same blend of fact and fiction, with conflated characters and gaps in the sequence of events that now takes on a mysterious air, a patina of age that grows more unusual from a distance. Here I am at 27 calling out from the past, dead or as in danger of dying as the same characters and people I try to remember from that time.  

I made small talk with the guy who works the produce section at the store today about the lightning storm Saturday night, and he thinks it’s because the earth is being pulled out of its axis and has nothing to do with global warming, that there’s nothing we can do about it. I go home and read about the Mayan calendar, the glyphs. The 104-year cycle when the earth, sun, and Venus all line up for one day. They calculated that, and built their calendar on the logic of two cogs in a wheel moving at different speeds, all on that premise.

I scan my purchases with a handheld gun and then lay on the couch reading old journals, kneading my hands. I research the Visigoths, the slain King of Aragon, the Merovingians. And I’m convinced that we’re all connected somehow, that we just have to find the right passageways that lead us to each other.

Blog post image from the cover of Carlos Castaneda’s novel A Separate Reality, 1971.

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Letters and passageways (3): Rob and Paul

This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.

Rob and Paul seem like an unlikely gay couple to me, not knowing what gay couples are supposed to be like. Rob is gruff, shaped like an ape: Paul, demure. They show no signs of affection towards one another and by all accounts, are not “out.” They’re both a good 20 years older than me and not aging well. Rob has unkempt eyebrows, big features, a mustache and sagging gut. Paul is bearded with glasses, wears old hats, thrift store coats.

John, who’s become my step-dad, met Rob and Paul in London in the ’60s. They all liked Basset hounds and drinking. Other than this, and being English, I don’t see much else in common. Maybe traveling to France, but this an English tendency I learn, more of a one-way affinity. I don’t see many French vacationing to the UK.

Mike and I visit London for the first time and stay with Rob and Paul at their home in Arnos Grove, taking the Bounds Green tube stop. We meet the Bassets, Bentley and Bess. The Bassets have drooping eyes with pink folds and pendulous ears that need cleaning, a process Rob executes by holding one of the Bassets on his lap and applying drops to their ears, cupping the liquid in place, then dabbing out the yellow fluid with a hanky. The dogs look on as Rob narrates, adjusting his tone between me and Bentley/Bess, English-formal with me, stern with the Bassets. Over time I imagine that Bentley resembles Rob, and Bess, Paul.

Rob works as a pharmacist at the neighborhood apothecary and returns home the same time, stopping by the corner shop for a can of lager. He drains the beer and opens a bottle of wine, then prepares dinner. It is the same routine every night.

Paul is off to the sides tinkering with picture frames he’s staining, always a number of paintings, drawings, or projects underway. He has a naturopath shop he owns nearby, but at heart, he’s an artist. The house feels choked by his art, either tacked to the walls or leaning in the narrow hallways, stacked on desks and chairs, altering the intended function of any object or surface so it becomes instead a platform for his work.

His art is distinct: it spills out to John and my mom’s house, and even now, in 2019, you can still find remnants of Paul (dead several years) in our garage.

Sadly, Paul draws nudes of adolescent boys and men. It vacillates between art and pornography though, and we don’t talk about it. Rob and Paul sleep in separate rooms and one morning I catch a view of Paul in his chamber: an undersized bed frame intended for a young teen at best, so small he has to fold himself into a ball to fit inside.

The year before I move to France, Mike, Rob, Paul and I journey to Collioure from London with the Bassets. Rob and Paul own a VW camper van with a loo in the back and a stove to boil water for tea, or hard-boil eggs. There’s a small seating area where the four of us can sit when we stop for breaks. Paul peels an egg, his hands still steady, the Parkinson’s a distance away.

We take the Chunnel, Rob driving the whole way. They both sit up front while Mike and I are in the back with the Bassets, who sleep the entire length of France, which looks just like Pennsylvania and takes roughly two days to cross. When they pee it’s a small squirt, and they stare at me while squatting and then trot back into the van, their tales high and firm as a conductor’s baton.

It is my first time in the south of France, and Mike’s first visit to Europe. Though the scenery from the van isn’t much, it becomes more so as we approach Collioure: the snow-covered Pyrenees mountains, some with lookout towers and castles…large cacti starting to bloom, palm trees and aloe growing along the hillsides. We visit in April, and it feels like summer. When we arrive at the apartment, Rob and Paul sleep in the nearby parking lot in their van, while Mike and I share the foldout couch and my mom and John, the small bedroom.

Paul collects interesting pieces of driftwood along the beach, one that resembles a human figure with its legs spread. You can really see the twist of the torso and how the hips flare out, the muscles in the upper and lower legs. John displays the piece on the book shelf where the setting sun illuminates it, and Paul produces another figure to serve as its companion, then stages an argument between the two, making his voice sound funny. We are all drinking Pastis, a French aperitif you add ice and water to, that turns the drink bright yellow, the color of anti-freeze, a milky potion.

John reveals more to me about Rob and Paul in private: there’s Paul’s upsetting nudes, but Rob has this thing about cheese. It’s not an allergy, more a phobia. He can’t have anything that’s come from a refrigerator where cheese has once been, as if cheese spores have been released and affected adjacent contents of the fridge. This is awkward, because John especially likes cheese with wine, while in France. And each time we go out and Rob surveys the menu, there is the solemn exchange with the waiter over Rob’s selection, to verify there’s no cheese in his order. And then Rob’s insistence that there is in fact cheese and sending it back, and the five or six of us leaving the restaurant quiet, embarrassed, feeling not only like foreigners and tourists, but freaks.

Rob and Paul are friends with the English painter Barry Blend, the biggest local artist in Collioure, who does bright, cartoon-like oil paintings: landscapes of boats in the harbor, portraits with exaggerated hands a bit out of proportion, playful and light. John buys many of Barry’s paintings and then commissions Barry to do T-shirts featuring John’s brand of musical strings.

We are all invited to Barry’s house for dinner, meet his Dutch wife Tineke, their two small boys. Mike and I smoke cigarettes with Barry’s Dutch wife, who gives us advice on where to go in Amsterdam. Barry is grilling large sardines, the local featured cuisine, and looks like Mel Gibson: the same large, radiant eyes but with bushy graying hair. His eyes are the same color as the blue he uses in his paintings, the color of the sea. Their house is a wreck and feels like artists occupy it. Kids’ shit everywhere, fly swatters in the kitchen, painting supplies. John plays acoustic guitar and we all sit at the same table, set for 10. In the photos I still have of that night, Mike and I are making faces with the emptied out heads of large shrimp we’re holding in our mouths like cigars, like we’re smoking them. Both of us look very young, and drunk.

Paul is diagnosed with Parkinson’s and on my last visits with him, looks shaky and frail, can’t really drink now with all the medications he’s on. They buy an old farm house in the hills outside of Collioure, and Dawn and I visit briefly on a long hike that snakes through the surrounding hills. Lookouts across the valley along medieval walls where the archers aimed their bows—the sense that the past is very much a part of the present, here.

Rob boils water for tea, and Paul produces breads and pastries from the local bakery. Each time we see them, I come away with more objects and artifacts, gifts from Paul. Perhaps he’s trying to shed, I think.

My favorite is a scene of the Collioure harbor, modeled after a painting Barry Blend did of the same scene, made to look like stained glass. But Paul has painted onto the glass so it looks like individually carved panes. And put a rustic stain on the frame so it looks antique.

Rob would call my mom even after John died, most times on Christmas or New Year’s, and toward the end he sent photos of himself, injuries or physical anomalies mom would pass on to me, but I couldn’t look at. Because Rob’s last name was Bradshaw we’d joke and call him Brad Shaw, the same for Paul: “Matt Hams,” for Matthams.

The past flickers ever so in these old photos, and I realize Rob and Paul were around the same age I am now when we met. And I sense Paul’s presence in the work he’s left behind. I wonder if our kids will inherit one of his pieces, never knowing its creator, or how our lives intersected.

I look at these things and realize I can’t part with them, because they contain memory and by extension, me. A business card from the Tandoori restaurant at King’s Cross where Rob took me and Mike our first night in London. A printout of his curry recipe I’ll likely never make, but will keep. You can boil our lives down into a storage unit of varying sizes. And if the past is truly us, and doesn’t really exist, then I wonder what that says for me now.

Still in search of a journal from that timeframe, today I found the other antique Rolex John gave me, which stopped running about five years ago. I immediately slipped it on, and after a few hours the minute hand crept a quarter inch across the face. I found a drawing I did of it a while ago, I’ll name Antique Rolex in Scorpion Pose.

 

 

 

 

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Letters and passageways (2): Shawn and Seamus

This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.

Shawn Lee is my favorite bartender at my favorite bar, The Six Arms. He is often smiling, and looking for excuses to make you laugh. Shawn is traveling through Europe when I’m there and promises to visit, but when I finally hear from him, he says he’s picked up a traveling mate named Seamus, a Canadian, who I’m sure to like. It’s no longer just Shawn, it’s Shawn and Seamus.

The condo has one bedroom, with a foldout sofa bed in the living room. I’ve been sleeping on the sofa bed most of the time before Shawn and Seamus come because there is a problem with the bedroom: whenever I sleep there, I get the worst nightmares. They’re the kind of dreams where I’m convinced something else is in the room with me, threatening. I’ll offer up the room to Shawn and Seamus as a gesture of hospitality but in fact, it’s a test to see if the same thing happens to them.

Today the morning sky is pink at 6. It’s just inside September, but gives the impression of being cooler in the morning than it really is on account of the dark. It’s the first morning I’ve put my sweater on, and needed a blanket to write. I’ve gone through the notepads I have from my brief time in France, June through October, 1998. I read the entries leading up to my departure, then the first couple when I returned to Seattle.

Because I took my cats with me and flew through Barcelona, I actually had to get paperwork stamped at the Spanish embassy in New York. I detail the day I take the bus there and what it’s like, all those people speaking Spanish, me writing a check for $36, then turning back for the two-hour ride home. I couldn’t have had more than a thousand dollars in my checking account then. It was the time I had to worry about late fees, and dropping below the minimum monthly balance.

Shawn is traveling through Europe like me, to figure things out. He’s also single, and can’t seem to find the right girl. We have that much in common. I’ve been alone in this small town for three weeks by the time they arrive, counting down the days for company. I hunkered down for a week of bad winds, only going out to walk the dog or buy groceries. My journal entries imply a fair amount of beer drinking, failed efforts to write, getting tired of the cassettes I’ve brought already. When Shawn and Seamus come, I imagine, I’ll see the place through their eyes and feel renewed. And how sorely I miss Americans.

When we meet, Shawn and I do a bro hug but Seamus’s eyes don’t meet mine as we shake. He is wearing a baseball hat, T-shirt and shorts. He has the look of Irish stock and a strange accent I can’t pinpoint, that’s not the Canadian I’m familiar with. It’s like the gypsy Irish dialect from that Brad Pitt movie about street fighters. He kind of mumbles.

We go to the beach. There are two beaches to choose from, on either side of the condo unit. We get right to the matter of whether or not they’re nude beaches and I confirm that there have been limited sightings, and they nod. I’ve been doing push-ups every morning and sunning myself to help attract a French girl but so far, no luck. My journal entries come back to this as a recurring theme: the scene of a pretty, young woman with her dog walking the beach, trying to communicate with her in French about my dog, Chumley. She’s asking if he’s Chinese I think but in fact, she’s asking me if he’s fixed, a detail we need to pantomime. Chumley and the French dog take a liking to one another, though the French dog is on her period. Chumley is pumping the air with his hips, and she’s on her back as they mimic love-making on the sand, half-in, half-out of the water with the waves coming in. It’s laughable, with the sun going down behind them. I learn the woman is from the north, but moved here on account of her husband. The scene ends…and my writing rings of self-pity. No wonder I couldn’t find anyone.

We make plans to go into town so I can show Shawn and Seamus the bars. I don’t really go out though, as I haven’t got much money or any way to earn it. I’ve done some work for the Canadians Allanah and Gregory who flip old homes, and live in them as they’re renovating. They’re in one across the harbor from my parent’s place in Port-Vendres. The deal is, I help Gregory demolish walls or carry things (my only skills) and in return, they feed me big lunches. We drink a fair amount of wine, and the work day ends by the time we start lunch.

I take the guys to Les Templiers, the first bar we started going to when we came to Collioure. It’s named after the Knights Templar, a 12th-century Catholic military order. There’s an original Picasso behind the bar, from the time he stayed there and left the painting for payment. The village was a popular destination for painters because of the soft light and natural beauty. Salvador Dali’s home town is an hour away on the Spanish coast, and he’s buried at the base of a museum in another town nearby.

Shawn is listening but Seamus seems distracted, far away. I curse Shawn for bringing him. They’ll need to work out whether they share the queen-sized bed or take turns on the other sofa that’s not a pull-out, in the living room. They’re not clear about how long they’re staying either, always a bad sign. I get the impression that they’re going to stay as long as possible because it’s “free,” and the town is pretty posh. I’ve already started rehearsing how I’ll broach the topic with Shawn.

After a day or two with Seamus it’s clear that I can’t take him anywhere I’ll be recognized or associated with him, which includes introducing him to my small group of friends. He’s homophobic: problematic because I have a gay couple coming to visit me in July, and another gay couple (Rob and Paul) who helped us settle into this town. Homophobes make me nervous because I feel like they’re hiding something, or hateful. I don’t know what Seamus does for a living, why he’s in Europe, or why exactly Shawn chose to buddy up with him. Seamus the person, the character, has no distinguishable features: he is as featureless as a river rock, mere form.

Days of sleeping in, the look of men’s bare feet sprawled out on couches…dirty tube socks. Then, the straw that breaks the camel’s back: the day Seamus has something important to say, something he’s seen. He takes his cap off for the first time and runs his hand back over his head, agitated:

Guys, you won’t believe this.

Seamus has returned from the bakery, or the gas station. On his walk down the driveway to the condo he saw the most amazing thing: hundreds upon hundreds of ants coming out of the ground, everywhere. Seamus describes the scale of this, then naturally begins killing all of the ants, stomping them into oblivion. But they’re everywhere, and the task takes more time and effort than you’d imagine.

I think I got all of them, but I’ll go out again later to check.

Shawn and I look at each other and Shawn says wow, and I have nothing more to say to Seamus. I’ve been reading about heightened states of perception and awareness, collective consciousness, the notion of groupthink: I can’t even begin to explain to Seamus why this is wrong, why it makes no sense to just kill like that.

I lie and tell them both I’m leaving town and they’ll need to make plans to vacate, too. Shawn senses I’m lying and apologizes, but it’s hard to reconcile. He realizes he’s made a mistake and I let him sit with that; I’m 27 and not very evolved myself.

As a way of thanks for my hospitality, Seamus returns from the butcher with a large white bag and offers it to me, diverting his eyes but proud of his purchase. It’s horse, something he’s never seen available anywhere, so let’s try it. None of us know how to cook horse and the internet doesn’t exist yet, so Seamus, of Irish stock, finds my biggest cooking pot and boils the large brown cut until it’s gray, most surely done. We each have a portion on a plate with nothing else, just the meat, overcooked and rubbery, tough as tire.

There in my journal is Seamus’s full name spelled out with a number and country code I don’t recognize, the day they left. His handwriting is delicate and exact, and seems unreal to me now. Shawn and I saw each other one more time in Seattle and exchanged numbers, but it was never the same.

 

 

 

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