‘The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’

I leave work sick and catch a bus home. Catching a bus isn’t easy when you live in the suburbs, you have to catch different buses and string them together. Then, you don’t get right where you need to be. But I don’t care. The bus is well-lit, clean, and the seats are like a movie theatre. I nod off, awake in 1996, London: napping on a double-decker tour bus, coming in and out of focus with an automated commentator overhead. My girlfriend is leaning on me, we’ve bought crisps at the convenience store and cans of pilsner, pretending we’re punk rock. I understand the film director Terry Gilliam now and his aesthetic on the English, using my first public restroom, taking in the intricate piping detail and canned music, everything wrapped so tight it feels like it could blow.

I wake a few years later, meeting up with the same friends in London as last time, a gay couple in their 50s named Rob and Paul. Rob is a gruff, hulking man who looks like an owl, with wily eyebrows and a nose full of broken blood vessels. Paul is an artist, has Parkinson’s, and likes drawing pictures of young men, naked. You could call them boys, I guess. It’s unusual but non-threatening and we don’t get worried about it. My step-dad John looks on in disgust implying we should do something, but there’s no seeming harm, it’s just weird.

Every day when Rob gets home we walk to the corner shop and buy a few cans of beer. He has a word with the clerk, who’s Pakistani. Rob could stock up in advance but instead, he just buys one or two at a time because he likes the ritual of it.

There’s no affection between Rob and Paul and they sleep in different rooms. In fact, Paul’s bed is child-sized and he climbs a ladder to get inside. He sleeps with a hat and his clothes on, contorted, and I worry he’ll see me watching him from the doorway.

The bath is broken. It’s a process that requires some coordination to get the hot water rigged up so we can wash, and we have to relocate houseplants and hanging laundry to get access to the bath, then it’s quick and unsatisfying, with stiff towels afterwards. Rob changes clothes for work every day but Paul’s been in the same outfit all week, toggling between two scarves, one striped, one solid.

We drive from London to the south of France in their VW bus, with their two Bassets. It’s the Bassets that brought Rob and Paul into our lives by way of my step-dad, who met them in the 1960s through a common love of the breed. Rob cleans their ears which they hate, and the Bassets look on with long, solemn eyes, just like Rob and Paul.

France looks surprisingly like Pennsylvania with rolling hills, bland vistas. We pull over so Mike and I can smoke, Paul can mix a gin and tonic, and Rob can boil an egg while the Bassets pee. When we engage the French, Rob and Paul use English in an aggressive manner, a battering ram, spouting commands at the waiter louder and louder, until they turn red. They are saying something more by way of speaking English and the tone they use, something that goes back a ways, I think. And the French pretend they don’t understand, which also says something. I use some French and get dirty looks for it.

By the time we reach the South, there are cactus and sudden views of the sea, sweeping vistas, winding turns. It’s late April but summer comes early to the South, and the sky is the same deep blue as the sea, cleansing, endless. Mike and I find a trail alongside a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean and just start running, shirtless and screaming with our hands thrown in the air, boundless, the other side of Africa, right there. We meet artists and mystics, a psychic with a lazy eye who sets me up with a girl from Toulouse, and there’s not enough time to take it all in.

Selfie from 1996

Selfie from 1996

I save a drawing Paul gave me, one of a teddy bear with a human phallus. The phallus is over-sized and the caption is something like, “Now that’s one stiff bear!” It’s a play on words I don’t understand. I save the drawing but realize it will be hard to explain if found, very hard to explain.

I stop in a Starbucks because it’s too long to walk home from the bus stop, and curl up at a table with some others, fixed on our machines. Nat King Cole is on, it’s Christmas. Paul is gone and Rob is somewhere in France now, calling my mom after too much Champagne, playing the same tapes we used to play when John was alive, drunken calls to relive those times we had, way back when. It’s all been said many times, many ways.

I step out for the walk home but my shoes aren’t the walking kind. There’s foam collecting in the streams off the road, left-behind things you never notice when you drive, thrown out of windows, unseen. Life is like this, not defined by what you do for work or for pleasure, but the sum of all things combined. Taking a walk when you don’t feel like it, going to a bar on a sick day, playing hooky so you can have a story to tell, how you made this day different from all the rest.

Blog post title from the album by Traffic, 1971 (written by Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi).

Categories: travel

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. yes, you are so right. ‘life is the sum of all things combined.’ love this post, bill and hope you’re feeling better –


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