The rat torture scene reveal | Field notes from the Pacific coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (now +25% complete!). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.

I let the fire go down, checked my phone, set the alarm: almost midnight, still some light in the sky north, reduced down to a soft, green glow. I went back to my bivy sack with the headlamp to review my notes from the day, only 36 hours since I’d been out, but it felt like forever. There was the last of the tri-tip roast I smoked last weekend, ate that in camp, compared it to bubblegum but better (you could swallow it), the Irish cheddar gone oily from the heat, the salt crystals I licked off my pocket knife…me, turning like a rotisserie chicken on the beach with no shelter, nowhere to escape the afternoon sun. Had to get into the cold creek to cool off, didn’t bother with the sun screen. The Belgian girl said goodnight; now there was no sight or sound of her in the tent, though you could see through the sides.

Slipping off to the sound of the tides clapping, coming in…there were times as a kid with a fever I’d have the oddest sensation the darkness had a palpability to it, a shape, and I was one with it, my shape changed too—but it was terrifying and hard to tell, was it me occupying the darkness, or the other way around? I’d push it away, and wake up sweating, scared—but as I got older the sense became exhilarating, less frequent, like only once a year—and I got superstitious about it, was it a portal, a kind of magic? But magic and madness are two things I don’t know much about, and it’s easy to confuse the two.

I woke to the sound of something flickering by my head and batted it away, realized it was a rodent, I could hear its feet in the sand, sense it sniffing my head…and I grunted at it, struggled to zip the sack shut to keep it out, but couldn’t…and lay there for a while until it came back, and on and on it went…and I fought with myself and my consciousness to ignore it, checked the time (3-something), thought of that torture scene from 1984, the rat: pictured the actor who played the character in the film version, his pale, greasy face, those darting eyes—his raw fear, fear like a wick in all of us that gives focus or melts our frames down, dissolves us.

Writing a book, all that excitement at the start, and the same I expected when I’d get to the end: but like running a long race, there was all this time and distance in the middle, all that time with just you and your will, your doubts, to deal with.

We were struggling halfway in, a 90-day road trip in the UK that winter with our kids, halfway into a longer, nine-month stay in Germany: the week outside of Galway, some lonesome place called Salthill, a sad apartment facing the sea, with nothing but clouds and rain most days, people bent back by the wind. Struggling with how I’d restart my memoir after months off, knowing it was time. The morning I walked out on a causeway to a lighthouse with the waves crashing, coming over the rocks: the causeway, a long finger pointing out to the sea. So alone, with only myself to figure things out.

Thinking I’d found that crux moment from my past, in Pittsburgh (we all had pivotal moments like that, but they could be forgotten or overlooked, like dreams).

That singer on the open mic one night, who just did a cappella, belted it. Everyone in the café stopped and it got so quiet, when he sang. And I went quiet after that summer too, clammed up with my writing, 1994. I’d perform poems but got self-aware in a bad way, realized it wasn’t really good. The fear and doubt, “the truth,” settled in. My guru, a guy who went by the stage name Bingo Quixote thenwith a beard and top hat, suspenders: he said, I think you just need to take some time off and live.

About 10 years later in Seattle with Dawn’s friend Pat, we went to a poetry slam and I sang a poem a cappella about spiders and writers I wrote, the webs we make. I sang it, and may never do anything like that again, but I was glad I did. Moments in life, choices, can either be a slow building up or a slow falling down, the rise to make ourselves, or resign.

We left Galway, the west coast of Ireland, in mid-December, and headed south for a route that wound down to Cork, the southern coast.

Dawn was trying to help me with my book, suggested I go from first person to third, try fictionalizing it. I’d seen writers do that—one of my favorites was James Joyce, and he made himself a character called Stephen Daedelus, paired that name with a Greek myth, identified with things on a classical level. Took years with it though, nearly killed himself and his wife, I read. I didn’t think it had to be that hard to be so good. It just had to be.

By the time we got to England I resolved to write every morning for 30 days, all by hand, by candlelight, with dim music, my ritual. Each night before bed, I tried to go inside some cave-like space in my self-consciousness, to coax it out. I often didn’t know what to write in the morning, and would just write about my dreams. I was convinced if I kept going it would lead somewhere. I even had a Harry Potter moleskin with the Deathly Hallows symbol on the front, figured that couldn’t hurt.

I used to think, how ostentatious, to write so much about yourself. Like, who would want to read a memoir about somebody no one knows anything about, why would they care? There had to be some epic reveal, some gross kind of personal transgression people would slow down to stare at, on the side of the road.

But it became a challenge for me to live my life in a remarkable way—it got mixed in with how I identified myself, and I knew for writers and artists that was a universal struggle to be, by what you do. And isn’t life ostentatious, shouldn’t it be? Running marathons, climbing mountains, writing books? It had to be life or death, for me. I handpicked stories of death around me to serve as inspiration, from those who physically died or didn’t live their dreams as I would mine, who didn’t die, but didn’t live as much as I wanted.

My alarm was set for 5:45 and jingled me awake: I survived the mouse without exposing my fears to the Belgian girl, without having to scream, or freak her out. I’d thought it would be nice to make coffee in the morning and offer her some, but it felt too intimate. We never exchanged names, didn’t need to.

I broke everything down to their component parts and stuffed my things into compression sacks, dunked my head in the stream, decided to leave the crooked staff behind—forded the creek barefoot, blew a sideways snot-rocket Euro-style, looked back at her tent, and climbed the trail to the forest for the hike out.

I needed to get to the rock scramble by quarter past 8 for low tide, and onwards to the Kalaloch Lodge in time for breakfast, home by 3—like mom always said, “no time like the present, no present like the time.”


Categories: identity, Memoir, writing

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

24 replies

  1. I don’t know why it’s compelling to read other people’s stories, even the seemingly banal ones, but guess it’s more in the relatability of it. It’s a skill and gift, and you have both. Even so, I wouldn’t want to read about someone too similar to me, which is why adventure/hiking stories are so fun, trying on another life for awhile. For the fever, I had similar experiences as a child. The walls would feel closer and there was an accompanying sound that fascinated me as I grew older. I remember describing it to my husband once and he got almost angry because he thought it was some attraction to death, which hadn’t occurred to me until then. Now I keep thinking of those pink Floyd lyrics “when I was a child I had a fever” which makes me think of the dead rat scene in the Wall, which, I think we can all agree a dead rat in a box beats a live on in your bivy sack. Oh the horror.

    Liked by 3 people

    • What was the sound you experienced in your fevers, I’m curious? I’m happy you picked up that little Floyd thing, I actually did that deliberately though a bit corny I know. I’m happy for that, though, because on some super silly, personal level, I wanted to do my own version of a personal reference inside something I’d make (this memoir) in a similar way I imagined either Gilmour or Waters sang about that moment, which I perceive as real…doesn’t matter either way though…it’s real for us. Good god, get me a cup of tea.
      But thank you for the encouragement and the same, from yesterday. A nice thing to wake up to. I don’t recall the dead rat scene from The Wall, don’t think I want to. I was deeply bothered by that film, even remember the time I watched it, and it sort of spoiled my weekend. Think I was about 15. When the film came out I remember the trailer for it as a kid, and the scene with the kids going through the meat grinder…that bothered me even more. They kind of spoiled the fun part of drug-taking, for me. Maybe that was the point, though I doubt it. And “Mother,” good god! Good heavens. I must smite those images now from my brain, and yours. I’ll write about unicorns tomorrow.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I always thought the sound was like a printing press, though may have been heartbeat/blood pumping. First occurred at age 5 during a chicken pox fever. and yes, there’s a scene during comfortably numb where pink finds a sick or injured rat and tries to nurse it back to health. I watched it at 13 under not-pleasant circumstances. It was a perhaps cliche coming of age movie but I’m glad for it now, you know? Still, unicorns tomorrow.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for sharing, I can imagine that. Oh, the transactions in the chambers of our hearts…now I remember that scene. Poor little bastard, Pink. Had a chance to see Geldof in Dublin on a Boomtown Rays reunion show, their first in forever…didn’t.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. the gnawing, skittering rat creature kind of freaks me out, i’m amazed you were able to fall back asleep. perhaps it was wondering about how dangerous you were too.


    • It totally freaked me out too Beth. I kept batting at the damn thing and it kept coming back. What, was there barbecue sauce in my beard, or why? Can’t understand. Not a lick of food in my bivy sack, perhaps just curiosity. Something for its blog, or Twitter feeds to talk about.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love writing, and writers even more. This duty, dharma, we feel towards getting the words out. And we know it’s not logical, practical, sure we should be cleaning out the fridge or checking email, but something feels at stake. I know for me it’s wanting to be recognized, for being a smarty pants, but also just for being alive…and pissed; I was here and I saw everything! Delivered with a pale stretched face, saucer eyes, pupils portraying palpable darkness. Good day Bill! One love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good day indeed, and one love, and I missed the moon but hoping it will be back. Going out backpacking with buddy Brad this weekend, so we’ll see. Thanks for using Dharma there, for the duty. For being pissed, for seeing it all. We are kin in that. To hell with the fridge, too. Clean it out and they just mess it up again.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That mouse/rat has to be a metaphor of some kind. I just know it.

    There’s something about the halfway mark too. Makes me think of that first line of The Divine Comedy, midway through the journey of life, the dark forest. No choice but to forge ahead, eh?


    • I’m in the spin cycle with metaphors, kind of driving me nuts it is. No choice to forge ahead, you got that. I went out on the trail on Cougar Mountain this morning with the dog and sorted some more stuff out, so if I was about to get stuck I think I just unstuck myself (no metaphors needed there, no more). I’ll be in touch soon about details on this and planning things out.


  5. That 4th last paragraph, sounded like you were drilling to the core there, a manifesto.
    I’ve fallen so behind in my reading! All reading. It’s been nuts. I need to get to the core myself. Apple core.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re fine, really. Just happy you still come around here. And have massive, newfound respect for what you did in your last Book now, in a new way. Really, take it easy and I’ll send you the thing when it’s done and edited etc. but thanks!


  6. That bit about coaxing things out from your cave-like subconscious strikes a chord with me, as I’ve been trying to do something similar. I quit drinking, and now I going through the how can I write sober without it sucking phase. I figure there’s got to be a better way to get at it. Also liked this line: “I handpicked stories of death around me to serve as inspiration, from those who physically died or didn’t live their dreams as I would mine, who didn’t die, but didn’t live as much as I wanted.” Also glad you’ve managed to keep details about your underwear mostly out of this series.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The quitting drinking thing is huge, that requires an off-line convo. I’ll hit you up here soon, going offline for 36 hours or so, maybe only 30. But thanks for sharing that, takes discipline, courage, will power, et cetera: so good job man. I’ll be posting that brown stained underwear print in your honor next week, now. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

    • By the way, you can write sober. At least I know I can, it’s the only way I can. You’ll do it. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “epic reveal” – inner chuckle on that one. my partner enjoys the Vinyl Connection memoir pieces because of “your self-deprecating humour”. really, it’s just incompetence but I’m not telling.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Your rodent encounter is kind of fascinating and I can’t help but think that if you were in a film of your own life that encounter with a small, furry mammal would have represented something, some other part of your life or pysche trying to get your attention, with you just batting and batting at it, pushing it away. Or I could just be tired and over thinking things.
    I remember watching The Wall years ago with my boyfriend of the time who was a huge Floyd fan. It is a truly disturbing film, kind of grubby and utterly tragic. I’ve been told that Geldof had a terrible time making the film, that the Floyd were awful to him – torturous – to get the right affect onscreen. Some good tunes though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I could believe that about Geldof, kind of a mixed blessing, a curse, to get that gig. No thanks. Wonder if that’s what turned him white! I’m always over thinking things and likely force that issue on my reader-friends. Get some rest! Bill

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, not sure the Floyd were the easiest men to work with … Overthinking’s okay – it’s working for you with your writing, definitely! I find the tricky thing is turning your brain off at bed time 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Happy to see you won that contest Lynn! How fantastic, though not so much a surprise really.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, thanks Bill. Quite enjoyed playing about with that little tale – never expected to win though! Thanks for the kind comment. Trying to catch up with some reading today, so I’ll be popping by to read more about your trip soon 🙂


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