Saturday, May 26, 2007

T.C.’s Place

A normal viaduct in most respects, this concrete structure nonetheless harbors secrets; gives sanctuary to demons and angels alike. Since it resides on the outskirts of our town (a fact represented by the dearth of graffiti adorning its facades), it presents opportunity for motorists or other travelers needing respite from a storm. One evening in late May, I found out that storms rage out of control in places where few choose to look, even on the brightest lit days.

T.C.’s viaduct, as I now choose to call it, is technically designated as 11M265, Milepost 126. It almost sounds like the service number of some dog-faced washout from the war in Viet Nam. Perhaps the engineers who named it had a gift for irony or possessed a little precognitive power. More likely, the reference is mine and mine alone. I tend to think in terms of long past events that mean little to others.

It is not totally kismet that I stop here. Little Skunk Creek runs directly underneath the viaduct, and the sloping dirt road leading to its banks are usually passable under most conditions. The willow bushes have grown taller than a man and offer camouflage from all but the most stalwart intruder, a handy place to relieve myself when the distance between The Pump House and my house exceeds my bladder’s ability to store waste products. There is something sinfully delightful about pissing in a stream that I know runs directly into the city water plant. Most likely, I’m quite properly classified as a small-time urban terrorist. No matter, they could never prove it. My DNA will combine with that of every deer, raccoon, frog, water moccasin and sasquatch that ever anointed the stream. I doubt the CIA’s abilities in this respect, although I’ll get the bill for cleanup nonetheless.

I saw the little man quite by accident. He had chosen MY spot to answer the call of nature. There is something fascinating about the psychology of two men standing at adjoining urinals. It is nearly impossible for either to avoid making eye contact with the other. Such was the case, today.

“Mind if I join you, my back teeth are floatin’!” I’m nothing if not polite.

He looked up at me, then back down. “Free country… or haven’t you heard?”

It was obvious to the most casual observer that he held no regard for me whatsoever, so no more conversation ensued. Since he was there first, he completed his task and sat down against the abutment, staring at me through eyes of sad experience. His weathered green field jacket carried the grime of the road and he didn’t sweat, although it was almost ninety degrees. Instantly, I was fascinated by him and wanted to know more.

“Excuse me for intruding, but it’s hot, and I have a couple of beers in the truck, would you care for one?”

“Mister, I’ll drink every beer you got, but you make any move which suggests to me that you’re a homo, and I’ll field-strip you before you can holler, we understand each other?”

I held my hands up in front of me, palm outward, and walked back to the truck for the twelve-pack of Budweiser I had purchased for the weekend. We sat in the shade for hours; he shared stories of the road and I mostly nodded my head and listened politely. He was very likeable, and I couldn’t help but wonder what made him so different. Given his attire, my thoughts inevitably turned to the Viet Nam War. Instinctively I suspected he was a veteran, as am I, so I decided to find out.

“HMM-163, 1st MAR DIV, I-Corps, Khe Sahn, 1968.” The look he gave me, I’ll take to my grave. Then, he tossed his empty bottle onto the sand, reaching for another.

“Yea… somethin’ like that…” was all he said.

“Sorry… I didn’t mean to pry. I have a brother who is MIA”.

He stood, picked up his backpack, and raised his bottle to me. After giving me a grin that I recognized from my boyhood, he replied, “No you don’t.” Then, he slogged across the stream and disappeared into the woods on the other side.

Memorial Day will not ever be the same again…not for me. All the tributes and cemetery visits in the world couldn't replace the feelings generated inside me that day. I’ve not laid eyes on Thomas Edward Church since, but it’s not important. My brother's doing whatever it is that he's meant to do, and now I know that all those times when I feel his presence, I'm not crazy.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

November Creosote

Goddamn fog. Wally sat placidly at a table, surveying what little he could see out the plate glass window, his mood dour as the weather, the air inside the restaurant heavy as the pea soup outside. Arms folded at his chest, legs crossed, he calmly brought the Marlboro to his lips. Sweet, heavy, nicotine-laden smoke entered his lungs as he watched the crimson tip flare and rush toward his fingers. Wally held his breath to allow the poison quicker entry into his bloodstream and exhaled slowly as he crushed the now-tiny remains of his cigarette into the ashtray. He’d quit someday. Goddamn fog.

It was not unusual for Wally to feel pissy. In fact, lately his moods were becoming more and more somber and he couldn't pinpoint the reasons why. No catastrophic events had occurred, but an all-encompassing sense of ennui had overtaken him, and apparently nothing could be done.

Wally drained his fourth (fifth?) cup of bad Denny's coffee and realized he had absolutely no idea what he wanted or expected from life, not a single clue. He knew only what he didn't want. Neither did he particularly care what happened to the world. No identifiable desire to wish anyone harm sullied his heart, but the void was filled with an ambivalence born of non-achievement, or so he supposed. The clock ticked inside his head, reminding him that he was no longer the energetic youth who could change destiny merely by wishing it so, then making it happen. That unidentifiable spark was gone, and it was beginning to look like the departure might be permanent.

Where had it gone, this nebulous flicker? It was assuredly there when he chased derricks for Halliburton. The oilpatch was full of Wallys, indefinable young men seduced by the lure of adventure and big paychecks, men who possessed brawn and brains enough to walk the razor's edge between safety and fool-hardiness. Most of the rig hands in the Overthrust Belt were willing to fuck, fight, or go for their gun, and only afterward worry about the consequences. A toolpusher on a Cardinal rig sitting somewhere between Baroil and Rock Springs once told him there was virtually no difference between life and death, except life was more expensive. Wally would never forget this was the same man shot to death in the card room of the Glory Hole Bar in Casper, when he had accused the wrong man of taking some of his chips... so much for high finance.

Was it all just one big orgasmic thrust that had passed, just as he was learning how to really negotiate it? Isn't that the way of things, though? Wally wondered how other folks just stayed at a job for thirty or forty years. Had it been just a quick roll in the hay for them, too?

The answer would have to wait. Wally glanced up at the Seth Thomas on the wall and realized that time had gotten away from him. Quickly, he gathered his newspaper, piled four quarters neatly on top of the check, and walked out of the coffee shop. It was a four-minute walk to the mission, and if he didn't hurry, he'd miss the opening scene of Columbo.

Bob Church ©