Happy Birthday

I woke up early this morning, due in part I’m sure to the end of daylight savings time. No one else was stirring, but there was evidence that my hosts had been up. I padded around the quiet house for a bit, not wanting to head out to Camille’s for my morning Media Empire session without touching base with them first. On the stove was a bowl of pumpkin seeds, scooped out of Jack-o-Lanterns the day before, waiting to be roasted.

Tara has been fighting a cold the entire time I’ve been here. I’ve felt vaguely guilty about going out with Jesse while his bride lays at home sick and pregnant, and Tara’s been feeling guilty about not being a better host. All the guilt you need, only half price! Yesterday evening we finally all went out together to a really nice Thai restaurant in Raleigh. The place earned high marks from all of us.

This morning I settled in and read for a while, but I had a hankering for broadband. I was just getting set to leave when Jesse came downstairs, looking tired. After obligatory “good mornings” and whatnot Jesse said, “Tara’s in labor.”

I’m no expert, but I suspect the Panang Beef. There was something about that delicious curry that probably set things off. Pregnant women, take note.

Jesse and I discussed plans for a while and then I headed over here. The roads were empty early on a Sunday morning, and the low sun brought out what color was left in the leaves. The grass lawns around the churches are silvered, heavy with dew. The air is still, as if the world is holding its breath. There is anticipation; change is coming to all of us, and this Indian Summer day is a chance to look back at the good times, to feel the reverberations of the season past, but also a chance to look ahead.

Apparently there’s a chance that the labor is a false alarm, or that things will go slowly, so today may not be the day. I am standing by, prepared to offer what help I can, but in general I think I can be the most help by staying out of the way. I had already planned to head out tomorrow morning, ready to embark on the last leg of my tour, one that may not really qualify as being part of the tour at all, as it will probably not involve any exploration of the continent. I simply need to get to the same city named on my plane ticket—San Francisco. I’ve got a hankerin’ for that Rice-a-Roni.

So, happy birthday, <name to be determined based on gender of child>, welcome to the world, whether today as a goblin or tomorrow as a saint.

Halloween

I went out with Jesse to Joe and Jo’s last night. We sat in the cool, misty night air under the awning on the front patio and enjoyed the smoke-free atmosphere. We talked about a lot of stuff, like being happy and liking beer, about the perfect buzz, about the past and about the future. There was no table service out there, but Kelly brought us one round after I reminded her that we were her favorite customers. How that fact had up until then escaped her I’m not sure. It was a fine evening, and most congenial.

After a while a large group of kids (they seemed like kids to me anyway) gathered on the patio, all in costume. It was a birthday party. I remembered why I like Halloween so much. I’m not into getting all dressed up myself (the time I went as a ho to a Pimp ‘n’ Ho party notwithstanding), but I do enjoy seeing other people all dressed up. Especially people younger and more attractive than I am.

“That girl in the black angel costume is really cute,” Jesse said. “You should hit on her.” I just laughed. Jesse perhaps had been misled by my easy banter with Kelly the waitress and thought I could use that ability to cut a particular woman out of her party and strike up a conversation. I bet you could train a sheepdog to help with something like that. It would make a good beer comercial anyway – you could start with footage from a real sheepdog competition where the dog is separating the indicated sheep from the rest of the herd and cut to some jolly happy outdoor party scene and have a guy indicate which girl he’s interested in. The dog would run off and be cute and adorable and all that, and slowly pull her out of the party so the guy could strike up a happy jolly conversation with her. It has nothing to do with beer, but not many beer commercials do.

But I digress. Something about the beers last night is making it hard for me to stay on one subject this morning. I had no specially trained border collie, and really no urge to even try. Anyway, there is a crucial difference between chatting with a waitress and striking up a conversation with a stranger. The hired help has to laugh at my jokes and at least stay close long enough to see if I need anything. They’re a captive audience. That gives me the time I need to wear them down to the point where someday they actually are happy to see me. I estimate that takes about three and a half weeks of regular exposure.

In fact, this is a measure of just how successful I was with Kelly. I had the camera with me last night, so I decided to take her picture. She was bussing tables on the patio and I held up the camera and said, “Hold still.” She held still and smiled dutifully, but it was gloomy outside and my first attempt didn’t come out well. “Can I move yet?” she asked. “Hold on one more sec,” I said. “Because it’s raining out here,” she finished. I made some big points then. (In my own defense she did come in under the awning and give me another chance to take her picture.)

It will be interesting to see how much the process is further slowed when I’m unable to flash my rapier wit in Czech. (When I put it that way, maybe it’ll help if they can’t understand what I’m saying.) I should be working harder to learn the tongue of my soon-to-be-adopted home. They conjugate nouns there, those wacky czechs.

I wonder if American Culture Poisoning has grown in the Czech Republic to the extent that people dress up for halloween. I hope so. That’s something I’ll miss.

See? I got back to the original topic eventually.

I’ve noticed a lot of people here in the coffee shop with buck teeth this morning.

Request For Proposals

By far the most entries in this blog have been in the category “Jer’s Homeless Tour”. Not surprising, really, since that’s been the center of my life for seven months. In a few days, however, I will have a home again, in faraway Prague, and the name will no longer fit. So here’s the plan: You guys submit suggestions for what the next phase of the journey should be titled, then we can vote on them in a poll, with maximum ballot box stuffing. Jesse already had a suggestion, but I’ll let him post it up in a comment.

So what’s it going to be, guys?

Camille’s

Location: Camille’s Sidewalk CafĂ©, Raleigh, North Carolina

Accelerated regularization does not apply exclusively to bars. Having spent two consecutive mornings at the same place, I am already recognized by at least some of the staff. “Back at the office?” one woman asked me today. Yesterday she had asked whether I was getting a good wireless signal. When I was leaving around noon today she asked, “On your lunch break?”

“See you tomorrow,” I answered.

It’s a nice enough place to spend a few hours, sipping tea and presiding over my media empire. There’s no easily accessible electricity there, which is probably a good thing, because the Internet is there, and that means I’m in constant danger of spending more time farting around than actually writing. Yesterday the discipline was good, today not so much. The media whore had to be appeased.

* * *

Now it is tomorrow, and I am back here. As I walked in the door the woman behind the counter said, “Tea?” even before I reached her. I think that makes me a regular, in only three days. Not bad. I wonder if they’ll miss me when I’m gone.

A V of geese just went by outside, heading south. It’s getting colder here—last night I even wore long pants. Leaves are falling, pushed in restless swirls by aimless breezes. There are pumpkins on doorsteps and the corn fields are brown and dry. It seems appropriate that my trip is also in its autumn. The summer of Jer is coming to a close, turn, turn, turn, and all the leaves are brown.

Went out to a bar last night and watched the baseball game while sipping Old Speckled Hen. A darn fine beer, I assure you, and good conversation to go with it. I haven’t had a chance to just hang out with Jesse for a long time. Jesse’s is a good place to end the tour, talking with an old friend about what this whole adventure has done to me and for me, and talking about the road, the journey, and the destination. Jesse’s much-better-rounded education gives him lots of interesting things to contribute, and his natural creativity leads to interesting jumps.

That’s about it for today; I’m concentrating on a nonfiction piece that I will be submitting for publication if I can get it to not suck. There’s also a couple of bugs in Jer’s Novel Writer for me to fix, and a pacing issue in the final confrontation scene in The Monster Within. If you’re pining for more words from me, I suggest you go back and reread The Cowboy God. I’m pretty happy with that one, despite its warts.

The Cowboy God

The white sign seems to glow in the gray of the rainy afternoon. It stands at the edge of a Texas byway, alone, weeds clinging to the two whitewashed two-by-fours holding it up. COWBOY CHURCH it says in simple red letters. Below the words a red arrow points off to the right into the gloom.

My wet brakes don’t grab at first, but once they boil off the water I slow and turn off the blacktop and look down a long, straight dirt road. No doubt about which way to go. Gently I pull forward, even that little nudge making my wheels spin for a moment before taking hold. The ground is saturated; water stands in a sheet over the mud of the road.

I creep along for a mile or two, glimpsing the road ahead for a fraction of a second with each pass of the wipers before the downpour obliterates my view again. Finally I make out a structure ahead, gray like the rest of the world. In front is a large area clear of weeds; I pull into that. The building is a large steel structure, a barn with a modest steeple at the crown of the roof over the door. I park next to the only other car in the lot, a faded blue Oldsmobile from sometime in the ’70’s. One of its windows is down and water is collecting in the footwell. A Bible lies getting sodden in the front seat. I push it farther over, out of the direct rain. I open the car’s door to roll up the window, but there is no crank handle.

Already wet, I dash up the steps to the front door. In the inadequate protection of the front porch I try to scrape the mud off my shoes. The wind is tossing the rain around and I am getting progressively wetter. This is a cowboy church, I decide, they should be used to a little mud. I slip through the door and close it quickly behind me, the sound overwhelmed by the drumming of the rain on the metal roof.

I am in a vestibule partitioned off from the sanctuary by walls that don’t reach the ceiling. Carved wood doors in front of me lead into the main chamber. To one side is a folding table with mimeographed sheets in various pastels. One stack is of light blue sheets neatly folded in two, with a line picture of the church on the front. Beneath are the simple words “Cowboy Church” and a date, past or future I do not know. Finally, in fancier script it says, “It’s never too late.”

I set the paper back down and square the pile. There’s nothing left but to go inside. The door is heavy but moves easily on its hinges; I close it with a gentle click and turn to inspect the room. I am standing at the back of the sanctuary. Folding metal chairs are lined up neatly in rows across the concrete floor. At the far end of the space is a modest altar. On one side of the room is a cast-iron stove glowing invitingly, near it is a folding table with a pair of large coffee urns. On each side near the front hang long banners of red cloth depicting Jesus doing a variety of good things. The lights are off; the only light comes from a row of small windows down each side of the building and a pair of large skylights. The place lacks the soaring majesty of the great cathedrals and the simple joy of the modern house of worship. This is the Cowboy Church, all right.

I step forward into the Cowboy Church, not sure why I came, not sure what to to.

In the Cowboy Church, pray to the Cowboy God.

“Hello?” The voice comes from the back, behind the altar. There are two doors there, one on each side, leading through another partition to spaces unknown in back. The voice is small, and female. A church mouse.

“Hello,” I say. Suddenly I feel like I’m intruding. I should have knocked. “The door was open.”

The door on the right opens and a figure emerges, small and gray and lost in the gloom. “Of course,” she says. She steps forward into the splash from one of the windows. Her hair is dark and very long. Her skin is pale. She looks moonlit. “Preacher’s not here,” she says.

“That’s all right,” I say. “I’m looking for the Cowboy God.”

She takes another step forward and stops, back in shadow, but I can feel her watching me. After a moment she says, “We got the same God as everyone else.”

I nod slowly, but then shake my head. “No,” I say.

What kind of God would a cowboy create? To whom does a cowboy pray while the rain pours off his hat brim in a steady stream and all he has to look at are the filthy asses of the cows plodding in front of him? It wouldn’t be some great being promising a life of comfort and joy. It wouldn’t hold out the promise of Heaven. A true cowboy sees Heaven every day. If he didn’t he would have packed up and gone to the city long since. The Cowboy God doesn’t bring promises and doesn’t offer hope. The Cowboy God is the kind of God that sits at the next barstool, listening to Willie and sipping Bud from a long-neck bottle. He’s a little run down himself—his back is bothering him from all the heavy lifting and his knee goes out from time to time. Maybe the cowboy’s foot is broke and his shoulder takes longer to get going each morning. It’s not worth mentioning because there’s nothing to be done about it and there’s work that’s got to be done tomorrow. They’ll both be getting up before the sun, and tending to their business. It’s the hardship as much as anything else that makes the cowboy who he is; take that away and you take away his soul.

They don’t say much, the cowboy and his God; not much really needs saying. Each is a comfort to the other, a source of strength. After a couple more beers they shake hands, maybe clap a shoulder, and leave. The cowboy climbs in his truck, the manufacturer more a source of religious fervor than the God he prays to, and he wishes his God a safe journey home and feels in his heart the blessing returned. The cowboy might in a real pinch ask his God for a blessing, but he’ll give the Lord his best wishes every day. The cowboy knows what it’s like to carry a burden.

She’s taken another step forward, into the light of the next window. One eye is as gray as the day outside, the other is lost in shadow. She is trying to look into my soul. “What is it you want?” She sounds suspicious, protective, as if I might be a threat to the Cowboy God. Have I come into his lair to call him out, like some gunslinger in the old west? She stands shyly, her straight hair pushed back behind her ears, her hands clasped in front of her. She is wearing a brown skirt, her legs two pale stakes like the signposts. Over her white shirt is a brown coat that matches the skirt. She stands, afraid, ready to defend her God.

“I just want to ask him a question,” I say.

She relaxes a little but suspects a trap. “Preacher will be back soon.”

“All right,” I say, but I’m not interested in him.

“Can I get you come coffee? I just made some in the back.”

“Thanks.”

While she scuttles off to fetch the coffee I drift over to the comfort of the stove. I look out the window, to where the Cowboy God really lives. “What’s it all about?” I ask. My breath fogs the glass.

“Did you say something?” she asks, bringing me a styrofoam cup filled with steaming black coffee.

I accept the cup. By the window I see that her hair is lighter than I first thought, but here eyes are still gray, and open a little wider than seems natural. Her lips are pale, almost indistinct, and pressed together. Shadows under her eyes give her a weariness that speaks of experience and gives her otherwise youthful face a gravity that makes her age impossible to guess. I sip the coffee. It’s good and strong. Cowboy Coffee, I suppose. “Thank you,” I say. “I was just asking my question.”

“Oh,” she says. Perhaps she is distressed that I could be on speaking terms with her God, that I didn’t talk to the preacher first. More than that she is curious.

The sound of rain had faded so slowly I hadn’t noticed its absence, but now it resumes with more furor than ever. The day grows even darker outside. A clatter begins above, and hailstones thrash the land.

“Guess you got your answer,” she says, the corner of her mouth twitching upward even as she turns away, embarrassed for joking at my expense. I look at her pale profile, glowing white like the sign by the highway had. She is watching me from the corner of her round eye.

“Guess so,” I say, and I think she must be right.

She steps to the wood pile and selects a log, then opens the stove and delicately places it inside. The yellow light gives her face some life as she inspects the fire. “You should wait till the storm passes before you drive,” she says. She almost has to shout to be heard over the hammering on the roof.

Odds and Ends

Shreveport to Chattanooga was mostly freeway. I saw the white stripe flash past in a hypnotic rhythm mile after mile, and wrote stuff in my head. I’m still working on getting the chapter of The Fish written as I felt it within my skull, but it could turn out to be really cool. The rest of the stuff I thought up I can’t start writing until November 1, but my 30-day novel is starting to take shape in my head, and I’m pretty stoked about it. More and more I feel confident that when people ask me what I do I can say, “I’m a writer.” That’s true enough, anyway, even if it does imply that I get paid to write.

Meanwhile, I crossed the 15,000-mile mark outside of Birmingham, Alabama. Safety Dance was playing on the radio. During the day I had been searching for a decent radio station as I moved along from state to state. I heard Turn the Page twice—once as a cover and twice the original version. Here I am, on the road again…

Speaking of radio stations, the best one I know of on this continent is 91 1/2 in Chattanooga. It’s a college station. “We guarantee sixty minutes every hour!” They played some good, good stuff, and quite a variety. I was sorry to pass out of range as I passed through the Appalachians this morning.

Lots of other things happened, the kind of mindless details I do my best not to burden you with. Raccoons should learn to look both ways. I didn’t hit any, but I think I was the exception.

It’s getting harder and harder to keep my hair from blowing in my eyes as I drive. Perhaps a mullet is in order.

On the way over to Asheville today the storage thingie on my fancy camera filled up. I guess that means I really do have to do something about processing all those pictures you guys have been moaning about not seeing. I’ll see what I can do in the morning. I think I got some pretty nice ones today. Highway 64 in Western North Carolina has to go on the list as one of the best drives ever. Honestly, though, I’d recommend driving it on a weekday. Once the camera was maxed out, I wanted nothing more than to enjoy the sinuous asphalt as it wound through the late October headless horseman forest, sending leaves flying in my wake.

Alas, much of the time I crept along behind people doing well under the conservative speed limit. These drivers had no clue whatsoever that they should pull to the side, even when they saw other drivers doing the same thing. I relaxed and enjoyed the drive anyway, but the rare taste of real driving left me yearning for more.

Reading over the last episode I posted, I see a serious omission. The sleeipes caught up with me before I finished, I supposed. I was in the lounge at the hotel, which almost had wireless Internet. No matter, really, I could post when I got back to the room. The bartender was Shelly, who was back after a month and the regulars were all very happy to see her. Slender with long straight dark hair, she had a ready smile and a sense of humor. I sat at the bar where I was advised the signal was strongest with my laptop open and lamented the intermittent, weak signal. There were a couple of other friendly regulars and overall the quiet bar was most congenial. Eventually I was the only customer, and after I talked to Shelly for a while I headed back the room with one last beer. I was enjoying the chat, but I’m in love with enough bartenders already. I decided to get out while the getting was good.

Now I’m at Jesse’s house, and it’s nice. I’m in the nursery, so I better be ready to get the hell out of here if the baby arrives.

A Long Drive Over a Short Distance

Location: Roadside Inn and Suites, Shreveport, Louisiana
Miles: 14540.7

The day woke up before I did, Friday somehow, Thursday missing. Sneaky little Thursday, slipping past without notice, a skunk of a day, a cowardly, conniving little day afraid to show its face when Real Men are checking their calendars. Now it’s time to move on. Past time, really. I wake up antsy. I need the road. I turn down the bike ride so I can pack up and get going.

First, of course, I have to dial in and see how my media empire is fairing. I haven’t been doing that regularly while in San Angelo, but now that I’m returning to my uproots I’m getting back in synch with the blog. It’s funny the care and feeding required. While I am at Bill’s computer the day gets darker and darker. Soon it is dumping rain. Oh, grand.

Rain in San Angelo I’m still not sure what route I’m going to take. Louisiana sounds good, but I need to check a map. The car is at the curb, so during a relative lull I dash out to grab the atlas. No time for shoes, and even had there been time, I don’t think I would have put them on. Splish, splash, out to the car. Open the door, grab the atlas (luckily in plain view) stop to see if the water in the street is going to come up higher than the door. Looks good, so a soggy dash back to the house.

The concrete on the front porch is much slicker than the the walkway. I slip in true Three Stooges fashion, feet sailing up into the air. Luckily I don’t get my arm down to break my fall, or I would have broken my arm. I land hard on my hip and my back. Saying a few choice words I lie on my back, catching my breath and taking inventory. And getting wet, but that’s not important now. The hip is the early contender for being a problem, but seems to be working out. My left little toe hurts. Apparently when the rest of the foot let go, it tried to hold on. Poor, brave, little toe. The world was going to shit but that toe held its post to the very end, trying to stop the inevitable 165 pound disaster.

A toe toast is in order. Tooooooast!

Limping, shambling, I load the car, bid Bill a fond farewell, and off I go, into the teeth of the storm. Actually, I don’t know about teeth so much, but it sure as hell drooled a lot. Maybe the lightning was the teeth. There was plenty of lightning.

The speed limit was 70, I was doing 50 on average. Out there on the highway, rain positively bucketing, windshield wipers largely ineffective, I crept along. As the wiper blade passed in front of my vision I had for the briefest of instants a view of the highway ahead. I could see the tail lights of the cars in front of me, however. That is, until I meet some numb-nuts idiot driving a silver (rain-colored) minivan with no lights on. I start getting the feeling that there’s someone out there in front of me, and I peer extra-hard through the rain to try to get a fix on the stealth vehicle. Sure enough, someone’s out there, poking along at a safe-and-sane speed but completely hidden from his fellow drivers. Once I think I have a fix on him, I follow so no one else would ram the guy assuming no one would be so stupid as to drive in those conditions without tail lights. When the rain gets particularly peltilicious, I wonder just how much the guy will slow down, and if he stopped on the road, would I see him in time. He seems like a stop-in-the-road kind of driver.

Finally we reach a town. Dearly I want to pull up next to him and catch his attention. I want to get him to roll down his window despite the conditions so I can scream at him “Turn on your lights you f%#ing stupid m#%^@ f!#$%!! Turn on your lights before you f&#%ing kill someone, you dumbass s@%*head! (I like cartoon swearing.) I am not to be satisfied. Instead I pull over for gas and brunch. Getting out of the car reminds me that I am not in top shape. I drag myself up, standing in an inch of water, felling my socks saturate, to discover that the gas station is closed. I don’t figure this out right away; the pump is still powered up. No gas comes out is all. Painfully I climb back into the car and move on to the next place.

Suddenly the rain has stopped. The dumbass is somewhere up the road, unaware of his fuming guardian angel, placidly going on his way. Motherfucker.

The delay puts me in Fort Worth and Dallas at the peak of rush hour, compounding my behindness. Somewhere along the way I had managed to put the top down, but in the stop-and-go I must put it back up to keep the now-gentle rain out. Not a problem. I find a radio station that sucks less than the others and creep along, thinking about the New Pantheon and how the pain in my toe is shooting through my foot now.

I leave Dallas behind and as the night closes in I get the feeling. The road feeling. The air is heavy and damp, and the moon shines down. All around me the frogs are singing, punctuated by the occasional rasp of a cicada. The trees are real trees now, the forests dark and mysterious places in the deepening dusk. I interrupt the Mighty Mighty Bosstones covering “Detroit, Rock City” to listen to the night. This is why there are convertibles. I am in the night, smelling its pungency, hearing its raucousness, tasting its mystery. This is the South. A South we didn’t invent, but must come to accept. I am here now.