Graybeard

I met up with Graybeard after my czech lesson yesterday, and the day is always just a little surreal when he’s around. He is a local character, or he’s working on it at least, and he has a slightly sideways way of looking at things that is good, but you have to be ready for it. You need to prepare yourself for his energy, his enthusiasm, and his near-manic need to pass information to you. That can be frustrating; it is next to impossible to develop a complex point, since each word you speak runs the risk of sparking a new thought in Graybeard, which he will be unable to suppress. When he has an idea, it must be said. Luckily, many of his ideas are interesting. Just don’t expect to have a conversation that requires sustained concentration. It’s the conversational equivalent of surfing the net — random, uncontrolled, a frog jumping between lily pads, not the smooth flow of the river beneath. Serendipity is the rule, conclusions are reached by accident, and by the unpredictable nature of the process the results are themselves chaotic.

That or he just doesn’t have much of an attention span.

He is American but he embodies the characteristics of neither the “go-get-’em” yanks nor the “it’ll-go-away” czechs. He is Graybeard and that is all. He likes movies, and when he dropped me a message suggesting we catch a flick he caught me at a good time. Just after I finished the previous stream-of-conscious ramble he joined me at the Soulless Internet Café. Perhaps writing it I was preparing myself for what I knew would come next.

Another thing about Graybeard. He’s a dirty old man. He’s not crude about it, quite the opposite, but he is the most unashamed and unreserved appraiser of the female form I have ever met. He’s a flirt. He is also a networker, a schmoozer, though he would probably take exception to the term. He has, for any given situation, any given audience, two sentences he can deliver that expertly sum up who he is in relation to his audience. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I am the river.

We left the loud music of the Soulless Internet Cafe and settled ourselves elsewhere in the mall, carefully situated so that no member of the fairer sex could pass between shops without affording ample opportunity for inspection. I had been at that place once before, and on that occasion Graybeard made sure his girlfriend was not blocking his view of passers-by. His girlfriend is about one-third his age; he is older than her parents. On this occasion we ate and discussed a whirlwind of topics that centered mostly around writing. Graybeard is, among other things, a poet. He uses his cell phone as his writing instrument of choice, typing his work letter by letter. Sometimes I’ll get a long text message from him, his latest work.

Yesterday we spent quite a bit of time talking about what I was working on, in a fragmented and jumping conversation that matched the style of the story surprisingly well. He brought up that movie that goes backwards in time, about the guy who had to leave messages tattooed on his body because he had no long-term memory. Neither of us could remember the name of the movie.

We decided to go see Kinsey, that movie where that guy does all the stuff. Graybeard chose a venue and a time, and we headed out of the mall, to head downtown to the appropriate movie house.

We didn’t make it.

On the way out of the mall we passed a place where some magazine had set up a stage where they were photographing people in front of a mockup of their magazine cover. It was a contest; it cost nothing and the winner stood to collect a couple thousand bucks.

Earlier I said Graybeard was a poet among other things. One of those other things is an actor. I have never seen his acting so I cannot judge his ability, but he has a distinctive look that gets him work. He never misses a chance to make connections, and he was not going to miss this one. Another of the other things he does is teach English. This is not only his primary source of income, it is a way of opening conversations with any pretty girl he might happen to meet. So here was a professinal photographer (“I’m an actor,” he told the photographer, “I work for so-and-so. I’m on TV right now as such-and-such. I have my beard tied up in that one.”) and a whole bunch of pretty girls hoping to be discovered as models (“I’m a teacher,” he told the girl with the clipboard. “My agent is so-and-so,” he told one of the girls in line.) By the time it was his turn to have his picture taken, he had two potential students and one potential date.

An aside about the girl with the clipboard. She was very pretty. In his brief encapsulation of who he was, he also included me: “This is Jerry. He’s a writer.” “Oh, really?” she asked, smiling warmly. Graybeard tried to get me to use my czech, but the lesson that day had not gone well, and I only know how to say very simple things. The gap between what I want to say, with its subtle nuances and sprawling sentences, and what I can say, with only limited use of future and none of the past, is enormous. I apologized to her, but only managed a few words in her language.

She is taller than I am, though some of that is shoes, I’m sure. Her eyes were brown, and she seemed a little shy when she looked down at me and said, “You can teach me English and I can teach you Czech.” I agreed in principle. Of course, I was standing next to a professional English teacher. Negotiations got complicated. I left her my email and did not press her for her number. We’ll see.

While we were standing in line and while Graybeard was schmoozing and flirting I watched and learned the difference between a beautiful woman and a model. Time after a time I watched as a pretty young girl, dazzling and fun while hanging out with her friends in the line, became wooden on the stage. The smile would be there, but it was stiff and forced.

Then it was Graybeard’s turn. He’s had a lot of time on camera, and he was taking this very seriously. He gave the photographer some good looks, and after a minute or so he had a few good shots to choose from for his free printouts. Of course he’s hoping that someone important will see the pics, someone who could be his next connection, his next opportunity. Then it was my turn. I had watched the others, and I decided that I was going to take control of the shoot. I got up on stage, stood where I was told, and put out — but where Graybeard took things seriously, I did not. I struck poses. For the last shot I told the photographer I was going to jump as high in the air as I could. On the first try I landed before he snapped the shot — I think he overestimated how high “as high as I can” is (it’s not very high). The second attempt was a success. The best shot of all was one where I was pointing directly at the camera, looking down my outstretched arm.

Style! Now, when I say “best”, perhaps “most interesting” would be a better term. “Best” implies a scale of goodness, but these photos cannot be evaluated on that axis. I am not a model. I will not be winning 50,000 Kč for my efforts. But I’ll tell you this: at first those waiting behind me in line were laughing with me, understanding that for me this was nothing more than a lark, but by the end they saw what I had already seen: You gotta put out. The photographer isn’t going to do it for you. When I started calling the shots, I separated myself from the wanna-be’s. I still won’t win; I’m just too ugly for that. They want a pretty girl to parade around, not some shaggy guy with a beer gut. I’d like to think that one of the girls in line behind me perhaps found the courage to throw herself at the camera, and by winning will make me a spiritual winner. Someday, perhaps, some famous runway model will recount the time she was in the mall and some dumpy guy out-modeled the others, and inspired her. Hey, a guy can dream.

In the end I got a couple of printouts, and Graybeard also got a copy of the shot with me pointing at the camera. Seeing how some of my other silly poses came out, I know I could do better given another chance.

Missed opportunity: I didn’t do a Kung Fu pose.

Graybeard and I went to a different theater and saw the movie, and it wasn’t bad. They glossed over a few too many things to consider it a biography, but it was a good story, and there was some good acting. We emerged into the light after the movie and prepared to go our separate ways. He pulled out his copy of my picture, produced a pen, and asked me to autograph it. Honestly I have no idea why, but Graybeard doesn’t always have a concrete reason for doing what he does, just a feeling that it might come in handy some day.

I laughed, accepted the pen, and signed the back of the photo. Around me people were trying to figure out who the hell I was, that a man with a long gray beard would stop me, already have a picture of me, and ask me to sign it. At that moment I was implicitly a celebrity, and if only they had known how to ask they could have got my autograph, too. I was a supermodel.

The onlookers had not seen me bum a few crowns off Graybeard for a metro ticket. I’m guessing that would have undermined my mystique.

A Stream-of-Consciousness Muddled Ramble

Batteries getting low, time running out, I must type like the wind or the empire may fall. The Huns are at the gate, driving their chevys, waving their pants as banners, lighting them en fuego as they say in hunnish. Novels unwrit, pirates unfilmed, agents unbooked. Bladder filling. What am I doing about it?

Seriously, I was hoping you knew. ‘Cause I sure don’t.

As I typed that I heard that tomorrow we’ll see if we made the cut at Duke City Shootout. They’re running a bit behind over there, so (as I understand it) they’ve added a round of judging so the real judges aren’t burdened with reading scripts that are hopeless. I’m not sure, really, what to expect. Our production is far more ambitious than any that were made last year, and they may decide it’s just too much to shoot in such a short time. Haven’t thought of the right way to drop in, “Oh, and we have the storyboards and shot list ready to go.” Maybe if we make the first cut we’ll have a chance to drop that little nugget, plus the fact we plan to bring along our own second unit, or even remind them that fuego has been in the biz for a long time, and his whole job is making sure things get done.

So here’s hoping, anyway, but if some putative expert decides it’s not makable, we probably won’t even reach the next round. So it goes.

Slaughterhouse Five! That’s my fifth book! Ha! And you guys thought I wasn’t going to fulfill my promise. It’s just that I don’t remember stuff so well. I know things, but I can’t remember them. Dang, that’s a good book.

Today in czech school I learned a very important word, prdle. It’s the impolite way to say ass, and it is tremendously useful. There are literally dozens of ass-related phrases in regular use in the czech language. I will be devoting an episode to it soon. But not now.

Speaking of ass, it is a warm, sunny day here.

When I got home last night, there was still light in the sky, but the late-night store was closed. Welcome to the northern latitudes. There should be some rule, though, that while it is still light, you should be able to pick up a couple of beers at the local store.

Speaking of beer, reading this you’d think I’d had a bunch of it. Not the case, sorry to say. Just imagine what it would have been like then.

An open question

There are two bartenders. One is pretty, and downright sweet, but she’s a bit quick with the beers. She ends up with too much head on the beer, which in turn means there’s not as much beer. Then there’s the dude, nice guy, and he fills the beers to well past required tolerances. Which one are you happier to see when you walk into the bar and why?

Women responding may want to switch around some of the above adjectives, but the question still applies.

Slow going on JerNoWriMo

This style of writing sure requires a lot of thinking. The chapters are short, and after each one I have to go back over parts of the story to see which part of the narrative should come next. To a certain extent I can and do write bits and then shuffle them around (insert plug for Jer’s Novel Writer here), but I feel that while the story is extremely nonlinear in time there is still a structure to it, connecting the bits thematically, and revealing the right bits at the right time. And that takes thinking, no two ways about it.

In that way JerNoWriMo is quite different than NaNoWriMo. I am not giving myself license to suck, which is what November is all about. I’m looking forward to November. JerNoWriMo is not even about word count, really, although I am keeping track of that. It’s about finishing this dang story in a month, in a form I can call a real draft. I still have some tough questions to answer, as well, and as I answer them I invalidate some of the things I’ve already written.

The good news is that by containing my rambling style in small units, this will be by far the smallest large thing I’ve written. I estimated 70K, but now I don’t think it will be even that much. We’ll see. I’ve been working on it 7 days now, and at the rate I’m going I will only have about 50K at the end of 30 days. That might be enough, and there will be some parts that are easier to write. I hope.

As soon as I figure out how to get George and the Feds on the same side in a shootout I’m home free, baby — until I have to explain what Dragon Lady’s angle is in the next chapter. Sure, sure, it’s wealth, but how much does she know, really? Ai-ai-ai. My head’s exploding.

Episode 16: Never On Sunday – Part 1

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

The ladies had reached some sort of truce, but it was an uneasy one. I stepped into sullen silence as the two watched each other from far sides of the room, two cats trapped in the same cage, both knowing that only one of them could be on top. Lola Fanutti had the position nearest the door; I had to push past her into the crossfire of sharp glances. I think that meant she was winning the battle.

Though with the blonde hair and simpler dress she didn’t really look like the wife of a deceased crime boss. “Not bad,” I said, and I wasn’t just making it up. She looked good. In the stifling heat of that room the thin fabric of her dress was clinging to her, making her curves all the more… curvaceous.

She flashed me a smile and said with her Meredith from Kentucky voice, “Thank you.”

The smile took on a hard-edged quality when Alice said, “How does it feel to be blonde again after all these years?”

“Rather refreshing, actually. You should try it some time, when you’re tired of looking like that.”

“Who’s hungry?” I asked. “Let’s get out of this oven and find a bite to eat.”

“I’m starving,” Meredith said, “What have you been up to all this time?”

“I’ll tell you later,” I said. I’d tell her as soon as I’d thought of something. She accepted that, assuming I meant that I didn’t want Alice to hear. By the scowl on Alice’s face, that’s how she took it, too.

“Come on,” I said. “Bring your things. We’re going to find a place farther out of town, where we won’t have to worry about running into people we know.” I handed Alice most of my remaining cash. “Put this somewhere safe,” I said. “We have more.” Meredith looked surprised but she didn’t contradict me.

“I have a car,” she said. “We can get as far as we need to.”

“We’re not going anywhere near anything that has the stink of Lola Fanutti on it,” I said. “That’s just asking for trouble. We’ll get our own wheels once we’re off the island.”

“And how are we going to pay for it?”

“Cash. Come on.”

“You don’t want me to come with you?” Alice asked.

“Not yet. I need you here for a stakeout.”

Her eyes got slightly rounder. “Really?”

“Yep. For this job I’m making you a full partner. After expenses you get half the dough.”

Poor girl, she was much more excited at the word ‘partner’ than at the word ‘dough’. “But I don’t have a license.”

I had to laugh at that. “You can make yourself one tonight if it will make you feel better.” I told her the bar to watch, what to watch for, and the signal to give if she saw anything. “Be careful, Alice,” I finished.

“I don’t think you’ve ever used my name before,” she said.

“Just be careful. Try not to go to any of the usual places, they’ll be watching for you. Stay on this side of town.”

“All right,” she said, happy. I’m not sure she heard my warning.

“We’re dealing with killers, here, Toots. Keep your head on straight.”

That calmed her down a bit. “Yes, sir.” I sent her on her way.

“Can you trust her?” Meredith asked. That was funny, coming from her.

“She’s very reliable.”

“She’s having money troubles, you know. Someone could buy her off.”

“It didn’t work when you tried it, did it?”

Her face darkened and she shot me a look that was pure Lola Fanutti. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I picked up the bags with her old clothing in it. I scanned the room for any remaining evidence that a quick-change had happened here. Satisfied I stepped out into the hall. Let’s get out or this steam bath,” I said. We went down the stairs to the lobby where we were watched by the ever-present manager. Nothing to be done about that. maybe the new look would confuse him. We stepped out into the sweltering afternoon heat and turned up the sidewalk. “I’m going to need some more of your cash.”

She didn’t like my new tactics, and tried to regain the upper hand. “I paid you all I had, and that should be plenty.”

“Look, Mrs. Fanutti, you’re playing a dangerous game. You need my help. If I’m going to help you, I need two things: money and answers. We’ll start with the money.”

“Honest, Charles…”

“It hurts my ears to hear you use that word.”

She stopped, knowing that there would be no more bluffing. “All right,” she said, reaching into her handbag. I wondered if she would pull out cash or her .45. I let out a breath when I saw the green. “I always intended to tell you,” she said. “When the time was right. It’s just, I was just —”

I took the dough. It was more than I expected, and I was confident she had more. “Spare me. All right. That was part one. Now for answers. Where’s the painting? The Blood of the Saint?”

“It was stolen, I told you.”

“Look, Mrs. Fanutti. I’m still willing to help you. I even like you, some of the time. But the lies are going to have to stop.”

“Don’t ever call me Mrs. Fanutti again. That man was a butcher and a bastard, and that is the absolute truth. I’m not Lola Fanutti anymore.” Her voice was rising in pitch. “That man — he did things to me. Made me do things. I don’t know who killed him, but if I ever meet the guy I want to shake his hand.” She was shaking now, and clinging to my arm.

Dames. Even the vicious killers are always blubbering. I didn’t let her distract me, though. “The painting?”

“It’s safe,” she said, drying up. “But we can’t get it for a few days. Not until Sunday. How did you know?”

“That whole thing was just a setup, wasn’t it? You staged a shootout just for me.”

“The wasn’t part of the plan. I lost some good friends last night.”

“You wanted there to be some trouble, though.”

I tensed as she opened her handbag again, until she pulled out a cigarette case. She held one to her lips and looked at me expectantly. I shrugged. She reached back into her handbag and produced a lighter, which she handed to me. Dutifully I flipped it open and held it up to allow her to light her cigarette. I flipped it shut and handed it back to her. “Keep it, you’ll need it again. Yes. I wanted there to be some excitement. That was why I was so slow to react when a real attack came. I really did intend to tell you when the time was right.”

“So you thought you could get me on the run, acting without thinking, and get you out of the frying pan. Then leave me behind or maybe kill me and have all the loot for yourself.”

“At first, maybe, before I knew you, I would have left you behind.”

I didn’t see the point of discussing that one. “Let’s find a place we can lay low until Sunday, then.” Sunday seemed like it was a long, long, way away.

Tune in next time for: Ambush!

Body Czech

NOTE: This has been transcribed from the backs of Staropramen coasters.

Watching Czechs Bowl —
Body English is more than just an expression, apparently. Body Czech is much more reserved. While the ball is rolling down the lane, the czechs have three options: watch blankfaced, turn away, or practice their follow-through (and that only among the bowlers who had been taking lessons earlier). All other reactions are saved until after the ball hits the pins.

Among those I bowled with in the US, the ballet of the bowler, subtly influencing the course of the ball, is a big part of the game. The gyrations, the hand gestures, the instructions shouted down the lane, all those things mattered.

It says something about both groups — the Americans think they can change things they have no control over and the Czechs don’t try. In the case of bowling, the Czechs can probably take the philosophical high ground, what with physics and all, but I lean the American way myself. We’re the dreamers, the poets of bowling.

Golf and bowling may be the only recreational activities with such a gap between action and result, that period that allows the actor to perform. Indeed, it is that stretch between performance and result that makes the games worthwhile.

By any other name

I’m sitting in the Little Cafe Near Home, at my usual table in the corner. Above me on a hook hangs today’s issue of Blesk, a fine example of journalism if ever there was one — if by journalism you mean sensationalistic and lurid stories of sex and celebrity.

On the cover of today’s issue there is a picture of a beautiful woman whose name, apparently, is Alice Bendová.

Google is a state of mind

Well, it’s that time again, to see what people are searching for on the Web. Some are surprising, some are funny, some are just odd, but all these searches brought people here. As usual, words that I don’t want Google and the other search engines to pick up on I have obfuscated with spaces.

  • “how many days” wear pants – personally, I find myself wearing pants almost every day.
  • pitchers of the saw fish – I’m guessing you have to run it through the Bass-o-Matic first. I sure wish the episode that keeps attracting people who can’t spell was a better one.
  • How often rarely – Sometimes I have to wonder just what these folks expect to find. I hope they enjoyed this.
  • eggs over easy squirrel – I’m thinking they were actually looking for this site.
  • + g a t o r a d e +sex – not the first time for this, either.
  • Oh lordy lordy with your bloody wings – linked to an episode about the morning after the Billy Idol Incident.
  • “n o p a n t s d a y” accordion – this episode has been attracting a lot of attention lately.
  • bikini site:mac.com/ – linked to an episode about why bikinis are nice, but not my favorite outfit to observe.
  • the monster within – good to know the advance press is starting to work.
  • Prank Ideas to pull at Band Camp that aren’t stories – this main page was at the top in a dogpile search. I have no idea why.
  • i want to see beauty of the night – linked to a ramblier-than-usual episode that I rather like.
  • tour+bars+of+WORLD – not just the COUNTRY, mind.
  • hollywood party rhymes – ’cause, you know, in Hollywood the party doesn’t start until I start rhymin’.
  • “rhymes with ‘atlanta'” – drawn to an episode about hockey.
  • Half Baked still photos of the squirrel master – maybe I should drop Tommy Chong’s name just to get more hits from people looking for info about the movie. Look! I just did!
  • vla antenna photo – from the greek google. Amazingly, they got what they were looking for! That’s gotta be unusual.
  • fun Hangover Poem – don’t have one of those here – yet.
  • cowboy symbols and typo – I imagine the roundup. “It’s lazy J, Bart, not lazy K!” “Dang! Another typo.” Came to an episode like this one.
  • can i buy a t r o p h y that looks like the s t a n l e y c u p – I cracked the top ten on this search, and the the title of the episode must be enticing for any hockey fan.
  • half up half down hair ideas – I get lots of hair stuff (usually along with the word pitchers, which gives an indication of the literacy of the average hair stylist) , but this case it was ‘half’ and ‘ideas’ that got me the hit. The searcher did not linger.
  • “boy, i tell you what” – top of the charts, baby. this episode could not possibly have held any interest to the searcher, but it does describe a nice bar.
  • M o J a v e R o s e t i t s – I underobfuscated the last episode like this one and drew the search to the wrong place. R o s e and t i t s should be a category of its own here at MR&HBI.
  • goodbye r o s e – it was a tough goodbye, but we’re tough people.
  • my chicken eggs havent hatched yet – nor have mine, thank God.
  • folding metal chairs t hooked together – oddly, the lone t was part of the match. Linked to The Cowboy God.
  • drunk meter – linked to an episode about friendship.
  • what to carry when you’re drunk – you know, that’s a good question.
  • what is the origin of sestina – there are many, many, sites better qualified to educate on obscure poetic forms. My example doesn’t come close to following the rules.
  • chris drunk – yes, he was.
  • masochist poems – usually it’s the masochist reading my poems
  • “what makes a good bar?” – now there’s something I know something about!
  • fashionably squarethat’s me, baby! Well, except for the fashionable part.
  • main idea for so how did i get here – linked to the main page
  • driving interstate 77 in west virginia – linked to a road trip episode about a particularly nice day driving.
  • half rat half squirrel – you don’t need me to tell you where that linked to. This was also an interesting link.
  • american idle chat – doesn’t surprise me that someone who wants to chat about the show also can’t spell.
  • nice bosom – I like those.
  • “berry berry good to me” – linked to an episode like this one
  • nodding yes in slovakia – linked to the idle chit-chat category page (they nod yes the same way we do.) Some of the other links look intriguing…
  • fuego-sat – fuego with his own satellite? If that’s not scary, I don’t know what is.
  • latest hot water diversion valves – I do not have the latest, but I did have something to say on the subject.
  • r e g u l a r i z a t i o n of the person – I never did market the A c c e l e r a t e d R e g u l a r i z a t i o n S y s t e m
  • blinding flash of light poems haiku – I actually have one of those. Alas, the guest poems are graphics, so guest poems cannot trigger Google.

Of course there were the friers, and a remarkable surge in people needing advice about yearbooks. I wonder if anyone actually did sign a friends yearbook with “Elevator O c e l o t Rutabaga”.

JerNoWriMo

Well, the only way I’m going to get that dang Day of Atonement out of my head is to write the dang thing. However, I can’t just go dropping everything else every time I become infatuated with a new idea. The only way I can justify writing this is to get it finished quickly.The good news is it will be more novella-sized — about 70K words I’m guessing — which is possible in a month without too much trouble.

So I’m declaring June to be JerNoWriMo in the grand tradition of National Novel Writing Month.

What does this mean to you, the blog-reading public? Will my media empire languish for the rest of the month? Probably not. I spend several hours a day writing anyway, so what I’m writing probably wont affect you much. In fact, I’ve got a couple episodes saved up for a rainy day. I have added a JerNoWriMo counter to the main page, however, so those who care can follow my progress.

Wish me luck!

I’m starting to get it.

It’s wasn’t War and Peace or even My Dinner With Andre, but I just had a real honest-to-god conversation in Czech. I cheated, but that doesn’t matter.

Here is the full text, translated to English for your convenience:

W: Here’s your beer
J: Thanks
W: No Prob. So, you writing a novel over here or something?
J: Yes
W: Really? You’re writing a novel?
J: Yes
W: A novel?
J: Yes
W: You’re a writer?
J: Yes
W: No shit?
J: Yes

Skeptics among you may note that I only used two different words in this conversation. But he used several, and each repetition was different, and I picked up enough of the words to know what he was asking me, and say “Ano” with confidence. Some of the repetition on his part is easily explained as a natural assumption that I didn’t know what he was saying. Finally, “No shit?” was actually “Fact?”, but I took the liberty of some cultural adjustment.

Is this working?

Day of Atonement

Chapter 1

The rain fell gently, whispering on the roof, welcome after the heat of the previous day. I was standing at the window, enjoying the cool air and the fresh smell, not seeing even though my eyes were open. The moment strecthed, dilating until time itself was merely an abstraction. My mind was far from the rain, far from my motel room. It was in another place, hot and dry and shimmery, long ago when I was a different person, not the stranger I had become but a youthful and vigorous man. I had had a future back then.

A lonesome car hissed past on the wet pavement outside. My eyes followed the progress of the nondescript Dodge, probably blue once, until it vanished around the bend. Lush foliage crowded the 2-lane blacktop, threatening to swallow it back up into the forest. Eventually the forest would win, but by then no one would even notice. Only the locals had any use for the old highway, and they, too, were a dying breed.

Besides my car there was only one other vehicle in the parking lot, an old Chevy pickup that was more rust than metal. It was parked by the office, where the manager had a room. I had been there two days and had not seen any other guests.

Now that the back of the heat wave had been broken, it would be a good day to travel. I looked at my truck and wondered where to go. Anywhere but there. Anywhere but the windswept grave tucked between rock outcrops, far from the curious eyes of humanity, with the headstone, crudely carved, that said only “Helen 1952 – 1987”. I had known her birthday, but not her last name.

I was stalling, of course. I knew exactly where I was going to go. No need to check the wallet to know that I was going to head down to the gulf to find George and accept his offer. I had been resisting for a long time now, but he was patient. All those years ago we had both known the day would come I had no choice.

I looked around the room in a habit deeply ingrained, even though there was little I had left that I could leave behind. I hefted my pack up off the sagging bed and fished out my keys. The door to my room had swollen with the moisture and was wedged tightly shut. I gave it a yank and hoped the doorknob didn’t break off. With one last grunt of protest the door swung open and I was free.

The red lettering on the side of my run-down Scout had faded in the sun, but with some effort I could make out “Schmidt Geological”. Beneath that the black lettering was doing much better: “Exploration and Assay”, followed by a phone number that hadn’t meant anything in years. Not for the first time I wondered idly what would happen if I dialed it.

I tossed my pack in and climbed in beside it. I flipped the switch on the dash I had wired in when the ignition switch had worn out. When I pushed the doorbell button next to it the engine came to life. I coaxed the truck into gear and began my journey south.

Chapter 2

“I’m Helen,” she said, standing on tiptoe to offer her hand through the open window of my truck.

I shook it. “Robert,” I said. “Robert Schmidt. Most people call me Bob.”

She smiled, a little lopsided. “You look more like a Robert. Thanks for coming out.” Her face was brown beneath the white brim of her floppy sun hat. She wore a red flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and cut-off denim shorts. Her boots were sturdy and broken in. Where her sun-bleached hair had got loose from the scarf holding her hat down it blew randomly in the wind. Unthinking she would push it away from her face, but it would just blow right back a few seconds later. She had a line of sunscreen along her jaw; I resisted the impulse to reach over and rub it in for her.

I levered open the door and stepped out into the desert. Even that early in the morning the sun began immediately to bake the top of my head. I reached back into the truck and pulled out a straw cowboy hat, once white but now stained with sweat and grime. “What can I do for you?” I asked.

“I think I found something,” she said. She looked around as if it would be possible for someone to be eavesdropping out there. “I didn’t want to talk about it on the phone.”
I nodded. Much of my business was telling people they had not found gold. “What did you find?” I asked.

“I think maybe you should see for yourself.”

Chapter 3

I had been drifting in the general direction of the Gulf for several weeks now, knowing in the back of my heart that the day was nearly upon me when I would have to make the decision to track down George. It had been at least five years since I had heard from him, but I knew he would be down there somewhere, waiting for me, and he would make sure that I could find him when the time came. I pointed the Scout south down the narrow highway.

The truck ran well, enjoying the rain, but the old beast was always thirsty. After about fifty miles I pulled off the road for gas and breakfast. Fifteen gallons of regular would see me through till lunch time.

The parking lot of the little cafe was full, and I could see through the plate-glass windows that it was crowded inside. Must be the whole town in there. I parked on the road and didn’t bother locking the truck’s door.

It was loud in the cafe, and full, but there was still room to sit at the counter. I made my way between tables filled with well-dressed locals. Must be Sunday, I thought. “Be right with you, hon,” said a frazzled woman, her hair piled high atop her head, reading glasses dangling from a chain around her neck. She was the classic.

“No problem,” I said, but she had already moved on.

I looked around the room. The men were wearing their polyester suits, all navy blue, all from the same rack in the same department store. These weren’t the sort of folks who had to wonder which suit they were going to wear. For all uniformity of the men, their wives were another story. It was spring, and I was in a garden of floral prints. The women were dazzling and proud in their finery, and joyful in thier communion. There was no one in that place less than fifty years old, with the possible exception of the waitress. She may just have been tired.

On the wall was a poster with a kitten hanging from a pole by its front paws, eyes wide. “Hang in there, baby!” the caption read.

Chapter 4

“Hang in there, baby,” I said as Helen clung to my hand. I pushed the hair back where it stuck to her sweating face. “Hang in there.”

Chapter 5

“Coffee?” The patch on the waitress’s shirt identified her as Evelyn.

“Sure.”

Evelyn poured me a cup in a practiced gesture, just a quick splash that filled the cup without spilling a drop. “Not usually so crowded,” she said, “But, you know, Easter.”

I nodded and sipped my coffee.

“You know what you want?” she asked, although she had not given me a menu. There’s no need in a place like that.

“Bacon, eggs over easy, hash browns,” I said.

“You want some biscuits and gravy? Good on a rainy day.”

May as well live it up, now. “Sure.”

Evelyn was gone again. There were only so many places I could look while I waited for breakfast, so I pulled out the battered piece of paper and unfolded it for the throusandth, and possibly last, time. In faded pencil George’s awkward scrawl spelled out the name of a roadhouse somewhere near Pensacola. Lucky’s, YYY Fla.

Chapter 6

“You’d like this place,” George said, writing with furious concentration. The pencil looked tiny in his giant hand, and he was having difficulty controlling it. The black man was sweating profusely in the summer heat, turning his t-shirt dark.

Finished at last, he handed me the slip of paper. “They call me Big George down there. You just ask and they’ll know who you’re talking about.”

I folded it twice, neatly, and slipped it into my wallet, intending to throw it away later.

“It’s going to be fun working with you,” he said.

“I’m not going to do it, George.”

“Oh, yes you will. Sooner or later you’ll come knockin’. Your ghosts won’t give you no choice.”

“I’ll have to take your word for that,” I said. “You’re the one who can see them.”

He laughed. “Oh, I don’t see them; I just know they’re there.”

Chapter 7

Helen reached over and rubbed my earlobe. “Sunscreen,” she said.

“Thanks. You have some here.” I gestured to my own face, along the jaw.

“Which side?” She rubbed both. “This stuff works great, but it’s hard to rub in. How ’bout now?”

“That’s got it.”

“Thanks.” She flashed me another of her lopsided smiles.

After a pause I said, “So where is this thing?” She had told me we would have to hike in, and we would probably camp at least one night.

“About twelve miles. Is that OK?”

I opened the rear door of the truck and pulled my pack out. “Nothing left worth seeing that doesn’t require some walking.”

“Do you know this area?”

“I’ve been here and there.” There wasn’t much out here of interest to my clients, but I got out this way occasionally.

She nodded and turned to her battered, dusty Subaru. She had hiker’s legs, lean and strong. She fit the landscape perfectly.

Both our packs were heavy for their size; we were carryning lots of water. I added another canteen at my waist and watched while she did the same. The army surplus belt was adjusted as small as it would go, but it still rode low on her hips, making the canteen bob as she walked. Finally she pulled a bottle out of her car and took a long drink. She offered it to me when she was done. “Carry your water inside you, the Bedouin would say.” I had my own supply, but it seemed impolite to refuse her offer. Somehow she had managed to keep the bottle cool, and the water felt refreshing going down.

“Good water,” I said, inspecting the bottle.

“Finish it off,” she said. “I have more.” I did as I was told.

When I could drink no more I shouldered my pack. “Better get going,” I said.

She was looking distractedly behind me, back the way I had come. “You’re sure no one followed you?”

“I would have seen their dust cloud for miles.”

She nodded, not completely satisfied, and hoisted her own pack, settling it onto her back and cinching down the waist strap. I stepped to follow her up the canyon when she paused and looked at me over her shoulder, her face pensive. She opened her mouth, hesitated, closed it, and continued on her way.

Chapter 8

“You want anything else, hon? Some pie for the road?”

By the time I was mopping up the last of my gravy the cafe had quieted, only a few of the Easter celebrants remained, lingering over coffee and cigarettes. Evelyn and the others fell into an easy rhythm as the pace of the morning slowed.

“No thanks. I’ve got to get going.”

She started adding up my tab. “Where y’all headin’?”

“South. Florida panhandle.”

“They got some nice beaches down there. Howard and I go down there every summer.”

“Sounds nice.”

“Way better than Miami.”

“I’ll have to check them out while I’m there.” As I counted out my money she returned with a small container.

“For the road,” she said. “It’s on the house. Happy Easter.”

“Thanks,” I said, mildly nonplussed. “Happy Easter.” It sounded odd when I said it.

Where am I?

Let’s say for a moment that you’re going to the bank. In czech you would say Jdu do banky. – “I’m going to the bank.” No problem. Of course, if you’re gong to the post office you would say Jdu na poštu.

D’oh! How you say “to” depends upon where you’re going. Banks and post offices strike me as being pretty similar, but in the czech tongue they are very different. Not only does the preposition change, banky and poštu are themselves different cases of the nouns. The first is the accusative form of banka while the second is the genetive form of pošta.

How you say “post office” and “bank” changes again once you get there. Jsem v bance translates to “I am at the bank”, while you would tell me you’re at the post office by saying Jsem na poštÄ›. In the case of the post office, na now translates to “at”. At least once you get there you can use the locative form for the name of the place no matter where you are. Remember, the rules apply to names as well: Jsem v Pizza Hutu.

And what if you’re going nowhere? Well, in czech, you’re not going nowhere: Nejdu nikam. Once you start negating you don’t stop until you run out of words. The idea that a double negative implies a positive strikes czechs as rather odd. All that negating leads to sentences like Nikdy nic nikde nikomu neříkej a nijak se nezabývej žadným problémem – which would translate literally to “Don’t never not say nothing to no one and in no way don’t bother with no problem.” (I got that sentence from a book. Don’t ask me why it uses nijak instead of žádný. I know you were going to.)

Then again, if you’re already nowhere it’s Nejsem nikde. There are different kinds of nowhere here, depending on whether it’s a destination or a location.

A Sweet Friday Afternoon

Got a call from Amz this morning at 4:20; it was already getting light outside. At first I thought it must be later than that and I tried to work up some semblance of coherence, to no avail. I just couldn’t hold up my end of the conversation, no matter how much energy was coming over the wire. She quickly realized she was talking to a zombie and let me go back to sleep, after lamenting that we were not in the same city. I feel the same way.

If my fuzzy impressons were correct, Amz had just had a fight with her boyfriend. She had just moved the last of her stuff into his place, but apparently it was still not their place. A thought tip-toed across my less-than-nimble brain as I drifted back off to the land of nod. I am the only one who has crashed at her place for more than a day or two that she hasn’t wound up being angry with. Amz would be, I think, a very challenging roommate. She’ll patch things up with Cute Boy, and that’s good. Should things fall apart, though, my advice to her for her next relationship is this: “Sure, sure, marriage and all that, just don’t live together. Ever. Make sure there’s a short taxi ride between your house and your husband’s.”

One night, enjoying the lights reflecting off the still waters of Mission Bay as we walked along the deserted shore, we forged a pact that if we were both single January 1, 2012, we would get married.

Note to self: start saving up cab fare.

I woke up for real a few hours later, the morning sun blasting through my windows, my head clear and sharp, knowing I had a lot of cramming to do if I was not going to waste my czech lesson today. I got some studying in yesterday, but there’s a lot of shit in this language. I have another episode about that coming up soon, as soon as I get my head around do and na well enough to even ask the question.

It was a good lesson; my studies paid off, and I’m finally getting the concepts she’s been pounding into my head week after week. We were done ahead of schedule, and she took the opportunity to throw a new pile of vocabulary at me. Parts of the body. That was good; just the day before my landlord had been complaining of his knee, and for some reason I had wanted to know how to say “foot” this morning.

Otakar Ptáček talking about knees and Iveta discussing body parts are very different. My teacher is a very pretty czech girl who is dating a friend of my brother’s and now a friend of mine. But pretty she is, by gum, and a guy can’t help but think things. I can’t help it anyway, especially when she throws in the word for “kiss” after teaching me “lips”. They’re similar. It was all for linguistic interest. Not sure I can justify learning two ways to say “breasts” the same way, but over here breasts just aren’t the same deal. I was taken back to the line in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World when the english guy says “All you Americans are so fixated on bosoms.” (Actually, I doubt he used the word “fixated.” It was the 60’s, but ridiculous psychological theories were still not part of pop culture.)

Rose once said, (and this quote I do have right) “Boobs are man’s kryptonite.”

See that? And incident that lasted perhaps fifteen seconds, thirty at the outside, has now taken up a big chunk of a narrative that was supposed to just be about what nice day I’ve been having. So she taught me breasts. (All her indications of body parts were accompanied with unambiguous gestures.) And she also taught me boobs. And butt. Inspired by that, I had her teach me the phrase “I’ve been sitting on my ass all day.” After “stomach” we discussed Czech food. I told her that when all czechs drive they will be even fatter than Americans. Then I told her that Americans will drive around in circles until a parking space opens up so they don’t have to walk very far. She looked at me, incredulous.

“That’s horrible,” she said.

Czechs, speaking English, use that word a lot. Horrible. And they say it with feeling. One language or the other has a more nuanced way of expressing badness, and things don’t map across the void between the two quite right. I think it is English that has more shades of gray, which surprises me. The Czechs are to unpleasant like Eskimos are to snow. (That’s not really fair, but I like it too much to delete.) I think perhaps it is not in the czech nature to differentiate. There is that which is pleasant, and that which is to be survived. Last week Iveta misspoke in English, not her native tongue. “I’m horrible!” she exclaimed. “I’m so stupid!” She said this after she had listened to me massacre some ordinary phrase she had known before she had known what knowing was. I look forward in the future to comparing the different gradations, of “bad” and “stupid”. Perhaps if you were to graph them in czech and english you would discover that the axes are completely different. Now wouldn’t that be interesting? It’s stuff like that that keeps me going. Language as a window to the soul. The words people use, the phrases, the parts of life that language simplifies, show where that culture’s heads are.

It was a good lesson, and afterward I hustled over here, to the soulless free Internet bar in the mall. I won’t be here much longer; the day outside is completely perfect, I’ve got a great Hawaiian shirt on, and the people-watching is optimum. I’d be out in the day already, but they’re playing some old Rolling Stones and I’m feeling good. I’m feeling velmi dobře, and I don’t care who knows it.