Snot on the stem (Part 21)

February 17, 2014 § 10 Comments

“So this is how it is,” Turner said to himself, burning and hurting worse than any beating he’d ever gotten from Pops or Cason or that sorry fucker Raffy Santiago when he got waylaid coming home from the stamp and coin shop, with Raffy stealing his money, throwing his stamps into the wind, and pounding the shit out of him until he cried, moaned, bled from his nose and mouth, and then finally lay sobbing in a puddle of his own piss and gore.

He had been chatting with Carrottop at the shop a week earlier. “Why don’t you come do the ACA Century Ride?”

“What is it?”

“It’s an easy hundred-mile bike ride. Pam and I will just be tooling along, you can ride with us. You’ll love it.”

“Really?” Turner mulled over the internal logical inconsistency of “easy” and “hundred miles” and “bike ride.”

“You’ll be done in six or seven hours. There’s a couple of rest stops for food and water. It’s not a race, and you’ll be able to say you did your first century.”

“How many people will be there?”

“Several hundred. There’ll be a few guys racing it, but they’ll start a couple of hours after us. We’ll see ‘em for a few seconds when they come whipping by. Everyone else is just riding it for fun.”

“How come you’re not racing it?” Carrottop was one of the best climbers in Austin, and therefore the state.

“Pam wants to spend an easy day spinning together,” he said. “It’s our QT for the month.”

Nothing had worked out as planned, which is the completely predictable outcome of all bike rides and hence their appeal. Turner had gotten there at seven and waited an hour for Carrottop and Pam, who had dicked around and finally started at 8:30. A few miles in Pam had flatted, then Carrottop had flatted.

By 9:30 they were still only a few miles into the ride when Carrottop looked back. “They’re coming!”

“Who’s coming?” Turner asked.

“The racers!” Turner looked back and saw a small bunch quickly closing in on them. His pulse quickened. “Dude,” Carottop said. “Jump on the train. Pam and I probably aren’t even gonna finish the ride.”

“Jump on?”

“Yeah, just pedal like the shits and get in at the back. Then hang on for dear life. You can do it!”

Turner didn’t know what possessed him, but as the whirl of riders came by he accelerated. A small gap opened as they pulled away, but he pedaled hard and caught on. After a few minutes he could see there were two groups within the group of about fifty riders. The first fifteen or so were taking brief, hard pulls at the front, then rotating to the back, resting, and moving up in the line again until it was their turn to take another pull.

The others were hanging on for dear life. Over the next three hours the group got smaller and smaller until there were only eleven riders left. By now Turner had seen each of the surviving riders pull through so many times that he had given them all names. To his surprise one of the riders was Baker, the guy he’d met at the bike shop and who had defended him from the frat rats.

Each time Turner pulled through, the rider behind yelled at him. However he did it, he did it wrong. “You’re pulling through too fast!” they’d yell.

“Too slow!” they’d yell.

“Don’t swing over so fucking quick, for fuck’s sake!”

“Quit overlapping wheels, goddammit!”

“Hold your fucking line!”

“Quit surging you fucking idiot!”

“Don’t brake, Jesus!”

Other times the curses were simply generic expressions of contempt like “Shit,” or “Fuck” or “Goddammit.”

All Turner knew is that however wrong he was doing it, others were doing it even more wrong, because the group continued to shrink.

By the time they hit Old San Antonio Highway coming back through Buda, there were five riders. No one was cursing him now; breath was apparently way too precious to waste on some skinny dork with hairy legs and a Nishiki International. The pace never slackened. Turner had been out of water  for over an hour and his t-shirt was soaked. They flew up a slight hill and it was too much for two of the remaining riders, who cracked and fell off the back.

Now it was just Baker and some dude wearing white patent leather cycling shoes and riding a blue Chesini. Turner had memorized that name, “Chesini.”

“What the fuck is a ‘Chesini’?” he wondered, hating White Shoes for ripping through each time with the ferocity of a guy who hasn’t been laid in a decade.

Turner felt nothing but a kind of numb, stabbing pain in his legs. He started to drift off the back. Baker looked back. “Don’t fucking quit now. Just sit in.”

Baker and White Shoes kept the gas on until they swept around a turn and hit South First Street. Now the speed got even higher. For the next few miles they flew down towards the river, blowing red lights, going faster, faster, faster. They were going for something, but Turner didn’t know what. By a mutually understood, prearranged signal, Baker and White Shoes jumped out of the saddle and began sprinting. Turner sprinted too.

White Shoes went by so quickly that Baker and Turner looked like they’d been lassoed and tied to a stump. White Shoes sat up and the trio coasted over the South First Street bridge.

Turner looked at White Shoes. He had a square, unshaven jaw. His legs were thick and powerful, like tree trunks. His eyes were dark, angry blue.

“Good job,” he said to Turner in a surprising friendly voice. Turner had expected the voice out  of that ferocious face to sound like the roar of Godzilla.

“Thanks,” Turner said, but what he thought was “That guy is a Bike Racer and he is talking to me.”

“What’s your name?”

“Turner. What’s yours?”

“Stijn. John Stijn. See you around.” White Shoes peeled off and was gone.

“Nice riding,” said Baker.

“Thanks.”

“I told you that bike was good enough.”

“I’m wrecked.”

“You finished the hardest ride in the whole fucking state of Texas with Johnw Stijn. What did you expect?”

“Who is he?”

Baker laughed. “You just rode with him, didn’t you? What more do you need to know about a guy who rides fifty people off his wheel?”

Tangled up in rue (Part 20)

December 9, 2013 § 25 Comments

The plate would have had a lot of spaghetti on it even if Turner hadn’t been stuffed to the gills, but as things stood it was the Mt. Everest of pasta plates topped with a glacier of meat sauce.

Clementine quietly served him, then served herself. She sat down and glanced briefly at him. “Enjoy,” she said.

Turner looked at the salad and the loaf of French bread that she had sliced, buttered, and sprinkled with tiny bits of chopped garlic. “That’s not rue from a jar. You must have spent all day making this meat sauce,” he said.

“I did.”

Turner ate the first bite of spaghetti. “Man, it’s delicious.”

“Glad you like it.” She didn’t look up.

By the fifth bite he thought he would gag, he was so full. By the time he’d cleared half the plate he was chewing like a robot. It was the hardest, most awful thing he’d ever done.

She looked over at him. “You’re sweating into your plate, which is really gross,” she said. “You don’t have to finish it.” She had watched him wade through the pasta bog, and with each bite she softened. She wasn’t upset or hurt anymore. She was gentle. She was … different.

“I’m gonna finish it, Clem,” he said, on the verge of throwing up. “For you.” She stopped watching and went over to the tiny kitchen.

“You’re pretty much the first guy who’s ever tried to show his devotion by making himself sick.”

When Turner was done he was afraid to stand, but he did. He put his plate in the sink, and she turned around. That tiny spark he’d been trying to snuff out, to deny, to kick sand on until it stopped flickering and died, the tiny spark that was hotter and more burning than anything he’d ever felt in his life roared up into a conflagration so sudden and so searing and so all-consuming that everything went blank in front of him except for her and her face and her skin and her hair and her brown eyes and her smell of woman so that when he drew her to him she came softly and willingly until they both stood there together naked in their clothes and he held her with the enormity of a love as powerful as any man had ever felt for any woman, a love that raced beyond him and her so that it was greater than the love of any man for another man, of any woman for another woman, of any father for a son, of any mother for a child, something that burned him so completely that when he held her against his pounding chest he would have made her part of him if it had been physically possible, and this passion burned him so completely that the old him, whoever that was, had been incinerated completely in the heat and all that remained was the new him, the first boy in the history of the earth to fall totally, deliciously, helplessly in love with a girl.

“Turner?” her muffled voice said against his chest, which was throbbing so hard he was sure it would burst.

“Yes?”

“Would you let me go? You’re suffocating me to death.”

He relaxed his arms and looked down at her face. It was covered in tears.

Reckoning (Part 19)

December 8, 2013 § 22 Comments

As he walked through the living room to the kitchen he passed the TV, which was set in a heavy wooden cabinet and had a set of rabbit ears perched on top, each ear topped with a flag of tinfoil. Clem  pointed out a small cluster of photos, medals, and ribbons on a small stand next to the television. “That’s our boy, Clem Jr.,” Clem said. “He was gonna go to college like you, sonny, but he up and got killed over in Viet Nam.” Clem pronounced it the country way, rhyming with “spam.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Damn bad waste of a damn good kid.”

By the second plate of Mrs. Lou Anne’s flapjacks, Turner was cross-eyed. They were big buttermilk pancakes chock full of pecans that came from the tree that shaded the house. Turner slathered the pancakes in butter and syrup, and Mrs. Lou Anne had fried up a plate of bacon and plate of scrambled eggs as “sides,” each side large enough to make a complete meal.

She looked so happy every time Turner took a bite. Every few minutes he would reach beneath  the table and hand off a piece of bacon or a syrup-drenched pancake piece to Pooter, whose views towards him had changed considerably. “You are a big eater for such a skinny little fellow,” she said. “I bet he eats as much as Clem used to, don’t he, Clem?”

“Boy’s got a damn hollow leg. Ridin’ that bicycle makes a man hungry, I guess.” Clem sipped on a cup of coffee and looked on like a contented father, helping himself to the occasional bacon strip.

When he finally pushed away his plate, Turner’s system was in shock. Mrs. Lou Anne wasn’t done with him yet, though, as she’d also baked a tray of chocolate chip cookies. Turner loved fresh cookies, and ate half the tray. Mrs. Lou Anne wrapped the rest in foil. “Take these with you, honey.”

On the way back to Austin, Clem told Turner all about his son, Pooter no longer stuck his ass up in Turner’s face, and instead sat with his butt on the young man’s leg, farting and sniffing the air with his muzzle out the window. Turner, whose nose was incredibly sensitive, listened to the story of the farmer’s son while his brain sifted and stored the swirling odors of tobacco, dog, bacon gas, overhauls soaked in old man smell, and hair tonic.

“He was with the marines when they was attacked at Hue and he got out of there alive and then he was over at Khe Sanh and they shot him dead there. They shot him up so bad he was an awful mess we couldn’t even see his body but at least he went quick. I told him not to go but he was gonna go fight for his country and I guess he did, but that was a damn bad waste of a damn good kid.”

Turner didn’t know what to say, so he scratched Pooter’s head and didn’t say anything.

“Now ol’ Pooter maybe he don’t look like much but you see that piece of ear he’s got tore out there?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He cornered a momma bobcat in the yard once, she was crossin’ the yard with her kitten and Pooter cornered her and boy howdy you don’t never want to corner no momma bobcat, but Pooter he didn’t give two shakes and lit into her like she was some housecat and he’d a’ killed her if I hadn’t heard the ruckus and come out with my shotgun.” Clem looked over at Turner. “Don’t ever go nowhere without your shotgun, sonny.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So’s I shot it up in the air and it made ‘em stop just long enough for that bobcat to skedaddle. But ol’ Pooter he ain’t afraid of nothin’.”

Pooter looked over at Clem, slobbered a little on Turner’s leg, and dog smiled. It was one of Pooter’s favorite stories.

Clem had reached the apartment, and as he parallel parked the old Ford, the owner of a new white Mercedes watched contemptuously from the porch of “Doggie Style,” a dog grooming shop across the street while Clem’s bumper got closer and closer to her fender. She was holding onto her leashed poodle, a huge, perfectly manicured dog that was as contemptuous of the pickup as his owner. The dog barked.

Turner opened the door and in a flash Pooter had leaped out, making a beeline for the poodle. He hit it like a linebacker, knocking it over as the woman screamed and the groomer, a young man in tight pants and a bracelet began yelling “Mercy! Oh mercy! Mercy, mercy, mercy!”

The enormous poodle regained his feet and took a big snapping bite, but came up with nothing but air as Pooter lunged up beneath him. Unused to fighting, and chagrined at being made a fool of in front of his mistress, the poodle saw Pooter’s long tail and took the bait, clamping down on it. Now if there’s one thing any country dog knows, it’s that biting the tail isn’t ever going to win a dogfight. But the city dog was looking for a moral victory, and by now was hoping someone would break up the fight.

With his opponent’s mouth clamped shut, Pooter spun around and sunk his jaws on the poodle’s throat. He was going to kill him.

By now Turner and Clem had run across the street and Turner saw the fear and terror in the poodle’s face. It was the saddest look he’d ever seen. Pooter’s eyes had rolled back in his head like a shark and his massive jaw was working to find the windpipe. “Goddamn you, Pooter!” yelled Clem, striking his dog on the snout. “You let him go right now, god damn you!”

Pooter opened his mouth and the poodle jerked away. He ran over to his owner, who was hysterical. The dog groomer was shrieking. “Get off our porch! Get your nasty dog out of here, you nasty man!”

Clem had Pooter by the scruff of the neck and was dragging him back to the truck, but Pooter shot a glance over to Turner that said, “I did pretty good, huh? That fancy poodle can kiss my ass. And thanks for the bacon!”

From all the noise and screaming and barking, Clementine had come outside and stood in front of the apartment door. She looked different. “Where have you been?” she asked, as he got his bike out of the back of the pickup.

“I had an adventure.”

“I thought you’d have been back hours ago. You had me worried.”

Unbeknownst to Turner, this would be another of the patterns of his life — coming home late from a bike ride to an angry significant other. “Sorry,” he said. As he got up close to her he smelled a very delicate fragrance. Her hair was different. And she was wearing a pink apron with a crease down the middle, like it had just been bought.

Inside the apartment was the table was set for dinner.

Clem came to the door and introduced himself. “That’s a fine young man you got there, honey. Boy, that’s some good cookin’ you got going on in there.” He sniffed the air appreciatively. “Don’t know how big a appetite he’s gonna have, though. My wife stuffed him fuller’n a sausage skin. Boy ate more flapjacks and bacon and eggs and cookies than a prison gang.”

The door closed and she turned around. “You’re not hungry, I guess.” The words were sad and disappointed and angry and hurt, all rolled into one.

“I’m starving,” he lied.

She handed him the foil of cookies. “These are for you, apparently.”

“Clem, this smells delicious! I love spaghetti and meat sauce! Man, I’m so hungry!”

“Are you really, Turner?” Her voice was so cool it hurt.

“Yeah. Hungry as a horse.”

“Okay,” she said. “Then show me.”

Pooter and the spit cup (Part 18)

December 7, 2013 § 23 Comments

Ten miles out of Austin, Turner’s front wheel hit a chughole and the tire flatted. “Fuckitfuckfuckfuck!” he cursed, realizing that he had neither tube, nor patch kit, nor levers, nor pump. He didn’t know it, but he had also bonked. What he knew was that the flat had coincided with the weakest, most drained and exhausted emptiness that he’d ever felt.

“You okay, young feller?” The rusted Ford pickup pulled up next to him.

Turner looked gratefully at the farmer in overalls, and less gratefully at the mug of the dog who had his paws on the door and his head out the window, and who was softly snarling. “No, sir. I flatted and … “

“Well I kind of reckoned you had. Toss ‘er in the bed and we’ll get ‘er patched and aired up and get you on the way back to wherever in the heck you’re goin’. Farm’s just a piece up the road here.”

Turner set the bike in the back of the pickup, pushed aside a bunch of boards, some rusted pipe, and what looked like a year’s supply of empty Lone Star beer cans. When he grabbed the door handle the dog, who hadn’t budged, growled louder. The old man laughed, showing a jagged set of mostly incomplete and missing teeth stained deep red from chewing tobacco. “Don’t you mind Pooter,” he said. “He wouldn’t hurt a flea.”

Pooter had short black hair, a flat head, big jaws, a long tail, a big chunk missing out of one ear, and a wall eye. Oh, and he had big, long, shiny white teeth. Turner got in and Pooter went completely silent. The moment the door slammed shut the dog reached over and bit the shit out of Turner’s hand. “Ow!” he yelled, jerking his hand away.

“Goddammit, Pooter!” the farmer said, slapping the dog in the head. “You okay, sonny?”

Turner looked at the broken skin on his hand and the blood drops. “I think so.”

The farmer glanced at the bite marks and concurred. “T’ain’t nothin’. We allus give him one free bite. After that he don’t get no table scraps. He don’t like you because you’re sittin’ next to the window. Scoot over here, nozzle your leg thisaway so you don’t hit the stick, and thataway Pooter can stick his nose out the window.”

Turner sidled over to the center of the bench seat, which was ripped and had foam stuffing coming out in big chunks. “My name’s Turner. Thanks for stopping, mister.”

“Name’s Clem,” said the farmer, handing out a big callused hand.

“Clem?” asked Turner, feeling weird as he looked at the man’s enormous belly and grizzled beard stubble.

“Yep. You know how come we call ‘im ‘Pooter’?”

Turner thought he’d try a joke. “Because he has bad gas?”

Clem laughed. “Darn tootin’ he does! That was a good guess, which makes you a purty fart smeller!” He laughed at his own joke and the dog ripped off a terrible canine stinker, with his butt pointed towards Turner’s face.

“Say, hold this for me, would you, sonny?” He reached down between his legs and handed Turner a styrofoam cup filled with tobacco spit. The pungent smell and the sight of the sloshing mess made him queasy. Clem reached over to the glove box and managed the complex task of shifting, driving, pulling out the tobacco round, and cutting a plug with his pocket knife all at the same time. As the truck lurched between gears, the cup jolted and about half of the warm, red spit spilled out onto Turner’s leg. Then the dog farted again.

“Can’t throw up,” he kept repeating. “Can’t throw up.”

That “piece up the road” turned out to be a very big piece, and when the old Ford bounced to a stop at the end of the long rutted driveway, Turner was completely nauseated. And starving.

Clem got out of the truck. “Lou Anne!” he yelled.

A very large grandmother with long gray hair stuck her head out of the back door. “What is it?”

“This young feller needs one of us to fix his flat tar and the other one to fill him up. He’s hungry, sure, ain’t you, sonny?”

“Yes, sir,” said Turner.

“I have plenty of pancake batter left over from breakfast, dear. Could you eat some pancakes?”

“Yes, ma’am. If it’s not too much trouble, ma’am.”

She smiled. “No trouble at all!”

“Let’s fix this ol’ tar,” said Clem, and Turner followed him into the garage. Clem took out a screwdriver and jammed it against the rim to lift off the tire. With a deft flick of his wrist he made a giant scratch on the edge of the aluminum rim, then shot the end of the screwdriver up through the tire and the tube, massively puncturing both. “Well, shit-I-reckon,” said Clem. “No damn wonder you flatted. This here tar cain’t even stand the blunt edge of a screwdriver.”

“No,” Turner agreed. “It sure can’t.”

“Looky here,” Clem said, holding the wheel by the hub and spinning it. “You must have banged it good. It ain’t running true no more.”

The wheel had a slight wobble in it as it spun. “No, it isn’t.”

“Well we can shore fix that right up.” Clem reached into a pile of tools and pulled out  a small set of pliers. With a few hard twists on the spoke, it broke. “Well shitcakes and apple pie,” said Clem, spinning the wheel again, which was now completely out of true. “Bet we can tweak one of these boogers on the opposite side to sorta tensionize it right,” he said.

Turner felt like he was in an emergency room watching a physician perform malpractice on his baby as the old farmer broke out four more spokes. Clem threw down the pliers in disgust. “Them things ain’t made worth a durn,” he said. “You go on into the kitchen and get some grub and I’ll drive you back home. I’m shore sorry I couldn’t get you fixed up, sonny.”

“It’s okay, Mr. Clem,” Turner said, looking in despair at his mangled front wheel and destroyed tire and tube. “Thanks for trying.”

Go east, young man (Part 17)

December 6, 2013 § 14 Comments

The apartment was completely still. Turner got up off the couch and padded down the hallway to the single bedroom door, which was ajar. He looked in. “Clem?” he said, but no answer came. The room was empty.

Strangely, he felt relieved. Clementine scared him. He had to figure out where he was going to stay. “My parents are going to freak fucking out if they find out about this,” he thought. Turner returned to the living room and noticed that his two bags of clothes and books were gone. The sun was now properly up, and the room was light. “Oh, shit,” he said. All of his books were neatly arranged in the small bookcase against the wall. “Where are my fucking clothes?”

He went back to Clem’s bedroom, sweating now, knowing what he was going to find, which he did. His jeans and shirts had been neatly hung in the closet, and she’d folded his socks and underwear and put them in a drawer in her chest. The top drawer.

The small kitchen was even worse. A note on the counter, written in a pretty cursive script, said this: “Cereal’s in the cupboard, milk’s in the fridge, see you this afternoon.”

Feeling like a guy who’d gotten drunk, then married in Las Vegas, Turner didn’t know what to do, but he knew he had to find another place. Filled with determination and a clear vision of what was necessary, and an even clearer vision of what would happen if he didn’t do what was necessary, along with each of the catastrophic details painted in brilliant colors and sharp outlines, Turner began what would become the pattern for his life, in other words, when faced with great decisions and impending doom, he hopped on his bike to go for a quick ride.

“To clear my head,” he told himself.

By mid-morning he’d pedaled all over central Austin, through Tarrytown, up around the golf course on Lake Austin Boulevard, and had even meandered along the western edge of town to Camp Mabry. He’d completely forgotten about the dilemma that he’d been so determined to solve. Instead he was sweaty and feeling rather blissful and a touch hungry.

As he headed back towards Clementine’s he then began what would be one of the great sub-patterns of his life, in other words, when faced with a destination that he really didn’t want to go to, he went to the bike shop instead. Uncle Joe had wheeled out the last bike and they were all lined up perfectly, shiny. He recognized Turner and nodded to him.

“Hi!” said Turner.

“Nice day for a pedal.”

“Yeah. Hey, I got a question for you.”

“Sure.”

“Where’s a good place to ride my bike around her?. You know, like an out and back type thing?”

“Come on in.”

Turner followed him into the shop, and it smelled like a bike shop, that odor of shiny new bike mixed with turdboxes-on-two-wheels in the service area, a funny mix of musty and fresh that was murdered in its sleep by the modern concept store, where the thing for sale now is a bicycle experience instead of, you know, a bike sold by an experienced biker. “You liking that bike?” Uncle Joe asked. It wasn’t an innocent question, and Uncle Joe watched him carefully.

“Oh, man, it’s the best!” A torrent of “cool” and “awesome” spilled forth.

Uncle Joe smiled, a little to himself. He knew this kid was a live one, and he knew it because his quick glance had taken in the sparkling shine on the bike, a bike which should by now have had some modest layer of dirt and grime on it, and he knew it because, well, he’d seen it all before. He pulled a map out of the rack in front of the register. “This will be a good twenty-five miler for you.”

He spread it out and the fresh map smell spilled out adventure and excitement from the grids and twisting roads. Uncle Joe patiently traced out a route with a pencil. “This will take you to Manor, east of town. About an hour out and an hour back. Put some air in your tires before you go. You’re running a little low. A hundred will do you, there’s a pump outside.”

Turner went out to air up his tires, and as he began a cyclist in jersey and riding shorts pedaled up and waited his turn. He looked different from the other cyclists that Turner had, inexplicably, been paying attention to since he’d started commuting to school. This guy was in his mid-twenties, and he was solid without an ounce of fat on him. Turner looked at his big, muscular calves and his even bigger thighs.

The guy took him in at a glance. Turner felt like he’d just been evaluated, instantly, but he wasn’t sure about what. “Nice bike you have there,” said the guy, sticking out his hand. “Baker. My name’s Baker.”

Turner blushed at the compliment, because his off-the-rack Nishiki was so plainly inferior to the shimmering Italian racing machine that Baker was on. All of his pride at the cleanliness of his bike drained away, and he felt like a little kid in a push-car talking to a race car driver. “It’s just, you know, a cheap commuter bike.”

“No, actually it’s not. Those are pretty solid components. Dia-Compe brakes, SunTour derailleur, Sugino cranks. You could race that bike.”

“Really?” Turner felt suddenly inflated again, then ashamed at having insulted his own bike, of which he was so incredibly proud.

“Hell, yes,” said the guy, as Turner handed him the pump. Baker grinned. “It’s never the bike that needs to be upgraded,” he said. “It’s the legs.”

Turner got a half-block away from the bike shop, pedaling up 24th Street along fraternity row, when he noticed a clicking sound coming from his crank. He pulled up on the sidewalk, got off the bike, and bent down to check it out.

“Hey, look,” someone said. “It’s fuckwad asshole.”

He looked up from his squat into the face of two frat brothers from Sig Ep. One of them grabbed his handlebars and looked at the other guy. “My vote is we take the bike, wrap it around his twiggy fucking neck, and throw them both into traffic.”

The other guy laughed. “Let me kick him in the head first.”

Turner straightened. This was going to end badly. Then a third voice chimed in. “I’d advise you to let go of the bike.” It was Baker, who’d ridden up. Baker wasn’t a college kid, and he didn’t look like one. He looked like a man.

“Who are you?” said Sig Ep the first.

“If you don’t let go of the bike and let my pal go on his way, you’re gonna find out.” Baker started to unclip from his bicycle, the powerful muscles in his arms lightly flexing as he gripped the hoods.

The frat guy holding Turner’s bike released it. “Thanks, dude,” Turner said to his newfound friend.

“Don’t mention it,” Baker said, re-clipping and riding off.

The wheels under the Nishiki were spinning now as Turner raced away. In a flash he remembered that he’d set out to find somewhere to live, but had done nothing more decisive than pedal around on his bike, air up his tires, and avoid getting beaten to a pulp. Then he remembered Uncle Phil’s map. The sun was shining on this warm Austin winter day.

Instead of going right on MLK and back to the apartment, he turned left. “I wonder how far twenty-five miles is on a bike?” he wondered.

Rocky Mountain high (Part 16)

December 5, 2013 § 9 Comments

The next morning he woke up with that call of the wild, the raging, pounding urge to piss. Turner’s eyes flicked open and for a few brief, half-waking millimoments he tried to remember where he was and why he was sleeping on a couch and why he was covered in a strange blanket that smelled like a woman.

His brain quickly put the pieces together, but that brief uncertainty, happening as it did in a mostly dark room in a very strange place with very early sunlight filtering in through the blinds, deja-vued him back to the time he was thirteen and he’d taken a backpacking trip up into the San Cristobal mountains of southern Colorado.

They had gone from sea level in Texas to the thin Colorado air in a day and a half, driven the rental car up the rutted and rocky dirt roads as far as they could, unloaded their crap at the trail head, and set out at first light for a nine-mile hike up the Rainbow Trail. The incredible weight of the 40-pound canvas pack on his 90-pound frame, the unbelievable tilt of the trail, and the grinding mash of his not-quite-broken-in heavy leather hiking boots made the first hundred yards of that unforgettable death march almost unbearable.

But the pounding, migraine-intensity headache from the altitude sickness and the constant vomiting had made him think he would die. If Candy Donner hadn’t dropped back to help him, maybe he would have.

“Here, dude,” Candy fired up and handed him a joint.

“What is it?”

“Medicine. You’ll thank me later.”

“It’s marijuana, right? Will it hurt me?”

“It will save you. Leads to heroin, though.”

The altitude sickness receded somewhat, replaced first by intense paranoia which was itself later overlain with profound, raging hunger. When they took their first break and Pops opened up the plastic tube of peanut butter, a fight almost broke out. All the kids were stoned and hungry and tired and out of sorts.

“This sucks,” said Benny Donner, who was a year older than Turner and who went on to distinguish himself by committing suicide at age eighteen, a blow from which his dad never recovered.

When they shouldered their packs, what had in the beginning felt impossibly heavy now felt as if it had grown to double the size in the short ten-minute break. Candy dropped back with some more weed, and in a fog of anger and sickness and paranoia (“They brought me up here to kill me,” etc.) and, eventually, more hunger, Turner crept up the trail.

That first day’s ordeal had begun at daybreak and ended just before nightfall, and the only way he’d gotten through it was Candy’s cornucopia of drugs. With several hours to go, and even the adults in survival mode, Candy had unleashed the psilocybin. “Just chew and swallow plenty of water. They’ll go down. Nasty as shit, but they’ll go.”

Turner madly crushed the dried up fungi, getting pieces of it stuck in his braces, the taste so awful and inedible and bitter and obviously poisonous that it was clearly going to be good, or at least better than now.  “I wonder if this is what a vagina tastes like?” he wondered. The mushrooms got him to the first base camp, where he flung down his pack.

“Fuck this, I hate backpacking, I hate Colorado, I hate mountains, and I hate … ” he trailed off, randomly slapping at the black clouds of delighted mosquitoes that swarmed about him, the mushrooms amplifying the personalities of each mosquito so that before slapping each one he had to consider its personality: Was it a bad mosquito?

Its family: By killing this insect am I depriving a hungry family of baby mosquitoes back at the nest of their father?

Mosquito nests: Do mosquitoes have nests?

And of course fucking: How do mosquitoes fuck? And how big are their penises?

“Turner, are you okay?” Pops had rolled him over onto his back with the toe of his hiking boot, and was now looking down at him, somewhat concerned.

“Do mosquitoes have nests?” he asked.

Pops, relieved that Turner was asking the kind of questions he usually asked, smiled. “Dinner will be ready in a few. Hang in there.”

“How big is a mosquito penis, Pops?” he asked, but Pops, who was also tired and hungry, was headed over to the campsite and didn’t hear him. Turner desperately wanted Pops to turn around, but he didn’t.

Turner did in fact “hang in there,” mostly, it seemed, by his neck. No food had ever tasted better than that awful freeze-dried beef stroganoff. They’d tried it in the backyard and no one would eat it, not even the dog. At the top of the Rainbow Trail and on the brink of collapse after fourteen hours of utter hell, it was the finest cuisine anyone had ever had.

As the drugs receded and the altitude sickness set back in, Candy had taken Turner down to the edge of the stream to wash the dishes, where even more mosquitoes awaited. The nine campers had licked their utensils absolutely clean, so rather than use the biodegradable soap in the icy cold water, the boys just dipped the pans and forks and spoons in the water and rubbed the grease around with their fingers.

“Aren’t we supposed to wash them?” asked Tuner.

“Fuck it, you think anyone will notice or care? Shit, you think the pioneers washed their dishes?” Candy then whipped out one of the steel fuel canisters that he’d sneaked from the campsite and started unscrewing the lid.

“When I pop off the top, just jam the spout under your nose and inhale, deep motherfucking inhale.” Turner did as he was told, the jolting stench of the kerosene coursing up into his head. “Again,” Candy commanded. “Poor man’s buzz. Now go to bed.”

Turner crawled into his sleeping bed with an awful, jagged kerosene high, but he went to sleep right away and he was the first one to wake the following morning. It was still, toasty warm inside his sleeping bag, the inert body of his brother next to him, the inside of the tent dripping with moisture, and the sound of birds outside, the headache gone. That half-moment between sleep and wakefulness, trying to piece together where he was and why, suspended in thought and time, safe in the warmth of the tent, it had been the most delicious moment of his life.

Until right now.

Money, water, blood (Part 15)

December 4, 2013 § 10 Comments

When Turner rode up on the sidewalk and down the walkway that led to his apartment, he knew something was wrong because he could see a big pile of shit parked in front of the door. He got off the bike and confirmed what he’d thought. The pile was all of his belongings.

He rapped on the door, and after a couple of minutes Will opened it, shirtless. “What the fuck do you want?”

“You can’t just throw my shit out on the lawn. I live here.”

“Set foot in this apartment and I’ll break out all your fucking teeth.”

Turner looked at Will’s muscled chest and arms. “Your frat is a bunch of douchebags,” he shot back, but he didn’t try to enter the apartment. “Give me a couple of big trash bags at least, willya?”

The door slammed, reopened, and out flew two large Hefty’s. “Get lost, Turner. If my dad didn’t know your dad I’d beat your ass just for standing there.” The door slammed again.

Turner bent over and began stuffing his few possessions into the garbage bags. “Thank dog my fuckin’ books are paperbacks,” he said to himself. As soon a he got the bags knotted, it started to rain, and amid more curses he embarked on what he would later consider his greatest ever feat on a bicycle: Crossing Austin and descending Congress Avenue in the rain with two enormous trash bags.

He swung off onto Lavaca and pedaled up to Clementine’s apartment. He must have looked like the bedraggled rat he felt like, and he was cold. She opened the door and looked him over, saying nothing, but not moving aside, either. “How’re things working out for you, Turner?” The corners of her mouth were turned up, but he wasn’t sure if she was smiling or if she was insinuating victory with her lips.

“Great,” he said. “Today seemed like a perfect day to ride in the rain with all my shit stuffed into a couple of garbage bags. It was either that, or, you know, get all my teeth beaten out by my roommate.”

She laughed, but still didn’t move. “I’m shocked, absolutely shocked. To think that those Sig Ep boys would stick together like that. And you being a philosopher and bicycle rider and all.”

“Money’s thicker than water, I suppose.”

“Money’s also thicker than blood, honey. Money’s the thickest shit there is. I suppose you want in?”

“Desperately.”

“Grass, ass, or rent money, Turner. Nobody sleeps for free.”

“Okay,” he smiled. “Just  promise me that when it’s your turn to throw all my shit out onto the lawn, you’ll do it on a sunny day.”

She stepped aside and he walked in, still breathing hard from his crosstown effort. His nostrils sucked in the air of the apartment. The whole place smelled like woman.

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