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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Late Work

Late Work

Oh I don’t know bub 
should we migrate again this year
 to join the river we birds make across the sky
south from Michigan to the Bahamas
or better to repair the nest we had built in spring
for one season under the jack pine near the house

would we make it through another migration bub
look at the hawk high like a bent stick in light before dawn 
why am I no longer afraid now our young have left
us two in this once comfy nest now too large and now
while I philosophize bub and against your better instinct
you bring twigs and string and a red ribbon to feather our nest

Oh bub see the old man in the kitchen window
waiting for his pot of coffee before daybreak
if I could speak to him in the language I use for other birds 
I would say cat got your wife no well then hop back in bed
bend against her warmth and get up later
that’s for me bub that’s for me

Randy Evans

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Woman Who Screams When She Sees Orange will appear in the May issue of Bear River Review, a publication of the University of Michigan

The Woman Who Screams When She Sees Orange


Randy Evans

As the incompetent grandson of the company founder, Matt Bert has sifted down through the organization to the mill management’s lowest position on the totem pole: personnel.  Most of the time, he feels like an actor faking the playing of a musical instrument in a movie.  This Friday morning, Matt looks down at his mug of cold coffee and squirms in his swivel chair.  He’s fat from sitting most of the time, and the chair helps prop him up (if only the chair back were higher, it would prop up his wobbly neck).  Beneath his chair, Matt has constructed a riser out of an old pallet, so he can look down on all who sit before him on the other side of the large desk that used to be his grandfather’s. He’s angry because he’s short, so he’s angry all the time.

He talks to himself while staring at an orange ceramic ashtray sitting on his desk. “Does nobody understand me?” he says.  (There’s a no-smoking policy at the paperboard mill, but he keeps the ash tray as a symbol of the way things used to be.)  “I may be personnel director, but I’m not evil.” (He thinks of Dilbert cartoons.)  “Not an idiot either...I knew our days were numbered when the Clean Water Act passed in ‘72...had to stop making colored paperboard.  So the dye turned the Kalamazoo River bright colors for a couple days; ‘Muskegon Orange’ was our best-selling shoebox board!”  He looks out of his floor-to-ceiling cubicle window at the long rows of cemetery gray desks: people strung out working under a high coffered ceiling.  

Unlike his black sheep father who quit the mill to start a car repo agency and loved to pull cars with past-due payments out of people’s driveways, Matt Bert hates controversy and discord.  He dislikes all the layoffs, especially the office people he works with; suspects the new management will ax him someday.  In his late fifties, he’s running a race between early termination and normal retirement; afraid of any missteps, his eyes on the dim distant finish line where he can collect his paltry pension.  This morning, Matt must layoff Rebecca Randall, one of the best employees in the mill. 

Matt fidgets with the pre-approved layoff notice, and pulls a ballpoint from the orange plastic pocket protector he wears inside his short-sleeved shirt pocket.  (He’s worn short-sleeved shirts since the day a supervisor caught his shirt sleeve in the rotating blades of the pulp beater.  He was beaten to a pulp, and made into paperboard. Only his belt buckle made it, buried in a cutoff sheet at the other end of the city block long paper machine.)  Matt used the embedded buckle to make a safety poster, until people complained (that’s when people started calling him an idiot).  

Matt notices coffee stains down the front of his dull laundered white shirt, and a glucose glob of pancake syrup on his shiny striped tie. (The tie has rows of orange liberty bells on a navy blue background.  He bought the tie by mail order in 1976 to wear during the Bicentennial.  Wears the tie every Friday.) 

 Alone in his enclosed office, he whispers to himself about how he will talk off-script to Rebecca: “Now Rebecca, you can come down here to the mill as often as you like, but we need to stop your pay today.”  Too brutal and abrupt...can do better.  “Rebecca, I know how you love the company and want it to succeed.  We have to cut back, and you were scheduled for layoff weeks ago, but I personally persuaded the powers here to hold off...until now.”  No, crap...she won’t buy it.  “Rebecca, you’re laid off as of today.  I’m really sorry to tell you the bad news.”  Or how about this?  “Rebecca, Michigan’s an employment-at-will state, so you're free to leave any time you want, and your employer can ask you to leave any time, so....”  No, I get in trouble when I use legalese, he thinks.  He continues murmuring.

Later the same morning, Rebecca pushes open the small-paned factory window of her third floor loft apartment to see morning shadows breaking away from her side of the street.  Twenty-eight, with dark brown hair and a thin face, she sits her long skinny body down facing the window on an orange vinyl kitchen chair with chromed tube legs. She still wears her work clothes: an oversize gray wool sweater, jeans, and black work shoes.  It’s early springtime, and she feels alone and lonely.  I don’t like Matt Bert, she thinks matter-of-factly.  He whispers too can’t trust whisperers.  Now what am I going to do?   She says out loud, “Oh God, I've worked at the mill since high school, ten years!  How could I not see this coming?”  Rebecca likes to control her life like a song you keep on humming.  She feels ashamed for no good reason.  She’s done nothing wrong.  “Whether I leave or stay, I better clean this place up.  It’s a mess; I’m a mess.  What am I going to do, walk around in my underwear all day and watch TV?”

Rebecca’s surprised how angry she was when the little fat man fired her (“laid her off”).  She’s still angry when she thinks about what he said and how he said it when she walked into his office.  “Uh, Rebecca, we all like you, Rebecca...but the company has placed you on permanent layoff.  Since we’ll all have to work until we’re 100, look on your ten years here as a brief chapter in a long book.”  For a time, sitting there looking up at Matt Bert, Rebecca's speechless.  Her throat tightens, and she feels weak in her arms and legs.  She sees Matt’s orange pocket protector, the orange liberty bells on his tie, the orange ash tray, and the orange light of morning streaming in through the windows.  Now sitting in her kitchen, she tries to push the orange memory out of her mind.  Think other thoughts.  Take a deep breath and forget.

Outside her window, she hears birdsongs warbling everywhere, so many species interrupting each other talking of the cold spring, as if all the living tones and dialects of the world are speaking at once.  The noisy sounds overwhelm her.   She places her hands over her ears, and closes her eyes; tries to shut out the unwanted flood of light and sound.   Shutdown what is happening to her; what had happened.  As she takes another deep breath, she smells cooking odors from the diner across the street.  She can almost taste the bacon smoke; it reminds her she hasn’t eaten since the mid-shift break at three in the morning.

By now, she would normally have finished a breakfast, and be in her tidy single bed, trying to sleep before rising in mid-afternoon for her second job.  She stands up and walks over to her cupboard, rummages around and pulls out a bag of stale Oreos. A black ant skitters behind a box of oatmeal.  For the first time in years, she notices her broken orange bread toaster on the counter, and thinks how she has kept all the equipment in her quality control lab operating in perfect condition, each one labeled with the latest service date.  She returns to her chair, biting down on the outside layer of the Oreo, the outside as soft as the inside.

The shabby street where Victoria lives is shabby in many different ways: timeworn buildings locked day and night with water-stained walls under empty lofts, shutdown shops with weathered plywood boarded-up windows.  A few bars and restaurants remain with broken chairs and stained table tops, where from indoors, people look out on potholed streets--oil-streaked, lined with broken down cars parked beside remnants of what used to be busy side walks.  There are signs advertising businesses that no longer exist, and orange cones with “under repair” signs weathered over the years, bent-over but not quite fallen down, like beaten-down people.  The beeper on the coffee maker takes her again back to the counter.  Her eyes lock on the useless orange toaster, and she suddenly screams as she pulls the toaster cord out of its socket, raises the toaster high above her head, and slams it onto the floor.

Holding her white coffee mug in both hands, she returns to the chair by the window, and sits down looking out the window again.  She begins to perspire through her blue denim work shirt from the warmth of the rising sun filtering through the old factory windows and from the steam of the coffee.  Scratchy, her tortoiseshell tabby cat, shuffles in from the bedroom, and nuzzles the back of her legs.  The crashing noise in the kitchen has woken her from her morning slumbers.  Scratchy has no clue what has happened to Victoria at the end of the shift.  The cat’s indifferent, just like the people passing below her on the sidewalk.  Victoria watches the orange leaves scattering on the red street bricks below, left overs from the previous autumn, dried out in the morning sun.  It has rained briefly but hard the night before, and a Styrofoam cup bobs and twirls in a muddy puddle formed over one of the tire-busting potholes.

She keeps mentally returning to the scene of her demise.  “Rebecca, you’re in the latest wave of reductions.  You’ll receive a half weeks’ pay for each of your ten years of service,” Matt mumbles on.  Victoria had thought her job safe.  She had been a good employee, and kept a file containing her favorable performance reviews and perfect attendance awards.  This just didn’t make sense.  She had thought the world was fair, and if she played by the rules, everything would be okay.   She didn’t know what to say.  Matt’s use of the word, “wave,” gives her the feeling of a vast tsunami sweeping over her, a vast orange tsunami.  A sudden alarm goes off deep inside her, and surprised, she feels an uncontrollable upwelling from the base of her spine. She screams long and loud (not just a short, sharp yelp, but a long heart-stopping, horror-movie scream), as if she’s vomiting sound.

Matt and Rebecca both freeze, as if the scream has entered the office through the public address system, or from a third person hiding behind one of the old gunmetal gray file cabinets in the wood-paneled office.  She feels out of her body, as if Matt Bert and she have morphed into a Dilbert cartoon filled with absurd “bubble language” and “thought clouds.”  Matt reaches for the orange ash tray in case Rebecca tries to hurl it at him.  His shaking hand spills coffee on her exit paperwork.  Rebecca covers her mouth with both hands to keep further screams from coming out.  She shakes all over.  “These things happen,” he says as he looks sideways at her and reaches for his phone to call the security guard.  He backs up too far, and falls off his riser; rolling around like an overturned tortoise.  Rebecca sits rigid like an orange popsicle; and even now screams like clockwork when she sees orange.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The yellow and tan fugitive cougar pads through the white pine stand filtered by the faint light of dawn.  The cougar defines liquid power and stealth, long as a freight train, with a yard-long upturned tail and fist-sized paws. His new territory seems like paradise except for the persistent thrumming of lawnmower engines on the other side of a swampy marsh beyond the stand of trees.  The noise started in early May about two hours after dawn, every day, and never stops until two hours before sundown, six days a week.  Sunday is quiet as deep forest. 

 The Wisconsin cougar escaped over an ice bridge from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Northern Lower Peninsula just before the early Spring thaw.  Food is no problem for the seven-foot long predator--an abundant supply of rabbits, woodcock, turkey, porcupines, raccoons, coyotes and deer--but the noise drives him crazy.  The cougar could range deeper into the state land nearby, but the sure source of easily-stalked prey keeps him in place in this unfamiliar thirty-square mile territory, along with hopes two or three females are ranging nearby to consummate his biannual ten-day affair. (The decisions of a primitive brain.)  The cougar hisses in the direction of the lawnmowers, showing its teeth and superb gum health (the last thought of the dental hygienist the cougar had partially digested in Wisconsin).  He runs off across a dirt road, over an embankment, deep into the brush.  The cougar feels harassed by the noise, and as an endangered specie, this is unlawful. He muses how the rebound of whitetails in North America has provided him with a sustainable life style. 

The cougar lives in an abandoned landfill site two miles from the Lawnmower Club.  He circles back, and uncovers a fresh deer carcass protected with deadfall limbs and leaf debris, a kill during the night, and eats hungrily, planning his next meal, still mentally disturbed from the noise pollution, feeling stressed deep inside his light-colored underbelly.  Perhaps exercise will do him good.  He takes a cat walk on the nature trail nearby, drinks algae-speckled water from a creek, then returns to his daybed in the landfill, stretches and yawns, then closes his green cat eyes for a nap.  He dreams of noise abatement programs first, then during his twitchy rapid-eye-movement sleep, he pounces with fatal bites to the back of the necks of the lawnmower riders.

Waking from his mid-morning nap, it’s a normal day for Bill Zitzleberger.  He stretches and yawns lazily in an old slider on his deck over the former golf clubhouse he now calls home watching the morning riders out on the fairways, drinking strong coffee, and reading captions from an old National Geographic about mountain lions (“Big Cat Initiative:  Halting the Decline of Lions in the Wild”). He yawns, baring his yellow teeth and bleeding gums; finishes his morning feeding by separating the last bite of his bran muffin from its paper doily, then decides to take a walk for his health.  He thinks about the magazine article and muses how a recolonization of mountain lions in Michigan could lead to managed sports hunting--a boon for the local economy.

A healthy eighty-five except for weight, he drags his 250-pound body over to the pole barn to check out a member’s antique lawnmower.   For such a heavy man, his feet leave soft footprints in the sand.  Zitzleberger is a shy man for his size, leads a solitary life, some would say a secretive life, as founder and general manager of the Lawnmower Club.  He is seldom aggressive except towards occasional nuisances.  Standing well over six feet tall and square-jawed, he looks like an aged Olympic wrestler, so fearsome, mothers pick up small children when he walks by. Teen-aged boys have been known to throw rocks at him.  He moves into the pole barn quietly and slow, cat-like, taking the new member by surprise.  You couldn’t say he is sleek, but has a graceful way of walking.

“Looks like a Scag,” he says.

“Yep, I’ve always had Scags, every model they ever made:  Turf Tigers, Tiger Cubs, the Saber Tooth Tiger, and the Wildcat--that one was a great cutter.”  He moves his hands lovingly over his steering wheel.

“Did you mow for a living?”

“No, like most folks I’ve met here, I lived to mow.  I’m just a residential mower, but over time, I needed a commercial grade...needed to keep moving up, one model one make at a time, you know.  Kept buying bigger properties for more grass to cut.”

“Sounds like you have lots of experience,” Zitzleberger said, looking directly at him with the eye lock of an aggressive animal, his large eyes out of proportion to his large body.

“I think I can make a lawn look better than the next guy--I take good care of the blades and the deck.  Mostly I just like the ride.  Can you believe they’re making remote control mowers now?”  The man had obviously spent a lot of time in the sun:  his face and arms are covered with sun damage and scars from melanoma surgery.

“Well, I’ve heard remotes are good for steep hills and ditches,” Ziztleberger replies, “ but  I like to haul tail on an incline myself...I’d rather die than use a weed eater.”

“You’ll see. I’m not at the end of my mowing career,” the new member says, “someday I plan to get the 61-inch Scag with a 26 horse power Kawasaki--maybe used if it looks like new and the compression test is okay.”

“Well, check the maintenance records,” Zitzleberger says.  “Make sure you have the receipts, especially for new parts.  Lawn mower parts are required in two instances:  one of them is for simple use of the machine; the other is the result of hurt.  You need to know the difference.  You can’t hurt machines--you need to treat them as well as people...better than people.”

“Sure enough.”  The two men achieve a beginner’s level of mutual respect.

“By the way,” Zitleberger says, “seeing as how you’re a new member, I just want to share my philosophy about this place.  Even though this is no longer a golf course, I want it to look good--green, lush, well-kept.  I’ll expect you to keep your shift, keep your balance on the seat, avoid spinning your tires, and if you do dig in to muddy spots or standing water, let me know so we don’t make it worse.  And let me know about sprinkler heads...I have some boys who can replace them...I just need to know.”

“I think you’ll like my mowing style,” the new member said.  “I’m a good chopper, and keep the clippings cleaned from under the deck.  I started out with a push reel mower when I was a kid, then in 1955, bought a Briggs and Stratton on a Cooper aluminum deck (back when they built ‘em in the USA)--used the engine to run my son’s Go-Kart.  My son ran it into a creek.  My son drowned, but I fished out the engine (it was under water nine hours hydro-locked) but it still runs on the first pull--still have the owner’s manual, too.  Then fifty-five years ago, I moved up to a 1962 Toro Reel with a Wisconsin engine.   I know it’s an art form--like the other people here.  I have a thing about cut grass.  Mowing is a journey with no destination.”

Zitzleberger relishes his life of freedom. Every day, except Sunday, the same.  Mowers arrive at first light to mow for a total of twelve hours in two-hour shifts.  For $10,000 a pop plus annual dues of $5,000, the mowers mount their riding machines in the pole barn (formerly used to house golf carts), and mow their assigned fairways in two-hour shifts.  With twenty-seven holes and two mowers per fairway one day per week, his total membership has reached capacity:  324 mowers.  Bill can’t believe his good fortune--his whole world perpetually filled with the smell of cut grass, the hum of engines, and the sweet fumes of lawnmower gas and oil.  From his slider on the second floor deck of the clubhouse, he can see ten members raising little dust clouds sitting fixed on their mowers, looking straight ahead like the terra cotta warriors of a Chinese emperor.  

Bill walks from one end of the vast pole barn to the other.  A membership in the lawnmower’s club includes storage.  Every model and make of lawn tractor sits in neat rows from one end to the other:  front-mounted engine models with side discharges, zero-turn radius mowers with rear-wheel steering, big rear baggers, and heavy-duty tractors. 

In the beginning, the members wanted to have meetings to make rules.  Pembrook, who liked to mow in a tweedy sports coat with arm patches, canvas hunting pants and high-laced boots while listening to Bach on a headset, complained about Finnegan who enjoyed going shirtless while he smoked a large black cigar.  Finnegan was hairy as a bear, especially his back, and he carried a large fly swatter with him and slapped them away as he drove.  Custer, on the other hand, preferred to mow barefoot in his pajamas with a wide-brimmed straw hat.    Other issues arose:  proposals for standard bench settings for cutting height, safety training and protective gear, arguments between baggers and non-baggers. The last straw:  someone proposed a social membership for non-riding walkers.  Zitzleberger shut down the meetings, only allowing one every five years, hoping he would die before the next one.

Zitzleberger returns to his slider and reclines while eyeing the large computer screen showing the GPS location of all the mowers represented by little red rectangles, two working the far edges of each fairway.  He loves the new cloud-based farm management software a salesman sold him.  He tracks all the field activities: the moisture content of each area, the topsoil and subsoil pH, and detailed logs of what was done on each fairway: de-thatching records, re-grassing projects, organic fertilization, weed, insect, and varmint control, sprinkler maintenance, and damage repair areas (no longer caused by cart tracks, ball marks, golf shoes, or temper tantrums of thrown clubs).  He has come along way since the big crisis two years ago.  He thinks how close he came to having Gloria Fitting lock him away in a zoo of a nursing home.

 Two years earlier, Zitzleberger sizzles a steak on his back patio grill, as a social worker walks into his backyard with the results of her independent living assessment. Gloria Fitting is skinny as a bean pole, her dark brown hair swept back in a bun.  Even though she is only twenty-three, she looks like an old woman.  She wears an oversized sweater and tight slacks with jogging shoes, making her body nearly unobservable other than her long-nosed face.  She hunches over slightly and looks as if she is about to be attacked by a wild animal.

Looking down at her clip board, she reads, “Mr. Zitzleberger, we have determined you are no longer fit to live here alone: you scored below acceptable limits on ADL’s.”

“What the hell is an ADL?”

“Activities of daily living--you are behind in paying your bills, you can’t prepare food properly, (looking at his mismatched button holes and sagging pants) you can’t dress, (looking around the premises) and your housekeeping is unsatisfactory.  I also discovered you don’t pay your bills in a timely fashion.”

“You just came at a bad time--I’m having a black-tie dinner party tomorrow night--too bad you’re not invited, because you have no idea how I can pull this place together when the need arises...and as far as the bills go, I’ll have to talk with my accountant (he lied like a dog)...and while I’m at it, I’ll tell him to rehire the maid (another lie) and my personal shopper (a third lie).”

Ignoring his response, Gloria Fitting goes on:  “You need to move down to Mallard Pond where people can look after you properly.  We already have a room for you with your name on it.  The Friendship Bus will be here tomorrow morning to pick you up, and some church people will come over and move some of your stuff, but not too much, because there’s not much your age, you don’t need much room.”  Zitzleberger suspects his children are behind this, called Social Services on him, because he forgets to send birthday cards.

“What about this steak?”  he says.  “If grilling a steak isn’t independent living, I don’t know what is?  And what about if I want to have sex?” (Ziztleberger enjoys shocking young innocents.)

“Mallard Pond has a special room...”

“So you’re moving me to a whorehouse?”

“You can’t stay here any longer--it’s not safe.”

“Who says?”

“I’ve reviewed your ADL with my supervisor, and we both agree an intervention is required.”   

“Who’s going to mow my lawn?” he says.  “Tell me that!”  

A widower, Zitzleberger has no mate, and his estranged family lives in remote regions of the country.  He fills his days outdoors--mowing in the summer, raking leaves in the fall, plowing his dirt road in the winter, yard cleaning in the spring.  “You have to have a reason to keep living,” he says.  “Put me in Mallard Pond, and I’ll die in a matter of weeks,” he snarls like a big cat trapped in the corner of a cage.  His eyes look wild underneath his untrimmed eyebrows, his brow furrowed, stray coarse hairs sticking out from his nose and ears.  His fists clench and his back hunches up like he might ponce on the skinny, young social worker.

“Mr Zitzleberger, you don’t have a social network.  Without close daily connections with other people, you’ll die sooner here, than living in a place with supportive ties.  I studied all about this in school--your increasing frailty correlates with dementia, depression, and heart failure. The only thing you have going for you is continence and the ability to bathe--are you still okay in those departments?  I took your word for those activities on the survey--didn’t actually observe...”

“If you want to observe me...”

“Won’t be need to moved to Mallard Pond.”

Waking from his mid-morning nap, the cougar ranges out for a morning snack.  The roosted turkeys are coming down from the treetops, feeling safety in numbers, supported by their social network and keen vision.  It’s just too easy, the cougar thinks.  He decides to chase a runner--much more sporting.  Blood, bone, feathers, and flesh.  So tasty.  He would like to bring his prize home, but he has no one to care for, he’s a lone ranger alone in the wild.  Independent living is all he knows.  If he only had someone to provide for, it would give his life meaning.  Subsistence, he thought, all I do is subsist.  Such a shallow concept. In a state of ennui, he sinks into a deep depression in the middle of a field.

Zitzleberger fights tooth and nail, hip and thigh, with all his might to stay out of Mallard Pond.  He succeeds, at least for now.  He buys a bankrupt golf club--sells the triplex mowers used to close-cut the greens, sells the golf carts (saves one for himself), the left-over merchandise, gets rid of the pop machines, the greens-keeping equipment; sells his bungalow and moves into the second-story of the club house.  He worked forty years running a home repo agency; liked the work too much; was only loved by bankers.  Now he finds his true calling, his real work, what the social worker might call “his journey.”  Who would have thought his life-long pleasure riding back and forth in neat rows would be the source of his salvation?  If he could sing, he would sing; if he could write poetry, he would write poetry--but his mind is seldom baffled by higher thinking.

In the meantime, Gloria Fitting has not given up.  She persists with her efforts to have Zitzleberger housed in Mallard Pond.  In the gloaming light of evening, she hides in the birches and watches Zitzleberger with her Zhumell Low Light Binoculars, looking through his upper story windows from an abandoned tree stand, hoping to catch him acting helpless, devoid of comfort, convenience, companionship, hopelessly out of touch with the warmth of a close-knit retirement community.  Committing Zitzleberger to Assisted Living has become her magnificent obsession.  At some level, she knows she needs therapy, but she generally doesn’t like any form of help, lives alone, and blames her parents for everything.  She is a victim, and has so little self-respect, she doesn’t even wear a tree harness in the stand.

The cougar reaches the upper level of his noise tolerance, even though he knows the decibel levels are within legal limits.  Perhaps an Anger Management Course at the local community college might have helped.  Animal instincts are insufficient for solving this problem.  He knows something, however, from the behavioral conditioning of his Wisconsin experience--through negative re-enforcement, the cougar knows killing humans can result in punishment--getting chased by cops with dogs, and potentially shot with anesthetizing darts, or even worse, hollow-point bullets.  Eating the hygienist resulted in his fugitive status; caused him to lose his native home.  He has a better plan, but he’s thankful it’s Sunday.  He wants to have a day to rest on his plan, in case he changes his mind.  Precipitous actions can lead to trouble.

Monday mornings, Finnegan wakes early, arrives ahead of time to take the first shift on his Gravely ZT, his gravelly voice whispering to the machine as he sets the choke and presses the automatic starter button.  As he exits the pole barn, something doesn’t feel right.  He opens his metal tool chest and removes his deck leveling gauge, measures the deck side-to-side and front-to-back, checks the oil, engages and disengages the mower blades, checks the anti-scalp rollers, feels the belt tension, even checks the tire pressure.  He wipes his hands with a shop towel.  Gets back on, restarts the engine, and rolls out of the pole barn. He feels more confident about the machine, but something still doesn’t feel right.  Perhaps a cigar will help.  He stops the Gravely, nips off the end of a large torpedo-shaped robusto, lights up and proceeds to his assigned mowing area.  Warmed by the rising sun, he removes his red shirt.

At about the same time, Zitzleberger is on his deck having breakfast, starring at Tony the Tiger on his box of Frosted Flakes.  He sprinkles fresh blueberries over the top of the flakes in his cereal bowl and adds milk.  Another day in paradise.  Another day of freedom.  He pours coffee, and casually looks on the computer screen.  All the red rectangles are moving, except one.  Mildly puzzled, he checks the space.  It’s Finnegan’s patch of grass, the wind waving through it like a snot green sea.  “Gee Whiz!” he says out loud.  He had talked to Finnegan before about his tendency to pee out in the open.  He grabs his binoculars to catch Finnegan in the act of relieving himself.  He has few rules, but the acid from urine left big brown spots in the grass.  Zitzleberger catches Finnegan in his field of vision zigzagging all around the fairway in big circles.  He’s going fast, like he’s being attacked...then he tips over.  Pembrook runs towards the club house, shouting in a shill soprano voice, “Finnegan’s been attacked by a wild animal!  It’s because he’s so hairy.  I told you he should wear a shirt!” 

The cougar rises before first light on Monday morning, resolved to solve the lawnmower noise problem, which has steadily climbed to the top of his “to do” list.  Although he is well-equipped to use lethal force, he has elected not do so, following Shakespeare’s admonishment to be one of “them who has the power to hurt but does none.”  He creeps through the swamp to the edge of the fairway and sees a hairy human waving a red shirt like a matador, and stinking of cigar smoke.  The cougar breathes in deeply, and lets go with a baritone growl with a bit too much vibrato (he’s out of practice).   He charges, getting up to forty-five miles per hour (how fast would I be in kilometers? he thinks), then with the thrust of his hind legs, he leaps towards Finnegan, skins the back of his neck and flies over the mower with one bound.  Finnegan opens his mouth to scream, and swallows his cigar whole.  Finnegan starts taking evasive action, then tips over but remains in his seat facing the sky with the blades whirring above him, his hands firmly grasping the steering wheel.  He howls for help in an authoritative bass, but all the mowers are frightened, their flimsy loyalties up for grabs; no one seems to know what is going on.

All in all, the cougar thought he gave a well-paced performance, especially with the intricacies of the set, and the eccentricities of the mowers.  Despite a lethargic reaction from Custer who must have been on medication, he had fully engaged the rest of the field in a mad fearful romp made up of musical body movement (like Spanish peasants dancing the Bolero in 6/8 time) connected by fascinating dialogue. He could have solved some of the coordination issues with one or two more cougars, but he had worked well within his limitations. 

From the wood’s edge, the cougar sees Zitzleberger calmly walking into the fairway where Finnegan is down laying in a stream of semi-consciousness.   Pembrook stumps around beside him.  Custer still mows as if nothing happened.  The other mowers disappear into the pole barn; some are leaving the property.  Zitzleberger carries a rifle; the cougar guesses its a 30.06 Remington pump.

Zitzleberger’s empire is threatened.  The Lawnmower Club is temporarily shutdown.  He calls the Department of Natural Resources to report a cougar siting.  He uses the tiger on his cereal box for target practice.  With every shot, the cougar ruminates about death and mortality.  “I need to be honest with myself,” he thinks.  “This was a stupid thing to do...if only the limbic impulses in my brain stem wouldn’t be so dominant.  If only my hearing wasn’t so sensitive.”  The grass on the fairways grows out of control, with only Custer continuing to mow.  Finally even he gives up, mowing his last stand on a grassy knoll.

Gloria Fitting knows something’s up.  Pembrook tells her. (He secretly wants Zitzleberger out so he can buy the club and impose a dress code.)  Her snooping activities around Zitzleberger’s property are unabated.  The TV weather reporter says this is the second full moon of August, a blue moon, a perfect night for her undercover investigations.  She knows she will prevail.  Sooner or later, she will catch him neglecting himself and she will have him committed to Mallard Pond.  “I bet he can’t even button his pants,” she smiles. This evening, she plans to collect samples from his trash bin to document his poor eating habits.  She crawls towards the back of the clubhouse, humiliated by her snake-like movements, but determined.  For some reason unknown to herself, as she approaches the building, she starts quietly hissing.

Zitzleberger is planning to go out and hunt the cougar down.  He begins to understand what Gloria Fitting meant about social ties--he misses the mowers, wants them back to restore his self-respect as the founder and general manager of the Lawnmower Club.  “My mowers and my dignity have been wounded,” he shouts through the open window, a warning for the cougar.  The night is empty and quiet, there is only the full moon in the sky.  Zitzleberger hears a faint hissing sound from his backyard. He goes into the back bedroom to look down, and sees Gloria Fitting prone by his trash bin.  He runs downstairs with his rifle, exits the back door and points the gun at her.  “All my troubles began with you!” he says.  

He can’t believe his opportunity.  He has Gloria Fitting under his control.  He can shoot her for trespassing, but he’d most likely end up in jail. He grabs a length of rope.  She looks like hell, curled up and covered with dirt, her loose sweater stained with grass, burrs sticking to her everywhere, her neat bun unraveled leaving snaky-looking strands of hair.  She’s frightened; her eyes are bloodshot.  She knows this could be her doom.  She uncurls and raises up from the ground into a yoga sitting pose; tries to pay attention to her breathing, avoid distracting thoughts like “I’m going to die soon.”  Zitzleberger tells her to stand up.  He points to the woods with his gun.  She walks before him, wobbling forward silently, already grieving the damage this may cause her career..if she lives.  Zitzleberger marches her to the top of the landfill, and ties her to a tree.  He cuts a sliver of flesh on her forearm with a pocket knife to fill the moist evening air with a scent of blood.

“You can’t do this to me!”  Gloria pleads.  “You want the cougar to kill me.  You’re going to leave me here to be eaten alive, and all I wanted to do was help you!  You won’t get away with it.  You’re going to lose your club, and as a felon, Mallard Pond will reject you.  You’re making a big mistake, mister.  You’re old and tired, and your decision-making ability is probably 4 on a scale of 10.”  Zitzleberger moves his unkempt head close to hers, stares blankly at her, gives her an evil smile, then turns towards the clubhouse.

The cougar is having difficulty sleeping under the glaring light of the full moon, his long yellow and tan form lays in the grass.  He dreams fitfully, having a nonlinear dream narrative about blackout shades. He hears Gloria Fitting crying out for help. He rises to his feet, and picks up the scent of the young woman mixed with an aroma of blood.  After cleansing his palate in a creek, he finds her tied to a tree, muttering about unresolved issues with her mother.  He moves close and gazes at her with his dilated green eyes; looks for a neutral place on her body to place his nose and tongue, resolved to make tasting notes afterwards.

She doesn’t look like a mower.  She’s small and skinny, completely unappetizing.  The cougar’s cerebral cortex has not evolved to develop well-defined categories, or other high levels of thought, but the girl does not appear to be prey.  (Just an intuitive hunch, the cougar surmises.)  A gun-toting 250-pound man, on the other hand, falls in the flight or fight region of the cougar’s well-developed cerebellum.  The cougar sees Zitzleberger lumbering in a straight line towards the Lawnmower Clubhouse, his gun pointed to the ground; the cougar vaguely knows what he does next could affect his mental health and overall quality of life.  FIGHT RESPONSE!  In the same moment, the cougar loses his introspection and peripheral vision; his large green eyes dilate as he focuses on Zitzleberger walking away from him.  All the blood in his long body goes to the muscles of his legs.  He doesn’t give Zitzleberger a sporting chance, doesn’t circle and face him down, doesn’t give him a warning growl--just leaps high into the night air as if his open jaws could swallow the moon, and breaks Zitzleberger’s neck faster than a speeding lawnmower.  



Sunday, July 8, 2012

                                                                                        Chapter Thirty-Seven
Bellingham to Ketchikan

Victoria secured her blue pup tent with sand bags to the back deck of the Marine Vessel Kennicott. Then she tied a guy line to a navigation light post.  She crawled inside with her pack, roll-up mattress, and sleeping bag.  When she looked through the tent flap a few minutes later, she saw a float plane rock against the whitecaps and break loose to the north.  A white-hooded eagle soared against the dark green shoreline with a large fish in its talons. Mount Baker and the North Cascade Mountains backdropped the harbor to the east.  Victoria took a deep breath and smelled the salt air; finally, she was on her way to Dutch Harbor.
After her long car trip from Michigan, she relaxed at the thought of floating the Alaska Marine Highway.  Her epiphany in New Mexico and her two-day stopover in Santa Cruz set her in a new frame of mind, a new appreciation for present experience, and a loosening of her tight steering wheel grip on living.   Even though the Kennicott could hold cars, she decided to leave the Honda in Bellingham, because there was really no place to drive along her route.  She would travel 3500 miles by water to Dutch Harbor through the Inside Passage, across the Gulf of Alaska and along the Aleutian Chain. No more driving for a long while.  Her first stop would be Ketchikan--38 hours away.  She missed Scratchy.  Victoria had given Nick a two-page list of instructions for taking care of Scratchy: regular brushing, trips to the groomer, intervals for changing the litter box, and the phone number of a local veterinarian.  She bought a magnet, and posted the instructions on her father’s refrigerator.
Just a few feet to her left, another tent, a bright orange one, had just been placed, and Victoria could hear someone rummaging around inside, zipping sounds, mumbling, and a loud, “Ouch!”  A few minutes later, a young man popped his windburned head out of the tent fly, and raised his nose like an animal reading the wind.  He looked over at her, and gave her an enthusiastic and reassuring smile.  “My name’s, Chris Caldwell.  What’s yours?”
Astounded at his directness, Victoria just said, “Victoria.”
“Well glad to meet you, Victoria.  You have a very proper name.  Is that what you go by or do people call you ‘Vicky’ or ‘Tory’ or something less formal?”
“No, people call me Victoria,” and she added, “I drove out here from Michigan in my car.”   
“Never owned a car.  I have a bicycle below.  I’m into bicycles.  Bicycles saved my butt--moved from an all-night crowd to a keep-fit crowd.  I design and manufacture custom bicycle wheels in Portland--humming perfect wheels.  I ride every day, except when I’m on boats, of course, and I fly float planes for a hobby.  What do you do?”
“I used to work in quality control at a paperboard mill, but I’ve been laid now I’m not quite sure what to do next.  I like to create things like you do...I make hand-crafted paper.”
“Craft papermaking...sounds like fun.”  Chris proceeded to ask her to explain the processes she used, and kept asking more questions.  He seemed sincerely interested in her hobby, and looked right at her when she talked.  His intensity struck Victoria as genuine, but she wasn’t used to this kind of attention--a new experience, having someone wrapped around her interests.
She looked him over.  Chris looked about five foot eleven and 160 pounds with a long torso and muscular legs, about her age.  He was lean, and when he stood up, he looked as straight as a redwood tree.  He had short, sandy hair, ice blue eyes, and an angular jaw, a more handsome and much leaner version of a Route 66 giant.  He wore a light blue rain jacket with a hood and canvas khaki cargo pants.  He seemed to have a permanent smile and animated face.
Victoria liked Chris, and Chris liked Victoria.  Victoria knew Chris was special after only a few minutes of conversation--he was likable, looked just right to her, and spoke in respectful tones beyond the words; she could see herself forgiving all his unknown flaws, giving him the benefit of any doubts.  They became friends effortlessly, especially since Victoria’s habitual guards were down, and Chris never really had any--he seemed to be free of hang-ups or expectations, just there: calm, warm, unassuming.  He stunned Victoria; she felt he made sense. 
When he talked about his bicycle wheel business, she understood his language--building quality into the design, sourcing for the best, most durable components, overcoming bottlenecks in the assembly process, creating marketing and distribution channels.  His enthusiasm for what he called his life work inspired Victoria.  Chris lived in his own way, he worked hard and had fun at the same time.  Like Victoria, he loved detail.  He could talk for an hour about bicycle construction in his relaxed manner, and he used his expressive face and large hands for emphasis.  To listen to Chris, you had to believe bicycles had souls.  He described himself as a wheel builder--a craft manufacturer of bespoke wheels.
Both of them were headed for the same destination:  Dutch Harbor.  Chris wanted to go for much the same reason as Victoria:  because it was there, and he was also a big Deadliest Catch  fan.  From Bellingham, the MV Kennicott plowed northwest through the Inside Passage to Ketchikan.  Their itinerary would take them from Ketchikan to Juneau to Yakutat to Whittier to Chenega Bay to Homer to Kodiak Island.  Once they arrived in Kodiak, they would switch ferries to the MV Tustumena (“Rusty Tusty”), then travel two days further to Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island, and the neighboring Unalaska Island.  Located where the currents of the North Pacific meet the Bering Sea, Dutch Harbor was the largest fisheries port in the United States.
Chris also viewed Dutch Harbor as an exciting place to visit, but for different reasons.  In addition to cycling, Chris loved to fly, and he had scheduled some air time at the seaplane base.   He belonged to a flying club in Portland, and flew a Piper seaplane once a week.  Victoria told him how she wanted to see the Dutch Harbor crabbing fleet featured on the Deadliest Catch;  how she hoped to see the wheelhouses of one of the featured vessels--Cornelia Marie, Wizard, Northwestern, or Time Bandit, and imagine the crew ducking the heavy crab pots with the gale-force winds of October lashing over the decks. Chris thought this was a fine idea, although he had never watched a single episode.
The first morning, Chris and Victoria went below decks for coffee, and then returned on deck with Chris’ thermos.  From the open deck, they watched for whales, porpoise, seals, otters, and eagles; when it rained they would go to the forward lounge.  About nine o’clock, they walked through the self-serve food court for breakfast.  Later in the day, passengers provided musical entertainment on their guitars or harmonicas. They attended a talk by the Forest Service.  Before dinner, they used the showers on board.  Passengers thought they were a couple, and this amused them.  She felt so comfortable around Chris.  He seemed kind and harmless, and so relaxed.
The second day was cold, foggy, and rainy, so Chris invited Victoria into his tent.  Compared to the inside of her tent, Chris’ tent was a picture of order:  all his gear was neatly stacked, a pile of cycling magazines lay in a corner, a small battery-lit lantern hung from a loop in the ceiling; he even had a draw-string laundry bag for his dirty clothes.  They talked about what they might do on their overnight stop in Ketchikan.  When the wheelhouse announced a whale sighting, they pulled on their rain jackets and went out to the rail.  As Victoria tried to focus her binoculars, Chris spotted a spout off the stern, pointed his long arms for her to follow, and she turned in time to see huge flukes splash the water.
They were floating through a fairyland where each new scene was even more beautiful than the last.  If it were not for the briny smell in the air, they would not know they were sailing on a salt ocean.  There were thousands of islands with lush evergreens disappearing into the mist.  With the rain, the view from the deck was an ethereal blend of light and shade, making every feature look fine and tender.  Victoria looked at all of what she saw in wonderment, very different from Route 66; everything so new and different to her wide eyes.  Even though Chris had never been in this part of the world, he seemed to grasp everything in advance, like he was her personal guide.  The former Victoria would have questioned how much the novelty and excitement of the voyage was affecting her judgment of Chris, but at the moment, she had no doubts:  he was decent, funny, down-to-earth, and attractive--period.  
The boat glided into a narrow channel with trees lining the shores. With distant views blocked by weather, Chris and Victoria looked at what was directly before their eyes.  With the steep slopes, every tree seemed to be rising above the one below like people sitting in a theater--blue-green and yellow-green spruces with the brown-green cedars blending harmoniously with mosses and lichens on their branches, then dropping to bushes at the water’s edge.  They passed so close, they could see the purple cones on the spruces.  Every once in while, they could see patches of paler green dogwood and alder; sometimes fringing cascading streams emerging white into the blue waters of the channel. 
Every once in a while, ducks would fly over them, or they would hear the cry of a loon in the distance.  From a pine spar, an eagle dressed its feathers, as if it had nothing else in the world to do.  As the two travelers sat or stood on the deck hour after hour, a certain unspoken intimacy developed, and one evening before dark, Chris placed his arm around Victoria’s shoulder and pulled her closer, and Victoria found herself leaning against him comfortably, feeling his warmth against the night air.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Chapter Thirty-Six
The Mother Road
As Zizi and Nick were seeing more of each other all the time, Victoria began to think more often about how long she intended to stay with her father.  She had moved over to the boathouse, where Zizi had stayed the first night they met, and like Zizi, she felt like a guest there.  The pressure to find a new job had disappeared with her new wealth, but she still didn’t know what to do with her life away from the paperboard mill, and her quest to find, or even to define “home,” was not satisfied by visiting her father.  She loved her father, but her father’s place was an unhomelike home. 
When Victoria was young, there were few family vacations or long road trips; Nick did not like crowds, and he had seen more than enough of the wide world during his military service.  Victoria contemplated the possibility of getting away on a long trip--she had a car, cash, and lots of time.  On the way back from their meeting with the lawyer in Grand Rapids, Zizi had playfully suggested Victoria go to Alaska.  Victoria was an avid follower of Deadliest Catch, right from its first episode.  Dutch Harbor seemed dangerous and romantic; she could almost feel the icy saltwater spray coming over the decks as she watched, and smell the fresh-caught King Crab in the holds.  The crews seemed to live free and exhilarating lives, unlike her own.  Perhaps a visit to a faraway place would help her find herself, pull her out of her self-imposed, flatline dullness.  Maybe she would meet some handsome, bearded, crab-fishing Alaskan, someone like Scott Campbell, a.k.a. Junior, Captain of the Seabrooke on Deadliest Catch, who would sweep her off her feet, not take “no” for an answer, and let her join him in the wheelhouse, and live in a cabin by the sea, and watch large brown bears eat salmon in a nearby stream.  So, as impulsively as she had uncharacteristically rented the pontoon boat to visit her father at Devil’s Elbow, Victoria decided to drive to the West Coast, catch a marine ferry to Alaska, and follow the Aleutian Chain to Dutch Harbor, a series of solo hops into the unknown.  At the edge of her unhappiness, she felt a need to change her environment, her outer world, and perhaps turn her inner world inside out to a fuller expression of life, something bolder and braver.  Her fear of change (so deep within her) still sat on her chest like an unattended marble headstone.
Always practical, Victoria mapped out a travel plan to cover parts of the country new to her, and this included most everywhere.  She decided to drive Rt. 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, and then turn north to catch a marine ferry to Alaska in Bellingham, Washington. When she informed Nick of her plans, he was enthused for her and helped with her preparations.  He suggested Victoria return from Alaska to Michigan on a different, more northerly route, so she could visit her older sister, Anne, in Montana.  He bought her a Garmin GPS for the car.  Zizi went shopping with her at a local outfitter, and she bought a raincoat with a hood,  a windbreaker, sleeveless and long-sleeved tops, two sweaters, two bras, slacks, hiking boots, a floppy hat to protect her from the sun, bug spray, suntan lotion,  a backpack, binoculars, and a digital camera.  Victoria wanted to buy a fanny pack, but Zizi said, “no.”  Zizi wanted her to buy sexy underpants, but Victoria said, “no.”
The day she embarked on her journey, Stretch came over for breakfast with Flash, and everyone gave her a cheerful send-off, except for Scratchy who had no interest in travel.  Stretch supplied her with his homemade trail mix for the journey--Texas pecans covered with local maple syrup, both dark and light chocolate, and Michigan-grown dried fruit.  She felt the cold metal of the eagle keyring as she turned on the ignition.  This trip is for me and for you, Tom, she thought.  By the end of the first day, she had connected with the beginning of Rt. 66, the Mother Road, on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and stopped for lunch at a White Castle, eating her first sliders. The enormity of the city widened her eyes, and the traffic kept her alert and on the move. 
Compared to her first response to the layoff at the mill, when she could hardly manage to change positions from the window to the chair to the bedroom, she was now in motion, at least physically; she was traveling down a rolling highway, the first two-lane Main Street of America.  Whether or not her mind and heart would open to new possibilities and experience this odyssey as an adventure and opportunity for growth, remained to be seen.
The evening of the first day, Victoria managed to visit the Joliet Museum’s Route 66 Welcome Center where she purchased a white porcelain coffee mug emblazoned with the famous “Route 66” highway sign.  Over the next seven days, Victoria took her time moving back and forth between the remnants of the highway’s two- and -four-lane roads, finding the original brick sections, stopping to see the classic fiberglas figures along the route: the iconic, humanoid Muffler Men, over twenty foot tall statues with a steely gaze, lantern jaws, broad shoulders, and big blocky shoes:  Bunyan,  the Gemini Giant holding his model rocket,  Cowboy “Sam” with his Stetson, Dude Man, the Indian, the Gas Station Attendant, Golfer, and Hamburger Man.  Victoria was absolutely dumbfounded by the sights along the road; she looked at them with the eyes of a young child; as if the objects along the road, many so old, so long-neglected, were new and erected just for her.  Rather than run-down, Victoria viewed it all as beautiful and refreshing.
She had her picture taken sitting on two enormous rabbits at either end of the trip:  one at Henry’s Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, Illinois, and the other at the Jack Rabbit Trading Post between the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest in Arizona.  She photographed a 1932 gas station, world’s largest catsup bottle, a thirty-foot high Abraham Lincoln beside a wagon; ate lunch at the Cozy Dog Drive-In, visited the Pig Hip Museum, and found huge turkey tracks in the concrete on an abandoned strip of the original road.  She loved driving by the classic drive-in theaters, and having chicken dinners at places like the Ariston Cafe, a 1930’s roadside diner in Litchfield, Illinois, a place whose sign reminded her of Mikage’s plan for her future restaurant.  (The tag line under Ariston Cafe’s sign read: “Serving local patrons and international travelers)
Her zigzag journey and all the strange and colorful sights contrasted starkly with her life up to this point, a life represented more like a sequence of dots on an endless straight line leading eventually to death; other than the passing of her mother, a distant concept she could not fathom and chose not to think about too hard.  Even though she followed dots on a map, the dots jumped up and down, turned her backwards at times; down bumpy, dirt roads, brick roads, as well as smooth asphalt ones with brightly-colored passing lanes.  The roads led to interesting places filled with eccentric people doing strange things, like the man at Henry’s Rabbit Ranch who took her picture sitting on the giant rabbit, then gave her a tour of his rabbit cemetery while selling car insurance to a local teenager on the phone. 
 On her approach to Albuquerque, she passed vintage motels on Central Avenue, the country’s longest main street, a welcome respite for weary travels decades ago who found a place to sleep after driving a 100 miles from Santa Rosa, the last stopover on the route.  Many of the motels were in danger of the wrecking ball with weeds growing up over the doors and windows, but tired of staying in Motel Six’s, Super 8’s, and Hampton Inns, Victoria searched for a classic old motel where she could spend the night.  Her guidebook showed the Aztec Motel, but when she arrived at the address, it was just a pile of rubble, reminding her of the discarded mountain of aluminum walkers she had discovered in the nursing home after her last visit to Cal and Tom.  
She happily found the El Vado Motel, a Route 66 treasure, rescued by the city in 2008 for preservation.  All the old rundown segments of the avenue were under pressure to be torn down, and replaced with shops, condos, upscale apartments, restaurant franchises, and coffee joints.  While the El Vado was still closed to the public, Victoria stood motionless, and looked through the chain link fence to see the adobe cabins lining the motor court, and its magnificent neon sign of an Indian woman haloed in a circular rainbow of yellows, reds, and blues.  She lingered for a long time in the darkness before moving on, frustrated she could not find a place to stay even for one night, still feeling homeless.
Victoria kept driving through Albuquerque to Gallup, and stayed in her first and only five-star hotel of the trip--El Rancho Hotel, built in 1937 as a watering hole for movie stars who arrived on Santa Fe Railroad trains to film “cowboy” movies.  When she arrived at her room, Humphrey Bogart’s name adorned the door; the luxurious room opened to a patio looking out on a large pool. Even though Victoria had over $25 million dollars in the bank, she asked for the AAA discount, and haggled over the price of the room--over $100 for the night.  She was dead tired, disappointed she couldn’t find a place to stay in Albuquerque, nearly faint from hunger, and vaguely depressed.
Victoria watched children and their parents play in the water of the pool outside her patio door, and she began to feel lonely for the first time after all the long hours of the trip.  She removed her travel clothes, let them drop to the floor, and before showering for dinner, sat on a bath towel on a chair near her bed, with nothing on and nothing on her mind.  Over the long trip, and weeks away from her daily routines, she had exhausted her defenses and thought herself out.  At this moment, she arrived at point zero in her life; something inside let go like a tightly-coiled spring breaking her reserved, unassertive, prim and proper, essentially Victorian self into small pieces.
She slowly looked down the length of her tall frame to her naked feet with new eyes, and observed her body as good, beautiful, created; even her big feet were deserving of love.  She ran her hands down her quiet, deep-breathing chest, stomach, legs, and touched her angles and curves with interest, as if she were touching herself for the first time, her hands moving like a stranger’s hands over a slumbering, feminine body.  Her limbs no longer felt awkward; they seemed to fit together just fine, in harmony and beauty, and impressed her as worthy of nurture and even praise. Victoria could feel her heart beat quicken, and a warmth and tingling in her liquefying skin; faint stirrings of arousal and desire.  
When she rose to take a shower, she felt more coordinated in her movements, more erect.  When the warm water beads bounced lightly against her in the shower, she finally arrived at a physical, mental, and emotional intersection, a point of steamy inner and outer inertia.  Forward movement could now proceed, slowly, but deliberately, like a train leaving a station, or a plane powering up the engines before take-off.  For the first time since her mother died, since she lost her home, since she lost her job, she felt a new, but pleasing pressure, a light-hearted yearning for a missing piece of something or someone.  Like a war soldier bivouacked for the winter in a deep forest without the charge and retreat of battle, Victoria was now ready to move out from her walled-off cloister into the dust and heat of mainstream life for triumph or defeat.  She thought of Zizi’s motto:  “Think positive, you can do it!”  
She walked down to the dining room and bar, and at first, she noticed only couples, but then she turned to a baby googling at her.  She smiled back at the baby, and then engaged the parents in conversation, exchanging travel chitchat with them, and asked to hold the baby.  Victoria had always thought “small talk” a waste of time, but she actually enjoyed hearing the couple talk about their first trip along Route 66--what they saw on the road, where they stayed, what they ate.  She went over to the bar, and started talking with two oddly-dressed men who turned out to be golfers.  Victoria had never played golf, but the two men were not reticent about explaining the sport to her:  the terms, the rules, the challenges of the fairways, sand traps, and rough; the practice and skills required, the equipment, the gadgets, the thrill of competition and the frustrations of the game.  Victoria had never won nor lost anything in her life beyond a board game.  She talked with the two men for two hours over beer and whiskey, her debut into the world of social give and take.  She even laughed at jokes she could not understand; she wasn’t even offended when one of the golfers called her, “Vicky.”  She felt incomplete and whole at the same time, as the weight of being “Victoria” drifted away unnoticed.   Back in her room, she looked out and up to the unthinking moon and stars, her mind attaching no adjectives to them; unfiltered by mental cobwebs to trap and alter what she sensed not only with her eyes, but through her entire body.  The moon and stars were simply moon and stars, and she was simply a woman.  
By the time she completed her Route 66 journey, she had driven over 2,500 miles through eight states:  Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally, California to the road’s end, a few blocks from the Santa Monica Pier.  After a night in a motel on Manhattan Beach, she drove Rt. 101 up to Gilroy, then over to Santa Cruz, and checked into a motel on the ocean for two nights of rest and relaxation.  She was close to her point of embarkation, but now she wanted to let her new way of being sink in without the press of travel.  This prisoner of time and measurement allowed herself to get off schedule.  
In the morning of her first day in Santa Cruz, she walked the same beach where Mikage had met Axel many years before.  She talked with people, played with small children, bought Bay Shrimp in a paper tray at Stagnaro’s, and visited the amusement park.  In the afternoon, she walked into a book store and browsed the shelves; purchased a used novel, and read on her patio in a reclining lawn chair overlooking the Pacific.  Like a neglected book standing for years on an upper shelf, she removed the dust jacket from her shelved life, and began to turn the pages.  The first evening, she bought a pre-paid phone card, and called her father to let him know how she was doing  She asked to speak to Zizi. 
“Zizi, this is Victoria.”
“How have you been?”
“I changed.”
“I stopped thinking and started breathing, and then I lost control...the chaos in my mind exploded and what was left...well, I feel free...beautiful and free.  Maybe these feelings won’t last, but it doesn’t matter, because this is how I feel today.”
“What are you going to next?”
“Rejoice...and make new friends on this trip...and I’m going to take it easy and not worry about the future, and I’ll buy a cell phone so we can the way, how are things going with you... and my father?”
“I love him, but I still cannot shake off my past...he may get tired from me, but so far he is very patient.”
“He’ll wait until you’re ready...what ever you’re facing, you will not face it alone.  Remember the advice you give to us, ‘Think positive, you can do it.’”
“ I will...good-bye.”
 Two days later, the new Victoria arrived in Bellingham, refreshed and ready for adventure, like a feather about to be carried away by the wind.