Sunday, November 21, 2004

Bad Trip in Houston

It was 1982. I noticed her when I boarded the airplane in Los Angeles. She was sitting near the front of the coach cabin. “Hm,” I thought. I moved toward the back of the cabin, holding the image of her face in my mind. I was tired, and fell asleep as the Boeing taxied out. Upon waking an hour into the flight, I watched for her, thinking she would surely leave her seat at least once on the flight to Houston. However, she never revealed herself until we landed and taxied into the gate, when I caught the merest glimpse of her as she exited. “Yeah, right,” I thought to myself. “Like you’d make a point of introducing yourself to her.”

And yeah, at the age of twenty-six, I probably wouldn’t have broken that ice, even given the opportunity. I’d always had a shy streak around women I didn’t know, and the fatigue I felt just made things all the worse.

I’ve usually brought along only carry-ons during my airline travels, but I'd checked a duffle bag on that flight. I sleepily walked to the baggage claim area, still seeing the image of the woman’s face in my mind.

Standing in baggage claim, I looked through the crowd to my left. There she was! My pulse quickened, and I suddenly felt very much awake. “Go talk to her,” I thought to myself. “She’ll just think I’m another dork, trying to pick her up,” the defeatist part of me answered. “Aw c’mon,” I thought to myself, “she might actually be glad to meet you. Are you really going to let this moment go by without ever knowing?”

I looked her way again. She was about thirty feet away, looking at the baggage conveyer, waiting. She wore glasses, had medium-brown hair, wore a simple green dress, and looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties. She didn’t appear to wear a wedding ring. I had a feeling, as I looked at her, that I’d met her before, although I knew I hadn’t. “Of course,” I said to myself, “she’s your Fantasy Librarian.” Ah yes, my fantasy librarian: I’d long felt drawn to women who had that plain-at-first-glance-until-the-glasses-come-off look. And, there was something else, something I could use in the argument with Mr. Defeatist.

“She’s tall,” I thought to myself. Actually, she was quite tall. “Hey,” I admonished Mr. Defeatist, “she might be delighted to meet a taller guy.” That did it. It was time to gather my resolve and quit being such a chicken. I glanced her way again. By this time, more people had collected their baggage and moved away, so I had a mostly clear view of her.

Whoa! Did I see what I thought I saw? Did she really meet my eyes and smile at me? Wow! “Maybe she was looking at someone else,” Mr. Defeatist chimed in. “Shut the hell up,” I told Mr. Defeatist. I looked at her again. She was looking for her baggage, not at me. “See, ya dork,” came that grating inner voice again, “she wasn’t looking at you. It was wishful thinking, hombre.” I willed myself to look her way again. She was talking to an elderly lady. Her facial expressions, and body language, prompted the thought, “She’s not only good-looking, she’s kind.”

Sheesh, I was melting in place. Was she too good to be true?

I looked at the conveyer again, although by this time I’d nearly forgotten what my bag looked like. Once again, I glanced her way. Then she looked my way, met my eyes, and smiled. Willing myself not to enter the geek mode, I smiled back then forced myself to wave. She waved back. SHE WAVED BACK!!

I thought, “Dammit Hal, quit acting like you’re fifteen years old and GO TALK TO HER!”

Meanwhile, more people had moved between my position and where she stood. I would have to zig and zag a bit to get to her position. “It’s now or never,” I told myself. I did an abrupt 180 degree turn on my heel, and adopting my best yes I’m suave, debonair, and you’ll be so glad to meet me stride, I began my mission.

I didn’t see the pile of baggage until it was too late. I was so intent on casting off my chicken ways that I was hardly aware of anything but her. Sadly, I hadn’t made more than three or four masterful yes I’m suave, debonair, and you’ll be so glad to meet me strides before I found myself falling, with my legs mired from ankles to knees in a sea of baggage. Everything went into slow motion. (You knew I would tell you that, didn’t you?) Then, I saw the paper cup of coffee on the floor. My navel was on a direct course to that cup of coffee. “This is not happening,” I thought. It was happening.

As I smacked onto the floor, facedown, I learned something. That “something” was that navels are quite sensitive to abrupt changes in temperature. I learned this when my navel crushed the cup of coffee. I jumped back off the floor. Several feet off the floor, or so it seemed. “YEEEEEEOWWWWW!” I bellowed. People moved away from me, looking frightened. As I then gathered myself, a few people timidly approached me, asking "Are you okay?" Holding my shirt away from my abdomen, I assured them that yes, I was okay, other than a scalded navel.

I could feel myself blushing, wondering if blushing could be fatal, but I hadn’t forgotten my librarian. I looked to where she had stood. Gone! Then I spotted my bag. I scampered to pick it up, and rushed away from the baggage claim area, ready to resume my mission. I scurried toward the exits, looking for her. Then, I spotted her as she walked out of a restroom. She looked at me, looked at my coffee-stained tan shirt, and began laughing. Laughing hard. Laughing very hard. I began to walk toward her, but she held her hand up in a way that signaled, unmistakably, “Don’t even.” I stood in place, with only my scalded navel for company, and watched her leave the building.

Oh well. Maybe she wasn’t so kind after all.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Adios, Thibodeaux

A name has been changed to protect the guilty.

In 1979, soon after leaving the Army, I moved to the Beaumont, Texas area. I bought a little house at the end of a gravel street in a quiet neighborhood. Soon after I moved in, a fellow from across the street came over. “Howdy, neighbor,” he nearly shouted, “I’m Robert Thibodeaux, and it’s sure nice to meet you.” I shook hands with my neighbor, and he proceeded to tell me about his life.

Robert described himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool coonass.” (“Coonass” is a nickname that the Cajuns of south Louisiana often use to identify themselves. Many don't consider it a slur.) He’d grown up in south Louisiana, married his high school sweetheart, and fathered three children. Southeast Texas was as far from his birthplace as he’d ever been. Robert told me of his life, a life in which hunting, fishing, and family were the focus.

An hour later, with a silly little smile that never went away, Robert continued to tell me about his life.

Two hours later, Robert showed no signs that he might slow down.

Two hours and ten minutes later, I told Robert that I needed to go into town. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the reason I needed to go into town was to get away from him. I shook his hand once more, and left hurriedly, with a dull, tenacious headache in the making.

In the ensuing months, Robert never knocked on my door, but if he spotted me outside the house, I could usually count on at hearing at least an hour of stories about his life. He was a nice guy and a good man, but not the most dynamic fellow in the world. At twenty-three, I tended to socialize with people based on their entertainment value, and whether they were “good” didn’t carry nearly as much weight as whether they could make me laugh. I didn’t relate comfortably to people without a shot or two of Cuervo to thaw my shyness, and Robert didn’t drink. When I’d offer him a beer, he politely declined, saying that he had nothing against a beer or two now and then, but that his wife strongly disapproved.

A year and a half passed. I was out mowing the front lawn, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Robert start from his house, heading in my direction. I had to suppress an urge to cringe. If Robert stayed true to form, I’d be lucky to resume mowing before dark. As he drew close, he called out “Howdy neighbor,” over the din of the lawnmower. I managed to avoid rolling my eyes—I never wanted to hurt Robert’s feelings, after all—then shut down the lawnmower and said, “Hello, Robert.”

He looked concerned. Very concerned. “Say, my wife said she saw people looking at your house the other day. You selling?” “No,” I answered, “I’m renting the place out. I’m moving to Austin.” Robert looked stricken. I suspect at that moment he feared for my ruin: I’d move to Austin, listen to all of that hippy music, get heavily involved with drugs, and walk around naked in front of small children on the beaches of Lake Travis. He looked as if his favorite cousin was moving away, not some guy from California who'd made a hobby of avoiding him. For once, he didn’t seem in the mood to talk. He stuck out his hand, and said, “I’m going to miss you, Neighbor.” I chuckled. “Not so fast, Robert. I’ll be here for another month.” “Well, just the same, you take care living in that big city.” Poor Robert. In his eyes, I was leaving southeast Texas and moving to the City of Sodom.

A month later, Robert came over when he saw the U-Haul truck in my driveway. “Howdy Neighbor. I guess you weren’t joking about moving away, huh?” He asked me if I needed help. It occurred to me that I should really make one last sincere effort to be neighborly. “Hey,” I said, “I made some honest-to-goodness fresh-squeezed lemonade. You want some?” We sat on chairs on the front porch, where his wife could call for him if she wanted, and chatted for a half hour, awfully brief for Robert. He stood. “Are you sure you don’t need any help?” “Nah. Thanks a lot for asking, Robert, but a couple of friends are coming over to help me. You don’t want to be around them. They’re real heathens, and you’ll get in trouble with your wife for sure.” He laughed. I laughed. We shook hands, and he bid me farewell.

My, ahem, friends never showed up.

Shortly after midnight, I’d loaded the contents my bachelor household into the U-Haul, save for one item: the sofa. I decided to take a break, and walked out the front door, where I promptly slipped off the edge of the sidewalk leading from the porch, twisting my ankle.

I fell to the grass. I sat up. My ankle hurt like hell. A sprained ankle surely didn’t fit into the game plan—the renters were hoping to begin moving in the next day (actually later that day, since it was after midnight), and I really didn’t want to pay for another day’s rental on the U-Haul. I stood up. I could walk, but if loading that sofa had looked like a daunting task before, now it seemed nearly impossible. I hobbled back inside and stared at my adversary, the couch.

I think I jumped a foot off of the floor when I heard “Howdy, neighbor” behind me. There stood Robert at my open front door. “Hey Robert, it’s one in the morning. What are you doing up?” He answered, “I got up to use the bathroom, and saw that your lights were still on. Looks like your friends didn’t show up, huh?” “They’re probably still at the bar,” I answered. He chuckled. “The life of the single man, huh? That all that’s left?” he asked, pointing at the sofa. “That’s it,” I replied. Robert helped me move the sofa into the U-Haul. It was big and heavy, and loading it into the truck proved to be quite a task, even with Robert’s help.

We finished, and he noticed the cooler sitting in the carport. “Got any beer in there?” he inquired. Now, that surprised me. “Why Robert, wouldn’t that get you in trouble with your better half?” I asked. “Aw heck, it’s a special occasion, Neighbor. Besides, she won’t be mad at me that long.” I fished two beers out of the cooler. We sat on plastic chairs on my front lawn, drinking beer and talking in the warm late summer night. “How ‘bout another?” he asked. I replied, “You sure? I don’t want to be accused of corrupting you.” We both laughed. I got two more out of the cooler. After the second beer, Robert started with his hunting, fishing, and family stories. I realized, after a few minutes, that it was if I’d never heard his stories before. Something was so, well, different about his stories, sitting there on my front lawn in the night. Was it the way he was telling them, or the way I was hearing them?

I laughed my ass off. Robert was incredibly funny. How had I missed the richness of his stories, and the fact that he had the delivery and timing of a born comedian? Was it a Twilight Zone sort of thing?

He stood up from his chair. “Well, better get a little more sleep before it’s time to go to work,” he said. I stood as well. We shook hands, and Robert said, “Be careful in that big city, Hal. Watch who you trust.” It was the first time, as far as I remembered, that he called me by my name. “Thanks a whole lot for the help,” I said, “you’ve saved my life.” “Nah, just your ankle,” he chuckled. He again stuck out his hand. “Goodbye, Neighbor.” “Goodbye, Robert.”

He turned back toward his house. Suddenly, I felt the urge to call out, “Hey, you sure you don’t want another beer?” I envisioned more stories on the front lawn, sitting on plastic chairs in the warm late summer night. Talking. Laughing. Being neighbors. But I didn’t call after him. I watched as he walked back to his home, and his family.

I slept for two hours on the living room floor, and woke up well before dawn. I took a quick shower, dressed, and looked about the house one last time. I drove the U-Haul slowly down the street. I stopped the truck abeam Robert’s house.

“Adios, Thibodeaux,” I said aloud, softly.

I never saw Robert again.

Friday, April 02, 2004

A Bus in Sydney, 1991

I'd arrived in Australia with a bad cold, and combined with jet lag that lingered longer than usual, I felt awful. So, although I'm a bit of a people-watcher, it wasn't surprising that I hardly noticed her when she boarded the bus. She moved past me in the aisle, and took a seat in the side-facing row opposite mine. She'd moved a couple of seats farther to the rear than my position, so we were fairly close to one another, but not directly opposite.

The bus was mostly empty, so I happened to be the closest fellow passenger. I glanced her way. She wore a long, tan linen skirt, a brown blouse, a tweed jacket, and white walking shoes. Her hair was chestnut-colored, with streaks of gray. She had a soft, plain, oval-shaped face, one that didn't clearly convey a certain age. She could have been thirty-five; she could have been fifty. She looked tired, and I guessed that she felt no desire to begin a conversation.

A busload of college guys might hardly have noticed her, but the more I glanced at her face (discreetly, I hoped), the more I felt drawn to it. She had an intelligent, but unassuming air about her, as well as a modest dignity. I noticed the crow's feet around her eyes, the laugh lines, the small scar on her right cheekbone, and the tiny mole below her left ear. Suddenly, I worried that I might be too obvious. ("Most women like to be noticed," my sister once informed me, "but not so much that they feel threatened.") Feeling self-conscious, I forced myself to look down at the floor. I closed my eyes, and soon began to spar with an unwanted nap. One of those strange half dream/half daydream bouts soon commenced, in which I saw myself sitting with her in a cafe, a newfound friend from half the world away. We shared coffee, and I listened to funny stories about her husband and children, her growing up years, her first love, her friends, her life. Then, someone on the bus went into a coughing fit, and I came out of my trance feeling vaguely unsettled, as if I'd invaded her privacy by conjuring up such a vision.

When I glanced at her again, I noticed that she had meanwhile closed her eyes. I now studied her face more intently, a face that promised the telling of so many stories, so many observations about life. I saw love and loss, laughter and sadness, joy and sorrow, all at once. I didn't feel attracted to her so much as fascinated by her, and strangely comforted by her presence. Still, as I gained a familiarity with her appearance, I grew aware of a subtle, graceful beauty that wasn't apparent at first, a beauty that seemed veiled in world-weariness. I yearned to talk to her, to learn of her loves and losses and triumphs and tragedies. But then, the bus began to slow, and her eyes suddenly opened. I failed to avert my gaze quickly enough, and she caught me studying her. "Oh great," I thought, "I've just entered the 'gawking geek' zone." Her expression betrayed no reaction whatsoever. I felt mildly relieved, but still embarrassed. She gathered her bag, then leaned forward in the seat, preparing to disembark.

Having been "caught," I again looked at the floor, although I very much wanted to look at her one last time. Her feet stopped in front of me. "Oh no," I thought, "Mr. Discreet is about to get a lecture." Prepared to offer a preemptive apology, I was instead startled when she gently bumped me on the shoulder with the back of her hand. I looked up, into her eyes. They had a twinkle to them, and she offered a smile that harbored no hint of reproach.

Saying nothing, but still smiling, she moved to the door of the bus. She then looked my way one last time. "Bye, Yank," she said. Startled anew, I couldn't seem to say anything in response, but I did manage to return a smile. Then she stepped down from the bus, and walked away from me, back to her life.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Trout, Love & Tenderness

In 1982, I lived in Austin, Texas. It was the sort of place that seemed to offer me, a single twenty-five year old guy, an extended pit-stop in the journey of life--a chance to hide from loneliness, from responsibility, from myself.

One night, I sat at home, feeling dejected. An English woman I'd been seeing had just dumped me. Her former live-in boyfriend, who’d dumped her, had resurfaced. He was in, I was out. As the evening wore on, cabin fever set in, and I aimlessly headed into the evening for a few "I'm sorry for myself" beers. I walked about a mile from my house to a mall, where I found myself in front of a tavern I'd never visited before. There was a sign in front announcing, "Tonight only, Trout Fishing in America." I read the sign again, thinking, "Trout Fishing in America?" I started to walk away. I stopped. I turned around, walked back to the bar, and went in.

The first sign that the evening might develop into something memorable came when I bumped into a guy with long blond hair, walking to the stage holding a guitar. Nothing unusual in that, except that I'm six-four, and I found myself about eye-level with his Adam's apple. Then another guy, seemingly two feet shorter than the blond guitarist, walked to the stage where his upright bass stood waiting. "Hm," I thought. I shoved the beer I'd just paid for back at the bartender and ordered coffee. Something was in the air, it seemed, and I no longer wanted to disengage from feeling the currents of my life. Suddenly, without really knowing why, I wanted to feel plugged in.

I could've skipped the coffee. Those two guys drew me in with their spare but tasty musical arrangements, and as for their vocal harmonies, well, it just seemed that they were meant to sing together. There was an innocence to their songs, yet a sneaky sort of profound spirit infused them. Many of their songs seemed written for children, which normally would have seemed incongruous in a smoke-filled bar; yet somehow, that evening, did not. I found myself drawn from feeling merely interested, to entertained, to wrapped up in an enchanting mojo. When closing time came--all too soon--I felt that someone had grabbed me and shaken the hardness out of my heart. I walked out of the place with nary a thought of my now-former girlfriend and her resurfaced boyfriend.

Over the years, I sometimes thought about Trout Fishing in America. But, before the internet, thinking about them was about all it came to. Fast-forward twenty-two years to this year. My wife comes home and asks, "Feel like doing anything tonight?"

"Sure," I replied, "You want to go out to dinner?"

"No, Peggy asked us if we want to meet her and her kids to see some guys who call themselves 'Trout Fishing in America.'" I froze. That evening back in Austin came flooding back to my memory. In moments, I replayed the journey I’d made that night, from a realm of sorrow and self-pity to a place infused with a celebratory spirit.

“Hal? Did you hear me?” I looked at her. “What did you just ask me?” “I asked if you wanted to do something tonight. Is something wrong?” “Did you say we’d go see Trout Fishing in America?” “Yeah,” she answered, “but what’s going on? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” As Dylan climbed into my lap, I told them about that night in Austin in 1982. “I wanna go!” announced Dylan.

That evening, we walked in to the auditorium with our son, found some seats behind Peggy, and waited. Then out onto the stage they walked: Ezra Idlet, all six feet nine inches of him, and Keith Grimwood, all five feet five inches of him. To tell the truth, I had to overcome an initial resentment, as those guys appeared to have aged at about half the rate that I saw when I shaved in the morning. But as the evening unfolded, tears came to my eyes at least twice: once, when I realized that they still had their magic, and again when I saw that my three-and-a-half year old son was drawn in to their warm realm as well. It was very much like rediscovering an inviting, comforting haven, only this time it was even better. This time, I sat with my family.

A couple of months have passed since I rediscovered Trout Fishing in America. Now, my son no longer asks to hear his formerly favorite CD--by the Crash Test Dummies--when we get in the car. No, "Big Trouble" by Trout Fishing in America is now number one on his request list. My son, my wife, and I don't sound as good as Keith and Ezra as we sing along in the car. But we think Keith and Ezra would approve anyway.