You gotta start somewhere. Sooner or later you just have to start writing things down. There’s that old saw about the journey of a thousand miles beginning with one step. What Lao Tzu failed to mention was so does a trip to the bathroom – ask any old man. But that’s beside the point I guess. Anyway, the burden of single-handedly saving civilisation from the scourge of plastic flowers must be borne by someone, and who better than me. So here is my story – written down, instead of rattling around in my head. You can thank me later.
I could hear the junk in the back of the van dancing around: the handles of the contractor buckets rattling (I used them as outer pots for the inner nicer pots the customers got), the tool box was loose and sliding toward the back, and the empty beer bottles were clanking and rolling around the floor. Driving back into the woods on a bed of pine needles in the dark will wake up the brain in strange ways, especially if you add in some olfactory magic and utter darkness - but that would come soon enough.
BEWARE OF DOG. The orange-on-black sign signaled the dirt driveway off of Highway 17. Dirt’s not really accurate. The driveway was this gigantic plush cushion stuffed with pine needles and the smell of pine tar was so strong, a whole waxy galaxy of Christmases-past was balled up into one strong candle-star.
The van’s tires were squirrelly and unsure in the abundance.
“Can you smell that?” asked Tone.
“Yeah, I can smell it. I’d have to have a clothespin on my nose not to. Do y’all patch canoes or what?”
“No, we’re turpentine magnates.”
I thought for a second that Tone had said “serpentine magnets,” but the brain finally deciphered it. That was besides the point anyway. Tone wasn’t some misplaced surrealist poet and he was just returning the gibe with one of his own. Smart aleck kid.
Overhanging limbs were screeching across the Econoline – the cavernous and carpetless old Ford amplifying the grating sounds more than any blackboard ever could – and every now and then, just for punctuation, a well-placed and plump pine cone would thump against the cab. I could just hear Flack flailing away at me tomorrow about scratching the van, “Why’d you take it back into the woods you could have just let him out on the highway and he could’ve walked on back.” But Flack, as usual, would be displaying his usual disregard for human curiosity. Flack goes and hires a ride-along for me – I’m sure gonna see where the kid lives.
It was way dark and I was driving slower than anybody’s granny ever drove in the history of automotive travel. What had Ovid written? Darkness makes any woman fair. Well, this darkness would’ve made Macbeth’s weird sisters look like Hedy Lamarr. I almost said it out loud, but Tone would’ve just said something smartass, and literally true, like, “They weren’t really Macbeth’s sisters.” Or, he would’ve asked, “Who’s Hedy Lamarr,” and made me feel dated in my allusions. Either way, he would win the exchange.
So I opted for, “Am I gonna need bread crumbs to find my way back out of here?”
Tone ignored that and said this: “The house is back about a quarter mile. You may want to put your high beams on.” I reached up with my left hand and drove in the knob to turn off the headlights. The even darker darkness was probably more of a shock to me than it was to Tone, but there it was.
I slowly took the boat on back into the woods totally blind –navigating by feel, straddling the center hump and attempting to keep the wheels in the tire ruts – now simply soft needle-filled and shallow groovelets. If I heard less scratching from the overhanging trees, that was good. If I felt the tires start to ride up out of the world's longest parallel shallow graves, that was bad. I barely touched the steering wheel and just allowed the road to act like a slot car track for the van except that the van didn’t have that center tang that a real slot car had but it did have four tires that actually touched the ground so that was something. I had always wanted a slot car track for Christmas, never got one. Tone was probably laughing inside.
“How much further?”
“Not far, Mr. Bat Man." Yeah, he was laughing. I was, too. But we both kept it inside. It was our first date after all.
I saw a glimmer of light. It seemed like a candle. I gripped the steering wheel just a touch tighter. I didn’t want to run over some relative waiting for boy wonder to get home. I thought about how it had kind of happened all at once – this feeling of sorrow. It was weird. Not for myself, but for others. I had labeled it dread – which was probably a tadbit untidy of me. It started in the grocery store a few months ago. It was both a vague feeling and a precise one – the lady in the khaki-colored raincoat reading the Shredded Wheat box – I felt sorry for her. The guy in front of me in the express line, obviously struggling to get his wallet out of his pants – him too. And driving home, the kid looking out of the school bus window DON’T FOLLOW TOO CLOSELY his book bag looming in the window like Quasimodo’s hump. Dread wasn’t so off the mark after all. I dreaded what all these strangers would face tonight and tomorrow and the day after that. That kid was gonna turn into a gargoyle. And that woman, you just knew it, her husband would end up leaving her since he didn’t really care about the sugar content in cereals, but for her it was way up there on the list – neck and neck with not comparing her to her mother.
It’s not something you go around telling everybody. Or anybody. There’s the house. What a relief. I hadn’t run over Hansel, or Gretel, and the van still had two intact axles. Tone already had his bookbag over one shoulder, his trash from the late lunch in his left hand, and his right hand on the door latch – he was ready to jump out of the plane.
“Can you take care of this?” I handed my trash from lunch to Tone – the wax covered cup, the straw still chimney piping from the top, the cardboard drink carrier, the greasy bag, and the French fry box still breathing inside (that is, uncrushed so giving some body to the bag). The red and yellow lettering caught in the domelight as the door opened – fast food is constantly marked, I guess, even in its discursive displays, by ketchup and mustard. Anyway, I handed my trash to Tone – that's what Flack would have done to me.
“No problem, man.” He got out but didn’t close the passenger door. He didn’t look back (a perfect Orpheus). He put the trash, his and mine, in the can by the back porch. That’s where the candle (the porch light) was. I reached across the seat to close the door and thought – he’s gonna be great. He was the first person I had seen in months that I didn’t feel sorry for. And the topper: he despised me. The screen door slammed shut behind him and Tone disappeared into a small shabby house in the woods.
I pulled the van around a walled pool of water – where were the horses? I thought to myself - and pulled the knob to turn the headlights back on. A large garden of vegetables and flowers spread off into a clearing as I turned. It was gorgeous – the strings with beans trellised on them, the corn tufted, the pumpkins and melons in orange bloom, and the sumptuous pallet of flowers, especially the azaleas tucked back in the shade as the woods took back over the land. The azaleas were the last outpost of cultivation, they exploded white and pink and fuchsia and yellow against the green going black of the pine forest. It was like puff pastry. I couldn’t wait to get to work tomorrow and I had dreaded it (and everything else) for months. Flack had hired himself a junior surveillance officer, but he had gotten me an apprentice, an acolyte, a protégé. And best yet, an audience. Jeering even. He was already, sadly, almost a peer in sarcasm. Nothing to teach him there.
As I crept back to the highway I tried to remember everything that Tone had said that day. It hadn’t been much. The kid had tagged along all afternoon barely saying a word.
Flack had done the asking if I could take Tony home. I guess Flack knew his family or something. I never called Tone Tony. I called Tone Tone.
“You think you could take Tony home after the shift?” Flack always called the day a shift even though there weren’t any second shifts or third shifts. It was just one big shift if need be. But that was Flack.
“He lives off Highway 17 up near where it crosses Bonnard. Just let him off at the end of the drive – his house is way back in the woods and the trees will scrape up the van.”
Flack was really nervous about the van. I rolled my eyes and said, “No problem.” After five years, I was pretty much through with having a conversation with Flack.
Flack was one of those people on whom destiny smiles and for whom fortune applauds. It had been spelled out from his very birth that he would eventually, some glorious day, be the sole owner of his very own prosperous and well-respected business. The inevitability and surge of alliteration itself would bind his fate to become the proprietor of Flack’s Flowers. His father had advised against it, but his wife’s father had bankrolled it, and the English language embraced and testified to the enterprise. And I had worked the last five years for Flack, delivering (the typewriter, under my aegis of course, had splattered out “devilering”…) flowers, making his business thrive. I despised him, but I was afraid of him also. I couldn’t do anything else, and he knew it.
I got the van back to the highway and saw the silhouette of the sign that had marked our pulling off – it seemed like hours ago, though it had been ten minutes. Tone had said, “You can just let me off here at the BEWARE sign.”
“You want me to let you out here – you ashamed of your house or something?”
“I’m not ashamed of the house – I just figured you’d be embarrassed seeing lots of naked people – dark people - dancing around a boiling pot.”
“You inviting me over for supper or did I touch a nerve?” I was surprised at the flurry of language from Tone – it was like shaking up a Coke can and leaving it all day in the van, even forgetting about it, and then when you open it up… it sprays all over the place.
So this was my apprentice. My very own Queequeg. Without the tattoos, but with a handy-dandy conceal-carry harpoon.
---June 16, 2012---