Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Billionaire and the Bureaucrat

The Billionaire and the Bureaucrat
By Fred Owens

It's easy to think like Donald Trump. You can just say stuff like this, "Megyn Kelly is nobody without me. She owes me big time. I made her famous. She will make millions thanks to me. I put her on the map. That's how good I am. I even help people I don't like, and you know I don't like Megyn Kelly."
That's how Trump thinks. Millions of people who never heard of Megyn Kelly know who she is now. She is the darling of the glitterati. She was on the cover of Vanity Fair, and all because of Donald Trump.
"But is she grateful? I mean, c'mon, without me she's nothing, a lightweight, as I have said, and I'm trying to be polite here."
I am just saying -- this is me, Fred Owens talking now -- I am just saying that it's really easy to channel Trump and make up stuff the way he does, because I only need to know the stuff that I already know and I don't have to look it up. Trump makes my life easier, he's not a lot of work.
I know he doesn't make sense half the time  -- so he's just like me. People laugh at me because I don't make sense, and they laugh at Donald Trump because he is very clumsy with words.
Of course he has a jet and I don't, but otherwise we are a lot the same. He's a regular guy, with a regular name, Donald. I have friends named Donald.... And he's from Queens. Queens is like a normal place. Everybody knows about Queens. I was there once myself.
But take the President, have you ever met anybody named Barack? Not me. Everybody I know is called Phil, or Larry, or Bob.
And where is Obama from -- Hawaii? which is barely in the United States, or  is he from Indonesia or Kenya? We need to have a President who is from America.

Of course you could vote for Hillary. Now she's a normal woman, I have to admit that. You know what she is like . You sat next to someone like Hillary in high school and she always knew all the answers and she always did her homework on time. Hillary was smart all right, but did you like her? Did you want to go out with her? We're going to have a woman President someday. I'm all for that, but can't she be a little good-looking?
Or vote for Bernie. Bernie Sanders is all right. He's from Brooklyn which is just as good as Queens. And he's a Jew. That's a good thing. Some of my best friends are Jewish. They're funny people. I like them a lot. I dated a Jewish girl when I was in college. We could have even gotten married. I mean, it never came to that, but I had strong feelings about her and she was beautiful.
So Bernie is okay, except for being a socialist and a bureaucrat. He wants to make rules and regulations and have long meetings. Socialists make everything more complicated. They never get anything done. I would never hire a socialist to work for me. First off I would say cut the crap and get to the point. Make up your stupid mind or get out of here.
We can't have a socialist for President because America doesn't work that way. We don't like too many rules. We don't like people telling us what to do. But Bernie wants to be the boss. Sure, everything will be free -- but do you believe that? And people call me a hustler. It's Bernie who is the all around hustler. When he says it's free, better grab your wallet. Make America great again, vote for me, Donald Trump.
Blame Social Media for Trump. The whole process with Trump has been fascinating. Who let him in the living room? Trump is a creature of social media. Social media -- Facebook and Twitter -- are the dominant sources, they set the agenda. The old media like the New York Times and Fox News can only react. Social media rewards off-the-cuff emotional reaction which is pure Trump. Trump wears his emotions on his sleeve -- that's good isn't it? Aren't we supposed to share how we feel? Trump says how he feels and who he likes. There is no thought. You cannot debate a feeling. There is no way to disagree. You can only say how you feel and who you like on social media.
The Funeral of Joan Baez. She lay so peacefully in the glade of sycamores, in her boots of Spanish leather. Her dog was by her side, nuzzling her cold body with his weeping black nose. "I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine alive as you and me." Those were the dying words of our beloved singer. Mimi Farina, her younger sister,  sat vigil with Joan through the long night. Joan was knocking on heaven's door, and then in the quietest of dawn she slipped away. The dog whimpered. He knew. We all knew. The sycamores bowed in grief. Her spirit floated in the canyon for several days. It's like she was still here, they all said. But the storm came with violent winds blowing out to Ocean Bliss and we lost her.
All the old geezer rock stars are in a parade to the pearly gates, going one by one. Joan Baez  -- may she live a hundred years! -- has her appointed time as we all do and it will be all right.

Planting Trees. I have been planting trees in local gardens. We have had four inches of rain and the ground is soft and moist..... It's easy to dig a hole this time of year.
Today I was at Mary Ann's house and planted one hydrangea and one lemon tree. I put them both in pots on the patio. I expect the lemon tree will flourish for a year or two and then outgrow the pot -- we can deal with that later. And the same with the hydrangea, which will eventually need a bigger pot or placement in the ground.
Mary Ann has a good attitude about gardening. She will not blame me if things go wrong. Something always goes wrong, but you gotta fight the urge to blame somebody -- to blame me, or blame God, or blame the tyranny of nature. It's better to just accept your losses and keep going.
Take the two bay trees. Mary Ann planted them in the shade of the oak trees because she wanted the bay trees to serve as a screen..... But the bay trees did not flourish in such constant shade, so we will have to transplant them.
That's what the big farmers do. They are a lot smarter at growing things, but mainly they just keep trying out one idea or another until they find out something that works.
Any farmer will tell you that it's all about failure. Stuff breaks and plans don't plow. But you just keep going and if you work hard enough you might get lucky.
Mary Ann's lemon tree just might do very well on her patio with the little children playing and the pretty white lemon flowers blooming.
And we might get an abundance of rain in February.

Frog Hospital Subscription Drive.   Your contribution of $25 is greatly appreciated. The Frog Hospital newsletter has been cruising down the Internet for 16 years now. I have tried to kill this newsletter several times – tried to stomp it out like the ember from an old campfire, or dig it up like a pestiferous weed, but it won’t die – Frog Hospital just keeps on going.
So please send a check. Your contribution keeps me from getting cranky. It helps me to maintain a detached attitude. Let’s keep it going….
Go to the Frog Hospital blog and hit the PayPal button for $25,
Send a check for $25 to
Fred Owens
1105 Veronica Springs RD
Santa Barbara, CA 93105

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Touch -- a long short story

Chapter 3, Touch

Seven years later, in 2003, they still talked about Clyde at Café Paradise, but it was getting old.

Frank Albright took the job at the Hospital in the fall of 2001, because it was the end of landscaping season, and he often picked up work that way – just trying something. “Maybe I’ll like it,” he thought. “I like to find out what people do. I don’t know a thing about health care.”

The hospital hired Frank as a kind of Wal-Mart nursing aide. This is how he explained it to Tyler at the Flat Town Store. “You see, they have the nurses, the RNs -- their trained and they give medication, and they run the place. The doctors give orders, but they’re never around, so the nurses are really in charge. And they get paid pretty well. After that comes the nursing aides, and they don’t give medication or keep records, they just do chores. They have a bit of training and they make about $12 an hour. After that comes the Wal-Mart nursing aides, who have no training. They do everything the regular nursing aides do, but for less money, and with no benefits or health insurance. That’s what I am.”

Tyler responded with less than his usual enthusiasm. What he didn’t say was, “Frank, you really ought to have a much better professional level job than this. Nursing is sissy work, bedpans, touching people, I don’t even want to think about it.”

Frank liked working at the hospital from the first day. The nurses sent him into a room to take care of a patient – a young man, but maybe older, maybe even close to 40, but of indeterminate age because the patient was seriously schizophrenic, and had that pasty, puffy complexion of a life largely unlived, except possibly in some other universe. His eyes were wild and wide like a deer. His eyes, Frank noticed, were a passage to another world. “But I’m not going there. I know enough about crazy people,” Frank thought.
Besides, the task was at hand, the patient was tied to the bed and thrashing in his own shit pile, and had made a besmeared brown pungent mess that was kind of impressive in its own way, and Frank realized something really quickly. “This is it,” he realized. “I’m glad this happened on the first day, and I don’t care. I’m just going to clean it up. I’m in – I’m in the club. I belong here.
Nursing work means cleaning up shit, and if it bothers you, then go someplace else, but it doesn’t bother me, so now I know I belong here.”

The cleanup took a mountain of towels, wipes, re-wipes, and the patient’s wild, distant, uncaring gaze on him the whole time. That was the job.

Frank settled into a routine quickly enough. He was on call, so he could choose his hours, and he preferred the evening shift, 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., because he liked having his mornings to hang out at Café Paradise, or fool around in his garden.

“People are just like plants. They need attention in order to grow and develop.” he knew. “It’s in my hands. I have very good hands. That’s I learned all that time landscaping and working on the farm – touching soil, branch and leaf. I could feel the energy. That’s why I loved the work. It’s the same with people. Now I put my hands on people. It’s incredible.”

He expanded on this a theory, but he also knew that he should never mention it to anybody at the hospital. That was a hard won discretion for Frank – not saying something. “They’ll just think I’m a kook if I say that people are like plants. They already know I’m a kook. A white man, obviously educated, is working as a nursing aide – it has to be for a weird reason, like he’s religious, or else he’s a pervert or a communist and can’t keep a regular job. I know what they’re thinking.”

Which is what the nurses were thinking, and he was being carefully watched, but he found out, in time, that everybody was being carefully watched, and all the other nursing aides, largely female, had something wrong with them too, because it was a low-status job. Some of the nursing aides were religious women, with stout figures, and no interest in a higher calling, and they were proud to be of service and proud of their humble work – but it was wrong too. They hid behind their Christianity. It was a defense against life – and surely a defense against art. At the hospital in the evening, at the café in LaConner, Frank shuttled between two worlds. And each camp stated clearly that, “we don’t want to know about those people,” referring to the “other.”

That was hard for Frank. Maybe he was more transcendent, more tolerant, more adaptable. The other explanation was that he was torn, divided, and he sloshed back and forth like the tide like Swinomish Channel, and he couldn’t find that stillness – that calm lake from his childhood.

The highest, most transcendent workers at the hospital were the silent cleaning women, who glided into the patient’s room like angel spirits and did their work for no tangible reward. They had no shield. They didn’t need one. “I’m glad they use that kind of soap that doesn’t smell,” Frank noticed. The cleaning fluids had no odor at all. And the ventilation was impressive. Frank was used to working outdoors and he has a tad claustrophobic, so he appreciated the fresh air. It never smelled like a hospital. Even the patients didn’t smell like they were sick. Of course, they reason they didn’t smell sick, was because Frank swabbed them down often enough. “You would be amazed at the amount and variety of bodily fluids that patients emit, “ he said to Tyler and Jim one morning, and they really didn’t want to hear this, “Urine, sweat, blood, both menstrual and regular, saliva, mucus, crap, ear wax, nose boogers, flaky skin, sperm, but rarely, the putrefaction of wounds….” Jim covered his ears.

Frank wasn’t getting anywhere. The conversation was competitive. “I don’t get any points for nursing stories. I even lose points.” Nursing was just too gay. Walt Whitman nursed wounded soldiers during the Civil War, Frank remembered. “Gay, gay, and gay…” he thought.

He did have his African wife for bragging points, though. She was twenty years younger than Frank, and the hottest piece of ass in LaConner and all the guys knew it, although no one every said so, because Zodwa was his wife, and because she was black, not American black, but deep, tribal African black, and Frank wanted to tell them what it was like to have sex with Zodwa, but of course that was never going to happen. “But I get points for that at the cafe,” he knew.
Back at the hospital, with the good, fresh ventilation, the large windows, and the extra wide corridors for moving hospital beds, Frank was fairly at ease, despite being indoors.

“But it’s too bad they don’t have any dirt around here. Dirt makes you feel good. I would like it, and the patients would like it too,” he thought, but he couldn’t figure out a way to install dirt in a hospital setting, despite the many hours he spent, sitting in a bedside chair, looking out the window and thinking about things like that.

The other thing was how different it was at the hospital, compared to the hippy/artist/tourist world in LaConner. LaConner was about being carefree and creative. The hospital was about pain, suffering, and death. The two worlds didn’t mix.
And the hospital was religious. There were lots of ministers about and good Christian women, with a sense of duty, honor, and sacrifice. It was something that Frank liked to be around.

Back in LaConner, Philip, the fiery Greek architect, often held forth at Café Paradise, against all manner of religious expression, and his secular view was dominant. Jim Johnson felt the same way, although he didn’t despise religion, he just didn’t care for it. And Tyler, over at the store, was a devout secularist with a pronounced hedonist streak that he picked up from his years in California.

“The unspoken rules are the most important ones,” Frank knew. “Café Paradise has a strict policy about this and I could write them out and post them on the front door.”

Here’s what the rules were: It’s all right to be a little bit spiritual, along the lines of Native American ways or Buddhist teaching. Pagan expression was understandable, but a little bit loopy. Miraven, the beautiful grey lady from Anacortes, came in weekly to read Tarot. She was welcome because she was beautiful, not because of her mystic bent. Father Touhy, a renegade Jesuit priest who lived on the reservation with the tribe, was welcome at the café, but fortunately he never came. Jim Bob was the only Indian who came in on a regular basis, and he was a singer and drummer and very spiritual. At times, he would bring his drum to the cafe and sing in the high-pitched wailing voice of his people, and the café would become rapt and silent.

That would be it – native American singing, Buddhist texts, and poetry, and don’t call it religion or Philip, the fiery Greek architect would have a fit.
On that basis, Dave the cop, who came in twice a week, was an intruder. He had every mark of being a practicing Christian, but he knew better than to say so in that venue. It was enough for the guys at the cafe to welcome a cop.
“Hey, everybody’s got their way of doing things,” Frank knew. “Café Paradise has its dogma, why not? I don’t quarrel with that.”

But it wasn’t enough for Frank. “I appreciate all this. I mean, I love it when Jim Bob sings. I’ve been to Buddhist meditation. Poetry is the song of my soul. I’m down with all that.”

And yet Frank was religious, and that was why he loved being at the hospital, working with hoaky people and their Bibles.

“I never tell anybody this. I like religion. I believe in God. It’s never been a problem for me,” Frank thought. “Also, I’m a weasel, a two-faced, slip-around guy. No wonder nobody trusts me. I never say what I think. I like being a Catholic. I hardly ever go to church, but I like the Pope. He’s my main man – I just don’t ever tell anyone.”

Back at the hospital, five nights a week, or even more often, Frank sat with the patients and became a hero to the nursing staff, because he was in charge of the tough ones – the wanderers and fighters, the one who woke up out of a dead sleep and said, “I’m going home now.” Arising from their beds, bare-ass naked but for the hospital gown, ripping out their IVs.

Frank’s job was to keep them in bed. Or the patients who hit the call button every five minutes. “You go in and keep them company,” Melissa said. She was the nursing supervisor for the evening shift. Melissa had soft freckles and a wide mouth, a good figure too. Most of the nurses weren’t very pretty, but Melissa was. “I like a little sexual tension at work,” Frank told Tyler one day. “You know, a slight erotic buzz, not strong, because then it would hurt, because you can’t actually do anything, but if all the women are ugly, it’s kind of boring.”
“Yeah, the ugly ones want attention,” Tyler responded. “And they’ll punish you if you ignore them. But, hey, you’ve got the nurses, the beds, the intimate setting – you could get lucky with Melissa.”

Tyler was right. Frank worked around women, beds, and nearly naked people called patients. It was all very intimate.

“I’ve had my hands on the private parts of more people than you can imagine,” he told Tyler.

“Aggh!” That was Jim Johnson screaming in the background. “Don’t talk about it. I hate hospitals. I don’t know how can stand working there.”

“Okay, let’s just talk about the women there. Most of them are fat, unpretty,” Frank said. All three men, Frank, Tyler, and Jim, were married, but on a theoretical level, they still pursued women. On a practical level, they lusted and kept score on whatever walked into the Flat Town Store.

Which reminded Frank of Serena. “I had a fat girl friend once. She had a good figure, it’s was just a lot wider. But she had very good proportions.”

That wasn’t the problem with Serena. Not her weight, but her obsessive, neurotic need to talk about it. No matter how sincerely and how often Frank told Serena that he loved her just the way he was, she punished him. “I had to pay for all the other guys in her life, who treated her like dirt, and told her to lose weight. I got tired of that. We broke up. I just wanted to have fun.”

So, at the hospital, Frank worked under and around women, and looked after old women in the beds, and he got on well with them. He kept his head down. He eagerly anticipated their demands. Not that eagerly, he just didn’t want to be shamed by a bitch.

“I never say bitch,” Frank thought. “I don’t even think that word. I respect women. I am enormously interested in their bodies – true -- but I can rise above that. And I’m nice to the homely ones. I pay attention to them, too.”
The guys at the café would say “ugly” but Frank’s mother taught him to say “homely.”

“It’s bad to call a woman ugly, it’s better to say that she’s homely, or that she’s plain-looking” he thought.

And it was bad of the nurses to put him down or make him feel small. “I’m a man. I don’t want to take any crap.” He guarded his space at the hospital, he kept his stance, in a woman-run world.

Frank had things to tell his friends at the store – some farmers and contractors, a stone mason, another guy, Reilly, on Fir Island, who made a living with his wife delivering newspapers way early in the morning – things about nursing. Not the feminine part, which he knew they didn’t like it, but the other part about sickness and dying. If you don’t think about it or talk about it, then it won’t happen to you – that was the standard at the café and the store. He spoke anyway.

“They have it posted on the wall on the acute ward, the Patients Bill of Rights. What a load of crap! Patients don’t have any rights. If you’re in the hospital, the nurses own your ass. You’re sick, you’re helpless, and they take all your clothes away,” he said.

Frank watched the nurses carefully, like the way they brought a patient a glass of water, something as simple as that, but there were several variations in the nature of power and control, different aspects of body language. Frank was going to be sitting in that room all day and so he had time to notice:
-- bringing it with love and uncomplicated service
-- bringing it in a matter of fact way. “It’s just my job. Don’t think anything of it.”
-- bringing it with a slight pause that meant power, that meant, “I have the water and you need it. I control your life. You can’t live without water, and I’m the one who brings it to you.”

Frank wasn’t cynical about this. Power is real and being sick is powerless. If you’re sick, you’re in the hands of the nurses and that’s that – you take your chances. “They’re not angels of mercy, they’re human, that’s all,” he observed.
And it was about dying. This was a matter of some interest to Frank. “I’m planning to become an old man, but after that I’m going to die, so I want to see what it’s like.”

The most important thing that Frank learned about dying was that it was all right. “I’m amazed about this,” he told Mary Ann Burlson, who cut his hair, because dying was much too strong for telling the guys at the coffee shop, and he told her because she was a woman who touched him, and touched his hair, and he was very sensitive about his hair. “My hair is my antenna. With my hair it’s like a sixth sense and I can feel the universe,” he told Mary Ann, and she said, “I know just what you mean. Hair is everything.”
“You fix my head, darling,” he told her. “My life is in your hands.”
“Yes, I know,” she nodded.

Mary Ann lived on McLean Road, near the farms. She had a farmer’s attitude – working every day. A waitress attitude as well, she worked for the money, tireless, determined, and beautiful in many ways in Frank’s mind. Her face was a sculpture strong like the granite of mountains. Her hands were the power of love, gliding through his hair, as she stood behind him.

“I just love it,” she sighed. “You’re hair is so nice and thick.” This was a fact Frank was comfortable with. “I know,” he answered. “All the barbers love me, and strange women want to muss it up.”

She sighed again and pressed against him. “I’d screw her if she didn’t have such a bony ass,” Frank thought, kindly enough because Mary Ann usually got the men she wanted anyway.

Frank was in the school of men who felt that more was better, the evidence being his big ass African wife. “I don’t care for the waif or the willow,” he knew. “My brother likes tall, thin women, so we got it covered.” But he didn’t tell Mary Ann that, not that she was squeamish. She would have called her hair salon the Flying Fuck except for the nice old ladies from Shelter Bay who came for perms. No, Mary Ann was a brassy dame.

Instead, Frank told her, because they were intimate in that way, about people dying at the hospital. “It’s amazing. They’re not afraid. It’s just another day. Some of them are openly religious and some aren’t, but most of the old ones are ready to go. There’s no whining. That’s what I learned. There’s never a good time for whining. Everybody dies.”

“That’s right,” she said. “We’re all going to die. I’m going to die and I have no idea what happens after that.”

“Me neither, but I know how I’m going to die. It will be in the parking lot of the 7-11 convenience store, maybe the one over in Mount Vernon. I’ll be getting out of the car and walking into to get some coffee or something, and I’ll be hit by a blinding stroke and drop like a stone onto the pavement, stone dead, so dead my head bounces when I hit, and the people will rush around and look at the old man lying there.”

“You got it figured out,” she laughed.
“Yeah, but I don’t know when. Anyway, these old folks dying at the hospital -- I really like being with them. My whole outlook on the human race has improved. We’re all good people.”
Mary Ann’s shop was a small building, very nicely lit with windows on three sides. She had all the best magazines on her coffee table for the customers -- for herself she said, being the modern woman who would not admit that she did things for other people.
“Dying is so interesting,” he said, and he let her finish the haircut.

But he had quit the hospital in the spring because he was getting bored. He was locked into his low-status job. “It’s a Catch-22. They know that if you’re willing to do that kind of lowly work, then there must be something wrong with you,” he thought. Besides that, Frank had an attitude problem, a rebelliousness and a call to follow the creative imperative. Frank had carefully concealed this from the hospital staff. His comportment was excellent at all times – but the nurses knew, they knew… and Melissa the supervisor really wanted to keep him, and give him a permanent position – with higher pay and health insurance, but she was on the ward and actually worked every day. It was the hard ones in administration that blocked Frank’s progress, and everybody knew that Frank would never “get on” there.

In August, Frank was still collecting unemployment checks and passing the day vacantly. He did not give into the depression of empty days. He did not give in to the urge to justify himself to other people by staying busy, or by appearing to stay busy. He kept to a middle path. “I’m not recruiting for the laid back life style either. I will just go about my business in a low profile way.”

He collected old boards and made paintings in the back yard while listening to the baseball game on the radio. This was deeply satisfying.

He drove Zodwa to work every morning and picked her up in the evening. She had wrecked her car after getting drunk with her friend Jeannie. The court had suspended her driver’s license, and she had to pay a large fine. Frank was really getting tired of all this. Jeannie, another African woman from Burundi, was a new friend of Zodwa’s and a very damaging influence. Zodwa’s drinking had become far worse because she had Jeannie to party with.

She sullenly dismissed Frank’s increasingly harsh judgment of her behavior. At home, she lay on the couch. The TV was always on, a mound of beer cans, cigarette butts, and chicken bones growing on the carpet near her feet.
“I can’t believe you just lie here like this. You can drink beer for hours and never move – when do you ever pee?” he accused her. “Why did you want to come to America?” You can drink beer in Africa. You can party all you want in Africa. Why did you come here?”

Silence, no response. “She lies there like a lizard,” he observed, “a crocodile.” That was so stunning to Frank. “She does not think, I mean zero. I’m intuitive – I can recognize mental activity, and I tell you that woman is pure instinct,” he thought. Her instinct had been a source of wonder to Frank when they first met, a palliative for his thinking. “But, you know, I don’t care anymore. It’s the fucking beer. I can’t stand it.”

That evening, Frank made more angry accusations to Zodwa. It had been driving him crazy for months. Then he got in the car and began driving. He drove ten miles to Mount Vernon and went to the Denny’s restaurant to drink coffee and read. He stayed up until he was bleary-eyed, and he didn’t know what to do.

He didn’t want to go to John and Barbara’s house out on Pull and Be Damned Road. He had already turned up there late at night several times with a sad story of marriage on the rocks. They were sympathetic, but it was getting to be an old movie.

“I can’t even go to my own fucking house,” he moaned, driving around aimlessly, getting very sleepy. Finally he pulled into the parking lot of the Flat Town grocery store – that was Tyler and Trish’s country store, a few miles outside of LaConner in the middle of farm country.

He turned off the engine and felt the quiet. It was 2 a.m. on a summer night. He opened the window of the Toyota and smelled the cedar trees, seeing their dark outline against the horizon and felt a soft breeze on his face. “I don’t know what to do,” he thought.

Frank tilted back the seat, put his jacket over him like a blanket and fell asleep. He woke up about 4:30 a.m. with terrible cramps in his legs because he couldn’t stretch his legs out. It was awful. The store wouldn’t open until 7 a.m. Frank tossed and fidgeted and cursed, but at least he was too tired to think about anything.

Tyler drove up to the store at 6:30 a.m. to open up and get the coffee started – he didn’t notice Frank’s car parked in the back. By 7 a.m., Frank felt like complete shit. He had a foul taste in his mouth and a funky smell in his clothes. He really didn’t want to walk into Tyler’s store looking like that, so first he took a five-minute walk to breathe in some fresh air and at least get past Tyler’s friendly scrutiny.

He took his coffee and mumbled a few words to Tyler. He got back in his car and headed for the university in Bellingham – he wasn’t sure why, he was just going. “I’m losing my mind, I don’t know what to do,” he said. His hands were shaking. His legs were in pain. He kept switching stations on the radio as he drove, trying to stay awake.

When he got to the campus, he went to the library, found a couch deep in the stacks, and slept for two hours. Nobody bothered him. “At least I have survival skills, like an animal, I know where to curl up and sleep” he thought, as he woke up and stretched.

But he needed help – instead of the constantly repeating images of his lousy marriage, instead of watching those tapes play over and over, Frank’s mind had gone into a painful seizure.

He went over to the student mental health center on the top floor of the old administration building and they scheduled him for an emergency appointment. “I guess they could tell I’m not making up some story, I really do look like shit” he thought, as he flipped through magazines in the waiting room.

The therapist turned out to be a pretty young intern. “I don’t care who she is,” he thought. And he told her his story about the marriage and Zodwa’s drinking, ending with the sleepless night in his car and a plea for help.
The young therapist said, “You really need to do something about this. You need to take action.”
“Yes, I do,” Frank replied, too dumb to respond any other way.
Even in his exhausted state, Frank knew he was hearing a message from angels. Experienced therapists don’t give directions, but this young one didn’t know any better. That’s why she said it so plainly, “Stop putting up with this crap and fix your life.”
That was it. Frank went home and had it out with his spouse, either leave the house or quit drinking he told her, and he really didn’t care which. Well, he did care, because she moved out the next day and stayed at a women’s shelter in Bellingham. Frank was sad and the house was empty.

It got worse. Two weeks later Zodwa got a lawyer and served papers on him -- she wanted money. At least Frank’s friends told him the truth. “Frank, you’re screwed big time,” Mike told him over at the Flat Town Store. Mike Butler was a carpenter, a drinker, a cynic, with a warm smile and natural baritone voice. He was from Alabama, which didn’t make him wise in Frank’s eyes, but did make him a survivor. Mike was one of those people who were never going back.
Frank appreciated the cruel directness of Mike’s judgment. “I’m hosed,” he realized. “The money is all gone and I’m going to lose the house too.”

Tyler said the same thing from behind the counter, Tyler, with his round glasses and strong teeth. “If you get out with your health and the shirt on your back, well…,” but Tyler was interrupted by a customer’s need for a latte.

Frank looked for a lawyer “I need to find somebody who will tell me the truth, but in a kind way, because this hurts too much,” he decided. Ben Sakuma was a Japanese-American lawyer with a small office in South Mount Vernon. It was not a prestigious location, but the woodwork in Sakuma’s office was warm and the receptionist was warm too. “That’s what I need from a lawyer – sympathy, because there’s no way to fix this.”

Sakuma looked over Frank’s financials and calculated that his own profit in this divorce case was likely to be small, but he did not smirk or condescend, he just gave Frank the worse case scenario with no talk of fighting Zodwa’s demands. Frank was very comfortable at hearing this, like sitting on a good couch at a funeral parlor. But Sakuma finished his assessment on a hopeful note, “You know, it’s just possible that it might not be so bad. You might end up with a little bit more than this, something you can use to start over.”

And he gave Frank a number. “That’s it. I have it,” Frank said to himself as he left the office. He paid Sakuma a consultation fee and never went back. That number – it was how much money he would have after the house was sold and after Zodwa got her share. That number was a wonderful, beautiful fact, an anchor to Frank’s misery.

September came with humiliating court appearance brought on by Zodwa’s demands for money. In October, he finished his backyard painting project. With great love and hope he arranged his “outdoor paintings,” as he called them, in his front yard for the townsfolk to admire. Hardly anybody liked Frank’s latest effort, or even said anything. “It’s too edgy for this town. You can’t make a painting except a landscape or something about Buddhists. That’s all they like around here.”

The art exhibit was a minor disaster. Nobody noticed, nobody said anything. “Crushed again,” Frank thought, but all he did was send a nasty email to the director of the art museum in LaConner, about how that museum, that bunchy of twitty, snobby art patrons, had no appreciation, etc. and so forth. “I shouldn’t have done that, but what the hell, I’m not perfect. I don’t like those people and they don’t like me,” he thought, referring to the museum crowd.

But he had to forgive his friends. “They like me, but they don’t like my art. There’s nothing I can do about that, unless I want to do paint Tibetan mandalas,” he said.

In late November, the winter rains came and Frank brooded in his empty house. He spoke to his children often enough on the phone and they would be coming home for Christmas, but then the roof started leaking – badly, in the laundry room, right where he had fixed it last summer.

Frank made no self accusation of his failure to patch the roof. “I got up there, I spread the tar around. I thought I did a good job, but I guess I screwed it up,” he realized. In fact, the leak had gotten worse, not better. “I cannot fix anything that involves a ladder. I don’t do anything high. I’m a ground person,” he stated clearly.

He mentioned the leaking roof to his sister, Tessie, in California, and she offered to loan him the money for a new roof. That was tough for Frank, he had never borrowed money from her before, but he said yes – thinking that he now had another reason to sell the house – in order to pay her back.
So, in December he got a new roof and some bit of what was left of his family life at home when the kids came back for a week or so. But January came, cold, wet, and dark, and Frank still wasn’t working and he was still lonely too, rattling around in the house.

Later in January, Frank rented one of the bedrooms to Bill Faxon for $300 a month. Bill was part of the Minnesota Mafia, a group of men and women who migrated to the Skagit Valley in the 1970s from the frozen north lake country of Minnesota. They were converts. They were never going back.

Bill was not more peculiar than some other people in LaConner, but he was the only man in town that was peculiar in this particular way -- he didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink but a little bit, he rarely worked, and he never had a girl friend. He rode his bicycle and never owned a car. Bill did practically nothing, except hang out at the cafe and scrounge for places to sleep. He was very intelligent. He graduated from college a long time ago. In the early 1990s he went down to San Diego and lived with his brother. While he was there, he went back to the university and picked up a master’s degree in computer science, but he did nothing with his advanced degree. He simply returned to LaConner after two years and returned to his old ways, doing odd jobs here and there – when he could have worked in a software company in Seattle and made a fortune. People were a little surprised at that, but Bill offered no explanation, so they let him be.

Bill had quite a reputation as a cat sitter and house sitter, and he could sometimes get a house to live in for months at a time. So Frank was surprised Bill accepted his offer for a room because he hadn’t seen Bill pay anybody rent in twenty years. Maybe Bill had the money all along. “I’ll bet Bill has thousands of dollars squirreled away someplace in a savings account, or maybe he plays the stock market. He might have tons of money, but he keeps it hidden,” he thought.

Frank wasn’t that curious. He just figured that Bill was quiet and wouldn’t damage things or bring people over to the house, so he gave him the room and collected the money.

It was Frank’s last effort to keep the house running, to get some income, and keep it from being empty, but it didn’t work. Bill was awfully dull to live with. “I’m still depressed. This isn’t going to work. Zodwa was beautiful, sexy, exotic, demanding, and greedy. She was so many things, and mostly bad towards the end, but God, she filled up this house,” Frank thought. In contrast, Bill had no more life than a sack of potatoes.

In March, Frank put the house on the market. In late May it was sold. Frank divided the money with Zodwa and it all somehow worked out just right to the number that Benjamin Sakuma said he would end up with – just that much money. The house was gone and so was Zodwa. As soon as she got her share of the loot, she got on a plane to visit her family in Zimbabwe. “They’re very poor people. She’ll give them the money. At least some good will come of it,” he thought.

Frank gave most of his money to his daughter in Texas. She had a good job and she used Frank’s money to make a down payment on a house down there. “I want you to have the money,” he told his daughter. “You can benefit from my mistake. I screwed up and lost my home, but now you can have a home instead.”

And it was all over. It didn’t hurt very badly, except Frank felt really stupid – old and stupid. He moved out of the house, sold or gave away most of his possessions, bought a tent, and camped 15 miles away, in the forest at the edge of Anacortes.

That first night camping, he had the dream again, the Dream of the Fearless Old Man Heading out to Sea, in important dream that came to him ten years before, and came to him again like a beacon of light. In the dream he was on a small ferry boat with twenty other passengers. The sea was getting rough and the sun was going down, and the boat was headed back to the harbor. The wind began to blow whitecaps as the boat came to the mouth of the rock jetty.
As the boat crossed the bar Frank and the other passengers crowded the rail on the side of the boat to see a small vessel – it was a kayak. An old man was paddling this blue kayak out to sea, as calmly as if he were on a pond. He was paddling like he was going a long ways and straight out to sea and going through the chop at a steady pace. He seemed especially strong and sure. His hair was grizzled and his chest was bare. Frank watched this old man paddling his kayak as he huddled against the cold wind on the deck of the boat.

That was the dream. When Frank woke up he was elated. “I’m going to be that old man some day. I won’t be afraid of the water anymore, not the tide or the wind or the current. I won’t be afraid of anything.”

That dream secured his old age. It was going to be a cinch, but there was a gap between now and then and some living to do. Frank knew he wasn’t getting any smarter, but it was just possible that he could avoid becoming dumber.
He built a small fire under the cedar trees, gathering small twigs and branches lying on the ground near the salal and ferns. The fog horn on the point was a wonderful, haunting OM sound that stilled the night. The crows had gone silent. Frank gazed into the fire and remembered. If he could piece out a pattern to his past…..”No, that’s a waste of time. The best thing I can do is forget the past, leave it alone, draw no conclusions, empty my head and face the wind,” he thought. Still he remembered.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Clyde's Bicycle

This is a long short story

Clyde’s Bicycle

By Fred Owens

In 2003 Frank Albright lived on Caledonia Street in LaConner, a small saltwater town in Washington State. Frank is a character about halfway between Forrest Gump and Moses Herzog. He has imaginary conversations. He quits his job and collects unemployment. He is not angry at anyone.

Frank Albright hadn’t changed since that time, thirty years ago. He still gave people the benefit of the doubt. “If a guy says he’s from Philadelphia or if he says he’s from Venus – maybe he is or maybe he isn’t. It doesn’t matter to me. People don’t owe me an explanation, and I wish people didn’t want an explanation from me,” he thought.

 But there’s a limit. That episode out in the desert – it was too crazy. He didn’t want to ever be around anything like that again. He never went back there and never made any inquiries about Paul or Richard or Rattlesnake.

What he decided, Sarah and him, after they got out of jail and went to Frank’s sister’s house in Venice Beach, was to get married. “Let’s be normal,” he said. “Let’s do what everybody else does.” Sarah agreed. They got married. They had two children. They lived in a house and had jobs. They lived like everybody else, and it almost fit, and they had almost put their old crazy life back on the shelf where it belonged.

Frank rarely re-visited that episode in his life because it didn’t make any sense. And he never talked about it to any one. A few times he tried to talk about it to friends who seemed sympathetic, but it was just too crazy for them to understand.   He only wrote that account of it to unravel some of the knots, as if peace of mind might come just from knowing. He had no hope of understanding it.

In June, 2003, Frank had been living in LaConner, Washington for quite a few years. It was a small town on Swinomish Channel, where the tide flowed into Skagit Bay, and from Skagit Bay through Deception Pass to Puget Sound and then to the wide Pacific Ocean. LaConner had been a quiet fishing village with shuttered stores and dogs sleeping in the street when he first found it in the 1970s. The scenery was beautiful and the rent was cheap. He located there with other artists and hippies and took work as he found it in the rural economy. But the small tourist business that Frank tolerated had burgeoned in the 1980s and 1990s until there was a boutique crammed into every nook and cranny and no place to park. “It’s not fun here anymore,” he complained, along with many others. “This is not what I expected.”  LaConner had become an expensive place to live. A wealthy leisure class took over the town -- “people, who have it good and expect it to be perfect,” Frank wrote in a letter to the town’s newspaper.

Frank complained and he hated complaining. He tried over and over again to love the LaConner the way it had become, “but I can’t get over how it used to be,” he told his friends. “I might like it here if I could just forget the past.”

Frank and his old hippy and artist pals were relegated to a hangout on a side street, off the main tourist street and out of sight, a place called Café Paradise, which Gladys ran on an under-the-table cash basis. Gladys mainly kept the place going because she could meet her buddies there at five o’clock and begin the real work of the day – getting drunk. But in the morning, Frank enjoyed the coffee crowd, reading the newspaper and talking with his pals. “What a bunch of nobodies we are,” he said, more than once.

It wasn’t any better at home. His second marriage was falling apart. His two grown children stayed in touch, but they didn’t like coming to LaConner anymore. The kids loved him, but they couldn’t stand their stepmother, and LaConner was just too much of a fake artsy place. “I don’t know why you keep living here,” his daughter told him, “all you do is complain about it.”

Still it was June in the Skagit Valley with all that extra northern daylight and the weather was beautiful and the lavender hedge by Frank’s front door was in bloom and Frank still had moments of complete pleasure. One day, he decided to visit Tom Skubi, an old friend on Whidbey Island.

Skubi! – what a name!  Skubi was proud, in a kind, ironic way, of his middle class upbringing in a Seattle suburb. When Skubi married, he and his wife bought an historic home in Coupeville on Whidbey Island. He drove an older Chevy Suburban. He had been a journalist, but he got smart and became a plumber instead, and that way he made steady money and everything seemed right. As a journalist he had to be concerned about political problems, but as a plumber he just smiled after the day’s work was done.

Frank had been out of touch with Skubi, except for an occasional email, but he heard from another friend that Skubi had had a heart attack – at the age of fifty.

He didn’t come to see Skubi right away, in fact, it was months, but then it seemed like it was time for a visit to Coupeville. That fine morning in June, he set out for Skubi’s house without calling ahead.

Skubi was glad too see Frank at the door. They sat outside on a picnic table that Skubi had built, joined by Skubi’s lovely wife, Ann, and they invited him to stay for dinner. They had barbecued hamburgers, and enjoyed the view of the Keystone Ferry Landing and the deep salt water. The house was sited as it should be -- tucked under the trees a bit -- lacking the arrogance which makes most "view property" an obscene phrase.

They didn’t talk about Skubi’s fragile condition, but Frank noticed the fear and sorrow in Skubi’s voice. Skubi wasn’t going to be working as a plumber anymore. His life was about getting help and managing his condition.

“I guess I shouldn’t envy someone’s prosperity,” Frank thought, looking over that perfect domestic scene. “Why do I feel sorrow for myself?” he thought. “Why do I criticize my life and beat myself up? I wish I had such a nice home like Skubi, and a tender, sensitive wife – and his stability and the respect of the community. Why do I wish that? You get all that, and then you get a heart attack.”

Frank struggled to make sense of things. Things needed to be explained. Things needed to happen for a reason.

Back in LaConner the next day, Frank paused to look up and down Caledonia Street, where he and his wife lived in yellow ranch house. He enjoyed watching the cars go back and forth. It was a small town and he often recognized the people in the cars. Looking to the left, he could see the masts of sailboats cruising up and down Swinomish Channel.

In 1998, they bought the house in part because it was across the street from the home of Guy Anderson, the famous artist. Guy was pretty old by this time. He didn’t live at the house anymore. He was under nursing care at a friend’s house on Maple Street.

“You see, a house is defined by the one across the street,” Frank explained to his pals at Café Paradise. “What I see, every morning when I leave the house, is an object of beauty. Guy’s house is an aesthetic masterpiece, and that is my view.”

      Frank had never spoken to Guy Anderson, yet he had seen him many times in years past, walking around town. “I could have introduced myself,” Frank thought. “Everybody says he’s a friendly fellow, but I was too shy – he’s too great of an artist and I wouldn’t know what to say.”

By 1998, it was too late for that anyway. Guy Anderson was dying. The house was empty. “But I can take something from his yard as a memento,” Frank decided. One afternoon, he crossed the street, opened the gate and walked into Anderson’s yard. There were items lying about such as an artist might collect – pieces of driftwood and broken pottery. It felt like a privilege to be there. Frank took an unhurried look around and picked up a small wood box. That was his remembrance.

When Anderson died later that year, the house was put up for sale by his estate. Frank imagined a wonderful new owner taking over the place. “It will be too expensive for an artist to buy,” Frank thought, “although that would be the best. Realistically, it will have to be somebody with plenty of money – like a gay architect from Seattle, yes!”

Frank imagined this gay architect moving in across the street, enhancing Anderson’s creative legacy, a flamboyant man who would organize Sunday brunches at which champagne was served. “Wouldn’t that be fun,” Frank thought.

As a way to set the tone for whoever might buy the place, Frank planted what he called “gay attractors” in his front yard – lavender and pansies. “Get it?” he told his pals at the café. “The lavender and pansies set up a vibration that will attract the right new owner.” His friends scoffed.

But, to Frank’s disappointment, the gay attractors didn’t work. Brenda Falcone bought the place. She was a wealthy divorced woman from Seattle who sold real estate and dabbled in the arts. “A wannabe, how disgusting,” he thought. Worse, Brenda was hardly in town for three weeks before she began sending disapproving glances Frank’s way. “I hate it when people look down on me. I mean, I should be looking down on her. I’ve lived in this town half my life. I’m twice the artist she will ever be.”

Brenda had a much nicer car and a lot more money. “Caledonia Street is ruined now, the yuppies are taking over,” he moaned.

But Frank was trapped because he wanted to have it both ways. He grew up in a privileged suburb and developed a fine sense of      status. “I’m a snob. In my bones I’m a snob. When I was a teenager, I had a whole drawer just for my sweaters,” he thought.

And yet his adult life had been a renunciation of that status – a series of low-paying job that sufficed to cover the rent on a series of substandard houses. Even the house on Caledonia, which he actually owned, was in South LaConner, the low-status part of LaConner.

Frank wanted to be a man of the people, and to be one with the wretched of the earth, but he knew that Brenda and he were cut from the same cloth. Toiling in the fields had not erased his early advantages. What Frank really wanted was a lifetime pass, some kind of card in his wallet that he could use to go back and forth between the camps. “God, I hate that,” he thought, “I’m spoiled, immature, and I want everything.”

In the spring of that year, Frank quit his job as a nursing aide at Skagit Valley Hospital.  The nursing work had gotten him stressed and depressed. Besides that, the work was very repetitive – mainly cleaning up shit. Cleaning up shit hardly bothered Frank at all, but it wasn’t very interesting either. The worst part of his job was the way his friends reacted. “They act like there’s something wrong with me to be willing to take such a lowly job,” he complained. “That really pisses me off. So I clean up shit – it’s honest work.”

In the world of health care, nursing aides get used up like paper towels. They got one last wipe out of Frank, and then he was out the door.

When Frank quit, he was given unemployment benefits. The people at the employment agency thought his reason for quitting was valid – “I told them I got depressed because everybody died. The woman who interviewed me said she knew what that was like and that gave me the benefits.”

Unemployment checks were bad for Frank’s psyche, especially because he had gotten depressed. “I’m on the welfare wagon now,” he said. “I get barely enough to live on, and my initiative is completely gone.”

That summer, while collecting his weekly unemployment check, Frank composed bombastic emails to his friend, Arch, a school teacher in North Carolina. Frank and Arch had gone to college together.

Frank wrote, “As a consequence of becoming fully enlightened, I am not able to participate in politics for the moment. I had this vision -- which I hesitate to report because it trivializes the genuine efforts of so many good people -- it even trivializes my own efforts, past and future.

“But I was watching CNN. There was George Bush speaking at the podium, in an outdoor setting with the sky in the background. I switched to C-SPAN. There was Fidel Castro, speaking at the podium, in an outdoor setting with the sky in the background. I couldn't tell them apart. Man-at-podium-who-runs-country. One has a beard, one does not.

       “It's not funny, but it is funny. I will get back to politics when I recover the ability to make a distinction between George Bush and Fidel Castro.”

Still, politics had an appeal to Frank – the entertainment value and a chance to observe human folly. Frank had received an invitation to a meeting of the Peace & Reconciliation Network in the town of Langley on Whidbey Island, to be held on the evening of Tuesday, June 29 at Neil’s Clover Patch Café. The invitation said:

“The Whidbey Peace and Reconciliation Network invites you to a relaxing evening of conversation with your neighbors. We believe that community spirit can be nurtured through good conversation – and great pie and coffee! All points of view are most welcome as we discuss the question: Given the world situation, what do you regard as beautiful and worth preserving on Whidbey Island and, what are you willing to do to preserve it? We will use a process called the Conversation Café…”

Frank liked the Conversation Café format of small group (6-8 people) discussion, because he felt awkward speaking in larger groups. With the smaller group, he got more chances to talk, and if he knew he had a chance to talk, he was more likely to listen as well.

Langley is a small town on south Whidbey Island – even cuter than LaConner -- with lots of arts and crafts and many long-distance commuters to Seattle via the ferry at Mukilteo. There were no farmers, no Indians, no Hispanics – it was a liberal town, Democratic.

Frank didn’t go to Langley to make fun of these people, or to characterize them. He made the 90-minute drive from LaConner to join with them and to see if they finally got their act together and had their heads on straight. But he was disappointed – they still felt guilty.

But guilty of what? A competent group with mastery of social and technical skills that assured a high standard of living, yet in the context of this group discussion they expressed doubt, uncertainty, and insecurity. George Bush ran the country and they did not. Bush spearheaded the war on Iraq, which they opposed.  They have lost environmental battles with developers on Whidbey Island because they too much needed their own exquisite taste. They were affluent, but powerless.

During the meeting, Frank heard someone say “I feel guilty.” Frank was acutely sensitive to New Age psychological talk. “It’s really a problem out here on the West Coast,” he thought. “People talk about feelings and they don’t want to be judgmental and it’s all relative – they always say crap like that,” he noted.  But what really bothered him was the clichés, like “I feel guilty.”

Frank was more old-fashioned. He was from the Midwest. He wasn’t sensitive, he was sentimental. He didn’t get depressed, he got became melancholy. Frank admired his own emotional makeup and felt that other people did not quite appreciate him properly about that.

He sent an email to Arch, writing in his usual didactic tone: Why do people say “I feel guilty”?  Why don’t they say “I am guilty”? If you feel guilty because you are guilty, that means you are doing something you shouldn’t do, and you should stop doing it. If you feel guilty, but you are not guilty, then you need to visit the Head Doctor, or take some Clarification Pills, because you should not actually feel guilty unless you are guilty.

Do you feel guilty because of what somebody else did? Then you have your emotions on backward. You might feel sad because of what somebody else did, or disappointed, or angry, but you cannot actually feel guilty about what somebody else did.

In most instances, people say “I feel guilty” because they don’t actually want to take any responsibility – it’s a clever way to avoid saying “I am guilty.” It’s a clever way to avoid making a judgment – either you are guilty or you are not. Did you or did you not do this thing? And was doing this thing right or wrong?

If you reach the conclusion of “I am guilty” then you better stop doing it. That is the point of the exercise – to stop doing it.

“That’s it,” Frank thought. “I have nailed it. I have placed guilt in its proper place. It’s a useful mechanism if you don’t over do it.”

He was frustrated. When he came up with a conclusive understanding of the proper use of guilt – or something like that – he wanted to go out on the road and stop traffic. “The whole world needs the hear this. I just know it,” he wanted to shout.

At least he was used to shouting in the wind. At least he had accepted diminished expectations.

It was like that when he worked at the hospital. He kept notes. “I’m going to write a book called ‘What’s wrong with the hospital and how to fix it,’” he told people. But he knew he would never write anything about it. “What’s the point of having these brilliant insights?” he wondered. “Nobody cares.”

But, in this case of the hospital, at least, his ego was under control. He knew that it couldn’t be fixed. He knew that everybody who worked there felt just like him – frustrated. There was no one to blame – not even Mrs. Bilski.

The paradigm for Frank was his experience in 1972, when he worked as a psychiatric aide at Rockland State Hospital, just outside of New York City, and across the Hudson River from Westchester County. Frank worked there for nine months, in Cottage Four, with chronically schizophrenic teenage boys. It was thirty years ago and he still remembered their faces.

He had been terribly angry at how poorly these boys were cared for – how so much money the state spent for their care and how most of it was siphoned off into administrative expenses, and he used to rage at Mrs. Bilski, the R.N. who ran the unit – storming into her office and accusing her of malfeasance.

Mrs. Bilski always responded to Frank’s tirades with complete calm, which was even more frustrating to Frank, because it was so patronizing. Eventually he gave up trying to find the bastard who was in charge – the one person who was to blame -- but he remembered Mrs. Bilski’s face, the way she wore her ginger brown hair in a bun, her middle-aged crow’s feet, and her uninteresting figure. She just didn’t let things bother her. She didn’t try to fix anything, but in 1972, Frank was years away from learning about that “That was thirty years ago….Eddy and James and Demetrius and those others kids would be in their forties by now. I’ll bet they are still there, in another part of the hospital, in an adult unit, and still locked in their 5-year-old minds, as if no time had passed at all,” he thought.

The next day Frank wrote in his journal: “Wednesday, June 30, 2003, 6:30 a.m. Still hot. I finished reading King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard….”

Haggard’s book of African adventure had a lot of meaning to Frank, reminding him of his own journey to Africa in 1997 and 1998. He had seen the Matopos Hills of Zimbabwe which Frank believed was the site of King’s Solomon’s mines. And he had found his own African jewel – her name was Zodwa. He had married her and brought her back to America.

 Six years later it was hard for him to avoid the conclusion that he had made a disastrous mistake in taking an African wife. She was failing to become the least bit civilized. “Civilized” was a word he had no fear of using, at least in his own mind.

 Zodwa was exhausting his financial and emotional resources. Frank was hanging on this marriage by a thread and feeling very stupid for having wed her in the first place. But, at least, by reading Haggard’s book, he was reassured that he had undertaken a very dangerous mission himself in going to Africa, and that he had wrongly but courageously given into an impulse to love a woman who was wildly inappropriate.

Frank’s journal began in 1976 when he began scribbling notes on odd pieces of paper, making some drawings and careful calligraphies, but it built slowly. The journal kept up through the 1990s, through years of midlife torment, and Frank usually enjoyed his daily morning sessions with pen and paper. But he knew the worth of it. “It’s ninety percent self pity and whining,” he thought.

By 2000, journal writing had become a mass cultural phenomenon. “Everybody has a journal now, and they’re all walking around with that important look as if they had done something therapeutic for themselves,” Frank commented. “It’s the damn Baby Boom again. They’re all writing journals now.”

He felt crowded, metaphorically, metaphysically. He realized there was now a large gang in the same room where he wrote his journal. “Fuck it,” he said. “I’ll find something else.”  He stopped writing his journal and began sending bombastic emails to Arch in North Carolina. He sent emails to female friends detailing his emotional fragility. “But I have to be careful with that. If I send them too much drama, these women will accuse me of dumping on them,” he knew.

Frank’s drawing was getting much better. No one was watching and that helped. He drew plants, trees, flowers and houses. “Those are easy,” he realized. He started to get a little stronger, going up in a progression to animals, then people, then people’s faces, and then their noses. By 2003, he could draw anything, even the nose. “The human face is the hardest to draw, and the nose is the scariest part, because you can fake the eyes and the mouth in a two-dimensional way, but noses are like sculptures, and they have to come out of the page in three dimensions,” he theorized. “Noses are the most important part of the face.”

But something else held him back from drawing human faces – an old injunction against creating false images. This amounted to a superstition on his part because he was raised in the Catholic Church which gloried in the representation of all images, from plants all the way up to God himself. It was only Protestants and Jews that forbad certain types of images. Frank had somehow imbibed that superstition from those religious traditions, but he didn’t know why. “Maybe it’s just a matter of respect,” he surmised. “Maybe I just have a proper respect for the power of images.”

This was not something he ever talked about. He has not reluctant share to his views about images, but he failed to make sense of it whenever he tried to explain his attitude to a willing listener. “I’m not a very good talker,” he confessed to himself. “There are a number of ideas, in art, in politics, in human relations, which I feel very strongly about, but I don’t have the words to say them.”

That was frustrating. And, often enough, he thought of what to say in a conversation, but only an hour later, after he was going home, driving the car – then the words came to him. “Now I have it!” he shouted inside the car. “That’s just what I should have said.”

Talking with other man was a competitive matter, Frank knew. “I can never hold forth,” he sighed. “I end up sitting with the women.”

He tried explaining this to William Gruend over at the cafe. “I’m not a very good talker,” he told William. “A lot of time when all the guys are arguing I can’t get a word in edgewise. It just goes too fast for me.”

William nodded sagely. William wouldn’t let Frank talk very much either, except in the beginning of a conversation, when he put on his best listening expression. It was like letting Frank be the warm-up act for William’s star performance once the conversation really got started.

Frank often wished that William would just go away. “I get so tired of him,” he thought. “I don’t know why everybody else likes him.”

William was a drunk. He was moody, intense, and usually depressed. He had rotten parents a long time ago – and he milked that story for all the sympathy he could gain from various friends around town. People always wanted to help William, like giving him small jobs and inquiring after his health.

William had a kind of brooding presence at the cafe. “I wouldn’t mind so much, if he just wouldn’t take up so much room,” Frank thought.

“Maybe it’s his stomach,” Frank considered. William had a big gut, but it wasn’t flabby, it wasn’t down low like pregnant woman. William’s belly was round and very strong. “I can’t push William away, he has too much inertia,” Frank realized.

Older now, Frank was better at letting things go – like being pissed off at William. He left the cafe and walked the short half a block to the water’s edge.

LaConner is situated on the east bank of Swinomish Channel. The saltwater sloshes through twice a day, coming in, coming out, coming in, and coming out. The tide rises and falls and rises and falls again.

Only experienced fishermen and tugboat pilots understood the pattern of the channel’s movement –how it was influenced by changes in barometric pressure, the phase of the moon, and the amount of water coming out of the Skagit River at any given time.

All Frank understood is that the water in Swinomish Channel never stopped moving, except at flood tide. “Sure, it stops moving at flood tide and at the bottom of ebb tide, but that doesn’t really count. The water is just pausing before it changes direction,” he observed.

Frank sat on a creosoted log on the banks of the channel. This was in a little spot he called McGivens Park, after the McGivens Towing Company, which owned this small parcel of land between the LaConner Town Hall and the channel. It was no more than a narrow strip of blackberries that sloped downhill to the saltwater dulse seaweed growing at the water’s edge.

But Frank liked it here because it was a neglected, quiet place. The rest of LaConner was too tidy and spiffed up for the tourists.

He sat down and watched the water. “It’s always moving,” he thought, with wonder, but that made him uncomfortable at the same time. His secret wish was that he could come up to the channel and find the water still and calm. “Can’t we just turn it off for a few weeks?” he cried to the Universe. Frank knew where that longing came from – Lake Michigan.

After almost 25 years in the Skagit Valley, Frank was still not well adjusted to moving water. He grew up near Lake Michigan. It was one mile from his childhood home to the beach on that body of vast, still, fresh water -- waters that never moved, except in very deep, very slow glacial currents – too slow for a human being to observe.

The wind might whip up whitecaps on the surface of Lake Michigan. In winter, the lake was covered with soft ice cakes shaped like lily pads, but the water was always still, always right where it had been the day before, “like it’s supposed to be,” Frank admitted.

And the ever-changing currents of Swinomish Channel were foreign and alien to him, after all this time. “I wish I could get used to it. I wish I could forget where I came from, and then LaConner would be my real home,” he thought.

In a town full of transplanted Midwesterners and East Coast people who seemed to embrace the local climate with total ferocity, Frank felt like the odd man out. The other immigrants were successful in their renunciation of the past, but not Frank. People moved here from New Jersey or Minnesota and wouldn’t dream of ever going back that way except to visit their families.

Frank knew that the other transplants were true converts to the Skagit Valley, and he was not. Frank maintained a sentimental attachment to the Midwest, “and they all know it,” he said. Everybody in LaConner knew he was tentative while they were all committed – that’s what Frank suspected. That he gave this away by some look on his face – or maybe it was because he said things like about how much he liked the Chicago White Sox and that he had no special interest in the Seattle Mariners. “It’s really stupid to say things like that. Why can’t I just lie a little bit and say how much I love the Mariners?” he lamented.

There Frank was on the creosote log, watching the water move and lamenting his fate. “I used to wallow in misery. Now I shake it off after five minutes – getting old is not so bad,” he thought.

Sea gulls flew overhead. Pleasure boats moved up and down the channel in a steady procession. The Indians kept their fishing boats on the other side of the channel. Frank watched them load and unload their boats – gill netters and purse seiners for catching salmon – a different tribe than his own, with a formal and legal distinction, and a clear boundary. LaConner was on the east side of the channel, a regular American town. Swinomish village was on the west side, since time immemorial, a sovereign nation. “Some sovereign nation,” Frank said at the cafe. “They don’t even have their own grocery store.”

Frank felt, after 25 years living across the channel from the tribe, that a bit of critical judgment was appropriate. “I’m not some wannabe. I’m not a tourist. I live here. Indians are good people and no better than the rest of us,” he said. “I don’t harbor romantic notions about them. I just like them.”

But he wouldn’t say too much about that at the cafe. That would invite a boring political argument – we’re guilty! we stole their land! The Native Americans are in close touch with nature and they live by the Great Spirit, and we are the destroyers! “Oh, give me a break. I’m tired of this,” he said.

No politics. It was the same with reading the newspaper at the cafe. “I practice remaining calm while reading the newspaper,” he proclaimed to his pals. “I read about violence, war, and the horrible cruelty of criminals. I read about the self-serving dishonesty of politicians. But if I feel my gorge rising, I pause and take a deep breath. I go to the Buddha, and I say this happened and that happened, and now I know this happened and that happened. I only observe. That’s the way Clyde would have done it.”

Clyde was the town drunk. Every village has an idiot and every small town has a town drunk. Clyde died in 1996 and more than 300 people came to his funeral. They had a party in his honor at the picnic shelter in Pioneer Park. Frank didn’t go. He appreciated Clyde, but in truth he couldn’t tolerate him. Clyde used to sit on front porch and Jim and Barbara Johnson’s house – their old house when they lived in town. He would sit there half the day, with his back pack and his jug of cheap wine, blowing smoke through his alcoholic wine-darkened cheeks, uttering Buddhist koans, speaking of profoundly inconsequential matters, a living legend, as legends go in a small town.

Clyde got his wine money sweeping the parking lot at the grocery store or raking leaves or people just gave it to him. He wrote poems on scraps of paper and gave them to people, like this one:


There are many Springs today ---

One is a new bird, another a warm stone.

One is a marshhawk flying upside down,

   And the last is the last fall

leaf that lived way up.  Just landed.

Gladys kept a copy of Clyde’s poems at the Café Paradise piled in with all the other books and magazines. “It’s a good poem,” Frank knew. “But I’m only half a Buddhist. This drunk monk, Buddhist monk, mindless wandering mind. This Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg summit of the beginning of all things, and how it all comes back around, so you don’t need to leave, you can just sit there, and save yourself all that trouble – I know all that.”

Clyde wrote another poem that Frank really liked, about Paul Olsen’s dog, Nero, a huge black Newfoundland. Olsen was a misanthrope, a poet, and a Chinese scholar. Nero always rode in the front of the Olsen’s small pickup when Olsen came to town – those rare visits to Café Paradise, because he couldn’t stand people anymore. But when Olsen came to town, Frank always liked hearing him laugh. Olsen laughed like a very loud donkey, you could hear him all over town. This was the poem that Clyde wrote about Olsen’s dog, Nero.

 Nero Woof

Me ride in car with Paul.

Me smell and watch.

   Me listen well and sit in car.

Me be good dog and wait.

   Me good big dog.

      Me wait and rest.

“That one is good. I know a good poem when I see one,” Frank said. “It’s entirely accurate. That’s what Nero is like. And if you understand the dog, then you can understand everything, and the universe begins to make sense.

Jim Johnson, who enabled Clyde in a big way because he admired losers, kept a portrait of Clyde in his studio, a wood cut print, and he kept all the clippings of Clyde’s life in a box -- kind of a shrine. This one had been in the newspaper:

Cars, vans and bicycles crowded into

every available parking spot in and around

Pioneer Park on Wednesday, March 20, for

a memorial potluck for the late Clyde Sanborn.

   Sanborn, 47, was found dead Saturday

morning, March 15, on a sand spit near the

south end of the Swinomish Channel. He was

the victim of an apparent drowning accident.

   Tears filled the eyes of many of the

hundreds of mourners, others laughed and

talked about pleasant memories of Clyde.

Artwork and poems, written by what locals

believe was the last "River Rat" in LaConner,

were on display.

   One mourner brought several poems

written by Clyde. The cherished gifts, written

many years ago, were handwritten on yellowed

scraps of paper. They were given tearfully to

Clyde's mother, Gwen Hansen, who attended

the vigil with several family member from


   Clyde, a poet and artist, was known

to always have had an interesting tidbit

to add to any conversation.

   He once wrote: "One should always

carry a pen. One never knows when one

may run into a poem."

   According to his close friend, Jim Johnson,

the Skagit County Sheriff's office is trying

to determine Clyde's whereabouts in the

days prior to his death. A daily visitor to

town, he had not been seen around

recently. Anyone who may have seen or

spoke to him in the days preceeding his

death is asked to contact the Sheriff's

office at 336-9450.

“I’m just petty and selfish,” Frank thought. “There aren’t going to be 300 people coming to my funeral. Everybody liked Clyde, that was all. Being drunk all day didn’t have much to do with it.”

But Frank was tired of the bum life, the deadbeat poets, and the stoned fish. He used to hang out with Clyde a lot in the early 80s, when Clyde had his cabin out by the Sand Spit. Clyde and Nearly Normal Jimmy had adjacent cabins – shacks, really. Jimmy had a yellow dog named Amigo, and Jimmy and Clyde lived the life from Cannery Row, going into town to get enough beer, the cheapest, and coming back out to the Sand Spit, a wonderful place to get drunk. It didn’t matter where you fell down, there were no rocks, or if there was a rock, it would be covered with soft velvet moss, you could lie down and see the stars – and be drunk enough to see the stars, because the clouds hid them from sober people.

But that was back in the 80s. More people were hanging out on the River back then, before all the yuppies came, when LaConner was quieter. Nearly Normal Jimmy had moved off the Sand Spit after the time he got so drunk that he climbed a utility pole and sat on the raised platform next to the transformer and some how touched something that electrocuted him and put him in the hospital.

Nearly Normal Jimmy got his picture in the paper for that escapade, and he was deeply ashamed and never came back to LaConner for many years. He quit drinking altogether, although he made up for that by smoking pot all the time. He didn’t really go away. He just found a cheap old farmhouse that some old farmer would let him live in for a little work. That was out on Fir Island, only ten miles from LaConner, but Jimmy never once came to town after that.

One by one, the River Rats disappeared and Clyde was the last one, officially, that is – the last one to be a poet about it, and he drowned, fittingly, it seemed. Clyde could handle a row boat drunk or sober, as good as anybody, and it was a mystery to his friends – a good end to his life, but still a mystery that he just fell out of his boat and drowned.

And they never found his bicycle either.

Thank you very much,

Fred Owens

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