Deserted Cities of the Twizzle
Lane soon sees there is something to remote Riskytoo County in far northern California and the battered hamlet that is Seed. Something to this rural and impoverished region where he has come to work as an adjunct professor at the tiny College of the Riskytoos. It is a deceptive nothingness that the place is stamped with, too subtle to be real and yet it is out there, filling the space between the long-needled branches in the surrounding sea of ponderosas, solidified by the stillness of massive Mount Ashtas, which towers over everything.
Nowhere else has Lane been able to say, here is where I am and accept it without wishing he were somewhere else. He lives in a wind-buffeted, creaky two-room apartment on South Seed Boulevard with a kitchen counter that slides all over the place and the ubiquitous whisper of traffic on I-5. The two constants in his new world: the presence of the mountain and the sound of fast moving freeway traffic.
He is genuinely happy to be here. Everything seems about as straight and simple as the trunks of the evergreens bristling on the mountain's lower slopes. He doesn't mind how getting things—other than overpriced groceries—requires a half hour drive to Walmart in the county seat, or that finding any items of real variety or quality requires an hour drive into Oregon. This isolated, wooded simplicity he can handle.
On the Sunday before classes are to start, he walks across Seed. He walks down Main Street with its empty brick buildings and through the burn zone where over two-hundred houses were destroyed by fire the previous fall. It is a chilled day beneath a damp blanket of sky. Tendrils of mist snake though ravines. This adds a grey hue to his twizzle, which has been substantial since he woke up. He has been twizzling about the house in the Santa Cruz mountains, which he and his brother inherited from their father who died the previous year. Lane spends much time guessing what his half-brother wants to do with the house—all bad ideas he is sure—and imagines his brother is engaged in similar speculative worry about him. His mother has also piped in with a claim concerning some verbal agreement she made with his father in 1970, eight years before their divorce, in regards to the property. An agreement that means she deserves a substantial amount of money.
Closer to the surface is Lane's twizzle about the delay concerning his background check for the College of the Riskytoos. He submitted fingerprints in October. It usually only takes a month, he was told. Here it is the first week of January and still there is no word from The Department of Justice. His record, he knows, is punctuated with various minor infractions. No felonies, but could laws in California be different from those in Oregon? How deep will they go? The Human Resources Director told him over the phone that she'd received permission from the college president to go ahead and hire him, but should the check show up with unacceptable offenses on it, his job would be terminated. This is his current killer twizzle.
He comes to the crest of a hill dotted with skeletal trees that may or may not recover from the fire. A smattering of blackened debris dots dozens of empty lots. He finds a good-sized rock to sit on. It was once a landscaping centerpiece in someone's front yard. Aiming to quell his twizzle, Lane says, what the fuck, and attempts the A.A. practice of praying for those with whom one is not aligned, the aim being to recognize that any animosity is of one's own making. Regarding his brother and mother he thinks, I hope everything works out for you guys. That is all he can muster, but he does it again, leaning forward, forearms resting on thighs, fists clenched. I hope everything works out for you guys. He follows this with a decisive nod.
Before he leaves the hill and heads back down Main Street, he finds the rare energy to call an old friend. Calls to old friends trouble Lane with the degree of change and aging they reveal, but calls to Monte, with whom he spent a year at boarding school, usually revolve around their mutual love of rock and are thus less melancholia-inducing. Monte has just returned to Seattle from a vacation in England with his wife and two kids. Lane remembers the night he and Monte first met—fourteen-year-old freshmen at boarding school, bonding over Zeppelin and Westerns.
"So how are things panning out down there in Seed?" Monte asks him.
"Good so far, although we're still waiting for word on my background check, which is nerve-wracking. But I dig it here. It is definitely hardscrabble. Economic opportunities are nil. You should see Main Street, which I just walked down. Most of it is boarded up. But the whole county, it is a different world. A strange combination of western, new-agey, and tweakerdom."
Monte laughs. "Hey, isn't that big mountain right there?"
"Mount Ashtas? I can see it from where I'm sitting." Lane pivots on his rock and looks up at the mountain. Its summit is embedded in a ceiling of charcoal plumage. "Hey, I got a good one for you." Lane asks Monte if he knows the only AC/DC song without a guitar solo.
"Hmmm, I'm going to say "'It's a Long Way to the Top.' That one has a bagpipe solo."
"Nope. It's 'Gimme a Bullet' off of Powerage."
"Whoa. That's a great song."
"It moves me deeply," Lane tells him.
No Jip Here
Following his property manager's advice about saving on heating costs, Lane closes off the back room, which, come spring, will be his bedroom, and moves everything essential to the front room where he sleeps on a futon in a sleeping bag alongside the kitchen island with the precarious counter top. It is tight but warm, and the power bill will be manageable. From inside his new home he listens to the shriek of frigid wind competing with the swoosh of I-5 traffic.
He calls his mother. She has returned to her retirement community in Palo Alto from Stanford Hospital following heart surgery. A nurse answers the phone and hands it to his mother.
"Hello sweetie," she says warmly, but not without effort.
"Hey there. How you doing?"
"Oh, fair to midland. This damn medication makes me so thirsty. But, oh, it is so good to be back home."
"I'm sure it is."
"When do you start teaching?"
"Are you excited?"
"Say," she says. Even in her frail condition, her tone implies an impending question. "When you were here, did you happen to move or take my copy of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead? It is not on the shelf where it should be."
Lane is flabbergasted. How is it possible that his bedridden mother, whose bed is not even in the same room as her expansive bookshelves, could have noticed, in the two days she's been back in her apartment, that he'd taken the slender hardback from between its two companion pieces—one of several hundred book spines.
"I did," he answers reluctantly.
"Ah," she gasps. "I want it back. That is a nice edition and one of my favorite books."
He doesn't bother to ask if he can hold onto it until he has had a chance to read it, as he's not sure when that might be. His reading list is substantial. He isn't sure whether to be miffed at her pettiness or amazed at her almost supernatural powers of discovery. "I'll mail it as soon as I can," he tells her.
Lane is relieved to be living once more in an area with visible topography. Most notably, omnipresent Mt. Ashtas. When his new colleagues ask him about his decision to leave Mortalus and come to Seed, he tells them he was unhappy in Mortalus, the layout of which was a sodden flat grid that he felt stymied joy. Mortalus's incessant downpours were a major factor in his decision, as was the local population's ubiquitous love affair with the university's football team, the Weavers, whose W emblem, at first glance, resembles a vagina.
This explanation does not include how, during his two years at graduate school, he could count on one hand the number of times (five to be exact) he had a guest over for dinner in his tiny apartment, how every night he ate dinner alone while sitting on his floor, his dining table a black Darigold milk-crate. He does not tell them about the degree of loneliness that persisted even as he went on to teach at the local community college for four years. Because of this loneliness, and then reinforcing it, was the fact that, toward the end of his time in Mortalus, he was drinking a fifth of Oregon Springs Vodka and a six-pack of Heineken a day. Every afternoon he'd come home to the same alcohol-infused routine and in doing so, drop the hot anvil of sadness in his lap. Day in and day out. It was an irrational groove from which he'd been unable to extract himself. The level of loneliness was such that the thought of moving anywhere, even destitute Seed, offered hope for reestablishing an appreciation of life. This part of his story he does not share with his new colleagues.
His first class goes well, although he is surprised to see all his students, with the exception of one, fall between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Older, non-traditional students, he's found—provided they are not crazy—can be a blessing for a class and are less likely to fuck around with their smart phones while he is talking. The majority of the students in the class are white and come from right there in Riskytoo County, which unnerves him slightly as he has yet to ascertain any collective vibe or continuity in the community. Might they be kids raised by new-agey parents who shun vaccinations and came to the area because of the mountain's healing energy? Did they grow up in leaky trailers where moms and dads cut up meth on fold-out tables?
He asks his usual first-day questions. What is everyone's intended field of study? Are there any veterans in the class? Are there any musicians? Any athletes?
He is surprised to learn there are no veterans in the class. The military, he thought, might look like a promising alternative after spending the first part of one's life in Riskytoo County. He is saddened to learn there are no musicians in the class and thinks to himself, 'Jesus Christ, are video games keeping these guys from rock?' He can't think of a greater tragedy. When he asks if there are any athletes in the class, a hand shoots up. There is, Chuck, a baseball player from Montana who wears a large cross around his neck and who, when Lane mentions how he lived in Missoula for ten years, lifts has eyebrows and cocks his head saying, "That town is crazy. We're a little more grounded in Great Falls."
Having reached chapter twenty-five in David Copperfield, Lane is dismayed by David's choice for a wife in Dora. Her dog, Jip, he wants to kick.
That night he watches his three favorite music videos on YouTube: Van Halen's "Panama," Yes's "Owner of a Lonely Heart," and Sly Fox's "Let's Go All the Way." He watches the video for the Cult's "She Buys Sanctuary," and is reminded of Lamu, the island off Kenya's coast where he spent two months. The two Australian guys who ran the Jannett House with its thatched roof and Portuguese-styled white walls, where he'd stayed, had listened to the song constantly. He watches the video for Twisted Sister's, "We're Not Gonna Take It," the incensed father in the video reminding Lane of his own father the night Lane, aged twelve, took all the pushpins out of the corkboard in the kitchen to put up his new rock posters. His father, getting home late, had discovered the pins missing and had woken Lane by bursting through the bedroom door. Shouting loudly and with spittle flying, his father had proceeded to rip the posters from the walls.
Even as that jarring memory comes into play, Lane wishes the old man was still around so that Lane could tell him about his first day of teaching at COR. Lane knows the old man would be proud of him for how he, after hitting an inevitable and frightening bottom, had managed to pick up the pieces and find the teaching job in Seed and that he'd done it on his own, albeit with the financial help that came from the old man's passing. He is glad the old man hadn't been around to witness his soul-scraping bottom. His dad died two months before Lane hit his nadir, which, Lane recognizes, would have happened whether his dad had died or not and most likely would have ended their relationship for good. Now Lane finds himself wishing the old man were here. Lane knows his father would have enjoyed hearing him talk about his students and the high desert remoteness of Riskytoo County.
Station to Station
At the end of the first week of classes, his students turn in their assigned list of favorites. For these Lane asks them to list their three favorite books, three favorite films, and three favorite musical artists, albums, or songs. He is sad to see the same trends appear on these as did on the lists of his students in Oregon, Harry Potter filling over half of the number one spots in the book category. The only time a book of significant literary merit makes it onto a list is because it was required to be read in high school, usually To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby. It surprises Lane how none of his students were assigned Catcher in the Rye or Slaughterhouse-Five for their high school English classes and how many of them have never heard of these.
One student, Katie, from L.A., has listed Devo as her favorite musical artist. Lane is thrilled and when handing back the lists in class, he waves hers over his head. "Hooray for Devo!" he calls out. "Freedom of Choice is one of the best albums ever." When he hands her the list, she says shyly, "My favorite song is 'Uncontrollable Urge.' I love blasting it on the freeway."
At the end of the first week of classes he drives to Ashland for groceries and to go to the bank. There is no Wells Fargo in Riskytoo County. There is one an hour south in Redding, but everyone he talks to feels the same way about Redding, that it is a crap factory and cultural void. Ashland holds much more appeal.
The drive to Ashland is to travel among a series of stunning vistas. Though it is the second week of January, the cold is not oppressive. Freshly fallen snow whitens the world. Blanketed in snow, the rolling hills assume, for Lane, a degree of safe nostalgia and seem, somehow, less daunting in the crisp air. Swooping through the gorge north of Urtweka he can make out the Klamath below him, its surface a series of corrugated ripples beneath bowed willow branches laden with ice.
In Ashland, he visits Tad and Sandy in their apartment. Lane met Tad six years earlier, during his last year at Graduate School in Mortalus. Tad had been seventeen at the time, a dreadlocked, rave-frequenting, high school drop-out who hung around the park and who became Lane's regular weed connection. Sandy, Tad's girlfriend, Lane met at Tad's house where there had been a major grow operation underway. Lane had found himself in a peculiar situation when, on the first day of his second term teaching at FRCC, he'd discovered Sandy sitting in his class. "Hello, Mr. Baker," she'd said ebulliently from the back row, her secretive smile accentuated by all kinds of piercings. That was the first time she'd ever called him Mr. Baker. "Hello," Lane had said, trying to sound composed while thinking of all the times he'd sat beside her on Tad's bed beneath the giant Bob Marley flag, a large glass bong passing between them. After class, he'd caught up with her. "Ah, Sandy. If you are going to be in my class, we have to be cool here. I could get in a lot of trouble if you were to even joke with other students about me puffing."
"I understand. Don't worry. It's totally cool."
The class proved a struggle for Sandy, but in the end she got a B. Now she and Tad, he no longer dreadlocked, she with substantially fewer piercings, are finishing up their chemistry degrees at SOU and applying to PhD programs. It has been almost two years since Lane has seen them. Walking into their apartment in Ashland, the first thing Lane says is, "I recognize that," pointing to the large Bob Marley flag on the wall beside a whiteboard covered in formulas and equations.
On the drive back to Seed he listens to Budgie and Blue Cheer. Twenty miles north of Seed, with the broad slopes of Mt. Ashtas stained amber, the Blue Cheer song "I'm the Light," comes on. The song immediately reminds Lane of Alicia, how when she first heard the song on their drive back to Mortalus from the Oregon Coast she'd laughed and said it reminded her of a children's song, but because memories of her and her exuberant sexual energy, fill Lane with longing and sadness, he focuses instead on the song's shimmering sitar action. It is while in this appreciative trance, with the world having assumed a supernatural hue, that he leaves I-5 at the central Seed exit.
In the afternoon, Lane walks to the fire station located next to the town's lumber mill. During the fire, major efforts were made to save the mill after its sawdust piles ignited. Angel, Lane's only non-traditional student and a former vato from L.A., is a volunteer firefighter. Lane had asked him after class if he could get a tour of the station to which Angel said it shouldn't be a problem.
Angel comes rapidly down the black-iron spiral staircase when told he has a visitor. "Mr. Baker," he says, surprised. Angel has hard eyes and a slender mustache that accentuates a determined jaw. His demeanor, nonetheless, is generous and sincere.
"How goes it, Angel? I thought I'd take you up on the offer to check out your scene, if that's cool."
"Yeah, no problem." Angel says. He leads Lane upstairs and shows him where the firefighters bunk. There are impressive maps on the wall and even a silver pole they can slide down through a hole in the floor. Back downstairs, Angel shows Lane the three yellow trucks in the bay, one of which looks like it could be from the early 70's show Emergency. "We got lucky during the fire," Angel tells him. "We are a small station. This is all we got. If the fire had acted different, or if other crews hadn't arrived, I don't know, man." Angel shakes his head. "It would have been bad. We almost lost the station."
Lane says, "I didn't realize you were here during the fire."
"Yeah, it was like my first week with these guys. I'd taken a couple a fire classes at the college, but I seen nothing like that before."
"What made you decide to move here from L.A.?"
"L.A. was a bad scene. My homies were in gangs. There was nothing good coming, you know what I'm saying."
"Seed is a whole different world than L.A., I imagine."
"Yeah, it's a lot safer. I miss my family and my girlfriend, but they got the college here and I want to take all my classes so I can be a full-time firefighter."
In a tone scraped clean of any trace of pretension or arrogance, Angel says, "I had to get out of L.A. You know, things there were getting bad."
Lane nods. "Well, for class you could write about making the move from L.A. to Seed."
Angel lifts his eyebrows, considering. "When I moved here, I really had no idea what it'd be like. I definitely had no idea I'd see something like this," he gestures toward the charred hillside across the road from the lumber mill.
"Or you could write about that," Lane says.
Angel thinks for a few seconds, but already Lane can see him liking the idea in his mind. "Yeah," Angel says. "Cause, it was like..." his gaze stays on the charred hill, "it was like nothing I ever seen. It was crazy."
After visiting with Angel at the firehouse, Lane walks down Main Street past the empty buildings with their western facades. He turns onto Seed Boulevard and heads to the local market. Initially, trips to Ney's Market had depressed Lane with the narrowness of its aisles and unhealthy, overpriced items. His initial dismay has given way to a lighthearted familiarity and he is able to find humor in all that Ney's doesn't have and the outrageous cost of what it does.
Gliding down the aisles, which feel crowded even when he is the only one in them, Lane succumbs to twizzle. This twizzle is a frequent standby related to the mysterious reason for his contract not being renewed at the college where he'd previously taught. Without warning, the litany of possible reasons begins to churn in his head. Could it be because he assigned the Amy Bender story, "Motherfucker," for his Literature class? There were five hardcore Christian girls in that class, and while they appeared not to mind the distinctive title, he imagined that if wind of the story's title had reached their peers or parents, it might have caused a reaction. Or could it have been his decision to share with a class how, at the previous day's band practice in a dank basement of a house where one of his former students—the band's drummer—lived, he'd discovered, after his eyes had adjusted to the dark, on the floor in front of his amp, a used condom? In hindsight, he realizes this anecdote may not have been appropriate for an introductory level composition class, but he'd felt it harmless—and humorous—enough to share at the time. The point he'd hoped to make was that the dinginess of the basement made it a peculiar place for romance.
Finding himself fretting over these questions from his past while holding a $8.99 jar of jam, he checks himself by thinking: Enough. There is no point in diving back into those murky waters. Dropping the jar of jam in his blue shopping basket, he moves on down the aisle.
In the morning when he wakes up in his sleeping bag on the futon, before he has time to ponder the frosty world that awaits him outside or give thought to the class he will teach in two hours, he is beset by a painful revelation related to the last time he saw Motörhead in Portland five years earlier. After the show, he'd found a prostitute, not for any sexual encounter, but because she could help him score crack, which proved no problem. They had spent several hours together hunkered between parked cars and posted up in slender alleys smoking rock. He'd noticed the prostitute, whose name he can't remember, had a bad limp.
All night, Lane kept telling her, "Sister, you need to get some new shoes," sure that her strained gait was on account of her high heels being a poor fit, or merely impractical. Why it is then that five years later, while lying in his sleeping bag on a frigid morning in Seed, California, Lane comes to the sudden and painful realization that her shoes were not the source of her limp, that most likely she had a physical disability, he has no idea. Nonetheless he is undone by this delayed discovery. He can't imagine anyone being as insensitive as he was during that long night of surging rushes and sketchy transactions. That poor girl, he thinks. Hustling to survive and having to put up with my constant suggestion she get new shoes. I am a dolt and a moron, he thinks.
With shame and regret engulfing him, Lane dresses for class, putting on a pair of khaki trousers and a button-down plaid shirt. He makes his lunch, which he puts in an old canvas grain bag he'd used to catch his horses and mules when he worked on a trail crew. This he slings over one shoulder while over the other he slings the strap of his laptop bag. Thus readied, he walks out the door, making his way to the intersection at the end of the block where he rounds the corner to head up the gentle hill toward campus. Behind him, Mt. Ashtas rises into the clouds. Patches of blue punctuate an overcast sky. He pushes on purposefully, not looking back to avoid being waylaid by the breathtaking view. Soon, he thinks, I will see Angel, who helped save Seed from destruction by fire. Soon I will see shy Katie, my Devo fan. Soon I will see Chuck, my misguided baseball player from Montana. I will help them in any way I can. I will help them the way I did not help that prostitute in Portland. I will not try and assume what may be wrong with them or pretend like I know what they want from life. I will try only to do what I can to make their day a little better.
Title image "Ashtas" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.