Archive for September, 2020

This Time Last Year

This time last year, we were about halfway through a week-long trek around Iceland. We should be doing something similar this year, but we’re not. No one is. Big plans when this shit is over.

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Modestine moved at a steady speed, but her gait being so narrow, that pace was slower than a walk is slower than a run. Louis matched her stride until they breached the ridge and found themselves out of sight of the village, when Louis found the small courage to take his walking staff and apply it docilely to the donkey’s flank. She tripped three steps faster, then returned to her molasses stride. Louis tried a second time, and then a third, with similar affect. Modestine presented to him her shaking knees and her huffing breath, so that Louis’s face burned with shame and he tried to resign himself to the idea that his journey may take several weeks longer than anticipated.

They plodded along the trail, Modestine at her leisure and Louis growing increasingly frustrated that they would not make his first scheduled destination; he’d intended to camp out on the shores of Lac du Bouchet, a reputedly uninhabited circular crater lake surrounded by forests. He attempted to cheer himself by remarking to Modestine the beautiful weather they were enjoying, and then he lifted his spirits with a series of cigarettes, which, once started, could not be easily stopped with the sluggish monotony of the pace.

Louis set one hand on Modestine’s side, who seemed not to notice him, and he closed his eyes as he kept step beside her. He thought only to rest his vision. A moment to see something else besides every single patch of scrub, every single pebble, every darting rabbit, in such detail one’s head could burst. As his feet moved with the donkey, he imagined a cool night under the stars, testing the warmth of his new sleeping sack, listening to the sounds of the lake take over after Modestine had finished her bread chewing and gone off to donkey dream land. The night owls overhead roosting in tall pines whose sharp needle scent moved silently over the still water. To make out the line of trees and its twin on the lake, set against an inky sky specked with the light of distant stars. Louis stood at the edge of the lake, the fringe of trees highlighted silver from a gibbous moon, and bent to take up a stone and lob it far into the water. It arced high and Louis lost it amongst the stars, until it plopped and sank into the mysterious mere.

As it did, Louis barely saved himself from eating the trail in front of him as Modestine walked him straight over a low outcropping of rock. The near-fall startled him enough to stop the donkey and collect himself, vaguely aware that he was being laughed at.

A tall man of perhaps forty, wearing an emerald country tailcoat and a look of incongruity, walked toward them from the opposite direction and apparently saw everything.

“She is old, eh?” The man paused his brisk walk to ask.

“Not very, I don’t think,” Louis replied, trying hard to be polite but unable to not be offended.

“Ah, then you have traveled far,” the man continued.

“We have just left Monastier,” Louis sighed. And the man laughed again.

Mon ami,” the man began, “You must have no pity on these animals.” With that, he waded into a nearby thicket, returned with an ugly-looking switch, and proceeded to lash Modestine with the ridiculous cry of proot! Before Louis could protest, the little donkey’s ears stood and she began running full force, up and over the nearby hill, back the way the tall man had come. Louis trotted over the ridge to see the man standing there watching Modestine continue to run down the trail. He was smiling satisfactorily to himself.

Merci!” Louis cried, and as he ran past the man, he was handed the switch.

“Proot! Proot!” the man called after him and laughed.

When Louis caught up with Modestine, she was grazing on some brush beside the trail. He expected to find her half-dead, but indeed she was not. Her breathing was hardly labored and her look was as if she’d been caught in a terrible lie.

“You,” he said, pointing at her. “You.” He stopped and walked around her, gaping in disbelief, as if only by examining her from all angles would he discover, beyond doubt, the depths of her duplicity.

“I will refrain from insulting you, Madam, because you are a lady,” he said, combing his hair from his eyes with long, tapered fingers, “but I will no longer refrain from this!” And he smacked her across the rear with the switch. She snorted and started forward, going faster with each thwack of the switch until Louis got her to a pace he thought reasonable and then he merely tapped her when she slowed too much. Occasionally she would stop altogether and he would have to lace her rump to get her going again. Despite his annoyance with her, he still hated to do it. Surrel had been right about one thing—Louis’s frail little lady had broken his heart.

Louis, flicking the switch and bleating the call of the donkey-drivers, drove Modestine down through St. Martin de Frugères where, on this sunny Sabbath day, a mass of church goers crowded around the packed parish minster, kneeling on the steps in silence and listening intently to the words of the priest inside. The very sight helped heal his spirit so freshly wounded by his companion and by the time they reached Goudet, like Monastier, nestled at the end of a fertile valley, he was whistling, albeit poorly.

Stony footpaths trailed through rocky embankments, and Château Beaufort—a ruinous castle, its crumbling bricks first laid in the 13th century but allowed to collapse after the Revolution—stood opposite across a stream so clear one might mistake it for dry. Goudet gave the impression of extreme isolation, though in fact, via those footpaths the postman winds in and Goudet’s youth wind out, like Louis, ripe for adventure, as best modeled by Régis Senac, “Professor of Fencing of the Two Americas,” and nephew of the local innkeeper. Senac’s portrait took a place of honor on the wall of the inn’s café, where his life story could be read.

After taking a midday meal, Louis gazed at Senac’s portrait in the café, awaiting his empty milk bottle to be filled, smoking a cigarette, and day dreaming that, one day, his own portrait could be looked upon by the youth of Edinburgh—perhaps adorning the walls of Rutherford’s on Drummond Street—and he could serve as the inspiration and the impetus for any fresh, talented, and driven boy to make his way out of and beyond the cough-inducing damps of Auld Reekie.

Behind Louis, a woman cleared her throat, startling him.

He took his bottle, thanked her, and returned to Modestine, whom he had tethered outside, although he assumed that even should she get loose, she would not be long to catch up with given her natural and preferred pace. As he loosened the knot and guided her around in the direction of the footpath that would lead out of the valley, there seemed to have been a change in his lady—a sense of repudiation that could not bode well for the remainder of their day’s march.

As they moved up the opposite hill, before they were even out of the sight of town, Modestine slowed her measure as to have effectively stopped, and the switch barely stirred her an inch. Louis prooted. He prooted loudly, softly, far, and wide. He prooted closely, tightly, high, and low. He prooted until his lips ached and his beatings almost brought him to tears. Although, they could have been tears of frustration, as he would certainly not reach the lake by dusk, perhaps not even all night. Once he ceased the lashings altogether and once he prooted his final proot, Modestine began to move, though at her own pace, which was hardly at all and with frequent stops to chew at anything green that garnished the wayside.

When Louis thought it could not get worse, they came upon another ass, of seemingly worse behavior than Modestine, as he roamed the hillside at will and without his master. The reciprocated attraction between the two lovers was immediate and horrifying. As the swine masquerading as a pack animal attempted to mount poor, guiltless Modestine, Louis renewed his thrashing to the both of them, anything to quash the budding romance. As he whipped wildly, he grew more disgusted with Modestine’s suitor, for any man worth his pride should have, at the very least, defended his lady.

When Louis finally got them rid of the amorous beast, new troubles arose. Perhaps the many thousands of knots strapping his pack to Modestine had loosened since the morning, but the sack was now sliding one way and then the other, until finally, as they arrived to the village of Ussel, the entire blasted contraption had spun around completely and hung from Modestine’s belly.

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FM6 (4.2)


Between the airport and the Sarasota city limits stretched about a mile-and-a-half sea of concrete shopping plazas separated by isolated swamps and alien tropical prairieland, dotted with retirement communities of the ultra-wealthy and trailer parks of the poverty-stricken on every point on the condition/respectability spectrum. Most of the ride was straight down the Tamiami Trail, the name of which implied a rich and interesting Native American back story, but, in actual fact, was simple shorthand for “Tampa to Miami” as suggested by one white guy or another in the early 20th century.

The cabbie dropped Rupert off in a parking lot in the middle of one of the concrete oceans, blinking in the sun, and resigning himself to the fact that he’d have to break down and buy a pair of shitty, uncomfortable sunglasses. On the other end of this parking lot, on the same side of the road and before the next block, was a fast food joint called the FFG. He had no idea what that stood for, but his hollow stomach barked at him.

He turned to his destination—the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet—and it was a dump. It was not helped by the merciless sun—everything in this place seemed destined to be faded by and eaten up by that fiery hell-orb, its very glare a visual chaos tearing everything apart atom by atom.

He really needed to get a pair of sunglasses.

Short palms guarded the corners of the building’s surrounding gravel/stone/shell “landscaping.” The place did look free of weeds, and free of an unreasonable amount of litter. The Spliphsonian paid for the duration, so Rupert took what he got. What he got right now was the sound of someone yelling nearby.

“Freeze! Hands Up!”

As if by genetic predisposition, Rupert’s automatic response was to throw himself face first onto the hot pavement, though he checked himself at the last second. He was melting in a Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet parking lot, about to embark on an already-doomed mission just to avoid cleaning some museum toilets, so he considered how hygienic or comfortable the local jail might be. Perhaps a little surprise racially-profiled vacation time could be the perfect excuse to not have to follow through with any of this, but the potentially-fatal consequences didn’t justify lengthy consideration.

Then, two black labs bounced by, both collarless and barking. Rupert panicked for a moment—police dogs, maybe—but one sped by in front, the other behind him, then both were gone around the corner. Not a patrol car in sight.

Rupert hitched the duffle bag higher onto his shoulder and walked sweating through the door of the motel.

Now, he froze. The AC felt set to about thirty-two degrees. His sweat-soaked shirt clung cold to his back and chest, and, to his horror, his nipples knifed at the fabric. He dropped the duffle bag, trying and failing—between adjusting his cross-body bag strap and sliding the file high up into his cold, sweaty armpit—to hide what he now realized was a phenomenon as embarrassing as it was unavoidable, no matter how you sliced it. He mentally apologized for the many times he’d covertly ogled women in the grocery frozen foods isles.

The clerk behind the desk smiled a smile at Rupert that made the flesh of his lower back crawl. Not unfriendly, but not friendly either—perhaps this was normal for the service industry. She had black hair that hung in her face to her jawline. Her nametag read “Angel.”

Really. He had difficulty maintaining eye contact.

Rupert handed her his reservation printouts and said: “Hello. I am checking in . . . indefinitely, I guess.”

Angel didn’t look at the papers, but left them on the counter and turned to the side to type away at something for about five full minutes. At length, but with no less typing, she spoke:

“Sooooooooo . . . ” And she typed.

Please, no small talk.

The “so” went on so long he had time to think of several things that might be coming out of her mouth, and he picked the most obvious.

“No, it’s a cross-body bag.”

Angel stopped typing and looked at him.

“ . . . how’s the weather up there?”

He didn’t answer and instead studied a framed watercolor of a manatee floating under the surface of the water, bathed in the glorious rays of some imaginary benevolent sun that clearly did not exist in real life. It wasn’t a bad painting. It also was not good. This was a land of ambiguity, and ambiguity made Rupert—as it does most people—feel deeply uncomfortable.

“Did you paint that?” he asked Angel who had returned to the novel she was evidently required to write before checking someone into the motel.

“Fuck no.” She didn’t look up.

Those were the last words Angel ever said to Rupert, that he was aware of. She slapped a small envelope onto the counter containing two plastic credit card-sized electronic keys with FFG fast food ads on them then pointed straight ahead, past him where a corridor stretched back into darkness. As Rupert made his way to room 220—as scribbled on the key card envelope with a malfunctioning ballpoint pen—the working light fixtures became fewer. His room was somewhere between I Feel Relatively Safe and Someone’s Going To Push Their Way In After Me And Rape Me Forever. Even Rupert recognized that this was an odd thought for a six-foot-ten biracial man.

The room was unremarkable—typical motel-on-the-highway fare. Two queen-size beds (that his feet would hang off of), plum-colored, floral-printed bedspreads made of some sort of moisture-repelling fabric. Two pillows per bed, neither of which were comfortable, alone or in combination. An entertainment center with the TV on top and the rest of it modified to hold a mini-fridge (which clicked and hummed in turns) and microwave (unset, flashing digital time that would have to be covered up with a sock). Too-small bathroom, too-low showerhead, and the toilet flushed, but struggled. The bathroom sink was outside the bathroom, before a massive mirror and fluorescent lighting that made anyone who stood in front of it look like a citizen of Nilbog. Ironing board, hairdryer, hangers attached to the rod, one-cup coffee maker. A dog might have peed on the carpet, once upon a time.

Rupert could hear the traffic of Route 72.

Much to his disappointment, he realized he’d have no trouble adjusting to living here. Aside from the cold. His shirt was dry now, but, damn, he was still cold. He looked at the heater beneath the window and hoped it worked. When it kicked on, a weird smell came and went, and he felt the heat come through.

“Thank God.”

Through the window above the heater, he saw the yellow and green FFG fast food sign before pulling the curtains shut.

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