Saturday, April 29, 2017

We'll Always Have Lake Lucerne

The server came by again not long after setting down our plates. All chirpy.

"How's everything tasting for you tonight?"

I grinned just enough to send her away but not let any polenta leak out, while a small shudder of revulsion danced down my neck. But the moment passed, and I went back to my dinner conversation.

"That was an odd thing to say," I said. Dave nodded. Turns out it wasn't odd at all. It's the new script. It's a Thing. No matter where we go, the server is going to come by all chirpy and ask us how everything is tasting for us tonight. I do not like this.

Put a complaint like this on Facebook, though, and nobody will tell you to lighten up, get a grip, move on, mention First World Problems, take the stick out of your shorts, or suggest there are more important things to worry about, even though someone probably should. No. You will instead generate a thread of similar complaints. Everyone's bothered by something. Women don't like being called "Miss." Or "Ma'am," if the server is younger. Or older. Lots of people would prefer not to be called "Hon," unless it's coming from a verifiable Southern woman bearing pie. Many people object to being told something is "no problem." If I thought getting a little more water would be a problem, they huff, I wouldn't have asked.

Well, personally, if I need more water and the server says "No problem," I'm fine with that. I don't deconstruct it: it's an idiom. It's been eased out by "No worries," and something else will come down the idiomatic pike soon enough. I love "Hon." I guess I'm not as prickly as I could be. So what is my problem with "How's everything tasting for you tonight?" Why does that make me want to stab someone with my fork?

It's not because it's weird. It goes much deeper than that. I'm sensitive to words. And those words, in that order, make me squirmy. Squished-worm squirmy. Lanced-boil squirmy. I feel the same way about the words "soiled panties," and it's the words, not the items: "Dirty underpants" doesn't ripple my nape at all.

So how is a modern server supposed to navigate all our crotchets? Maybe it's up to us to file down our rough edges. Get a proper perspective. Fortunately for me, I have all sorts of perspective. I've got Lake Lucerne. As Dave says, "We'll always have Lake Lucerne."

Lake Lucerne was a dot on the map in northern California, and Dave noticed it when we were driving down to the wine country for our honeymoon. It was getting late. "That sounds pretty, and it's only twenty miles this direction," he said.

We found a motel room. They were still working on it. The bathroom was down to the bare studs in places, there wasn't a shower curtain, and wires protruded from the walls. It was too dark to see the Lake, if there was one, but there was a restaurant, and the lights were still on. "Are you open?" we called out to the waitress, a capable-looking older woman, who had already begun putting chairs up on the tables.

"Sure, hon, come on in! I'll be right with you." Well, that was a bit of luck. We examined the menu and in due time our waitress came back with plates of something like Chicken-Fried Steak stacked on her arm. "Where y'all from?" she wanted to know, swinging everything down in a jiffy. We were in good hands. We smiled. We felt grateful and chatty.

"Oof!" she said, stretching her back. "Hope y'all don't mind. My dogs is killin' me!" And she pulled up a chair and took off her shoes and peeled off her socks and put her feet right the hell up on the table next to the bun-basket and wiggled her toes. Yes, she did.

I'm not sure how everything was tasting for us that night, but there's no real way to ruin a marshmallow salad.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


I accepted a lot of things about old people when I was a kid. Old people like Mrs. Peacock, my piano teacher. I accepted that she couldn't get up from the piano bench without plooping out a soft, percussive fart. Everything was sort of loose on her, and that was just one more example. I accepted that neither of us was going to mention it. I did not get, however, why she always wore glasses but never looked through them. She looked over them, or under them.

I did understand nearsightedness because I had a hot case of it myself. Nearsightedness and farsightedness are caused by the eyeball getting squished out of shape. Most people aren't 20/20. Myopic people have long eyes--mine is shaped like a pickle now--and farsighted people have short tall eyes. You get long eyes when you have a very vivid imagination, because all your ideas get crammed in the front of your brain, where the weight of them presses down on the eyeballs. And your imagination gets ever more vivid because you can't see anything and you turn inward. That's why your vision gets worse over time. It's a feedback loop.

Lots of critters don't have round eyes at all. Owls, for instance. They look nice and round from the front end, but they're really shaped like buttons. Owls are tremendously farsighted and when things get too close they have to see them with their fuzzy feet, because they don't have reading glasses, despite those pictures you might have seen that suggest otherwise.

The entire eyeball phenomenon strikes a lot of people as having been too complicated to have merely evolved. They prefer to think eyeballs are proof that God whipped them out just as is, because they like to give God credit for almost everything except having an imagination. In fact, complex eyes have evolved a hundred times a hundred different ways, and pretty dang early on in the history of life, too.

Anyway, people can develop near- or farsightedness in childhood, but the reading-glasses thing hits everyone sooner or later. Or, specifically, around age forty. This is when people are introduced to the notion of being old when various parts of them get stiff, or fail to get stiff, and the lens of the eyeball is one of the things that stiffens up. All of a sudden you have to hold your book further and further away from yourself to get it to come into focus, and by that time, assuming you haven't run out of arm, it's too small to read. Then those of us with glasses have to have our glasses ground two or three different ways. You might have book-reading focus on the bottom, computer-reading in the middle, and distance in the top. Works great for a while, and then you discover the book-reading lens isn't really cutting it, and you start to look over your glasses and put your reading material right next to your nose.

Sometimes I have to look at something above me through the bottom portion of my glasses, which means I have to crunkle up my neck like an archaeopteryx. Poor old bird. That's what did it in. Had to pretzel its neck just to navigate properly, and it lost all its aerodynamics.

Nothing in my glasses is exactly right for reading sheet music at the piano, so I have another pair of glasses just for that. And I need another pair for turning pages for someone else. Binoculars for distance. None at all for hand-sewing. I'm going to string them all on little jeweled chains and hang them from my neck and keep a lorgnette in my pocket so I can see which one I need next. That dangling collection of specs--that's what's really going to mark me as an old lady.

Unless I'm getting up from the piano bench at the time.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

So Much For The Blessed Meek

It's recently come to my attention that God gave Man dominion over the earth, which explains everything. The news came in the context of a typical political Facebook thread and was stated flatly and irrefutably. Which is not to say I couldn't refute it--just that my arguments would be as seed cast upon stony ground.

Four-plus billion years on this marble and everything was coming along so nicely! Little sparks of ingenuity happened all over, and sure, there are always winners and losers, but anyone with a little resiliency did pretty well, overall. And then we came along and began to chisel out our own little niche, as one does. We couldn't fly, and we weren't fast, and we weren't strong, and we couldn't see or hear particularly well, but we were clever. So we got even cleverer. In fact, at this point your average human ape is smarter than your average other ape. That's a fact. That doesn't mean that there aren't some exceptional apes that are cleverer than a whole shitload of humans, and don't make me name names. So this is just a broad generalization.

Still, as interesting as the big clever brain turned out to be, there were some early signs of trouble. Every single place we went, the large animals went extinct. One after the other. You can actually map the migrations of humans by the extinction dates of the big critters. Africa has the lion's share, as it were, of those still remaining. It is thought that since we evolved in Africa alongside the big animals, they had a chance to learn how to avoid us. But when we cast out for the hinterlands, the resident megafauna had an unfortunate tendency to walk right up to our big clubs and spears. The thousand-pound thunder ducks were doomed. The giant sloths. Mammoths. Wooly rhinoceroses. Saber-toothed cats. Giant beavers and short-faced bears. But we were just getting started.

Not saying it's necessarily causal, but everything really went to hell when we began to write. It wasn't the overuse of adverbs or the lack of an arc, either.

First it was just bookkeeping and accounting, like tallies of sheep and grain stores and such, and writing puttered along for a few thousand years, but then, boom! Bible time. The Bible itself dates back to either 400 BC or the Beginning Of Time, depending on who you ask. Claims to authorship are similarly all over the map. In any case, the important thing to note is that on the first day, man created God.

I don't mean to get anyone in an uproar over God in any of his or her specifics.  You can believe anything you want, and fight about it with whomever you want, and I'm staying out of it. But this particular Bible-God was definitely created by man. How can we tell? First thing, he was created in our own image. What are the odds? What is the chance the Creator of the Universe looks like, say, Donald Trump? I'll tell you. Zip. But here we have a God who looks exactly like us, only souped-up. Right there, the fix is in. Right away, we've given ourselves a supernatural legitimacy that we totally did not earn.

Then we started writing the dialogue. And that's where that self-dealing really comes to the fore: we're the only critters with a soul, because God blew it into us while we were still dusty. Which means we have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth. It's all ours, baby. You couldn't get a better deal if you put all your cronies in power and had them write the legislation. And now we can take everything including ourselves right up to the brink of extinction and beyond, and it's all okay because God put us in charge, right there in Chapter One, when we made him.

What a hell of a waste of a fabulous brain to take it just to the point in evolution where it can admire itself. Because then that's all it does.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Blessings On The Roof

It flat poured all night long, and into the morning. We have a metal roof here at the cabin and it sounded like the saints were throwing a party while God was out of town. Dave agreed to spend the day having me read my novel to him. Six hours in, I was getting hoarse, but carried on, emboldened by the fact he was still conscious. It rained on. We had beers.

But it was getting stuffy in the cabin, and we weren't either of us designed to sit for hours. We went for a walk. Put our rain gear on, of course, but the drips by this time were all coming from the bodacious canopy of drenched fir trees. It got dark. We came back. Rustled up some beer and artichoke dip and found crackers in the cupboard ("Best By 2012"). Mountain food!

And no sooner had we sat down than someone sliced up a fat wedge of weather and slapped us upside the windows with it. 100-foot-tall trees squinted down at us and lined us up in their sights. Things was flying. Miss Gulch and her bicycle, diced to pieces, sailed past in a rapidly disintegrating swarm. Our eyebrows shot up to our hairlines and stayed there. And we both felt it at the same time: the irresistible urge to check the weather app. What was going to happen? Was it going to rain forever? Was there going to be a break? These were all knowable items.

In that somebody, somewhere knew them.

Well, it felt irresistible, but it wasn't. Because there was no weather app. Our phones lay inert on the counter, plugged in to maintain power, because they lose power so fast here: straining and searching for the mothership, a biddable satellite, their little tentacles dangling for a connection. There isn't one. Rain pounded the place, and we had to just let it, and assume it knew what it was doing. We couldn't do a thing about it.

On an ordinary day, when we could get a weather app and see what's coming, we kind of thought we could do something; we could avoid ambush; we could strategize. Aha, we would think. You thought we'd be surprised by this shower coming in nineteen minutes, but we aren't. We saw you coming. You think you're so smart, Weather. Our trouser pockets have radar right in them.

Tell you what else we don't know, here. We don't know if anyone commented on my blog. We don't know if someone's trying to get hold of us. We're not entirely sure what day of the week it is. We've got a social obligation tomorrow, unless it's the day after, or unless we already missed it. Somebody with more power than he earned probably did something massively stupid today, again, and we don't know what it was. We don't know the name of the filmmaker guy who's married to Frances McDormand. We do know we love Frances McDormand. We do know how many beers we have left in the fridge. We do know to wear rain gear when we go out.

It takes a few days to get over not knowing. It takes just that long to go back in time, say, twenty-five years, when we made idle talk and rummaged in our own brains for bits of missing trivia, instead of tipping it out of our phones, where our species' collective memory is now stored. It wouldn't take more than a good gust of unpredicted wind on a loose-footed Douglas fir tree to send us back to the nineteenth century, when, inexplicably, people seemed to navigate life just fine.

Here's what I know. I know that the water here is sweet, and that I can walk a long, long way. I know my baby loves me. I know that if I trip and fall on a long, long walk, someone will probably help me out. I know that if there's no one to help me out and I die in the woods, it's all the same to the woods. And if it's all the same to the woods, it's okay by me.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

How To Tell When You Need Brain Surgery

My friend Linda popped by the other day and we sat on the front porch in the sun and chitty-chatted. What was I up to?  Well, I was just trying to make a lasagna with skinny little slices of zucchini in place of the pasta. Oh? Did I use a mandoline? I didn't. I used a grater. And then you salted and sweated the zucchini? Why no I did not. I don't like to sweat anything. Ha ha! Well Linda's a great cook and we batted around a few more ideas about dinner and talked about the weather, which had just turned nice. I'm surprised you're not out in your garden on a day like this, I said to Linda.

Oh, she said. I'm not supposed to bend over at all because I just had brain surgery.

Let me just say right now that if you just had brain surgery and you do not lead with the information that you just had brain surgery, and instead you toss out that little tidbit twenty minutes in, it's definitely a sign you needed brain surgery.  If I were facing brain surgery, everyone on my Facebook page would know about it well in advance. I would collect hopes and prayers and secretly hold out for offers of baked goods. I would start out with a wry statement, preferably including a pun of some sort, designed to make me look upbeat and resigned in the face of fate. More posts would follow in the ensuing weeks, any of which would serve in the capacity of last words, in order to keep my impending brain surgery in the minds of all. The closer I got to my brain surgery, the more philosophical my posts would become, with an undercurrent of desperation detectable only by my closest friends. The second to last post would just be oh mommy oh mommy oh mommy followed by a brave and somewhat flippant statement demonstrating my cheerful non-belief in an afterlife and including, preferably, another pun, just in case I wouldn't be capable of coming up with one afterwards, and then as soon as it was over I'd be all over the internet whooping and hollering again. People on the other side of the planet would know I had brain surgery. Small woodland creatures would gossip about me amongst themselves.

Photos by Tom Fritz
Linda got brain surgery by dumb luck. She had the dumb luck of mixing up her prescription meds and took a mess of Conflagra when she thought she was hoovering Lixavixen, and she went all loopy. Her husband Pete was worried and hauled her into the ER and by the time they'd finished looking for the nonexistent stroke, they'd unearthed a brain aneurysm and a companion carotid embolism all plump and ready to pop. Well, there are all kinds of things that people say are not brain surgery, but brain surgery is not one of them. They kept her for days and did some head-drilling and some flipping-back of skull bits, but the actual brain surgery was conducted from an entry point in the crotch, even though she's not a Republican. They used wires and cameras and intuition and, in this case, Obamacare.

I've heard of this kind of thing before. Gal goes into the doctor complaining about tipping over too much and they go to town on her, looking for some neurological nightmare, and accidentally stumble over an arsenic-laced land mine of a tumor in her left butt cheek, and excavate it, and she comes out good as new and with a slimmer line.

So that's my advice. Fake a stroke and add in some symptoms that make no sense and go to the ER and let them have at you. They'll be entertained, you'll be thoroughly checked out, and it might not even cost much. Although I'd hurry.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

This Is Not Just Right

Everyone remembers Goldilocks. Everyone's familiar with the story of the little girl who wants things just right. Not too hot, not too cold. But if you ask the next ten people how that story ends--and I did--they'll look all squinty and perplexed. I didn't remember how it ends either.

That's because it just sort of peters out.

Which is fine and dandy for a modern story. Modern stories are always building toward some kind of climax and then someone finally dies in a manner described as "slipping away" and then the next day someone else has breakfast and hitches up his pants and says "Mornin'" to the lady down the way and the sun climbs in the sky and there's a little dust cloud in the distance. Every time I finish a modern story I keep turning pages after it's all over, looking for that gratifying last line. Instead it dwindles straight into the acknowledgments. I rarely feel as though everything has been tidied up. I guess it's supposed to be like life.

But Goldilocks is not a modern story. Goldilocks is a fairy tale and things should happen.

So what actually happens is the bears come home and they're all upset and baby bear discovers the little girl in his bed and she climbs out the window and runs away and that's that. This is a stupid ending.

Where did this story go wrong? Anyone can learn how to write a story on the internet. You have to have a story arc for a proper story, with moments of growing tension, particularly arising from the conflict between the protagonist's deepest desires and something that stands in her way. The development should build toward a satisfying climax, after which there can be a "denouement," which is a sweet little literary curly-tail at the butt end of the massive sow that is the main story.

It starts out fine. There's all kinds of tension built in. The cabin is unoccupied. Where are the bears? Could they be coming back any moment? Are they likely to find Goldilocks to be promising soup material? They're in the woods, yes they could, and yes they might! But she stays. She lingers. There is a rhythm to her discoveries: three chances each at three items. The reader can supply the trajectory. She never finds the perfect bowl of porridge first, or the perfect chair. She is dawdling, and time is not on her side. The reader can sense trouble ahead, especially because Goldilocks apparently can't. And how can she get in even more trouble? Why, she can get sleepy. She can be even more vulnerable, sound asleep in someone else's bed. Something perfectly awful is going to happen.

You know--or not.

This doesn't even make it as a morality tale. The Goldilocks character is well developed, all right. She wants what she wants when she wants it, and she doesn't care who she has to step on to get it. It's all rightfully hers. She doesn't even consider that she is trespassing, or stealing; she assumes things should go her way; she's so comfortable in her skin that she falls sound asleep in someone else's bed in someone else's house, like she's Charlie Sheen or somebody. She is the embodiment of white privilege, and in a truly satisfying climax, she would be diced up and dropped in the porridge. But no. Nobody learns anything. She scampers away unscathed. Just like real life.

In the original story, the three bears were all males. The intruder was a hideous gray-haired old woman who was cast out by her own family. They found her disgusting, as well they ought, because she was neither young nor attractive. Clearly there was no justification for her existence, and she needed to be punished. So she was. She was discovered by the bears and condemned to sit on a church steeple until impaled. Now there's your climax. Whether it's satisfying or not probably depends on the individual reader and his relationship with his mother, his church, and his dark side. But at least you know when it's over.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Get Your Gladys On

There's singing.
These are tough days, and it's not good to spend too much time in your own head. It's loud and cranky in there, and your internal political oratory is only slicing minutes off your life, to no obvious benefit. The best way to get out of your own head is to spend time in someone else's. It's springtime, and it's time to get your Gladys Kravitz on.

Your kids all know who Gladys Kravitz is. There's plenty of Legacy Television to watch instead of playing outside; but for you old folks out there who can't quite come up with names anymore, Gladys Kravitz is the nosy neighbor who was always spying on the Stephens family in Bewitched. She probably had a good idea about Darrin's sexual orientation before it came out in the general press.

There's tail-fanning.
But don't waste your Gladys on the neighbors. Snoop on the birds instead.  They're randy as the dickens right now. The males are spiffed to the nines and singing their hearts out. They're hoping the same lines that worked last year will work this year too, and they probably will. The females are completely on board, but they're playing it coy, hoping to get a few dinners out of the deal. You can see all of this easily enough if you just look. Love is in the air, and new birds are in the pipeline.

Our chickadees, Marge and Studley Windowson, are back this spring looking into the rental box outside my window. I just saw a pair of ruby-crowned kinglets nearby and got all excited that they'd be interested, even though it turns out they don't use boxes, but they didn't stand a chance anyway. Studley ran their asses right off, or maybe it was Marge. There's nothing our chickadees like better than picking on something smaller than them, like bushtits or kinglets. It makes them all puffy in the chest. They leave hummingbirds alone because they're too mean and pointy to take on.

We need new birds. There aren't near as many as there ought to be, since we persist in poisoning our gardens and ripping out stuff they like to eat and sending out death squads of darling killer cats and putting in windows that look like sky. In spite of all this there are birds. And right about now, they're all working real hard to make even more birds, and they'll let you watch.

There's THIS.
They won't necessarily show you their nests. That's a secret. You'll have to get lucky, by following a bird with nesting materials. Crows are easy. They're flat-out carrying lumber.  But I'm still hoping to score a bushtit nest this year. Bushtits are very plural. If you've seen one, you've seen twenty. They make a brief show of pairing off this time of year and starting in on their nests, but invariably they say what the hell and invite the whole crew in once they're done knitting it. It's a sock. A big stretchy bouncy sock with bedrooms all full of fuzzy little tits.  That'll get you out of your head, or you ain't right.

Don't worry about how you look. Yes, you're staring into the sky, and your mouth has gone slack, and there might be a little drool, and you look like one of those people waiting for the Rapture. But you're nothing like them. They suffer from more certainty, and less reward.

[...and then there's THIS. I'm going out on a limb with my little friend here and calling her an American goldfinch, and I don't know what the heck she's doing, but she totally let me watch. Ah, spring.]

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Creature Comfort

It occurs to me that part of the genius of Nature is that it is all about comfort. At any given time, anything you're likely to see in the natural world is comfortable, or otherwise it would be somewhere else. Every living thing seeks its own comfort. It's not precisely the word ecologists use, but it's what they mean.

We're not talking about cats, here. Really doesn't matter where they are. They are going to be comfortable wherever they land and make it seem like a matter of policy. It's not really a policy. It has more to do with the fact that, with the exception of the big bone in their heads they use to keep their eyes lined up, they are entirely filled with pudding. They could sink all the way to the bottom of a bed of nails and emerge yawning and unspindled.

So cats have sort of punched their own ticket, comfort-wise, which is why the invasive little suckers act like they belong anywhere they roll up, including under my bird feeder, even though they totally do not. But we're talking about other living things that, in the course of their perambulations, are going to follow a comfort gradient to the cushiest available niche. I started thinking about it when my fellow frog-wrangler Karen kept finding salamanders, magnificent migrating salamanders, and I didn't. What was her secret?

"I look for them in the cracks of the pavement," she said. Oh! We're trying to rescue frogs and other amphibians as they cross the road, which they will do as long as it's wet. But evidently the salamanders pause when they come across a fissure in the asphalt, and maybe they slide right in, and it's probably just that much damper in there, and the sides of the crevice feel all cozy and nice, and they hang out a while. It's soothing to imagine all the imperfections of the pavement mortared up by comfortable salamanders. Except for that traffic thing.

But comfort is not limited to salamanders. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it's hard to find a surface that hasn't been colonized by beauty. Lichens will appear in any likely spot that has a modicum of moisture and light. Then they'll get even more comfortable by secreting acids that crumble up the surface just an eensy bit, and settle in like a dude molding his butt in a bean bag chair. And if it's not too sunny and not too dry, any random moss spore that happens by will snug its butt in right on top of the lichens. And as the mosses grow and parts of them disintegrate, they decompose into a nice spongy soil. And then regular plants stick a toe in and say aaaah. You can look at just about any tree-crotch in Portland and discover an entire miniature forest made up of comfortable things, just enjoying their Goldilocks moment.

That's why I'm here too. I rattled into this little fissure of the world and stayed put. I'm comfortable in the dear damp and the fertile gloom of our close grey skies, a place where the forecast "intermittent sunshine" refers to July. Where our star is modest and polite, asks if this is a good time before barging in, keeps its music low. If it means I have to let moss set up camp on my northern flanks, it's worth it.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

All Of This Is True

My friend Katie has an artistic nature. She is able to look at almost anything and find the beauty in it, and concoct a plan for it. She will rescue it, and collect it, fully intending to repurpose it. Anything. Plastics. Scrap metal. Refuse. Things that ordinary people would look at and see only junk.

Basically, junk.

Katie and her home are much burdened by her artistic nature. So I was happy to drive her out to the country to fetch her new car. A new car! Her friend Harreld was coming along too. "In case it blows up before I can get it home," she explains.


So it's not a new car, precisely. Precisely, it is a 17-year-old Toyota van that has been parked in a field in the rain for a few years. "It's a good deal," she said.

We arrived at a ranch house at the butt end of a dismal cul-de-sac and were ushered into the back yard, which was entirely graveled and contained no fewer than 23 cars, plus some large metal hangars with unknown contents. Katie's new car was toward the rear. It didn't look too bad. Sort of mossy.

I looked around. Something about this seemed awfully familiar. We used to have two immigrant Russian families on our block. Both were fully involved in the business of accumulating wrecked vehicles of dubious provenance, getting them marginally roadworthy, and selling them for cash. Apparently it's a thing. In the old country, nobody had a car newer than thirty years old, and all the boys grew up knowing how to keep them going. They also developed skill at body work, using a combination of tin foil, flour paste, and guile. Vehicles showed up in their yards and disappeared later. It was mighty seedy.

Harreld pointed at the back row.  "Hey, I know who owns that car," he said, pulling out his phone. Uh-oh.

I walked over to Katie's car, where the proprietor was just latching the hood. "Iss purring like kitten," he said, wiping his hands on his sweatshirt. "Please to keep running for few hours while battery charges."

"Katie, I don't think you should buy this car," I whispered.

"Aww, that's what Harreld said. And his friend Chris," she added. She looked disappointed. She was sincerely interested in our opinions, because if they supported the choice she'd already made, she would feel even better about it. She began to peel $100 bills out of her wallet. "I've never seen these new bills before," she chirped. The man held his palm out, expressionless. He had.

Meanwhile, curious, I walked over to the driver's door, which had a hole where the handle should have been, intending to peer in the open window. A stench billowed out that could drop a jackal pack. It was urine-forward, with notes of buzzard poop and bay-bottom, and a mystery element. The climate hasn't taken a hit like this since Satan's soil-pipe backed up. The seats were shredded, and the floorboards were littered with condiment packets, ripped-open registered mail, and, after a moment, my eyebrows.

"You have got to be kidding me," I hissed at Katie, reeling away, as the last $100 changed hands. "The hantaviruses are thick enough in there to make paste."

"Oh, I know," she said, amiably. "It's going to take a lot of Lysol."

It's going to take explosives.

Harreld affixed a damp kerchief to his nose and lowered himself bleakly into the passenger seat like a man going to his own execution, and I followed them in my car as they headed toward the DMV to get the title changed. Dandelions shriveled in their wake. Katie lurched unevenly onto the freeway, weak from fumes and unaided by the driver's-side mirror, which was missing. A kettle of vultures formed above the convoy. Katie pulled into the lot, turned off the ignition, and a plume of steam belched out from under the hood and into the sky. One of the vultures sputtered, stalled, and corkscrewed into the pavement. Harreld creaked open his door, tilted out, and stood for a minute, swaying.

"That's not good," he rasped, pointing at the hood.

"Is it steam or smoke?" Katie wanted to know.

"Either way," Harreld said, bent over with his hands on his knees, "not good."

But Katie's luck had turned. There were fewer than thirty people in line ahead of her in the DMV. She began to fill out a form on a clipboard. Could Harreld go out and check the odometer reading? He could. She had almost everything filled out when he came back in and reported that he couldn't read the odometer because the car wouldn't start.

"Oh well," Katie said as her number was called, "I'll just guess."

At Harreld's suggestion, we went to buy a battery charger, and returned to the lot. He hooked it up and checked the coolant reservoir, which was bone-dry. He bought water. Juice trickled into the battery, which was acting like a dying man turning his face to the wall, and then quit.

Towing was going to be steep. Harreld suggested she join Triple A and get free towing. It would be cheaper, even with the membership fee. Next thing we knew Katie was on the phone with Triple A and explaining that she'd just bought this lemon car and wanted to join up so she could...

Harreld was waving his arms like a crazy person. "Hang up! Hang up! Jeez! Go on line and sign up, then call."

Katie went on line. Signed up. Then called. "Hello, I need a tow--my membership number? Sure thing. Oh, you might not see it yet, because I just joined five minutes ago, because I just bought this lemon car, and..."

Harreld smacked himself in the head repeatedly.

Katie hung up. "He'll be here in a half hour," she said. "And it's going to be $67 dollars because it was a pre-existing condition."

"You know," I said, "you could just get this thing towed right back to that Russian guy and maybe get your $1000 back. Or even just a part of it. You'd be money ahead, in the long run."

"I can't. I just spend $107 getting the title transferred. It's mine now."

"Plus," Harreld put in, "$60 for the battery charger, six bucks for the water, $110 for the Triple A membership, and an extra $67 for your big mouth."

"And the ice cream," Katie pointed out. Harreld had thoughtfully bought her a resuscitative pint of ice cream, which she was currently shoveling into her mouth with a credit card.

"And you'll need all new seats, plus the dump fee for the old ones, and a new door, and whatever they charge over at Ghostbusters." It was getting warm, but I rolled up my car windows because I'd parked too close to the death van. Napalm had nothing on that thing. Something really horrible had happened in there. There was some mystery element to the reek; I couldn't put my finger on it. "Tell you what. You could get the guy to tow it to a boat ramp, put five hundred bucks in the glove box, set it on fire, and sink it in a lake, and you'd still be money ahead. In the long run."

"Naah," she said, resigned and beginning to sound a little depressed. "At least I learned one thing. I  should always listen to my friends."


"I said, I learned I should listen to my friends."

Harreld checked the progress from the battery charger again--there was none--and we occupied ourselves while waiting for the tow truck by poking around the van for knick-knacks, accessories, and crime scene clues. All we turned up was six or seven extra keys, none of which opened the rear hatch, and a wasp's nest.

The tow truck driver was young, polite, and no fun at all. He sold Katie a new battery, checked the electronics, pronounced everything in good shape, and assured her she'd done just fine.

"I've seen worse," he said, beginning to wheeze, as clumps of his hair drifted away on the breeze. Harreld and I looked at each other in despair. How was she ever going to learn with Pollyanna Pete over there? Already she was starting to perk up, dreamily plucking small maple trees out of the weather-stripping. Her eyes softened as she visualized the interior artistically shingled with Little Tree air fresheners.

"Really, Toyotas run forever. You get a car like this that's been out in the rain for a long time, you're just going to have problems with belts and leakage. Your seals, and such."

The mystery element! That was it. A dead seal.