JESSIE from Ukiah
it's the first officially cold day of the season, and i am driving down frankfort avenue. i have just dropped my son off at his mother's house. by the time he makes it to school, i'll be ankle deep in my workday.
i have a lot on my mind. mostly it's concern about the time my job requires me to spend away from home. i just returned from a show in vegas a couple of days ago, and already i am ramping up for the next out-of-town event. time with my boy is precious, and the dread of being away from him so soon has already begun to seep into my consciousness. it taints most everything at times. i can pretty easily convince myself that i am indeed the worthless turd of a man the ex-wife believes i am, and a brittle cold morning and a lonely solo drive back across town in the dark are sworn depositions to that effect.
i am thinking that they call it frankfort avenue because it's the road that leads to the state capitol, frankfort. heading east, it merges with lexington road to become shelbyville road. heading west from these points on these same roads, there is no "louisville road". louisville is bigger than frankfort, lexington and shelbyville combined. shelbyville road is a major commercial thoroughfare. shelbyville is a small town. frankfort isn't much bigger than shelbyville, but frankfort avenue is a smaller road. lexington is the second-largest city in the state, but lexington road is predominantly tree lined and residential.
i'm trying to put this into some sort of elegant equation that explains anything or something when two things happen. first, i get a call from the woman i love. haven't seen much of her since i returned, as the boy is priority one. she's been doing battle with insomnia and is up uncharacteristically early. wants to know A) if i have time for a quick bagel and a cup of coffee B) if i am near her home which is across the street from the best (only?) bagel in town, off frankfort avenue and C) sesame or plain?
no, yes, and plain, untoasted w/ cream cheese, NYC-style, of course.
but as i am talking to her, a curious smell reaches my face.
it's familiar. like gasoline is familiar from lawn-mowing days. like coppertone belongs to early summers. like how the smell of cedar tells me the season has changed, because my mom always stored our clothes from the past season in a big cedar chest, to preserve them and foil mold and moths. my brother, sister and i loved that smell; upon the first day that augered a longterm turn, we'd be in the basement, pulling clothes--cut-off shorts or cabled sweaters, as the case may be-- before mom could wash the lusciousness of the chest out of them.
and that's when it strikes me. i am smelling Downy. april fresh and all that. mom swore by it. that's what i smelled like as a kid, at least before sweat and hormones and dirt and experiments with explosive household fluids dragged it down daily.
it's a fluffy smell. polite. not aggressive. some chemists captured lightning in a bottle somehow when they came up with that "clean-smell" formula, i guess. i don't use any kind of softener these days. seems like an unnecessary waste of money and chemicals. but this is pleasant, here and now.
it takes me a minute, but soon i discover the source.
it's me. or Bill.
Bill joined the church. i didn't. Bill is actively involved. i am not. when i am in town, i play bass in the friday church band. Bill is there every friday, seating people & chatting them up and stamping the recovery peoples' vouchers. Bill worries about me. i think Bill has the worry angle covered, so i don't worry about him. Bill is old and sometimes in poor health. Bill is gay with grown children and doesn't have a driver's license.
i have a car that i let Bill drive when i am out of town.
every now and again, Bill gets carried away and hires some young potential chicken to clean my car. i am mortified.
the trip before last, i returned to find stuff in boxes according to purpose (pens, pencils and markers in one box, action figures in another, things that move or speak or come apart in yet another, etc). the floors were vacuumed, the clothes were washed and folded and stacked in a separate box.
it was totally disorienting and confounding.
the clothes box sat unmolested for a while, my trusty coveralls folded on top. these coveralls have been with me a long time, fifteen years maybe. they are dark green Wallis brand coveralls; insulated; with one of the leg zippers, one of the pocket zippers and the main chest zipper still working. some of the stuffing is poking out at the bottom of the left leg, the result of kicking fighting dogs apart, and both armpit seams have self-ventilated, but they're still the essential layer i call on in cold weather. i don't remember washing them more than four times. most of the collateral damage they've sustained--errant paint, grease, soil, oil, animal fluids--has come and gone of its own accord; the coveralls just slough it off like dead skin. i swear. (liquid nail is the exception. that shit has been on the right ass cheek for about eight years...)
so, anyway, i was nervous about Bill having laundered my coveralls. so nervous, in fact, that i didn't dare unfold them to see how they'd weathered the machine storm.
until this, the first officially cold day of the season.
i pulled them on. they still fit. zippers still 3 for 5. liquid nail patch maybe a little shinier, but overall, the coveralls were unchanged.
except for their smell, i am now discovering. a combination of the heater actually/finally putting out hot air, the friction of walking my boy into his mom's house, perhaps the quickening of the pulse associated with a delightful and unexpected phone call--these elements have excited the Downy molecules and cut them loose. they can no longer be contained and are bounding from the pockets of insulation and out at the collar and into my nose.
the next instant,in my mind i am sitting in a greyhound bus, a duffel bag with most of my earthly possessions crammed between my knees. i am leaving lexington, kentucky for santa barbara, california. the first leg will take me, inexplicably, to indianapolis, indiana. at the end of three solid days of bus travel, i will meet up with my girlfriend, a student at cabrillo college.
i have $57 in my pocket. the plan is flawless.
except that the bus smells like urine. not like somebody once peed on it and it never got a proper scrubbing. not like a derelict with urine-soaked clothes was on the bus before it pulled into lexington. it smells like fresh wet urine.
and the unmistakable acrid smell of urine is getting stronger the longer we drive. i wonder if the old lady whose head barely tops the seat in front of me has lost bladder control or has saturated her adult diaper. how unfortunate for this frail senior, i think. how unfortunate for all of us around her, too.
i begin scouting the bus for open seats and inspecting the floor around my feet and duffel for seepage.
once my face nears my bag, i discover, to my horror...
or my duffel bag, anyway.
not in my honor, there had been a party at my house the night before. my sister, who i lived with, knew a pile of people in lexington. and a pile of people knew my sister's house in lexington.
i had to be at the bus depot before sunup so i crawled off to my upstairs bedroom pretty early.
i crested the steps to find a drunk man i didn't know passed out on my bed. ordinarily i would have given such a drunk man a break. but, knowing that it would be three nights before i saw a bed next, i had to roust him out. drunk man was only marginally moored to consensus reality. i helped him collapse into the closet.
in the dark of the morning, i didn't see drunk man. when i snatched up my duffel bag i heard a thump and a groan. apparently drunk man had been using my bag as a pillow or mattress.
and as was becoming clear now, i guess drunk man had also used my bag as a urinal.
no denying it. i furiously scratch the bag open. the ammoniac odor billows. i thrust my hand in and find my tan courduroy jacket. it is sickeningly cold and damp.
at the next stop i stuff the prized jacket into a a waste can and find some curious deodorizing balls in a vending machine.
at the stop after that i cram the deodorizing balls and a couple of t-shirts into a waste can.
the balls were purported to be rose-scented. the t-shirts were purported to have been spared the drunk man's stream. neither proposition was true, and as a result, that third segment of the ride was conducted in the olfactory equivalent of a recently (as in the last week) sanitized state park restroom.
a few transfers and towns further west, i strike up a conversation with an earnest young guy in the seat next to me.
he's pretty wet behind the ears and way too easily awed (shucks), but he's cool and he's eating some sort of homemade bread snacks and i am, well, bored and hungry.
the bread snack thingies have a germanic name i have forgotten. to hear the kid tell it, the town he is from has a reputation for producing the very best examples of these germanic bread snack thingies. i am not inclined to argue after sampling the examples his mom has provided.
somewhere in day two we disembark and reboard and the kid offers me another germanic bread snack nthingie. i happily accept.
he has to dig into his secondary bag to break out a fresh portion.
as for me, i am looking around for likely suspects. somebody new must have gotten on back there. i imagine maybe a felon heading up the road for a meeting with a female parole officer tomorrow morning, or a lonely guy going to pick up a mail-order bride or someone equally desparate, judging by what must have been a fire hose application of cheap cologne.
“i don't know when the next stop after ok city is, but i figure they will have some sort of medical examiner competent enough to recognize that i died from acute chocolate pudding and shit asphyxiation.”
i don't immediately spy anyone who fits the bill, but i am keeping my watering eyes peeled.
the kid has the next parcel and he's handing me a twist. frankly the cologne assault has kinda put me off my feed, but i'm being extra-polite to the kid; he's getting off soon. he'll be staying with an aunt and uncle while he attends some sort of trade school for the next couple of years. it's a hell of a first trip away from home, i reckon. he could use a little extra familiarity and kindness.
i take a chomp and immediately regret it.
something is wrong. the substance in my mouth is nothing like the wholesome goodness sent from the pennsylvania hearth. this is violent chemical sabotage.
my dad literally washed my mouth out with a bar of SAFEGUARD once, after i called my big sister a word i did not know the meaning of.
that's what i am getting now: the bouquet of SAFEGUARD in the molars.
it has to come out. i'm trying to dream up some delicate way to make that happen. i look at the kid, and thankfully he is grimacing as well.
we both spit the foulness out at the same time. the kid gets back into his bag. he discovers that, not only has he lost a vital link to his life before, but he has also lost a bottle of POLO by Ralph Lauren to an unscrewed lid.
i feel bad for the kid. he's genuinely distraught. but, secretly i think his chances of getting layed in the new town have gone up a statistically-significant amount with the POLO by Ralph Lauren out of the game.
so it's late at night when my bus pulls out of the underground terminal in oklahoma city. by some miraculous coincidence i have a window seat and no one beside me. as far as i can tell, i am singularly blessed in this respect. i plan to spread myself around and check out for a good long while.
the bus reaches the street lights at the end of the ramp and then slams to a stop.
some frantic greyhound functionary scurries up the steps and chats briefly with the driver. he glances down the aisle then disappears out the doors.
a moment later the entire windshield. no--half of the entire western hemisphere--is blotted out by JESSIE from Ukiah.
JESSIE from Ukiah is not a big man. he is not a man and a half. JESSIE from Ukiah is at least two enormous men fused together.
i swear the suspension creaks every time he shifts his weight. JESSIE from Ukiah is so wide at the thighs that he cannot stand square in the aisle. he has to scoot the man that is his left side forward and then kinda drag the other guy along behind.
JESSIE from Ukiah's wild black beard is positively biblical, and it reaches to the bib of his overalls. at this boundary, JESSIE from Ukiah clutches a leather satchel to his chest. a gold plate on the flap of the satchel gives me his name and origin. it is engraved:
not one of the raving fools i have ever known would ever be so foolish as to try and wrest that satchel from JESSIE from Ukiah. stoopidity of that suicidal variety has, for the most part, been selected against in our evolutionary history. thankfully so. JESSIE from Ukiah is radiating menace and paranoia when it comes to his satchel, and he is men enough to back it up, i believe.
JESSIE from Ukiah is wary and wild in the eyes. the bus is dark, but we can all see the feral glint as he shambles his way down the aisle.
there is only one seat left on this bus. JESSIE from Ukiah reaches it. from somewhere in the ozone above me and to my right, a grunt emanates. a couple of guys sharing a pint of gin behind me snicker.
i have been out surfing when an unusually large and unprecedented set rolls in without warning. one second, everything is all placid on the outside. the next, there is a collective "oh shit" and the whole lineup scrambles to make it further out, beyond the imminent impact of the marauding rogues.
and i have been caught most of the way up a face and, unable to punch through, i have gone over the falls backward.
at the moment you realize that you are at the mercy of the wave, it's best to heave your board as far from your body as possible, relax and prepare to take a beating. i see JESSIE from Ukiah's body rotating and descending in somehting very close to a free fall. i turn my face to the window, relax and prepare to take a beating.
and there is in fact an entire gruesome punishing set of JESSIE from Ukiah. as his weight lands on the seat, i careen toward the sudden massive depression on the right, where i meet an elbow & forearm, which rattles me back to the left, where my head literally bounces off the window and back into JESSIE from Ukiah's shoulder then back to the window.
and then the real punishment begins. JESSIE from Ukiah reeks of chocolate pudding and shit. don't ask me how i know so well what the unholy marriage of chocolate pudding and shit smells like. trust me. i know.
it smells just like JESSIE from Ukiah.
and that alarming stench is now wrapped around my head like a plastic bag.
i have my fingers cat-clawed to the thin air vent that runs along the bottom of the windows. i have my nose against the glass and i am sucking at the relatively pure air.
it's a losing battle. there is not enough pressure to push back JESSIE from Ukiah's chocolate pudding and shit vapor cloud.
i think i might lose consciousness.
JESSIE from Ukiah huffs and wheezes through his nose. he speaks, muttering to the shadows, "goin back to the only woman that ever really loved me."
i think i am going blind now. the source of the vile stank has been revealed. the chocolate pudding and shit smell is coming from the INSIDE of JESSIE from Ukiah.
i don't know when the next stop after ok city is, but i figure they will have some sort of medical examiner competent enough to recognize that i died from acute chocolate pudding and shit asphyxiation.
to combat that ignoble end, i buck up. i remind myself that there is no way out except through.
i engage JESSIE from Ukiah. soon we're talking like old friends. albeit old friends like lenny and his mouse, maybe. me tucked in the pocket of JESSIE from Ukiah's overalls.
he was orphaned in Ukiah. spent time in the state system. the only woman who ever really loved him (in his estimation) was a foster mom. eventually he was adopted. i don't think the adoptive parents were screened very thoroughly if half of JESSIE from Ukiah's stories are true.
i don't get the impression that JESSIE from Ukiah is a misogynist, per se. just that he had a wealth of bad luck as far as the people (particularly women) whose life he drifted into is concerned.
as is usually the case, JESSIE from Ukiah is really all right. he smells like chocolate pudding and shit and looks like he uses bunnies for batting practice, but really he is all right.
at some point he even suggests that we switch places. i remember falling asleep with my head bobbing, hanging in the aisle.
so after three days of hell and unfortunate smells, i arrive in santa barbara.
from a payphone at the bus station, which looks suspiciously like a Taco Bell (as does most of santy babylon, i will learn), i call my paramour, the lovely young lady i have endured these travails to be with.
she has a car, but it's early, and she has guests in from out of town. the guests part is news to me. she tells me how to take a cab to her house. i can already tell that the $49 i have left isn't going to last long here.
this is my first clue. or at least it's the first one i am aware of in real time.
over the next couple of months, we would kinda make half-hearted attempts at working something out.
there would be a bit of metaphoric tossing out of contaminated laundry and poisoning the air with crappy deodorizers.
there would be moments, but we both of us knew that the whole damn bag stunk.
we both knew that i was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
she had different priorities, at least one of which, i am pretty certain, was fond of POLO by Ralph Lauren.
sometimes when you can't win, it's important to lose gracefully.
so that's what i'm thinking as i motor down frankfort avenue on the evocative coveralls' inaugural mission.
i have read that of all the senses, the sense of smell has its own separate locus of control. scientists think it is our oldest means of knowing the world; its site is tucked away deep in what they refer to as our "reptilian brain". in that respect, it is the sense with the least input from our rational mind. perhaps it is the most intuitive.
and all this makes me feel, somehow possibly maybe, that i might just be in the right place at the right time.
i mean, it smells right so far.
it smells like coffee in the morning, day of the dead figurines firing in the oven, tuna steaks seared in a fondue pot on my dinky table, pinecones as gifts, the tang of ocean spray in the hair, cat food that mysteriously appears when i run out, a wildflower bouquet left on my sideview mirror, rocks from the desert, powdered antibiotics for rescued kittens, the faint whiff of chlorine after a visit to the pool, shea butter, rainstorms at night, and soup & tall tales in front of a roaring fire.
and this morning, it smells like eager friends who repay kindnesses in ways i wouldn't necessarily want them to. but, expectations be damned, that so much smells like a definitive change in the seasons and all its concomitant april-fresh or cedary promise, that i am giddy with gratitude.
i park and enter NANCY'S BAGEL GROUNDS.
and just now, this glorious instant, it smells just like fresh-baked bagels.