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Searching for Sanity – Chapter excerpt

14 Jan

 

Happiness considered 

 

man standing on brown rock cliff in front of waterfalls photography

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Chapter 3

“You want to what?”

Sam Sneed lowered his head and ran a single hand over his nearly bald head. His eyes narrowed, forming a frown on his face. He looked up from his desk in his small office at Steve.

“I want to write some stories about happiness,” Steve said. “A long series.”

“Happiness?” Sneed said.

He shook his head. Sneed was a small man, close to retirement age, who’d been editor of the Meckleysburg Times Tribune for more than twenty years. He’d worked his way up to the position after many years as a reporter. He oversaw a paper that reported on the usual happenings that many papers serving small cities captured—local government, crime, happenings in the community. And, of course, there was the sports section, a department, separate from the general news-gathering operation.

“I want to interview all sorts of people. What makes them tick. Why they do what they do with their jobs, their off time. Where they see themselves in the grand scheme of things.”

Sneed was now staring at Steve, like he was deranged.

“Steve. I mean … happiness?”

“It’s an important topic. Maybe the most important issue of our times.”

Sneed continued staring at Steve. He lurched back in his chair and looked through the big window of his office that afforded him a view of the newsroom.

“The newspaper needs to do something different once in a while,” Steve said.

“Oh, here we go with that again.”

“It’s true.”

Sneed came forward in his chair and shuffled some papers on his desk. “Seems to me like you got enough to do with other stuff.”

“I can handle it.”

Sneed raised his brows and blinked. He looked down at the floor. “What about those novels you write? Don’t you get into that stuff in your books?”

A good point, Steve thought. “Sometimes … sure.”

“Then why this?”

“I want to talk to actual people. I want to really explore this topic of happiness.”

And now Sneed smiled. “You know what would make me happy? Standing on the first hole at Green Valley with a driver on my first day of retirement.”

“So. That would really make you happy. Huh?”

“Throw in a cold beer waiting for me at the eighteenth hole and I’ll be ecstatic. At least for that day.”

“Interesting. You want to retire?”

“Sure.”

“Why? Aren’t you fulfilled in your job?”

Again, Sneed leaned back in his chair. The question, Steve realized, seemed to amuse the editor. “You always were a little bit different Steve. You’ve done some good work over the years, although sometimes you seem to get bored, off track with things. Like that time you led the reporters revolt and you all walked off the job for a day.”

“We hadn’t had a raise in six years,” Steve said, still seething from the memory.

“Okay,” Sneed said, raising a hand. “Let’s not dredge up old bones. Go ahead if you want and do your series on … what is it? Happiness? Now leave me alone. I got work to do.”

 

 

“Really. He’s going to let you do a series on happiness.”

Frusty looked intently at Steve as they sat across from each other at the small table of the Chinese Wall restaurant. He took a bite of his egg roll and shook his head. “Who will you talk to?”

Steve gestured with a hand toward the window behind him. “Hell. Out there. The people are everywhere. Living their miserable lives. Sitting in their homes wasting it away in front of the boob tube holding their TV flickers. Making that death march to work every day.”

Frusty stopped from biting into his egg roll. His eyes widened. “Hey. That sounds like my life.”

“No offense,” Steve said. “But … well.”

“Nobody is going to open up to you about their inner self.”

“Oh? Let’s try it out. Are you happy Coy?”

“C’mon.”

“Well?”

“Are you?”

“No.”

“Well there you go,” Frusty said, crossing his arms and throwing Steve a smug look.

Steve poked at the noodles floating in his bowl of Won Ton soup. He looked off into the kitchen rich with the aroma of Chinese food cooking where he could see people furiously busying themselves with preparing meals.

“You think these people are happy?”

“Who?”

“This Chinese family working their tails of every day. The same routine over and over.”

Frusty’s eyes squinted toward the kitchen. “I think they may be too damn busy to give it much thought.”

“Really?” Steve said. “So, you’re point is that keeping busy is the solution to happiness?”

“Well, kinda. Yeah. I mean … work keeps your mind occupied, free of all the other crap going on.”

“And that’s why you work so damn hard?”

“I think we already established that I’m not happy.”

“But you’re content with your job and your big screen TV and NFL football package and your nice house and a wife.”

“You were going good there till you mentioned the wife,” Frusty said with a grin.

“So, I guess you are kind of miserably happy. Coy Frusty, a victim of inertia, unwilling to change, settled in and counting down the days till retirement.”

“Something like that Steven. Something like that.” Frusty pushed his plate of rice away and looked at Steve. “And what about you?”

“I can’t say I’m happy either. I’ve never been crazy about having a job with a boss. Writing about stuff that doesn’t get me fired up.”

“But you have a job.”

“I have a job. You’re right. And it does pay the bills.”

“Right. I guess that’s my point. I mean …. What can you really expect out of life? Hardly anyone gets the life they really want. That’s just reality.”

Frusty stared at Steve.

“What?” Steve said.

“The divorce. It was tough on you. Wasn’t it?”

Steve sighed. “At first. Yeah. Kind of a shock really. I mean … I think we were like a lot of couples. We kind of drifted apart after so many years of marriage.”

“Wasn’t she always complaining about money? How you didn’t make enough of it at the paper?”

“Yeah. Sure. That was part of it. And she had always wanted kids.” He thought of the miscarriages. After all these years, it still hurt. “But then we got into our forties and that ship had kind of sailed.”

“Yeah. Marriages aren’t perfect. That’s for sure. But I think there is more good than bad with them.”

“For some people maybe.”

They exchanged smiles.

“Was it Freud who said if you’re happy in the bedroom and happy in your work, you’re a happy man?”

Frusty laughed. “Well. He just might have been on to something.”

They walked out of the restaurant. It had been a wet summer, one of the wettest in memory, and the fall foliage that Steve always looked forward to had arrived late this year. Off in the distance, the trees on the hills across the river that swept past the small city were aflame in bright fall colors on this brilliant warm autumn day.

“What a great day huh?”

“Makes you glad to be alive,” Steve said.

“So. Am I your pilot test case?” Frusty said as they walked the two blocks back to the newspaper.

“I didn’t think about it, but I guess you kind of are.”

“What the heck. Use anything I told you, but don’t include my name.”

“Well. You know how we both feel about anonymous sources in stories.”

“Oh hell Steve. Do what you want. In this age of social media and everyone bearing their souls to the world, what the hell does it matter?”

Another excerpt – Searching for Sanity

12 Jan

Chapter 2

“Look Steve. I don’t read books. I do enough reading sitting here every day going over my copy.”

“But it’s a great book. This Tom Waiter is a wonderful writer. You can really identify with these people he writes about.”

Steve watched Coy Frusty roll his eyes from his seat in front of the computer screen. It was mid-week of another late afternoon in the newsroom. Sitting before a couple of other computer terminals nearby were Sue Karinsky and Larry Moran.

Karinsky was an earnest young woman several years out of college, who dreamed of working for a big city newspaper, but couldn’t seem to break the ties of home. She was very close to her family. Moran was a kind of introvert, somber and serious, a quiet bookworm, who often engaged Steve in conversations about fiction.

“Who is that author?” Moran asked, peering around his computer screen at Steve.

“Tom Waiter. Check him out.”

“How do you spell his name?”

“Like waiter in a restaurant.”

Moran nodded and peered back into his computer screen.

“Has anyone read All the President’s Men?” Karinsky said.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Long time ago.”

“I saw the movie,” Karinsky said. “Woodward and Bernstein. Pretty cool stuff. How they broke that story and stayed on in it like bulldogs.”

“Brought down Nixon,” Moran added.

“Really cool,” Karinsky said. “Do you remember that Steve?”

“Sure. I was born before the internet.”

“More like before automobiles,” Coy said. “Ha.”

“Look who’s talking Frusty. Those AARP magazines have been piling up on your desk for the past five years.”

“Ha. Good one Steve,” Moran said.

“Seriously,” Karinsky said. “You guys remember Watergate? That must really have been weird. Seeing the President get impeached and actually get tossed out of office.”

“Actually. Nixon resigned,” Frusty said.

“That’s right,” Steve said.

He leaned back in his swivel chair and looked at Karinsky then Moran. Jesus, he thought. The two copy editors were so young. Nineteen seventy-four, when Nixon flashed those peace signs before boarding the jet and flying off—his political career having crashed and burned for good. It was all so long ago.

“Do you think something like that can happen again?” Karinsky was peering around her computer screen once again.

“Ha. With the looney we got in the White House now, it’s possible,” Frusty said.

“Trump? Aw c’mon. He’s not so bad. Just a deranged narcissist.”

“Listen to Steve here,” Frusty said. “A liberal defending our president.”

“I’d love to be a reporter who breaks a story like that,” Karinsky said. She looked past Steve through the window behind him.

It was one of those bright, blustery November afternoons, a day to be outside where the wind could whisk you away someplace—far from this damn newsroom. Steve often paused from banging out stories to look out the window. From his desk he could take in part of the small city of Meckleyburg’s downtown, which of late, had undergone a kind of renaissance with restaurants and stores and artist galleries opening. The economy was booming right now, with no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t seem to help the newspaper’s revenues where Steve and his co-workers were stuck toiling away at full-time jobs, working odd hours and pulling down janitors’ wages.

“Not at this newspaper,” Frusty said. “You need to go somewhere else. Washington, New York, maybe even Philadelphia, where they do investigative reporting.”

“That’s my dream,” Karinsky said. “Maybe not those cities, but somewhere … a real newspaper.”

“And now you’re on the copy desk.” Moran said with a smile.

“I needed a break from reporting on school board meetings and fluff pieces that the local chamber of commerce hangs on its walls.”

“Ah well,” Steve said. “You’re young. You got your whole life ahead of you. As for me and Frusty here, we’re screwed. Too old to find other jobs …”

“And too old to give a shit,” Frusty added.

Frusty turned his attention back to his computer screen and resumed tapping away on his keyboard. Frusty was a grinder, the workaholic of the newsroom, constantly banging out stories seemingly for no other reason than he felt duty-bound to do it. Or maybe it was the boss, Sam Sneed, who wielded this kind of power over him. If Sneed needed someone to stay late and cover some meeting or make a few phone calls to get a story he felt was badly needed for the front page, Frusty was his man.

The few other reporters, Steve included, didn’t usually get hit up for the extra work. They were more eager to get home to babysit a kid or God knows what else. Steve had submitted to the extra work that came up too. That is, until the past few years, when he’d decided he’d had enough. He didn’t care about the overtime, basically a pittance anyway. Time was running out on his life, the gas tank was emptying, and he wanted to spend as little time as he had left not working.

“Oh. You guys aren’t that old,” Karinsky said.

“We’re old enough,” Steve said.

He turned to Frusty, who fought a smile, as he sat poised with his fingers for another attack at the keyboard.

“What?” Steve said, leaning across his desk toward his longtime newsroom mate.

“Not too old to still get it up now and then,” Frusty whispered, throwing the two of them into fits of near uncontrollable laughter.

“What?” Karinsky said. “What did he say?”

“Nothing,” Steve said. “Get back to work.”

Steve needed to get back to work too. There was that feature due on the soup kitchen’s closing. He had already done the legwork for that one, attending the last meal there with a couple of the nuns and the volunteers who ran the place and the poor, miserable folks who showed up for free meals there several days a week. Where were his notes for that story?

He also had phone calls to make. A guy no one had ever heard of was running for political office on the Green Party ticket. He wanted the same coverage for himself as the Republican and Democratic candidates. Fair enough. He had to have that story turned around by tomorrow too. Shit. There was always something. He asked himself again? Why had he ever gone into journalism? Hell, he knew the answer.

Steve picked up his iPhone from off his desk and tapped into the website. For the fourth time that day, the numbers were the same. No book sales. Seventeen books he had written over the past seven years and not a single sale since mid-October. Oh, so depressing.

He had started writing novels more than thirty years ago. This had come right after losing his first newspaper job. The reasons for his firing were vague. Something about a bad attitude, the boss had told him after summoning him into his office one bleak winter day.

He should have taken the dismissal as a sign. Maybe it was time to get out of the newspaper business. Why be a reporter when he didn’t enjoy being one? Sure, it was a job where one could make a small difference, challenging authority and making the powers-to-be squirm a little now and then. He’d never liked authority either. But, if truth be told, he was a bit diffident to ever be this hard-nosed, brash reporter, which in Steve’s mind, was the way the job should be done.

Instead, he’d played it safe his whole career (if a career is what you could call a low-paying, thankless gig), dutifully carried out his assignments and collected his paychecks. But he kept telling himself through the years: That was okay. He was marking time really, as he banged out stories in his spare time at home toward his real purpose of becoming a novelist.

But after all these years what had it really added up to?

His ex-wife, Gloria, had been supportive. For a while anyway.

“It will happen honey,” she said. “That New York publisher will send a limousine and we’ll be whisked away to the city for a weekend of literary parties and craziness.”

But as his thirties turned into his forties and he still found himself sending out query letters and manuscripts to agents that inevitably came back with the same “Sorry, not for us” message, he wondered if perhaps he had wasted his life trying to write the great American novel.

The divorce could have been blamed on any number of things. The miscarriages that aborted dreams of children and Gloria’s battles with depression, the fights over money and her nagging about him finding another job, “one that pays a living wage.”

And, well, he had tried other things—peddling janitorial supplies, driving a cab—but he’d always come back to reporting, which he knew best, and yes, somehow became miserably comfortable doing.

He knew what he was up against trying to write fiction. Hardly anyone ekes out a living at it, and yet, he continued to hold out this false hope that somehow, one day, the gods would look down benevolently upon him and declare one of his books the greatest literary achievement of his generation, at which point he’d quit his miserable, soul-sucking job forever and do what he was meant to do.

After all, it happened for Tom Waiter. This obscure blue-collar guy from The Plains had found literary fame at fifty-nine. Steve found himself thinking more and more of Tom Waiter. For a time, it seemed like every other day he was tapping the guy’s name into Google to find any little nugget of information about this literary wonder until he exhausted all sources.

Eventually, there was nothing new about Tom Waiter. All the magazine interviews and podcasts were dated. The internet search engines turned up nothing. Tom Waiter became like a murder case gone cold.

And yet, it kind of figured, Steve thought. There was something mysterious about the guy. The story about meeting the old man in the bar had been the last thing he read about Tom Waiter. Who was that man? And how had he changed Waiter’s life. Was the story true? Or, was it just a means of Waiter adding to his already mysterious and elusive persona. Perhaps his agent had concocted up the whole story to help Waiter further peddle his book.

The book, Dakota People, had been out for five years, and while it failed to become the number one book on the New York Times bestsellers list, it had nevertheless done quite well and been critically acclaimed. The stories resonated somehow with a great segment of readers, including Steve. But what had Tom Waiter been up to the past few years, and when would he come out with another book?

Steve returned to his desk and pulled the paperback copy from beneath the papers on the corner of his desk. He loved the front cover of the book: barbed wire stretching seeming into infinity across a Dakota wheat field at dusk. A lonely and desolate and mysterious landscape. Perfect. Tom Waiter’s mug shot on the cover revealed a man in a dusty ball cap, the words on the front of the hat indecipherable, the weathered and lined face of a working man, unsmiling, the somber eyes looking off in the distance.

And the stories. There were twelve of them. People, small town and rural folks, desperate souls, crying out for something. Perhaps meaning. Steve had read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio many years ago, in his eighteenth summer. These stories reminded him of those same misunderstood folks with longing and hunger in their souls. The very essence of Tom Waiter?

Steve had devoured Dakota People in two furious nights of reading. All two-hundred-fifty-one pages. The stories haunted him. The people of Tom Waiter’s world, hardworking and often tough, but so often beaten down by life, both physically and emotionally, part of it from relentless farm work and the raising of families, but perhaps more from an inability to articulate and quench a deep thirst or desire for something.

Tom Waiter had tapped into something that other writers had tried, but few had successfully managed to somehow portray: Mankind’s utter, futile struggle for not just meaning but happiness.

Me Too Fellas

17 Dec
aerial photography of tree surrounded with fogs

Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

The radio playing at the camp site segued from a jazzy blues number to NPR public service messages and then the voice of Jon Ritter: “Do catch the next program of Brit Talk with our very special guest .. Robbie Pop.”
“Who?” Moran asked.
“Robbie Pop,” Ritter said, poking at the camp fire.
“Who in the hell is that?” Moran said as he used his foot and his walking stick, Misty Blue, to clear a spot on the forest ground in preparation for his evening exercises.
“Robbie Pop,” Reuther said in an annoying tone.
“Never heard of him,” Moran snorted as he launched into his Royal Canadian jumping jacks.
“Well … he’s our guest on the next show.”
“But what does he do?” Moran asked, stopping from his exercises.
“He’s British,” Ritter said.
“Okay. Fine. But what does he do?”
“He’s British,” Reuther said. “Egads.”
“And I hold a Ph. D. in classical literature,” Moran said. “Again, what does he do?”
Reuther and Ritter looked at each other. They both well knew that his Ph. D. had been earned through an online correspondence course.
“He’s going to come on our show and talk about …” Ritter looked to Reuther for help.
“Brit stuff,” Reuther said.
“Brit stuff. Ha. You guys are pathetic. Can’t you find someone with something interesting to talk about? Who in the hell books your guests? Who is your program director?”
“Er …Annie,” Ritter said.
“Annie. Ha. Cozy arrangement for you Jon.”
“Now look,” Ritter said, pointing a finger at Moran.
“It’s going to be a good show,” Reuther said. “We’ve never had an English fella on our program.”
“Yeah,” Ritter said. “I mean … the show is Brit Talk after all.”
Moran shook his head. “You two have hit a new low. I mean … for the love of God, what was that nonsense you aired last week?”
“You mean … our comedy act?” Ritter said.
“If that’s what you call it,” Moran said.
Reuther and Ritter exchanged looks and then launched into it: A pair of mimes locked in a square glass box, trying to feel their way out.
“Mimes on the radio. How utterly ludicrous.”
“Hey. What’s good for the ratings is good for our show,” Reuther said with a grin.
“You got that right Mike,” Ritter said, grabbing a can of Vienna sausages from out of his backpack.
“For the love of Pete, why don’t you put me on your show?” Moran said, closing his eyes and rocking back on his heels.
“You?” Reuther said.
“Yes me.”
“But what will you have to offer?” Ritter asked.
“Indeed,” Reuther added. “Shall we talk about your history of plagiarism or the student sexual harassment scandals that have followed your academic career?”
Moran leveled a hard gaze at our heroes. He raised Misty Blue and charged.

Standing on a bridge watching life go by

12 Oct
brown mountain under blue and white sky

Photo by John Horrock on Pexels.com

 

“The thing is,” Reuther said as he stared off at the scraggy mountain top, “I’m past my fertile period. Making it as a fiction writer is out of the question.”

“That again,” Ritter said, rolling his eyes. “Every time you hit a wall with your writing you go on about being past your fertile period.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“It’s not true. C’mon. Let’s check out the Deckers Bridge and see if any trout are rising.”

“Since when do you care about trout rising?” Reuther said.

Ritter hoisted up his backpack and started off toward the bridge some fifty yards away. “I don’t, but it will get your mind of your stalled writing.”

“It’s not stalled. More like done … over, finished, kaput.”

Ritter didn’t want to hear it. Just that past winter, Reuther had come out with a dozen short stories that had wowed the literary world. What had followed had been the kind of success and attention that anyone would kill for – glowing reviews in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, interviews on CNBC and the major networks, even a bit part in some silly reality show. Sure, it was October now, and much of the hoopla over Reuther’s book was in the rearview mirror. And that, as Ritter saw it, was the real problem.

“You’ll just have to write another book,” Ritter said as they stood on the bridge and peered into the roiling waters of the South Platte River. Ritter liked it here, particularly in the fall on weekdays, when it was quiet and the summer vacationers were long gone.

“I guess so,” Reuther said.

“You guess so. Shit. Just do it,” Ritter said, turning now to face his longtime hiking buddy. “I mean, God sakes alive Reuther. When you got into this writing business, you knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.”

“But I’ll never write anything as good as Misfits, Dreamers and Mad Poets again,” Reuther said, referring to his book.

“Probably not,” Ritter said, as they both watched a blonde woman in a skin-tight kayaking outfit suddenly emerge from the Ponderosa pines on the far bank.

“Wow. Not bad,” Reuther said.

“Er … not bad at all.”

“Boyfriend is probably right behind her somewhere.”

“Of course,” Ritter said.

Sure enough, a young, svelte and sturdy man clad in his own skin-tight kayaking outfit, the lightweight water craft balancing upon his back, emerged from the forest.

“You see Mike. We all have our time in the sun.”

“Guess so ol’ Bean.”

They watched the couple move quickly down the embankment and to the water before climbing  into the two-person craft. All at once, the man looked up toward the bridge where our two heroes stood, giving them a thumbs-up, a gleaming toothed smile, before using a paddle to nudge the the kayak into the swirling water. The woman, sitting behind him in the kayak, smiled and waved as well. They two of them appeared, Reuther thought, to be the very epitome of youth, and beauty and vigor. They were, he realized, the kind of people that could be found everywhere in the West anymore. And just like that, the kayak was heading downriver and then under the bridge and past them.

“There’s a rise over there,” Ritter said, pointing to the spot behind the boulder known as Elephant Rock that formed a deep pool.

Reuther had been watching the kayak carrying the young couple grow smaller down the South Platte. He turned to look where his buddy was pointing. Sure enough, a large ring slowly expanded from near Elephant Rock. “Guess I should have brought my fly rod,” Reuther said.

He thought back of a few years ago, when he first came out here from back East. Back then, he’d been fishing four and five times a week – when he wasn’t writing his brains out that is.

“You need to quit moping around and get back to it,” Ritter said as if reading his mind.

“Guess so,” Reuther said.

“You guess so. Hell.”

They stood for a while on the bridge not saying anything. A breeze carrying the hint of winter blew against their faces. The sun disappeared behind some clouds.

“A cold beer wouldn’t be bad right now,” Ritter said. He was leaned over the bridge’s iron railing watching a cluster of fall leaves drift below him. He straightened and smiled at Reuther.

They both turned to gaze across the two-lane road feeding into the village at the blinking beer signs of the tavern.

“Shit yeah,” Reuther said.

The Bargain

6 Sep

Ritter poked at the campfire as he mulled over the question.

“What if I had choice between giving up hiking and rock climbing or spending the rest of my life with Annie Klondike?” He furrowed his brow and looked quizzically at Reuther.

“Right. What would you choose?”

“But that’s absurd,” Ritter said, tossing down his stick.

“Just work with me here Jon,” Reuther said.

“I would never give up hiking and rock climbing. I mean … those are my passions.”:

“Okay,” Reuther said. “I get it. But what if giving them up would mean being with Annie … the gal you’ve long pined for … for the rest of your life.”

“But it’s not going to happen,” Ritter said, throwing up his hands.

“No. You’re right. It’s not going to happen. Unless you believe in magic and such possibilities, no one is going to suddenly appear and offer you such a bargain.”

“Right,” Ritter said.

“Still … what would you choose?”

“Jeepers. You’re not going to let this go. Are you?”

Ritter studied Reuther’s smiling face as his longtime hiking buddy moved closer to the fire, his face lit up crimson from the flames.  He appeared almost otherworldly. Ritter had a fleeting thought that perhaps Reuther was a kind of supernatural being who could indeed make such a thing happen. A chill ran through him that even considering an answer would involve him in a sort of Faustian bargain.

“Well … Reuther said.

“Who do you think will win the World Series this year?” Rutter asked, a nervous lopsided grin crossing his face.

“Jon. C’mon.”

“You c’mon,” Ritter said. “This is just stupid.”

“Maybe,” Reuther said, rocking back on his heels and looking skyward. “Then again …”

Ritter poked some more at the flames. “Well what about you Reuther?”

“What about me?”

“Let’s say you had a chance to have your book be a bestseller and make you a boatload of money, perhaps a movie deal. You even win a Pulitzer. You gain worldwide fame.”

“I … don’t follow Jon,” Reuther said.

“Sure. Let’s say that happens, but only if you agree to spend the rest of your life unplugged, off the grid, in some lonely, one-room cabin in say … Greenland? Cut off from everyone you know and love … forever.”

Ritter watched Reuther consider the question as he chewed on his jerky.

“Interesting proposal Jon.”

“Yeah, it is,” Ritter said with a laugh, jumping to his feet.

He watched his buddy consider it for a few more moments. “I wouldn’t take the deal.”

“Why not?” Ritter said.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Reuther said.

“But you’d have everything you always wanted … a bestselling book, fame, immortality.”

“And no one to enjoy it with.”

“Er … right,” Ritter said.

“So.”

“So what?”

“I guess you’d give up your outdoors pursuits if it meant you’d gain Annie.”

“Never,” Jon said.

“But she’s your dream girl.”

“Dream girl?” Ritter considered the very words. Dream girl? A buxom outdoors gal who piloted prop planes around the Northwest and Canada. A sharpshooter and trapper, who drank her whiskey straight and could more than hold her own with any man. Surely not a gentle lass, and yet …

“She’s promiscuous,” Ritter said.

“And your point is?”

“No … no I wouldn’t even consider such a foolhardy notion of giving up hiking and climbing. Besides, this whole dialogue has been ludicrous.” Rutter got to his feet. “I’m going to bed.” He headed toward his tent.

“Funny isn’t it?”

“What?” Ritter said. With his back to Reuther, he stopped halfway between the now-dying campfire and his tent.

“These gals. They sure do funny things to our heads.”

“They sure do,” Ritter said. “They sure do.”

Misery Trails

2 Sep

 

And Jon Ritter said, “Who are you?”

The man said his was name was Carlyle and he was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on one leg and was happy to make Ritter’s acquaintance. He hopped back on the single leg and gave Ritter a cool, appraising eye. It was the kind of look that Ritter usually found off-putting. Shit. His boss, Moran, often gave him that face, a kind of challenging look. But on this hot, dry day high in the Sierra Nevadas, Ritter was just too dog-tired to really give a shit. The seven hours he’d been on the trail on this July day were really destroying him. And then this guy had skipped up behind him, seemingly out of nowhere, greeting him in an unmistakable British accent, “Top of the day to you,” causing Ritter to nearly jump clean out of his hiking boots.

“Look. I’m just hiking. Okay? I’ve got a lot of miles to make by Friday.”

“Friday?” the man said. “Ha. So, you’re not a thru hiker.”

Ritter groaned. So, it was going to be that again. He was apparently one of them—a hiking snob. These guys and gals (increasingly there were more women on the trails these days) who labeled you a kind of wimp or tenderfoot. They figured it wasn’t worth hefting it along on these jaunts of several days. They were thru-hikers, giving up months of their lives for these marathon jaunts. Criminy. They let it be known they couldn’t be bothered with anything less.

“Er … no. I’m not a thru hiker.”

“Short hike or not,” the man said with a smug grin. “You’ll never make it like that?”

“Like what?” Rutter said.

“That pack. Bloody hell. What have you got in that thing? A piano?”

“Er … just my provisions for the next several days. Food, blanket, sleeping roll, pocket knife, my paper back copy of Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.”

“It looks awfully bulky to me,” he said, hopping forward on his leg to look more closely at it. “How much weight are you hauling Jack”?”

Jack?

“Never mind. I’m fine sir.”

Ritter turned to go.

“Wait.”

Ritter stopped.

“Would you mind terribly if I hop-scotch along with you? I haven’t really had much company the last few days.”

The fella’s tone had softened. Jesus. The poor guy was lonely.

“Fine,” Ritter said.

“I’ll go slow too.” He hopped up and down on one leg smiling at Ritter.

Damn it, he thought. Who was this dude?

And so, they walked. This guy, he had to be about sixty-five, was a small, compact fella, agile and spry. In fine shape too. Jesus, he sure could move on just one leg. It was all Ritter could do to keep up with him. Occasionally, he turned to see if Ritter was still there—the bastard. At one point, he lit up one of those e-cigarettes, the vapor trailing him and blasting Ritter in the face as he hopped along. Smoking? God. It was too much. And he talked. God did he talk—about politics, European soccer (about which Ritter knew nothing) and hiking. To hear the guy tell it, he’d hiked everywhere, all over America and Europe, even the Himalayas. He claimed to have scaled Mount Everest too. If that wasn’t enough, he apparently was some kind of bird expert too, gesturing with that damn e-cigarette at different species of birds that came into view, emitting these weird cackling noises to communicate with them.

It was Ritter who suggested they make a stop—at the outcropping of rocks near where the trail turned.

“Ah … too tired to go anymore Jack?” the man said.

“Fuck you,” Ritter whispered, but not loud enough for him to hear.

They stopped. From high above, they could both look down and see the water from the snow-melt thundering down the mountain.

Ritter threw back his head and looked to the sky, taking in the sound of that roaring water—the finest sound in nature. Yeah. This was what made all the walking and the sweat and the toil and the humdrum of putting one foot front of the other, worth it. Jeepers. Best decision he ever made in life was taking up hiking all those years ago. Even skiing or getting drunk with Reuther wasn’t this good.

This is great, he thought. He found a tree and sat with his back against it just taking it all in. God, it felt good to be off his feet. He had all but forgotten about his annoying temporary one-legged hiking companion from across the pond when he heard talking. He looked over to see Carlyle with a phone pressed against his ear. Okay, fine, he thought. A lot of hikers brought their phones along any more. He had learned to accept that. Apparently, he was able to get cell service out here.

“I’ll ask my hiking companion here,” he heard Carlyle say.

And then he was gesturing with that damn e-cigarette to Ritter. “Say. Some of my friends are up the trail not far from here. They brought grub. I think Sebastian said something about steaks and beer. You’re welcome to join us.”

Damn. He was hoping to be rid of this guy. But steaks and beer? Jeepers.

“Er … thanks, but no. Gonna try to do another few miles.”

“Yes. Sebastian? It will just be me. Tell Yvonne to simmer my steak over the fire to well done. Jennifer and Misty are going to be there too? And Constance? Ah … splendid. I do hope the beer is cold.” He brought the phone down from his ear and smiled. “Well … cheerio,” he said, giving Ritter a farewell wave as he hopped around the bend of the trail.

Steaks and beer and women? Ritter’s mind reeled at the possibilities. Jesus. Maybe it was time to rethink this.

“Hey wait,” Ritter screamed.