Couple nights ago a met an old fellow out for his evening constitution. "How old are you?" he says, "I'm 81." I told him he looked very fit. "Gotta keep moving," he says. "Don't stop."
Last weekend we met friends in Ojai for a country fair. I'm not bananas about county fairs. Lilalee loves them. She is sure to return with some new, prized dust collector. It will displace another half-box of hoarded books—books that once held the promised remedy for some failing. So long as I don't have to watch the Vietnam Vets carry away this bit of my past, it is just as well. We have too much of everything.
Our drive down the Santa Clara River Valley over Sulphur Mountain to Ojai was glorious. We headed directly to the town square where we met our friends for giant pancakes at Bonnie Lu's. As we ate, I kept glancing up at the tawny foothills of Nordhoff Ridge. Lilalee told them I was distracted because my leg was acting up. Everyone was understanding.
In short order we were in a sated, sugar-fat quasi-comma and headed over to the fair. The air was pungent with jasmine. We pass a skinny young fellow with a stringy beard and sitar busking before an empty bowl and then a booth of golden oil and honey bottles that glistened spiritually under the sparkles of healing crystals. The aisles were clotted with clumps of well-heeled tourists and tie-dyed locals who buffeted shoppers as they pressed impatiently for attention against tables overflowing with vividly colored produce while children scampered underfoot. It's a mystery to me why glazed pots, turquoise jewelry, garage sale boutiques, scented candles, aromatics, fungus drinks, eggplant-enough-to-fill-a-Great-Lake and other stuff that panders to our longing natures should inspire a festive mood, but Lilalee and our friends where brimming with pleasure.
We barely turned the first aisle before that wobbly noodle of a leg sent this sky rocket up my spine. Damn disc. After a round of perfunctory concern, I excused myself to a quiet bench in the shade for a session of despair and I resolved to book another session with Angel. Was I ever going to get better?
Yesterday, I was reading hiking blogs. It's a newly acquired distraction; an escape from anxiety- induced neglect of my still-nameless Key to all Mythologies which I sometimes wish I could pack up like a half-box of hoarded books. I no longer read these blogs for advice on blisters, rain pants or what to do if caught on a mountain pass in a lighting storm. And, I am weary of the sordid glories of hypothermia, diarrhea and how they make up the "adventure of a lifetime." I'm searching for bloggers with a literary spark that brings the trail to life. I know a few, but the shameful search for vicarious living is embarrassing.
That's when the phone rang. A voice from the past: my old-old colleague buddy, Milo, who reappears periodically after extended absences, like a cicada. He was in town and wanted to meet for dinner.
We were buddies in school. I felt improved by our friendship, if that's what it was. He had good grades, a fast car, cute girl friends, and sexual exploits. It is only in retrospect that I understood he had the charm and will to grab what he wanted which I now know to be a perfect recipe for material success and an impairment to wisdom. On the bright side I doubt that, despite three marriages and three divorces, Milo ever longed for wisdom or suspected he might be wanting in that way. It was his gift.
I agreed to meet him at the Life Cafe in Pasadena. The Life caters to the fine dining millennial foodie with half-a-zillion dollars of debt from college loans and a hankering for novelty. It's place to spend freely without guilt. Suffice to say I am not a foodie. I am not a millennial. And, I do not have debt—for a reason. But the Life is Milo's kinda place. He believes that fraternizing with a younger set keeps him young.
Don't get me wrong. Milo is clever. He's got style. He reads. He's now rich. He follows politics and has opinions which may be gospel in Texas but make you a pariah on the West Side. It's part of his one-man crusade. I love that about him.
Milo is at the restaurant when I arrive. He waves me over, past a waiting-list line to a primo corner table with a view of the street. He greets me with big, warm, Texas bear hug.
"Hey dude. Whatdy'a think of this table. Crippy, eh? A 50 works just as well here as in Austin. Great to see ya. Have a seat."
"You haven't aged a bit Milo."
"That's my plan. There's only one life, eh?" He waves over the server. "This joint is supposed to have fancy beer and spicy noodles. Let's get some."
I order a chicken creation and lager. He orders a fish and ale.
Without any prompting from me, he begins to talk about himself. "I am doing great. Business has never been this good. I'm rolling in the moolah." At length he explains that his construction company has started manufacturing temporary housing for the oil boom up in Edmonton and North Dakota. "Don't believe what you hear about those North Dakota winters. It's no good for us thin-blooded Texans."
"Ever see your daughter?" I ask. I knew his daughter when she was little. We blew soap suds and played hide-and-seek. I never saw her after the divorce. "How's she doing?"
"Oh you know... the Ex poisoned her against me. It's cool," he says, "she sends me a holiday card. Maybe that's because I send her a fat check. Hah!" It's a laugh tinged with irony. "She's a beauty though. Got her law degree and a rich Dad. I can't wait to meet the dude that catches her."
The whole while we talk, Milo's got his eyes on the passing foot traffic. "Man there's a lot of distractions in Pasadena."
Our meal comes. My portion is small, wrapped in what appears to be detritus from our hopeless lawn, and circled with a deeply saturated purple goop smeared in curlicues around the plate. I eat quickly. He finishes before me.
"So what's with you these days?" he asks. "Still married to what's her nose?"
"Yea, we've settled here. I live just up the by the mountains."
"Mighty pretty," he says, but may not mean the mountains.
"And I've retired."
"No shit Houston. You? What the hell do you do with yourself aside from jerking off?"
"Not much. Read. Write. I've been hiking."
"You? Hiking? You used to trip on your shoe laces." He laughs. "So what sort of hiking? Anything like that girl they made the movie about?"
"You mean Wild?"
"That's insane dude. You shitting me?"
"It's not a sure thing. I've got this weak leg now and some sort of disc problem."
"Well don't you sound like some stupid shit. You gonna hike into the middle of bumfucknowhere with a bum leg? That's the absolutely stupidest thing I've ever heard out of your mouth and I've known you to say some pretty stupid stuff."
"I'm hoping it's gonna heal," I say. And then I tell him about the mountains and the granite, the high lakes and fathomless blue of the sky. I tell him about walking and seeing to the next ridge. I tell him about the night sky and a warm bag on a cold night. But he just stares at me with skeptical impatience.
"Aren't you a bit past the 'experience of a lifetime' phase. And you're gonna do this with a spine injury?!"
"They say I'm going to be OK."
"I'm sure all your inclusive, tree-hugging California buddies think this is a swell idea. Take it from an old friend who knows you only too well: it's not. Grow up dude. Use that silly brain of yours. Do something good for somebody. Enjoy life! But then you never had a gift for that, did you?"
He gives me a big smile, swats me on the shoulder like it's all for fun and then launches into a well-rehearsed screed about how the Democrats have ruined the country and set it on a path to violence and squalor. "Time to switch sides," he says and picks up the tab with an infectious grin. That's how things usually went when Milo blew through town.
As I drive home and reflect on our dinner, I know Milo is a self-absorbed jerk, but we have history. He's foolish but no fool. He was never kind, but he was always a realist. Perhaps it is my failing, but I always take him seriously.
As I drive home I can make out lights of Mount Wilson on the ridge line. It's a clear night, the sky is steady, the earth rotates under the celestial sphere unchanged since the first fire was lit.