This summer Timothy Braun has taken to the road, traveling the US in search for larger truths, re-enacting (of a sort) Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. You can read his earlier adventures here and here.
The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have. –Wallace Stevens on “Supreme Fiction”
THERE ARE FEW areas of the world where I would actually live, and the Bay Area of California is one of them. Although a sprawling metropolis, the hills in the area make it feel like small towns all lined in a row. The last time I was in the Bay Area I was alone, living in a sleeping bag under a house in South San Francesco. Opal Essence, well known for her generosity at Burning Man and Maker Faire, rented me a cubbyhole in the side of her basement wall. There, I watched the last episode of Lost, a rambling story of duality, dysfunctional families and dying heroes that skipped between the past and the present while ghosts kept the characters company and a nameless smoke monster flickered off-stage tragedies. In Lost’s final moments, the main character lies on the ground and is joined by a dog so he won’t die alone. Lost is like a comic book wrapped in a Wallace Stevens poem to me. Reality is the product of the imagination as it shaped the world, a “supreme fiction,” as Stevens would say.
When I came to the Bay Area this time, I was with Dusty. We stayed in Jack London Square in Oakland and were having truck problems. The battery had been sapped; probably because we’d been listening to podcasts, mostly episodes of Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. As we rolled into Oakland an interview with Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin was on, a writer notorious for murdering characters. Martin said when he was a kid he read Avengers #9, a comic that both introduced and killed the hero Wonder Man in 23 pages. Wonder Man is a bad guy who keeps the other bad guys from winning. I understand Martin; I feel closer to him after hearing this interview. I read comics when I was a kid. They were the only things I could read. Back then I had a learning disability that I’ve since traded for a chip on my shoulder. In the third grade I was sent to “special” school on the short bus and called stupid. Most of my friends at my old school stopped speaking to me, and I was no longer invited to birthday parties. The only thing that kept me floating were the comic books I stole from my older brother – and my friendship with Arno Holschuh.
Arno now lives in Oakland, and we’ve not seen each other in twenty years. He manages the production department at Blue Bottle Coffee Company, only a few blocks from our hotel. Arno and I were Boy Scouts together, read comic books to each other, watched Harrison Ford movies together and hiked the Smoke Mountain range when we were fifteen. We even worked at an ice cream store after school. Arno was the only person to keep calling me when I was moved to a “special” school in the third grade. In high school, as told to me by a mutual friend, Arno attended a booze-fueled party busted by the police, and as all our classmates ran for their lives, Arno sat down, opened a beer and drank in front of the cops so the host of the party wouldn’t go to jail alone. We had breakfast at his coffee shop, hugged, smiled and caught up. He met Dusty and showed me his truck, a Toyota just like mine, but with Mötley Crüe seat covers that he explains, “Protect you from the seats.”
“Call me later,” I say. “We’ll get dinner. On me–”
“I’d love dinner. And, if you want a beer,” he says, “go one block to Merchants and tell them you’re an old friend. Been my pub for a decade.” Arno doesn’t know I don’t drink anymore.
Everything from this point appears to me in fragments and cells, like a splash page in a comic book held together by a white gutter, the space between pictures in a comic. At the local farmers market Dusty gets dog treats made of duck liver, and I sample an array of fruits including two kinds of “peachcots,” a peach-apricot hybrid. Dusty and I go to San Francisco’s Mission District, with its Indian restaurants, thrift stores, and the best graffiti outside the Bronx. I ask my phone where the nearest pizza place is, and “Siri” tells me I need to go to the East Village of New York City, but across the street I see “Escape From New York Pizza,” and the dog and I have lunch. We learned Casey Kasem, the voice of my youth on radio countdown shows and every after-school cartoon, has died and we honor his memory by pretending I’m Scooby-Doo and Dusty is Shaggy for the rest of the day until I get a text from Arno.
“Where should I meet you?”
“Merchants” he says.
I leave Dusty at the hotel. I know the bar Arno where wants to meet is no place for a dog. A black-and-white poster of a pirate ship sits in the doorway of The Merchant and reads, “The Hell Cruise Finally Docks.” When I arrive, Arno already has an empty shot glass before him and is at the bottom a pint of beer.
“It’s weird you are not drinking,” he says. When was the last time you had a drink?” It’s been a while, but I don’t keep count, probably because I don’t care. Instead, we talk about our families and women. I tell him I’m floating around relationships, just trying to enjoy my time, and trying to see the world for what it is, a bittersweet unfocused thrill.
“Anyways,” I say as if I know more than I really do, “Dusty is the only companion I need now. He never asks me where the relationship is going, and he never talks when we watch football together.”
“Yeah, but you float through relationships and wake up at fifty without grandchildren.” Arno then tells me about a woman, and he has asked me to leave it at that. She is a private woman, and I respect that.
“She has cancer.”
Arno is very friendly with her. He’s been teaching her children how to fish. I wonder if he has regrets.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Cancer and chemotherapy were for adults who were as distant and far from us as comic book characters. In that moment I become an imaginary Everyman, a character of few strong attachments, just a dog and a truck. But not Arno. He’s attached to a woman and her kids. His love for her is a distinguishing mark, the difference between a guy on the street and a hero. That is worth something. We change the subject to noir novels; we don’t read comics anymore; our reality has shifted. I mention Nic Pizzolatto’s line from True Detective: “The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” He chuckles and humors me. As we leave The Merchant, he stumbles and wobbles slightly. Arno can hold his beer, but I walk him to the nearest BART station so if the cops pick him up, he won’t go to jail alone. I tell him I came to Oakland and now it’s his turn to visit Dusty and me in Texas.
“I will be home in a few weeks.”
He smiles politely, says nothing, gives me hug and vanishes down into the station. I go back to the hotel and watch TV with Dusty. I find the woman Arno told me about on Facebook and consider asking her to be “friends” even though we’ve never met. I change my mind. She doesn’t know me and probably doesn’t need to be bothered. Fargo is on TV, and Billy Bob Thornton shoots two people while yelling at Martin Freeman. I wonder if Arno has seen Fargo. Would this be something we would watch together if we were kids? The short school bus and all the comics seem inconsequential as Dusty snuggles next to me so I won’t sleep alone. The next day the truck starts just fine, and we head to Seattle to my family.
I never see my family, not my brother, not my parents. I have no idea what kind of books they read or television shows they like. Dusty and I take the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island where my folks live. On the boat I leave Dusty in the truck, as I’m afraid he’ll jump in the water for a swim and drown. Seattle doesn’t feel real to me; it never has. It’s a magical mystery place that floats between mountains, and I’ve never been able to understand the city, like the Land of Oz. At my parents’ house there’s a lawn to mow and children playing with an umbrella next door, but it all feels fake, like they’re putting on a show. My mother builds jigsaw puzzles she glues together and hangs on the walls, and my father carves totem poles in the garage. My mom tells me she enjoys a short-lived TV show that Tom Gissendanner, that man we stayed with in LA, was on. Dusty and I only have a few hours to see them before they leave to visit my grandmother in Indiana.
I don’t know my parents very well. They are nice people, and I do my best to get them thoughtful Christmas presents each year, but I can’t tell you what my father’s favorite color is, or what my mom enjoys eating, but they try hard and that is better than most families I’ve seen. I believe the world owes a person nothing, still my mom deserved better than what she got with me. Two years ago I bought her a TV, and I’d buy her a thousand more if I could. She is a magician in the way she sees the world. She goes to church and volunteers at a museum; she feeds homeless people and believes that love is enough. I believe the Earth is nothing more than a ball of mud. I was raised on Harrison Ford movies. When a woman says “I love you,” I reply, “I know,” which is probably why I spend so much time with a dog.
We make plans to eat at the Ajax Café, maybe the best restaurant in the Northwest and leave Dusty at home. The walls of the Ajax are lined with various hats and ties you can wear while you eat, but the food is delicate and exceptional. We leave hours early to make certain we get there when they open. Dad stops at a lumberyard looking for a specific wood for his totem poles. Mom and I sit in the car in silence until she asks if I have any hobbies.
“Architecture,” I tell her. “I read architecture magazines. I like how things are put together. And I read poetry, every once in a while.”
All she wants to do is talk and show she cares, and I recognize this.
“Tadao Ando is my favorite architect. He is very conscious of light.”
“Do you have a favorite poet?”
“Not really, but I’m into Wallace Stevens right now.”
“What do you like about him?”
“He’s meditative and philosophical and really weird.”
I want to say “fucking weird,” but I do my best not to curse in front her. My mom gives me the gossip on family members I never see. I believe that marriage is for suckers, but my heart sinks when she says my cousin is separated from her husband. Sitting down for dinner with them, I have a difficult time. I don’t eat meals often, just the occasional slice of pizza with the dog. I order the Ajax salmon and have to use silverware. I don’t understand what people are supposed to do when they eat like this, and I save a sliver of fish for Dusty.
“Do you ever cook?” my mom asks.
On occasion, I do when I’m stopped to think about it. I learned to cook in the Boy Scouts with Arno, and I tell my parents my mac ‘n cheese recipe. “Two cups of everything and a side of victory,” I joke. I always bring my mac ‘n cheese to potlucks, and I always win as a potluck is nothing more than suburban blood sport. They laugh at this notion, and I feel good that I can make them smile.
The next day they leave early in the morning for the airport, and I feel lonely even though Dusty is there. I look around the house and see pictures of my college graduation and snowmen my niece drew when she was kid. In the living room is an old TV the size of a microwave. The house is broken into years and moments, most of which I’ve chosen to forget. My parents treat Dusty well, and I’d like to spend more time with them. He and I take the ferry to Seattle, and I leave him in the truck while I take pictures of the city across the water. We go to Freemont, my least favorite neighborhood in the entire country, for a the summer solstice parade and folk art fair with burned-out hippies only because I think it will make an interesting story. I’d rather go to Capitol Hill, an area more punk rock more my speed, where the chip on my shoulder will be appreciated, but Dusty and I pay twenty dollars for parking in Freemont and look for people to talk with. A guy who looks like Jerry Garcia sits under a statue of Vladimir Lenin and offers my dog beef jerky and then tries to sell him pot.
“I got Blue Dream, and Lavender, little buddy.”
How in the Hell, I wonder, did this town win the Super Bowl.
At the “art” fair, which is mostly t-shirts and hoodies made in people’s basements, I get Dusty ice cream, blackberry cheesecake, and a woman dressed head-to-toe- in all purple, asks if she can pet him.
“That doggie sure does love his ice cream!” she squeals.
“He is The Emperor of Ice-Cream…Wallace Stev…” and before I can get the “ens” out of my mouth I say, “Never mind.”
She asks me to pick him up so she can talk to Dusty at eye level because she hurt her back, that and she wants me to buy one of her t-shirts, one that reads “I hate drama.” All of this occurs while four people lie down in the middle of street to look at the sun, and a Labradoodle dressed in pixie wings and painted fur greets my dog. Seattle was something at some point in time, but not anymore. I’m getting too old to understand people. I decided to go to my brother’s before I lose my cool.
He has lived in Seattle for twenty years. My parents followed him out here from the Midwest. I have no idea what he does for a living; it has something to do with computers, and I think he might be shrinking. He was so much bigger when I was young. His wife writes cookbooks. Her recipes are gluten-free, and I own one of these books but have never opened it since I don’t really cook. His daughter, my niece, loves science and comic books. She is smart and wears ski goggles when cutting onions to avoid tears. We sit in their backyard, have snacks and catch up until my brother disappears only to return with a gift. He gives me a thin present wrapped in shiny pink paper covered in dancing penguins and smothered in scotch tape. Inside is the Christmas present my brother bought me two years ago but never got around to mailing: two issues of Spider-Man’s “Tangled Web Series” entitled “Flowers For Rhino” in which the brain of Spidey’s dumbest foe is surgically altered to become smart. I always liked the Rhino. He seemed so misunderstood when I was a dumb kid, and I don’t tell my brother I already own these comic books. I just smile and thank him. I think about all the comics I stole from him in the third grade. Much in the way I had a hard time telling Arno I no longer drink, I can’t bring myself to tell my brother I don’t read comics anymore. I try to keep up a conversation with my niece, but I get lost in all the heroes and villains she talks about.
Her energy is infectious, but I’m old. I wonder if I have nostalgia or just notions. I have fun in their backyard. Dusty barks at their chickens and licks his nose in the sun. It’s never sunny in Seattle and feels today like I’ve been invited to a small birthday party just a few hours long. When I leave, my truck turns over with the fading battery, and the radio plays a cover of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” My travel story is becoming less about America, and more about personal mysteries and off-stage tragedy. I wonder if my brother will be a grandfather some day.
On the ferry out of Seattle the next day, I stay in the truck with Dusty. It was wrong of me to leave him alone before. I get a text message from my dad saying he tried the mac ‘n cheese recipe. I don’t ask if victory was had. I don’t need to. As the boat floats across the water from the island, Dusty sits up, puts his nose to my shoulder and I read to him from Avengers #9 on my iPhone.
“Every man dreams of doing one noble thing in his life. Now I can die with knowing that I didn’t live in vain.” Wonder Man says this while Iron Man holds his hand in the last panel. It’s tragic, but Wonder Man comes back to life years later in Avengers #102. No one dies in the comics forever. When we get a moment, Dusty and I give $100 from our travel money to the cancer treatment fund for the woman Arno told me about. Wonder Man fought the Masters of Evil, but she is fighting an unsatisfying notion of reality, not “Supreme Fiction.” I gave her the last of the cash Dusty and I had for these essays, and I think it is worth donating to her. I write: “The five stages of leaving the Northwest: depression, anger, bargaining, acceptance, Idaho,” on Facebook. The dog and I drive East, and I realize we don’t know anyone in the Rocky Mountains.
Thank God I’ve got Dusty with me. I would be totally alone without him.
Here is the recipe for the unstoppable, victory inducing mac ‘n cheese, for your pleasure.
Uncle Timmy and Dusty-Danger’s Super Powered Wonder Man Mac n’ Cheese of Victory
2 Cups shredded Monterey Jack Cheese
2 Cups shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar
2 Cups dried macaroni
2 Cups Skim milk (for your health)
1 white onion (diced)
1 can of diced tomatoes in Italian spices.
Preheat your oven 450 degrees.
Put everything in a glass dish, except the tomatoes.
Open that can of tomatoes, drain the juice, and put the tomatoes on top, sort of like pepperoni on a pizza. Then sprinkle basil all over the top of that puppy. Cover in aluminum foil, bake for one hour and practice your victory speech. In the world of potluck dinners you will be a super hero.