Thursday, April 3, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter One: Traveling Song

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Reverend Fisher stood in the shower, feeling uninspired. His soaping process was composed of carefully mapped-out quadrants – left leg, right leg, genitals, etc. – and he had lost his place. He inspected his graying chest hair for suds – then felt a drip along his sideburns.
            Well, he thought. Now we’re getting somewhere. Rather than trying to figure out where he was in his shampooing process, he grabbed his Herbal Essence and started from the beginning.
            I am terribly distracted, he thought. If it weren’t for all the goshdarn mumbo-jumbo of his radio ministry: pledge drives, FCC paperwork, the paucity of late-night filler (how he hated those Southern redneck preachers!) Not to mention his new intern, Daisy McPhillips, the geometry of whose derriere had him grappling with temptation every time she walked away from his desk, or – God help us! – bent over to pick up a file.
            But today was Sunday, and the Reverend felt an obligation to deliver joy unto his flock, whether he felt it or not. He dipped his head under the shower stream and came back with his answer. Grandma’s song! “Put On A Happy Face.”  He whistled artificial joy off the tiles and felt immediately better.
            Emma Fisher stood in the next room, ironing her husband’s shirt, fending off a squadron of anxieties. Late last night, she happened on Wendy in the hallway, and saw in the girl’s face a flush of warmth – a flush, let’s face it, of a sexual nature. Maybe not actual activity, but Emma remembered what nineteen was like, all those hormones rambling around like free-range chickens.
            And then there was her husband, who had suddenly taken to manhandling her rear end. Last night they had even done it – how did the kids put it? Puppy-style? Marcus grew terribly excited, and at one point even spanked her! Just thinking of it set her to tingling. But still, it was a change, and Emma Fisher was not a woman who responded well to change.
            And now the whistling. She knew what that song meant. It meant that he, too, was distracted, and trying to corral some phony enthusiasm for today’s sermon. He was a damn fine whistler, though. He had played cornet in high school, and liked to throw in trills and countermelodies when he whistled along with the radio. She found herself humming along, though she could never remember the title. Something about putting on your makeup.
            After seeing her husband off, Emma headed to the Mavrovitis Bakery. She supposed she could get away with some of those dry cookies from Safeway, but being the pastor’s wife, she felt obligated to do better. The Women’s League was welcoming new members, and she thought the occasion called for George’s burnt almond cake – a concoction that had the same effect on Emma as last night’s slap on the butt.
            Phony enthusiasm was a large part of George’s occupation, too – but not when it came to Emma Fisher. Mrs. Fisher knew the value of a quality cake, and didn’t give in to those low-budget sirens at the Ellensburg Safeway. She was also not bad to look at – something about that thick black hair, the way it set off her blue eyes. George fetched out the cake – iced with a cursive Congratulations! – and held it up over the counter.
            “So lovely!” said Emma, beaming. “I do have to rush off, though. Could you put this on my tab?”
            “For the Reverend’s wife, always.” He slid the pink box into Mrs. Fisher’s hands and watched her walk off, holding the door open with her hip as she navigated around the goat bells. Those hips, thought George. How did I not notice those before? She was humming a tune, too. “Sunny Side of the Street,” something like that.
            It wasn’t till an hour later, working on butterscotch cupcakes for Billy Johanssen’s birthday, that the song snuck its way back in. George didn’t even realize he was whistling until Joseph Standing Bear burst through the door.
            “What the hell are you so happy about?”
            “Oh, hi Bear. Whatcha up to?”
            “Got tomorrow off work. MLK Day. Goin’ to Cle Elum Lake for some fishin’”
            “Kinda cold there, ain’t it?”
            “Yeah, sure,” said Bear. “But the tribe’s got a real nice cabin. One o’ them big freestanding fireplaces to warm your tootsies. If I don’t get any bites, I’ll make an early day of it.”
            “Hell. Why fish at all?”
            “Justification, my friend.”
            “Yeah,” said George, laughing. He finished a frill and set down his icing tube. “Always wondered, Bear. Do the guys in the tribe resent all those years you spent at Microsoft?”
            “Yeah. They call me an ‘Apple Indian.’ Red on the outside, white on the inside. But I notice it doesn’t come up when they’re having problems with their hard drives.”
            “Hah! “ said George. “That’s good. Whatcha up for?”
            “How’s about two peanut butter cookies and a Big Mama coffee?”
            “Gotcha.” He flipped a cup under the coffeemaker.
            It was a great day for driving, so clear and bright it hurt Bear’s eyes. He also had to pee. He pulled off at the Teanaway rest stop, which was, strange to say, one of his favorite spots on Earth. When he worked in Redmond, it meant he was almost home, and on a day like this the view was incredible. Teanaway Ridge, Jolly Mountain, Mt. Stuart. He wondered what the tourists thought of this.
            He took a brief scan and strode to the bathroom. But Joseph Standing Bear suffered from a “shy bladder,” and even the privacy of a stall wasn’t doing the trick. After a minute or two, he tried whistling the song that George was whistling, and that seemed to loosen the pipes.
            “Put On A Happy Face” was written by composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams in 1960 for the musical Bye Bye Birdie. It continued to travel the Wenatchee Mountains that day courtesy of Sam Snowden, a retired Chicagoan taking the RV odyssey with his wife Marnie. Sam heard it while sitting in a stall at the rest stop, then passed it on to Marnie, who carried it into a McDonald’s in Renton, just across Lake Washington from Seattle. Behind Marnie in line was Rosie Karmit, an African-American lady on her way to Auburn for a movie date with her aunt. The song’s gospel edges reminded Rosie of the Dinah Washington records her mother used to play. She was treating it to a full jazz scat when she pulled up next to Josh Adams at 148th Avenue.
            Josh was on the way to the mountains for some snowboarding, and stopped in Snoqualmie for gas. There, he passed it on to Betsy Herman, an elderly former barmaid working the register.
            Twenty minutes later, in stepped Nolan Sorbain, a local kid making his living hanging Sheetrock at the new convalescent home along the main drag. Today was his first day off in three weeks, and he decided to take his big Dodge Ram truck out for a spin. And then there was Shawn Turk.
            Shawn stood on the shoulder of the offramp, considering the chess match before him. His drum set was piled on the roadside – the only way he could get to the spare tire at the bottom of his hatchback. It was one of those space-saver models that was stored flat, the tire folded tight to the rim. Therein lay his dilemma. He had been smart enough to buy an inflation canister – but the canister also contained a chemical that professed to repair small punctures. How easy life would be, he reasoned, if he could just mend his tire and be on his way.
            Following the instructions, he shook the canister for two minutes then screwed the nozzle onto his valve stem. After twenty breathless seconds, Shawn saw no sign of actual inflation. He stuck his head under the chassis to find bitter-smelling white vapor exiting from a long tear on the inside of his tire.
            Shawn fell into the symptoms of utter defeat: limbs dropping, chest falling, life essence leaking out of him as he settled his forehead to the cold roof of his car. A big white truck pulled to the shoulder.
            “Hey!” said the driver. “Need some help?”
            “Um, yeah!” said Shawn. He walked to the window to find a beefy linebacker type, buzzcut hair, backwards ballcap, Celtic tattoo on his bicep. He seemed friendly.
            “You got a cell phone?” asked Shawn. “I think I’m gonna need triple-A.”
            “Sure.” He flipped out a phone and aimed a big thumb at the buttons. “Reception’s a little chancy up here, but…”
            “’Course, what I really need,” said Shawn, “is an air compressor.”
            The linebacker stopped and let out a grin. He reached behind the seat and pulled out a box that said First-Use Emergency Air Compressor.
            “You’re shittin’ me!” said Shawn.
            They hooked the compressor to the truck’s cigarette lighter, screwed on the air hose and had the spare two-thirds full when the compressor suddenly stopped.
            “Uh-oh,” said Shawn. “I think we killed it.”
            “No sweat,” said Linebacker. “Ten-dollar piece of shit from Schuck’s. I’m just glad I got a chance to try it out. In any case, that’ll get you to a gas station.”
            Shawn pulled off the air hose and gave the spare a whack with his palm. “Yep. I think that’ll do it. Geez, I feel like I’d like to give you something. You just totally saved my ass. I got drumsticks. You play drums?”
            “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It all comes back.”
            Shawn extended a hand covered in tire-soot. Nolan took it anyway.
            “Name’s Shawn.”
            “I’m Nolan.”
            “Nice bumping into you, Nolan.”
            “Good luck,” said Nolan. He strolled to his truck, threw the dead compressor into the cab and left with a wave.
            Shawn took a breath and crouched next to the spare, noting from the sidewall warnings that he would now be entering Tacoma at fifty miles per hour. He set to work on the lug nuts as he whistled the tune that Nolan had been whistling. Sunshine? Happy… something? Whatever it was, it made the going a little easier.

Photo by MJV

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