It took Mitch Michaels over 30 years of marriages, almost 300 pounds of living residue from reckless eating, fire fights in the densest jungles of Vietnam and fist brawls in the alcoholic miasma of hellhole pubs, smashing invisible things with his bare hands, talking trash with one eye closed and hitting a couple jail-cell walls with his metal-plated forehead before he learned that the everyday pulling of the ocean surf could cool him off and make him feel peaceful.
His station on the Surf City beach was a huge terrycloth towel that in its youth had been displayed as a sight gag at a local grand opening. The joke towel stretched to over 20 feet on each side, and the word “Welcome” emerged from the ancient white terrycloth like a new joke from old teeth. The beach umbrella over Mitch was as big as a party joke, but even the wide parasol couldn’t overshadow that huge knitted “Welcome” gesture.
On any given day, Mitch’s beach towel had great intrinsic advantages for a free day in the sun. The space included a rack for magazines, melon, potato chips, red and yellow salsas, and an ice box full of water bottles, and altogether just enough food and diversions to sustain anyone in need of a beach break. The cold water and melon had refreshed more than a few troubled wanderers. But the real attraction of Mitch’s imitation NCO club was his style of conversation.
Most of the beach people Mitch knew admitted the only good conversation they had heard before joining the NCO club had been written by TV screenwriters. They could not remember their parents ever being candid and straight with them. When the mothers and fathers were finally forced to address these beach people, it was in the chopped-up manner of;
Big Daddy and Big Mommy need Little Kids to surrender.
Until they met Mitch, they felt they were keeping their true limitations to themselves.
Mitch let the subdued refugees of the public-school system sit on his beach towel and shared his cheap food with them, a small price to pay to hear a complete conversation being tried for the first time by people who were sometimes as old as the lines on his hands.
“You can’t talk to me worth jack,” Mitch would roguishly say when a discussion developed that drew adult responses from the most timid of his guests. At the end of the party, he would repeat to them their own words to show how badly they spoke English.
The people came to him as mammals, and they left him as conversationalists. He did nothing to dissolve whatever gratitude came his way, and in fact he enjoyed the small level of local fame he acquired at his beach spot. He increased his mystique by reporting to be only one of two people in town who could see ghosts at night, ghosts who would talk eloquently to him.
The only other person in town who claimed to be a nightly ghost watcher was mad Sebastian, a former TV repairman who wandered homelessly for years since his wife had left him on his birthday. Like Mitch, Sebastian reportedly saw the ghosts in a kind of bas relief against the sea at night. Sebastian was more limited than Mitch, claiming to be able to see the ghosts only if his friend were at his side, with Mitch pointing at the ethereal spirits.
Mitch owned a one-bedroom house that was glad to take him in every night even when he looked like hell for an entire month. The house was a squat package of shingles with dead leaves and trees surrounding the poor little hut. At night the trees blocked out the moon and the city glare so well that Mitch could fill up the darkness with his own scenic memories.
When he turned any light on, the chemicals in Mitch’s retina were activated to see both the good and bad in things. His main requirement for guests and friends was that they deal with the good Mitch and the bad Mitch at different times, and also preferably in different places. If it would help, he was available to make appointments to meet the good Mitch in the good neighborhood church, or the bad Mitch in the local hellhole bar.
His daughter’s more eager two-bedroom house lay on the other side of the town’s business section. It was there that Mitch would want to sink more deeply into family life, starting with daughter Michelle. Like her father, Michelle had died a lot through two failed marriages, and now she was dragging herself through a job in a Chevrolet dealership, selling new cars to support herself and her 16-year-old son Shannon.
Mitch’s grandson Shannon lived with a lab-mixed mutt named “Bud” who shouted “Grandpa’s here” in his dog words whenever Mitch came by. When Shannon opened the door to Mitch, the springing and long-red-tongue-wagging Bud opened to the hugging that in better times would be exchanged between human beings. After this usual homage, Bud crunched himself into an almost rectangular form to look as much like a TV as possible. Bud knew how much people liked to see a TV or screen in front of them, so this dog-like effort to become a TV was only to make Mitch happy.
“It’s me,” said Mitch, who remembered from the old days that teenagers were most comforted by the most obvious and least conniving greeting as possible. “It’s me,” he said again. To be even clearer, he would say it a third and fourth time.
He had stopped that day to see Shannon at Michelle’s urgent report that her son was disappearing. Yes, he was vanishing into an invisible young man. Some parts of Shannon’s body and spirit were still lingering in the house, though. But the most characteristic features – his interested eyes and his thinking forehead – had vanished under a baseball cap that lowered a visor over a missing face.
“Shannon, your mom tells me you’re disappearing.”
“Oh boy. She said that?”
“That’s what she’s telling me. That you’re disappearing little by little. Where the hell do you think you’re going, Shannon?”
“My brain must be here, though. I hear it speaking.”
“I’ll look for it then.”
“Shannon, it’s pretty bad when you can’t say Jack to me.”
“I can say Jack.”
“You want to join my NCO club on the beach, Shannon? I’m turning dull people into wonderfully good speakers there. Why don’t you come and learn to speak some passable English?”
“Excuse me. Have you just been smoking marijuana, Shannon?”
“Have I been smoking what?”
Mitch went to Shannon’s bedroom. It was locked.
“Don’t, Grandpa. You’ll fall over all my crap.”
“Do you expect your mom and me to let you have a car, and we can’t even get into your room?”
“We talked about it before.”
Mitch sat on the plain black sofa. Shannon’s fingers tapped on Bud’s head and “woke him up.” But Bud was only pretending to be asleep while listening to everything being said. The dog was shocked that these human beings who talked as if they were the Earth’s superior beings couldn’t share even one little friendly message and hug their so-called “loved ones,” as he had hugged Mitch at the door.
“I’m a talking kind of person,” Mitch told Shannon. “I believe the human talking tongue will save us once more, if we just decide to use it again. But if you doesn’t venture into that, I’ll do your praying for you in understandable English and get the benefit of it.”
“Go ahead, Grandpa.”
“Yes, I will get all the benefits and more from praying for you.”
Recently, Mitch had begun to feel that Shannon’s most telling turning point would involve a car. Surely, a car would help resolve Shannon’s life-long power issues.
Like the most typical American kid, Shannon spent every waking year up to his 16th birthday reacting to or aspiring to the power of a fast car. Now, legally licensed at last, he was ready to drive a chariot of horsepower that could put all the ancient power drivers of history taking his dust, if they could even take that.
Caught up in all this excitement of a new rite of passage, Mitch was finally getting serious time in Shannon’s room at last. He didn’t find a trace of bottles, bongs or booze in any part of it. After his fifth straight inspection of the room without a flaw, Mitch decided his grandson might just be ready to drive his mother’s car cross-country north-bound on his birthday.
“With a prayer in our hearts,” Mitch told himself on the morning of the adventure.
Happily, the morning of Shannon’s drive north was good flying weather. The temperature was only a couple of points above the combined intelligent quotients of Mitch’s former generals in Vietnam. There were no flags, no parades and no marching music, but the cirrus clouds were moving across the sky like majorettes in flamboyant slow motion.
For this 400-mile round trip on California’s Interstate 5 rolling into the historic Highway 99, the Honda Accord owned by Michelle had been well treated with flushes of radiator and transmission fluids in addition to an oil change. Shannon sat in the driver’s seat of the purposeful green sedan with the wary presence of a race car driver at a tournament. Typically, he lowered his visor over his eyes to hide everything he was thinking about this major rite of a new passage.
“Shannon, my big man, remember the cell phone if you have to stop,” said the mother, who was scheduled to interview for a new job as a telephone customer service rep in just an hour. “If you have any trouble, stay in your car and call the roadside insurance number.”
“Okay, Mom,” said Shannon, not saying but laughing the words.
“Look here, Shannon, dog,” said Mitch, leaning with his forearm popping into Shannon’s window. “If you have a real crisis, your adrenaline will scream so loud it will wake up every cell in your brain. You’ll never be so alive in your life. It happened to me years ago, and I still have a pool of adrenaline in my brain that shouldn’t be there. That’s why I’ve been called mentally sick by so many doctors and idiots, but it’s good, not bad.”
“That’s okay, Grandpa,” said Shannon in bunched, oblivious words. His sparked his ignition on, and a different day entered the scene, with Shannon driving off in a hurry. The engine was robust and ready to get away, with the pistons and cylinders joining in a mix of physics and chemistry and geology in a circus of the sciences.
This first cross-country drive was bringing to mind Mitch’s original solo trip when he was only 16, just a week shy of his school’s junior prom night. Mitch had asked the beautiful Queen Carla who looked like a rider for National Velvet to be his date for the sequined and taffeta outrage in the school gym. A couple of days before the party, a practice drive along the winding pine-shaded road to Carla’s horse farm created for Mitch the beginning of leaving his mother and his father.
So many years later, Shannon had another route of driving some 200 miles to meet a father whom he had been separated from almost as soon as he knew him.
“Shannon, Shannon buddy,” said the other town’s number-one advertising and public relations maven whom everyone knew as “Rickey,” standing at his white-house, a family-court fixture day and night in a white-flannel and open-neck shirt. Immediately he handed Shannon a $20 bill for his “gas,” and then out came a birthday card that included a $100 birthday gift card for musical and video products.
“Surely you’re hungry,” said the red-faced Rickey, mannerly segueing into the lunch the entire drive to his club.
“I did something different today. I wrote a kind of limerick – a kind of poem – for your birthday,” said Rickey, as an aloof tall waiter placed silverware for a main course on a father-and-son table.
“Oh,” said Shannon.
“My limerick is about that part of English weaponry called the ad homonym. For me, it’s the ad hom for quick reference. In court, if the ad hom hits the right personal chord, it expands your legal position by a law library. Do you want to hear my limerick, Shannon? Oh yes, you do. Indeed you do, because this is funny. It is funny, Shannon. Listen.”
They were simply immersed by this country club, surrounded by glass sidings that rendered an island of luxury in a sea of golf greens.
“But are you sure you want to hear my limerick, Shannon?”
“These are not just words, Shannon. En garde, Shannon. Zee deadly thrust.
Here it goes. Divert the judge with a good old ad hom,
Then fix your mother’s wagon by pulling zee fast one.
That’s it, Shannon. That’s all. A poem doesn’t have to be that long to do its job, I say.”
A few minutes later Shannon was driving his father home. The eating and drinking had lasted two hours and fifty minutes.
On Shannon’s drive back home after all that, the onramp toward Highway 99 had turned into an adventure of the night. A big rig had careened up to Shannon as if it were ambushing him. There was no room for both on the disappearing onramp, and after the lane vanished, Shannon was forced to drive at bucking bronco speed on a rickety and pebbly highway shoulder. Gravel sitting around the shoulder made the freeway go crazy, and there was no more adrenaline from Shannon’s surplus to raise him into a sharper control level.
The result of too little hormonal juice on task was too much rigidity on the wheel and on the pedal. But Shannon felt better once he unleashed his horn on the truck driver. Finally he saw clear to shift into the empty lane the big rig had left behind.
In a few minutes, Shannon was driving down the freeway in a routine as easy as the habit of a dishwasher in a rinse cycle. The clipped white lines of the freeway pulled the car forward no matter what was happening in the rest of the world. People were destroying each other in every town of the nation, and yet the Accord was peacefully driving onward in the Southern Californian night.
Shannon was only 16 years old, but he wasn’t thinking about how young and lucky he was. He was thinking about how long this drive was taking, how slowly his school year was going, how sluggishly summer vacation crawled toward him. With all this gloomy thinking, it did not occur to him how wealthy a young person like he is in time, that a year passing for a 16-year-old will go twice as long as the same year experienced by a 32-year-old. So time for Shannon at 16 years was moving at an incredible four times as sluggishly as it did for Mitch at age 64. Shannon had no idea about his wealth of duration. He was as clueless as a sugar foot.
Now that everything to Shannon seemed so slow and boring, the road itself was doing its best to please him. At a certain point it even proved its zest by performing a magic act, changing its identity from the old historic Highway 99 to the super-power Interstate 5. Then the highlight of the performance came, the raising of the flat road flourished into the elevation of the Grapevine range, to lift Shannon and his mother’s humble Accord some 4,000 feet above the shining crown jewels of Los Angeles County.
In the night, the grading of the Grapevine posed a bigger challenge to the Accord’s half-dozen cylinders. The engine’s foreign parts wrestled and strained like imposters caught in the act against too much American grandeur and terrain. To Shannon’s shock, a black Corvette passed him so quickly the speed of the car peeled off the surrounding scenery, momentarily leaving him in a shroud of magical darkness.
In the midst of this black confusion another Corvette – a red one – passed Shannon so quickly it just disappeared on the spot.
The red Corvette revived again around the next turn as a form of fire. The flames leapt like wild genies and satyrs freed from the steel and paint. The front end had churned into wreckage and fire but everything else was holding together mysteriously. As Shannon braked to see everything more clearly, he lost so much control he almost lost the wreckage.
He opened the door to see a still young woman in the driver’s seat, held upright by her harness. As he pulled her from her seat belt, he realized that some of the omnipresent heat belonging to the fire of the engine was crawling toward the fuel tank.
He pulled the young women out of the car with superhuman strength, strengthened with the silvery sense of fear.
It was only when Shannon pulled the young woman into the Accord that the red-and-black sign language of her party dress finally told him a bold truth.
He thought again of the first Corvette – the black one – that had passed him on the road as if challenging him in outlaw speed. Clearly, there was a linkage here of red and black Corvettes and the color coordination of the dress. But now there was no trace of that unruly black Corvette, nor a sign of any black California Highway Patrol car, nor anything except the night.
Spurred by adrenaline and drama, Shannon used his newly acquired strength to lift the shocked young woman lightly into the back seat of his car. Then he allowed himself to sit in the car and simply looked at the road for a few minutes.
“Merci,” said a weak, sweet voice from the back seat. “Merci, monsieur.”
She then added something so absolutely and mysteriously French that Shannon had to come back with the only universal response he had at his grasp.
“No problem,” he told her.
At that moment the red Corvette exploded into a fireball.
A new France throws herself into an American’s strong arms.
“You really took your sweet time to contact us,” said the mustachioed CHP officer, trying to express casual power to Shannon with his languid position at his desk, one booted foot relaxing prominently on a side chair.
“I thought you highway patrol guys would have been called by someone,” said Shannon.
“Eventually. But that young countess might have died by the time.”
“What did you call her? A countess?”
“She IDs as the Countess of Toulon. You have a French noblewoman who is truly in debt to you in love with you, kiddo. You lucked out totally.”
“There was a black Corvette racing in front of her. What was that about?”
“That black Corvette was driven by her friend, the Count of Monte Cristo or something.”
“But thank goodness, that fiend is now out of her life,” said a slender, gray-mustachioed CHP officer who had an aura of just stepping into the room with the latest news. “Imagine leaving her in a burning car because he was running from Indian gambling debts.”
A third CHP officer strode into the room, a tall African-American guy who was practically driven breathless with information. “Gentlemen,” he exclaimed. “The Countess of Toulon story somehow just got all over CNN. It’s showing thousands of Parisians in the Champs d’Elysee waving banners showing the Toulon crest and the American flag.”
“France is going cra-a-a-azy,” said a fourth officer, running in with a comb stuck in his hair. “In an emergency move, France kicked out their fancy-pants government for a new president who immediately went on TV to say ‘God Bless America.” They say no Frenchman has ever before been recorded to say those words in all of history.”
“Excuse me,” said Shannon. “Can I simply call my granddad now?”
The first officer picked up the phone, very intensely looked at something at his desk and keyed in a number.
“Heads up, Shannon. The French consul has set up to have you awarded the Croix de Guerre at the old Lafayette Chateau grounds,” he said, and then he spoke into the phone. “Mr. Consul, I believe our young American hero is ready to speak with you now.”
Shannon picked up the phone with his fingertips.
“Hi,” he thought silently. He tried speaking out something loudly. “Blah-blah-blah-blah,” he said, spitting into the phone.
The consul said something in such a formal European way that made Shannon want to say something really good, but what?
Shannon at that moment wanted desperately to say something truly arresting to the newly awakened nation of France and then to the countess herself.
How he wished he could have listened to his distinguished grandfather and learned to speak something in good English at his granddad’s NCO beach club, instead of using a blah-blah-blah code like an amphibian in California surf pants.
Shannon is home
Mitch was standing as a guard of honor accepting kisses on both cheeks from the big dogs of a new French government when the phone interrupted his dream.
“Shannon is home,” his daughter said.
“Do you know what time it is, that Shannon got home?”
Mitch shook his head, which in a phone exchange was like using invisible ink.
“It’s four in the morning, Dad.”
He pulled on his pants, after finding the light switch.
“You slept through this whole night.”
“I guess I did.”
“Do you think it’s okay for your grandson to be coming back at this hour?”
“I have confidence in this young man.”
“Bull. Not when he comes home four in the morning.”
Mitch shrugged, with body language that kept turning into ghostly silence through the phone. “Maybe he was helping someone.”
“You think he was helping anyone? Dad, it’s great to have an imagination. The rest of us have to pay big time for cable and satellite because we don’t have your imagination to entertain us.”
“I’m left with a big fat speeding ticket Shannon brought home.”
“Shannon is an American. Americans have great strengths and challenges, as you know from your father.”
“Do the challenges some other time. Not at four in the morning.”
“Okay, Michelle. But I think I’ll go for a walk.”
“Dad. You and your walks. Not at this time of night. ”
“When Shannon gets a little sleep I’ll be over. I want to invite him to the NCO club tonight, so he’ll be quicker on the draw with his English words when he explains things to everyone.”
“Dad. Don’t be out there now.”
“I’m already out there.”
The beach was only a few football fields away from the house. With no one else around, Mitch felt free to talk to the beach itself.
“You see a person with great strengths and the great weaknesses that the strengths play in,” he said to the big towel, “and you know that person is an American.”
On the beach, Mitch tossed the big towel onto the sand. He sat in the center of it, like the king of all Vietnam War veterans.. The true ghosts of the war were there, too, stomping on the frisky surf like the kids they had been in Vietnam. They were pleased with Mitch tonight, happy he was working with his grandson and for the hopes Mitch held for the young man who had completed his task. Mitch was happy, too, as he waved to his brother Marines. “Shannon did it,” he yelled. “He’s my grandson. He came back from his mission, like all of you men.”
It was so great.
Chriis Sharp’s has four previous stories in Kalkion archives, and his most popular short fiction is listed among the pages under Google: Chris Sharp short stories. His new book “Dangerous Learning” is distributed by Barnes & Noble.
image Courtesy: Flickr