We all know about the precariousness of expectations and how damaging they can be, but I must admit, I had believed that Ben and I would be joyously welcomed once we arrived in Seattle for the wedding. I had assured Ben of that. After all, these were my two best friends from high school, and during that era the three of us had been inseparable.
Admittedly, I had missed our senior year by quitting and taking to the road, but regardless.... Murph and I had hitchhiked from the Midwest to Maine and back together at 16, not to mention our later southern run in the arrowed Nova, and Pete and I had hustled pool side by side for years, formed our views on honor and integrity mutually, and he had been the best man for my first marriage. In high school, Murph had emulated me to such an extent that many people had assumed we were identical twins or the same person.
Sure, almost 20 years had passed, but weren't these the bonds of a lifetime? Hadn't I looked them up and visited during the early 1980s to reconfirm our friendships? Hadn't I given them both one of my early paintings? And now Peter was marrying Murph's sister, and I had traveled across the country to witness the event.
But I'm getting ahead of myself in the road narrative. As you might remember from last month's Falcon, Ben and I had left Los Angeles in the battered Preacher and eventually found our way to an abandoned hot spring river in an Oregon antelope reserve. That morning, we again headed north, paused in Bend where I found a string tie woven entirely from natural horsehair to wear with my cowboy hat, which I'd saved pristine in its box for the wedding.
As we crossed the wide Columbia River, I told Ben one of my favorite freight-riding stories from my cross-country run in 1980. About waiting all night beside the same ancient scarred icehouse where I had also waited six years earlier during my first run. I told him how I had ridden a flat car out of Pasco with a tiny Mexican tramp as a clear dawn opened around us. How we drank warm Rainer beer, and the vibration of the train created foam towers out of the bottle ends, the Union Pacific trains across the river looking like bright yellow lines in the warming sun. How we found a diner just opening alongside the tracks in Wishram, and I treated the tramp to a hot breakfast. In exchange he gave me a chart, which he insisted would allow vegetables to grow three times their normal size.
I thought of searching for the diner, but we needed to reach Seattle by late afternoon for the rehearsal dinner and festivities, and I was eager to see my old friends again. When we arrived in Seattle, I found a phone booth and called, finally getting Peter after trying twice.
"Bud, we made it! We're here, in town. Can't wait to see ya."
But the conversation did not proceed as I expected. Basically, Peter mumbled uncertainly and then told me he would see us at the church at noon tomorrow. I was stunned. What had happened to the previous emphatic invitation? "And don't be late," he added. And don't be late?
Ben and I found a budget motel room, and after much-needed showers, we sat outside on the hood of the Preacher, our backs against the windshield, and drank beer in the last sunlight. There wasn't much else we could do.
At first I thought of just leaving, heading south and trying to outrun the depressing withdrawn tone of Peter's voice. Then I changed my mind, remembering weddings could be confusing and complicated and our exclusion might simply be circumstances. The event was about the bride, not the groom's friends.
"Ben, we'll put this behind us. We'll go to the wedding tomorrow and be absolute gentlemen. Okay?"
In the morning, with dismay, I realized my entire forehead had broken out in a bizarre rash. If it was emotion or alien bacteria from the hot springs, I'll never know, but at least I had my new hat for cover. At breakfast, Ben spilled maple syrup down his vintage yet new Beau Brummell tie that he was so proud of. But we maintained our poise.
Precisely on time at the church, we were almost the first ones there. We stood in the entrance room and waited. When I saw Murph come in, I beamed and walked over with my hand out. And he introduced himself to me.
"Hi, how are you? I'm Murph, the brother of the bride. Are you a friend of Peter's?"
When Peter arrived, he would barely speak to me and would not meet my eyes, but at least he recognized me. I'll admit something right now: Murph's sister, for whatever reason—I've never known since we had had such limited contact—had apparently never liked me, but after 18 years I hardly expected that to remain an issue. But it was. When I asked for a photo with Peter—everyone in the wedding party posing for the hired photographer in front of the church—the moment was negated by her intrusion.
With the shock of her rudeness, I was beginning to falter. Learning that the actual ceremony was in 45 minutes, Ben and I dashed to a bar across the street and swamped a couple quick drafts. As we sat there, I didn't know what to say, having told Ben so many stories about these two friendships—I had known both families so well, sharing much of their lives. To think how many meals they had eaten from my mother's kitchen, or I theirs. "Darn," said Ben. "Wow."
We made it through the ceremony and then Preachered to the reception where I dropped off my wedding-commemorating artwork, which I had carried 4,000 miles as a gift for the bride and groom. At least Peter's mother and sister along with Murph's wife were delighted to see me, although when I was asked to remove the hat, I declined—vanity taking precedence over agreeability. That one concession aside, Ben and I maintained our gentlemanly behavior for nearly a couple hours, then we bolted.
The adjoining photo shows Murph, Peter, and myself at the reception (the one stolen moment while the bride was otherwise occupied). Makes me wonder if anyone ever knows the true story behind a photograph.
As a footnote, Peter called me 10 years after the wedding and tried to apologize. Problem was he kept bursting into tears. The marriage had turned out to be beyond impossible, and the divorce custody fight had lasted eight years, destroying Peter financially, careerwise, and even dumping him in jail more than once. I still haven't seen either Peter or Murph in person again.
Leaving the reception, Ben and I landed at the Redhook Ale Brewery, where, I'm embarrassed to say, we both overdrank. On exit, it was the one time during the trip that I took the wheel, the old car solace somehow, getting us out of Seattle. As the evening sun slanted through the Preacher, Ben began to pound the dash with his first. He hit it hard enough and often enough that the vinyl cracked and foam padding began to crumble out.
"Ah, Greener, ah, man, damn it, damn it," he said over and over, the tears now on his cheeks, my face a mask.
The next morning, we decided we needed at the least to wash our faces in the Pacific. My hangover was akin to a furry crocodile, my mood worse. We found a beach on the map, but once there, the ocean was cacophonic with jet skiis. For the first time in my life, I craved a rocket launcher. The repression of the day before was surfacing, and Ben, during our recent memory-refresher phone call, insists he had to restrain me from attacking what I considered overly rude people. He also said I never showed any negative emotion during the time of the wedding. This I was surprised to hear considering I remembered being a washing machine on agitate cycle.
We followed the coast south. We stopped for a hunk of Skagit salmon, which was rather tough and overly salty yet helped physically. But the Sequoia forest was heavenly in its majesty and its drizzling quiet. Driving through an ancient Redwood is something you never forget. And then we crossed the inimitable Golden Gate Bridge and my last true road trip had ended.
One of the basics of writing good fiction is balancing the torturing of the reader with the payoff of a reward. Writers attempt to form compelling characters and then allow circumstance almost to destroy them. This hooks us into the novel because we want to know if they will survive their desires, risks, and enemies. After a certain amount of torture—this can't go on for too long or the reader gets annoyed—the writer relents and grants the character some wonderful fortune. Dickens was the master of this give and take, up and down.
Life is not fiction. And in reality, three or four people can collide cruelly through no fault of any of them. This is fate and can lead to tragedy. Many times, clear communication can avoid these problems, but on occasion even that is impossible. We all want different things and solve issues in a variety of ways, and, of course, no one can know the future on which to base his or her actions.
Road trips are many times poetic simply because of what we bring to them. If Ben and I have a Kerouacian-style dream, then we will be pleased with that kind of trip. If European five-star hotels are the vision, then the time travelling between and staying at them will be just as appealing.
A forum friend, Sarge, wrote: "Poetry needs a dream."
I think he hit an often-overlooked bull's-eye with that phrase. The quality and poetry of a road trip is up to the travelers to create by what they focus upon and how they judge what happens and what's around them, even if it's wrenching a water pump in 100-degree heat. The morning after the wedding, I found everything unbearable, but that was the issue of my mindset, and by afternoon my world expanded again. Road trips are blessed by constant change and thus contrast, which might be one reason they leave vivid memories.
In life, as it is on the road, we need to find what fits us, and then it's our willingness to give our hearts to that thing that matters—the rest is far less significant. At least that's my conclusion.
Eric Green lives in Belfast.
More Penobscot Falcon: