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HPIM1667.JPGThe Dying of the Cotton

“Dude, I think that you need a cat.”

Those fateful words were uttered in the middle of another sleep-deprived Colorado night back in the year of Ought-Four. My redheaded lady friend at the time – now my sweet wife – was the utterer. The ancient timber walls of the rancher’s cabin that I lived in were alive with mysterious activities. Every night, the dance of the deer mice began somewhere in the vicinity of the headboard of my double bed, then ran a hidden course that looped all the way around the small cabin in a loud circuit. Small shadows darted about the pine floors. Food supplies, both human and canine, were regularly attacked. The constant scurrying had my old dog Bear in a frenzy of frustrated patrols.

The last straw came when, lost in a pre-dawn codeine stupor while fighting the lingering Crud, I awoke to the tapping of a clammy nose upon my feverish cheek. Cracking one bloodshot eye, I made out the hazy image of a ragged-looking mouse sitting up on my chest. He was holding the keys to my truck in his outstretched hand. “We’re gonna take the Ford for a spin up to the Cardamone place. There’s a mouse party goin’ down up yonder…Cheese, milk, cereal by the barrel…the whole nine centimeters,” the rodent said nonchalantly. “Thought that you might want to know that you’ll probably be late for work today. We’ll be back around 11… Ish…” it added.

“Ohhh. OK. Thanks…I guess. But hey…can you put some fuel in the truck? I’m almost out,” I replied. My head was woozy. The room was spinning. “Sure, sure, bub. We’ll “put some fuel in it” the mouse retorted with a sarcastic wink and the flicking of his rubbery paws in the universal sign of mocked quotation.

When I emerged from my narcotic slumber it was past noon. I looked out of the window and saw that my truck was parked halfway into Miss Carolyn’s prized azaleas. I looked down at the kitchen floor and was not surprised by what I saw. At least a baker’s dozen mice were passed out haphazardly on the linoleum, smiles cast on their milk-stained faces, yellow curds clutched greedily in their awful paws. “Bear! Get em!” I shrieked. The half-Shepherd, half-Chow, half-human leapt into action from his nap at the foot of the bed. The mice all sat up slowly, watching his progress across the 10 feet that separated them with bemused looks, not unlike Monty Python’s French castle guards. Bear growled fiercely as he narrowed the gap, and was about to tear into the mess of them with a year’s worth of pent up, stolen-Alpo doggie fury when the entire stoned colony of mice bolted in every direction at once. All of them, that is, but one.

The Bear stood above him snarling like I had never seen him snarl before – well, other than every day the UPS man comes by that is. But rather than cower at the sight of the relatively enormous monster before it, the mouse produced a tiny white glove from beneath it, methodically straightened out each of its fingers, and then rudely slapped the menacing dog once each way across the nose in rapid succession before hopping off towards a large hole underneath the sink cabinets. Just before it vanished into its hole, the mouse looked back at the two of us, both frozen in stunned silence, and flipped us an exaggerated, arched back double bird, then wheeled and slipped into the darkness. We were still stilling there in frozen astonishment when we saw a creepy ribbed tail emerge backwards from the hole, followed by a hairy rat’s ass. Then, preceded by a discernibly gross, cheesy fart, and there before Jah Rastafari, Bear Anderson, and a shelve full of shocked-looking antique action figures, the Francophile mouse shat a row of shining black poo pebbles onto the kitchen floor. Prior to that moment, I did not think it possible for a dog to wince, but it became clear to me then by looking at the pained look on Bear’s face told me that it was indeed Time To Get A Cat.

Two weeks later, almost as if on cue, a mixed litter of black, white, and grey barn kittens were born in a loft of the ranch where I lived. My girlfriend (and now my wife) had by then moved into the 500 square foot cabin, along with her three beloved ferrets, and was insistent that we claim one of the litter when they were old enough to leave their mother, Muffin.

I had never owned a cat. Never really been around cats other than one that my roommates had in college – an orange tabby named Goat who mostly lived outside with the chickens and the couches. My parents had never had a cat, and I am fairly certain that their parents hadn’t either. I generally mocked those friends of mine that had cats as being soft. The concept was totally foreign to me. But Sharon had grown up with cats and after her own run-in’s with the mousey mafia that ruled our roost, I was assigned, literally, a tiny, bright-eyed white kitten with snappy black patches on its face and one paw and a long grey-stripped raccoon tail.

We brought him into the cabin and Sharon, her ferrets, Bear and I all watched in awe as this little furbearing rocket flew around our house, leaping from dresser to the bed, from the bed to the door sill, performing consistent acts of gravity defiance. Our neighbors Adrian and Susan came over to check on the brother of their two kittens, Pancho and Lefty. We all sat in a circle watching the kitten frolic, drinking Tullamore Dew scotch whiskey from the bottle, and pitching names for the thing. It was Adrian, a native North Carolinian like myself with deep roots across the south, who came up with the name that stuck: Cotton. I would later add an unofficial prefix to the name – Rotten.

Days turned into months and Cotton steadily grew from his initial miniscularity into a fine looking full sized cat. Within weeks of his arrival into our little cabin world, our mouse problem had ebbed into just an occasional brave (or stupid) loner who hadn’t heard the news: There was a new sheriff in town, and he wasn’t taking any prisoners. I have never seen Bear more happy. Finally we could all sleep in peace, except for the occasional sudden midnight flurry, usually followed by a contented sounding CRUNCH CRUNCH from somewhere in the kitchen area. One morning I awoke to find the cat in his customary place –lodged like a shiv, forming a perfect dividing line with the Bear dog between Sharon and I. I was stroking the soft fur on his head when my hand coursed over his face, where something tangibly out of place found my touch. Bleary eyed, I sat up and peered over at him. Sticking out of his smiling mouth was a tiny white glove. Cotton had found his true calling at a very young age. We should all be so lucky.

II.

Cotton lived what I imagine to be the most happy and fulfilling life a cat can hope for on the Shipp Ranch for several years prior to our 2005 move to the clean (but busy) streets of Carbondale, Colorado.  In the winters, he curled up and lounged with us in the cozy cabins. When the snow melted enough that his paws would tolerate the frigidity of the earth, he booked it for the pasture fences, where he would stalk the rails in a low crouch, feeding on a veritable Arc of wildlife – field mice, rabbits, birds of a hundred feathers, lizards, snakes, and the occasional Formerly Sentient Being To Be Named Later.

Despite the anti-camouflage of his stark white coat and his daring do in a heavily hunted predatory zone, Cotton survived and thrived at ranch life. He outlasted his mother and the three of his litter mates that were kept on the ranch, all of whom were picked off by a particularly wily pack of coyotes, though he regularly came home with fresh scars that foretold of difficult battles with larger mammals.

The move to our new townhouse was a blessing for Sharon and myself. We finally had our own place, along with the room to spread out a bit that any co-habitative long-term cabin-dweller eventually yearns for. The “kids,” however, seemed to lose a little bounce in their new city lives. No longer free to roam wide pastures and open space, and confined to the house for fear of the many cars and trucks that buzzed our neighborhood, Cotton and Bear both whined and whimpered at the front and back doors of the house, often one at each, an achievement of stereophonic guilt.

Eventually, we relented. With his regular, mournful moan becoming intolerable, and after a few long man –to-cat talks, Cotton was given the run of Barber Drive. It was not an easy decision. The irony of the name Car-bon-dale was not lost on me. We knew the possibilities that his street walking might bring. In the end, we figured that with the ideal life that he had already led, he deserved a chance to go out (in this case, literally) on his own terms. Survival of the fittest, carpe meow, all ‘dat…

I was not surprised in the least that he took to the dangerous city streets as easily as he did to the predatorily hazardous ranch trails. He was the quickest cat I’ve ever known, with extra cat-like agility. Regularly I would be sitting on the back porch overlooking the hubbub of Hendrick Drive when I would see a white flash emerge from underneath a parked car, dash across the road comfortably ahead of oncoming traffic, and disappear under the cars and trucks parked across the way. And, ever evening, just like clockwork, when the wife or I would go out on the front stoop and clang a tuna can with a wooden spoon, here would come Cotton, just as dirty and bloody and happy as ever.

III.

It was three in the morning in Posen, Michigan when polite knuckles rapped on the door of Sharon’s childhood bedroom door. I was there to meet her parents and multitude of strapping, protective-looking siblings, and, if everything went well, to ask her father’s permission to marry his daughter. Bleary eyed from the late hour and the gallons of pilsner consumed earlier at the bonfire meet and greet, we heard the voice of Sharon’s mother, Rita. She sounded concerned, but ever so politely. “There is a girl on the phone for you Corby. I think that she speaks another language. She wants to talk to you,” she said. Her tone worried me. Her tone worried me. There are, after all,  very few potential positive outcomes when a French woman calls your girlfriends parents house in the middle of the night of your engagement party asking for you.

Thanking my future mother-in-law, I took the call. “Zee cat, eez squieeeshed!” said the voice on the other line. I recognized it to be that of my TV station intern, Cecile, a Frenchwoman who was at our house watching the animals for us. “Zee cat! Eet eez squished…oh no I feel zo tereeebley!” she said again in a Franco lilt. “Eer. Talk to zee veterinarian,” she said sadly, pronouncing every syllable of “vegetarian” with utmost care.

The vet got on the phone and told us that Cotton had been ran over by a car. He said that Cecile had brought him in that night, but that he suspected the accident to have happened earlier, maybe a full day earlier. She had found him after hearing a low moan outside of our bedroom window – usually a sound only heard coming from Peeping Juan, the town pervert. “He doesn’t look good. He’s got a broken leg and pelvis. We can’t know of the internal damage to his organs until we get into surgery,” he said calmly. “I need a credit card for that,” he added.

Sharon was listening over my shoulder. She started to cry, which in turn made me tear up. I repeated to her what the doctor was telling me. She cried more. So did I. “How much is it?” I asked, pondering the impossible question that faces every pet or car owner: how much is your old friend, your family member even – life worth?

I am not a rich man. Never have been. Hope to be someday, like most probably do or should, but at that time to say that my finances were limited is an understatement. The vet told us that while he couldn’t be sure what the total costs might be, depending on the injuries found in exploratory surgery, he thought that $3000 was a good number to start with. The number hit both of us like a brick. When he added that “even with surgery there is a very good chance that Cotton will never walk with his back legs again,” I felt a whole wall of bricks tumble down on my suddenly saddened brain. “Or, I could put him down in a painless procedure. That costs about $200 bucks.” More bricks.

We asked to have a minute to discuss the decision and told him that we would call back in a few minutes. We called Carolyn, the owner of the ranch where Cotton was born. Carolyn Shipp possesses a unique combination of qualities: great empathy towards all living creatures, along with a Libertarian sensibility when it comes to business. We gave her the facts. She paused. Then she told us what we knew in our hearts already: with no easy way to pay and no clear promise of recovery, we should let the vet euthanize the cat.

Fighting back tears, I called the vet back. “Doc, we have to let him go. For all of the reasons discussed before. I need you to ask Cecile to hold the phone up to Cotton’s little ears so that I can say goodbye.”

“Well, if THAT is your decision, then I’ll just see what I can fix and put him up for adoption,” the veterinarian replied unexpectedly. “Excuse me? Did you just sa…” I stammered, shocked. “Yes you did. I’ll repeat it. If you are asking me to put this cat to sleep, I will not do it. I will fix him and then adopt him out to a caring family.” Silence. The weird silence of slow motion bricks tumbling down onto more bricks.

I threatened to sue right then and there. “I’ll have your fucking license for this stunt!” I yelled. Sharon sat amazed, sad. The veterinarian tried to explain what he meant. I countered and shut him down. He tried again. “I’ll tell you what. Let me see what the injuries are and we can figure out the payment later,” he said, humbled. “Well, obviously if he can be fixed, fix the boy. But I ain’t able to pay that kind of money, nor will I, after this bullshit phone call,” I iterated. It pained me to argue for the death of a good friend, but there were principles at play, and I am, if anything, a man of principles. We agreed on surgery. I was connected to Cotton via cell phone speaker to cat ear. “Hang in there buddy. We love you. Bear loves you. Doc’s gonna fix you up good,” I said, expecting that would be the last time I spoke to him. He did not answer. I thanked Cecile and tried to explain to her that she was in no way responsible. I asked that she take care of the dude the best that she could if he made it out of surgery and that we would be home within four days.

I hung up, and we stayed up the rest of the night fretting for Cotton’s life and deciding whether to drive home in the morning or to carry on with our trip as planned. There were elderly grandparents to visit with yet, and I still had a secret, seriously convoluted engagement plan complete with documentary film crew, special after hours private tour and post-yes (I hoped!) catered dinner in a historic lighthouse on Mackinac Island to see to.

To all of our excitement, except possibly Cecile, who had to nurse a partially paralyzed cat for several days, Cotton came out on the topside of surgery. The car had indeed broken his rear leg and shattered his pelvis, but other than a bruised spleen and a hernia, his internal organs had survived intact. Cecile told me to stay on and to go through with my engagement plan/scheme. By the time that we returned, Cotton had graduated from dragging himself around our condo with his front paws to gingerly walking. It was a miracle of sorts. I had condemned a dead cat to being deader. He not only survived being hit by a car, but my own execution order. We kept him inside after that.

IV.

Two years later, on the last days of the year 2007, our herd moved from the frigid winter chill of the Rocky Mountains to the relatively balmy climes of Monterey, California. I wanted to write a book and to find a way to advance my career in media. Sharon wanted to study dentistry. Bear and Cotton wanted some space. Off we went, into the maw of a massive winter storm, our lives jam packed into a U-Haul truck and chase vehicle.

We wound up in a wonderfully spacious ranch-style four bedroom house in the old Army base town of Marina, formerly Fort Ord. The house had a large fenced back yard AND a large fenced front yard. The neighborhood traffic in rural California was perplexingly, and blessedly, light compared to that of the small mountain town in Colorado from whence we had migrated. An enormous sand dune and the four-lane Highway 1 embankment was all that separated us from the glory and danger of the Pacific Ocean. At night we could sit INSIDE the house and hear the ocean roar. Birds were everywhere, much to Cotton’s satisfaction. From little sparrows to cormorants, seagulls to Snowy Plovers — you couldn’t toss a sourdough crumb without a dozen flying creatures clamoring over the score.

After a few weeks of beach life, it was decided that Cotton would once again be an outside cat. Maybe the calm, serene atmosphere of fog and ocean breezes got us to lighten up, or maybe the cats own outdoorsy personality and the telepathically transmitted insistence of his innate need to be Out There won us over, but out he went. Right away he picked up his hunting and general carousing as he had before. His street smarts were evident immediately. We watched him gracefully maneuver Brookside Place and the surrounding feeder roads. Maybe it helped that there was less traffic. Maybe it was that the roads there were built wider enough for three tanks to drive parallel to one another and still have room for a fleet of jeeps to be parked on either side of the road.  Perhaps or boy, by now known affectionately as “the stupid cat” had learned a little something from his run in with the Michelin Man.

Whatever it was, he had the outside cat game fully wired now.

Though fixed, and not necessarily burly by cat standards, Cotton fought like a wildcat with the neighboring cats until it was clear by the noises of each scrap and by Cotton’s studly saunter while leaving each catty scene that he had ascended to alpha of the Brookside pride. He had girlfriends at seemingly every house on the block. When he came home and did not eat his food, we worried some, until we were told by several neighbors that he was wont to visitation and meal privileges in several neighborhood households. He and his buddy, the Bear dog, now visibly aging, tag teamed the local bird population. Not a morning went by that I did not hear my wife’s sing song voice emanating from the living room. “See the birdies?” she would say in her best baby mama voice. It nearly brought the house down every time, with both cat and dog howling in agreeance while clawing into the glass door. Oh, they saw the birdies alright.

Several months later we brought home a soul who was unwittingly to become Cotton’s best friend and worst tormentor. Hondo the dog was born in a Missoula, Montana English Shepherd puppy mill.

It was on New Years eve later that year when I was to realize the sordid nature of his origins, but I should have known. The breeder’s business was called Shady Lane Puppy Farms.  We had looked around all over the regional papers for a pup from this particular breed, but finally were forced to ship Hondo in from out of state. He arrived at the San Jose Airport in a plastic and steel dog crate. He was tiny and scared and visibly confounded by his plight. To comfort him, I had brought along a film crew to document our meeting, along with large photo print outs of his new family. “This is your mama,” I said, holding up a photo of Sharon to the open crate door. He stayed cowering in the back. “This is The Bear, your new brother. He’s the best dog ever,” I said. A tiny, fuzzy black, brown and white painted ear perked, but that was it. “And this, this is your kitty,” I said, holding up the 8×11 color photo of Cotton. YAP! The pup snapped out of his apoplexy, rushing forth to sniff the photo. HIS kitty. It was love/hate/terror/love at first sight.

V.

My intended mission for Hondo was for the youngster to grow to be my old boy Bear’s friend and understudy as he entered his golden years. And while he took to that role with a natural canine camaraderie (though his herding instincts kept the aging Bear on his guard for sneak attack “drive bys”), it was the depth of his friendship with Cotton the cat that surprised us all.

The two were fast friends, literally. Cotton was prone to the “midnight zoomies,” a crack head-like spasmodic reaction to God-knows-what provocation. As a night owl myself, I grew to appreciate these impressive displays of deep-night random energy and strange feline athleticism, but the same cannot be said for Hondo.

Hondo is a weird sleeper. He splays out upside down like a hairy, de-shelled turtle. Cotton seemed to time his evening calisthenics to just about the time that Hondo would grow bored with my Sportscenter fixation, roll over and grunt himself to sleep. Then, with a punk spirit, the Goddamn Cat (Hondo’s words, not mine) would deftly launch himself from the top shelf of the couch down onto the sleeping dogs’ exposed belly, touching down only briefly enough to gather himself and steal a quick catty sneer at the startled pup, before bounding off down to the deck and sprinting off around the far reaches of the house. The poor dog, of course, had no chance. There was no catching a hyped up barn cat with rascality in his blood and evasive maneuvers woven deeply into his sinew.

VI.

We moved a total of four times during the Reign of Cotton. The third and fourth moves were rapidly stacked together, with (thankfully) just two months internment in the California Dutch hellhole known as Ripon, California.

That was the amount of time it took to kill my best friend Bear, who was riddled with two types of cancer and held a fragile football-sized tumor in his poor belly, contract a persistent case of walking pneumonia, pack our beach house up, move the family to Ripon to take a job writing for a couple of TV food show producers who turned out to be the sleaziest, heartless, lowdown scum sucking dirt bags in the history of an industry rife with sleazy scum suckers, drop off the family at our new house before promptly jumping on a plane to the Super Bowl in Dallas for work, find out that my dear Grandma had died in a fall, succumb to the gathering sickness in my hotel room, be excused to go home, fly to the funeral, deliver the eulogy, return to my new home to find out that I was fired, and spend a month looking hopelessly for work in a recession-ridden Central California town that neither Hitchcock nor Steinbeck could have dreamt up.

In that time, Cotton seemed resentful of our move to inner-suburbia. His forays out into the neighborhood were forbidden, as the traffic was regular and the bird-loving neighbors overt enough to let on that cats don’t last long in their hood, a comment that seemed to have nothing to do with the pace and regularity of the traffic and much to do with their Taj Mahalesque bird mansion that measured 25 floors and covered more lawn space than a live oak.

So, instead of his jocular life of outdoor adventures, he was cooped up, whiny, and dispirited. Not even a chance to have a go at the upturned, snoozing pup seemed to rile his mischievous instincts. Gone were the midnight zoomies. Instead, he slept all day, and moaned pitifully at the foot of the door all night.

VII.

Thankfully, fate intervened. One morning, as I teetered near my breaking point in Ripon following an ugly encounter with the neighbor over her perfidious threat to call the cops on us to have my old, temporarily dead 1972 Chevelle towed away as a neighborhood eyesore, I got a text from Dan Shipp, the Mississippi lawyer who owned the Colorado ranch that Cotton had been born on. “What y’all doin?” he asked in his trademark gentlemanly draw. “Pondering a good, old fashioned neighborly fire bombing, to be quite honest. As my lawyer, what kind of time do you think I’m looking at if I torch the neighbor skank’s bird castle?” I replied.

He must have sensed the mounting frustration in my voice, because within minutes he had offered us the chance to move back to his ranch to the little old cabin that we had lived in years before. Within 24 hours we were packed into a 21’ U-Haul, had accidentally knocked off the birdfeeder while backing the attached Chevelle-hauling trailer out of the driveway, and had abandoned uncaring California for the open-armed Colorado. As soon as we had negotiated our long-haul truck and trailer down the narrow dirt road that leads to Shipp Ranch, Cotton began mewing uncontrollably, sparking a mystified Hondo to follow suit.

VIII.

Back on the ranch, Cotton quickly regained his mojo. Now an adult, his mousing skills had sharpened to the point of mastery. Soon, he graduated to squirrels, then small rabbits, along with a steady stream of birds. To supplement his diet, he would throw in a green snake or two a week, a horrendous habit that he seemed eager to share with us by way of dragging the live, squirming snakes into the window before releasing them on our bedroom floor for further examination.

For these field hunts, he often teamed up with his uncle, a grey Maine Coon known as Mister Tigger. It was not unusual to see the two of them stalking a pole fence, one on the top row, and the other on the one below, each crouched low as they scanned the pasture grasses for prey. Inevitably, a family brawl would ensue over the prize, with Cotton regularly pummeling a cat so legendarily tough that it was fabled to have once fended off a coyote by blinding the dog with a vicious frontal Ninja-cat attack.

At long last, Rotten Cotton was back in his element, living what is surely the dream of all cat – wandering open country that was filled with feline delights, dominating the neighboring competition, then returning home to the small cabin at night to curl up under the tall legs of the old wood stove to slumber until his next adventure.

IX.

It was early spring when I got the call. I had started a new job with the local community college, and was in a meeting when my phone buzzed in my pocket. The number was not one that I recognized, but it was local so I decided to excuse myself from the meeting and see who was trying to reach me.

Though I deigned to admit it, I knew the reason for the call even before I answered it.

Cotton had been missing for four days. It was not unusual for him to stay out all night, but he always returned sometime early the next morning. This time he had not. His colleague Hondo had been wandering around for most of a week with a worried look on his brow, standing by the door looking out at all hours of the day, whimpering a bit at night. He eagerly sniffed the bushes on the mountainside beside the cabin on hikes to look for Cotton, both of us quietly hoping not to happen upon any soft white fur, soaked in red.

He was old, Cotton was. Near nine by now. Maybe he wandered off to die, I told my wife in an attempt to reassure her against the doom that we felt looming each night that he did not return. “No, he was fit and healthy. He’s been eaten. I’m sure of it,” she lamented. “Fucking coyotes…” She muttered. I kept a rifle at the ready, in case revenge opportuned.

Just in case, I made a sign and posted it on several power poles around the ranching community where we live. “White male cat with a grey coon tail. Goes by the name of Cotton, missing since Sunday,” it read. I chose two of my favorite pictures of Cotton for the sign. One was a shot that showed his full body, for identification purposes. In that shot, taken in the pitiful Ripon days when the one bright spot in our lives was the addition of a comfy leather couch that we purchased with money sent to us after my Granma’s death, Cotton lay splayed out on the top of the new leather couch, straddling the couch top like a horse saddle. His white fur glistened in the photo. His grey and black-streaked ears perked up and a quizzical look etched on his face as I stood behind him flipping him the bird. It was my way of warning him not to scratch our one good piece of furniture, which, amazingly, he never did.

The other photo that I included on his want ad was one taken in our condo in Carbondale, soon after he had miraculously recovered from being “squeeshed” by “zee car” and then doomed to the vet’s eternal needle by me, before being subsequently saved by the bungling vet.

This photo featured a close up of Cotton’s face as he worked his way into a bunch of historic peacock feathers given to me as a gift by author Hunter S. Thompson’s wife that I kept on my desk. The luminescent green-gold-purple eye of the peacock feather juxtaposed perfectly with Cotton’s own golden eye. The image represented to me everything to loved about the Stupid Cat: his indomitable curiosity, his penchant for adventure, and his mellow, kindly nature. He was not a bastard cat, whining for his way all of the time, clingy or spiteful. He was there when you needed him. Except now he was gone.

The caller asked if my name was Corby. He paused for a second. I studied his voice. It was oddly distressing. My legs gelled.

“Do you own a cat? A cat named Cotton?” he asked. My heart leapt and sank at the same time. Maybe…Maybe he had found the cat sleeping off a big, chipmonky meal in his barn? Maybe he’d finally found his lady cat and set up shop somewhere down the canyon? The possibilities raced through my head, quickly drowning out the budgetary thoughts that had been lingering just moments before.

Cotton had lived through many near disasters. He’d been raised on a ranch surrounded by coyotes that picked off all of his many relatives, hit by a car, condemned to die, and ran the high-traffic neighborhoods of California like a boss. Of lives, he knew many. But surely he had one good life left?

My mind churned through positive outcomes. The caller continued. “I’m…uh. Well, hell, son. I’m not sure how to tell you this…”

 *Corby Anderson is a freelance writer who works from the rickety loft of an old cabin in Emma, Colorado. His stories can be found here, as well as at corbyanderson.wordpress.com, Flipcollective.com, The Aspen Daily News, Monterey County Weekly, Canyon Country Zephyr, and BEER Magazine (the Playboy of beer rags), among others.

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CONDORS

Away from the grey, nauseous coast
free wheeling through a great, long valley
burnt to char, closed to overland travel
an easy cab for travel, blue and loud
loaded for bear, some of everything, except Bear
stories fly like ashy mud from rolling stock
until the decisions add up

across the cracked expanse
of the Central Valley
and a bitter, paranoid failure avoided
there is no hope in the Greenfield Sleaze Inn
It’s the Glory Road, minor through dirt road
red pocks stitched across a blank white void
Doctor Know indeed, intuit knew it
leads us to, over the finest night rally track
that I have ever bombed, dark and empty
as all unknown adventures should be
cows gather but stay put, black blurs on the hoof
the risk and reward, to persevere. Per severe ants
Pre-severance, too broke to go, too rich to stay
Pea Knuckle National Mausoleum
void of the holiday hordes that
abhored me on first attempt
shaken and discouraged enough to drive
two unknown hours, thus to sleep
in the cancer flakes of Asbestos Creek

All night loon chatter about a roaring fire
spoons and forks and thought full lines
drawn in the sands of my corporation plaque
blasting torrents of dead stars
tracing hell through the heavens
God becomes the topic de jour
for railing logic, pulled and pushed
until that notion too ascends in smoke
for his own consideration, or emptiness
finally, warm scotch seizes the mind
and turns off the fun receptors
until cold, lonely night locks the scene

And with day is play, this new place, still ours
empty save for a lonely tent that keeps appearing
looping drives to pay our share, but where?
a slow man allows passage into sweet water
the honor system and a giant tabulator
and off for the hills that bleed sand
and know the dark shadow of giant birds
the colors thicken in the falling light, bloom in dusk
it is a well beat trail, the heart knows a good trail
and rushes forth, testing its flow, alive to go
up through the golden spires, stalwart skies
in search of the Condors gliding on warm thermals
and now this rock, quake shot stone
to hold my calm, to hone my soul

C. Madison Anderson
Pinnacles National Monument
12-3-08

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Image

Joel Belmont, at the bellows during a Labia Project photoshoot in San Francisco.

*This previously unpublished story was commissioned as the prologue to a book of photography by my friend and incredible photographer, Joel Belmont. As the subject matter is pretty, er, different, Joel thought that I would be the perfect observational writer to put his project into perspective. Joel’s book, The Labia Project, is an awareness-raiser in a concerted effort to put an end to a terrible practice known as Female Genital Mutilation. He hopes to publish it sometime this year.

 

Prologue

On a remarkably clear, beautiful summer day in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, boisterous crowds of social activists march and carry on in an impressive show of support for their common cause. It is a day for both emotional protest and wild celebration. The prior for the ongoing persecution that has united these people and sparked a movement, and the latter for the improvements to the situation that have finally been made after years of bitter struggle.

Above the teeming throngs, three floors up in a modest suite of the Opal Hotel, a social movement of equal importance but with comparatively miniscule exposure quietly advances one revealing flash at a time.

The white-hot flare comes from the dual strobes set to fire off simultaneously when fine-art photographer Joel Belmont finds his critical focus. The image is up close, upside down and backwards within the viewfinder of his large format camera. Under the black hood that is thrown over Belmont’s head, he finds his subject poised in gynecological repose, her back resting on a pile of pillows at the edge of the bed.

She is a model from neighboring Alameda. Her name is Gracie, a name that fits in a variety of ways. She is calm and serene, and she was named after the late, great Gracie Burns, George’s wife. She is not nervous. She trusts the photographer and is proud to be a part of his project.

It is early in the afternoon, and as the marchers pound their drums and make their statements far below on the streets of San Francisco, Joel works expeditiously at the bellows of his large-format, Wisner 4 x 5 view camera. Crafted from wood, brass, leather and glass, extraordinary sharpness and detail is achieved by the large size of the negative, combined with the tack sharp focus from the camera’s European-made lens.

Belmont’s camera looks old timey, but is in fact rather new, which is sort of the opposite that could be said about himself. Joel’s hair is not quite red, nor blonde, but is a mixture  of both in Brillo form, as is his goatee and disconnected mustache. He is slight of build but not unathletic, and works in regular old blue jeans (not the pre-stained kind) and a blue-black t-shirt with no chest pocket. He exudes a pragmatic artistic presence that at times belies his youthful appearance. In his thirties, he is blessed with the healthy sheen of someone ten or more years his youth, which may be in part due to his love of the outdoors lifestyle that his Colorado home affords, and which he readily imbibes.  His manner is easy going, on point, and very professional, which is necessary in nude fine art photography, but which is also Joel’s nature. He is not a cocky rock star photographer, is not in the least bit demanding or too self-assured, and his subjects consciously appreciate these qualities.

Other than Joel and Gracie, there are five models present, along with Joel’s wife Lili. While Joel and Gracie shoot their images, a fifteen-minute long process, the five wait across the oblong hotel room in an area that has been cleared to make an informal reception area. They sip bottled water and chat amicably, as women do. They pass around a clipboard with model releases to read and comment on. The conversation is tangential, and ranges from subjects as different as one’s experience running with the bulls in Pamplona, to a unique sculpture that one of the women is making for the upcoming Burning Man festival, to the value of various modeling social networks, and finally, to the subject at hand – labia, and specifically how they might, through their modeling of their own healthy labia, help to raise awareness of the human rights issue known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is the overarching reason for Belmont’s first book.

Rox is an artist, originally from Italy, where issues of human sexuality are often not as taboo as they are in America, where the issue of FGM is hardly known. “That is where I first read about this mutilating. It is a horrible thing to think of. These young women are stripped of their ability to have pleasure, or even children, in some cases.” A woman named Allison, who is a midwife-in-training, chimes in. “I found out about it (FGM) years ago through my studies. It is so infuriating. I feel helpless in a way. That is why I am here, posing.” The waiting models nod in agreement. They all hope that maybe someone involved with the practice of FGM will see this book, view these photographs in their stunning detail and elegance, and better understand just how beautiful and integral natural labia are. And, they hope, then that same person will read the accompanying stories about the practice, from women whom it has been forced upon, and change their perspective about this arcane and inhumane ritual. “It only takes one village doing the right thing to change the wrong thinking of an entire continent,” one of the models says in the midst of an energetic and frank discussion.

The bulbs make a loud pop, and the flashing lights of Belmont’s latest captured image punctuates the thought. It was the last of those he will take of Gracie, and he thanks her kindly as she fills out her release. The day started early, with models arriving in a steady stream right at 9 am. Since he uses film, there are required breaks in which Belmont changes and loads the film in a coat closet, his temporary dark room. When he emerges, Lili hands her husband a turkey sandwich bought at a deli down the street to help fuel him in the midst of a hectic shooting schedule, which he wolfs down in large chomps as he explains the history of his latest project.

Reading the Christian Science Monitor some time ago, Joel found an article written about the cultural and human-rights challenges with FGM, which led him to extensively research the subject. The idea that a culture would forcibly mutilate their youth as common practice, struck a deep, upsetting chord within his worldview.  His perspective is that all people—especially women and young children—should be valued, and treated with physical and emotional care.

 

Joel has made a successful career out of photographing the human form in all of its natural sanctity, and has done so with a pervading sense of respect and appreciation for the women that have posed for him. His joy for life and the human form comes across throughout his works, which he meticulously creates in a way that desexualizes nudity though careful posing of his subjects and the usage of black and white film.

“I try to make images that are not about a nude body, or sensuality, but about ideas. I also work to depersonalize the models in the images, so that others can relate more directly to these ideas. The Labia Project, to me, requires the Nth degree of depersonalizing and desexualizing the human form” he says as he poses the next model. In practice, Belmont accomplishes this by first framing out, and then digitally cropping out everything but the labia that he is photographing. He does so using small strips of black “gaffers tape”, common in film production, which the models apply as a frame around their labia minora. Belmont then makes sure there are no suggestive elements in the image, and works with lighting to find the most artistic angle to shoot from. Since it is film that he is shooting, there are no saved versions to work from as a form of error correction – he shoots in the old way, trusting his settings. He snaps four to twelve shots per model, and moves on.

Also important to Belmont is a second motivation for this series of photographs. With this book, he hopes to help women who have low self-esteem and a negative body image come to terms with their uniqueness and beauty. “Labia are the portal for the majority of human life, yet many people, including women, often won’t talk about this beautiful and integral part of a woman’s body. Why? Moralists long ago made the subject taboo, and the pornography industry has exploited and made it dirty, but I see it as just another unique part of the human body. Though it’s often considered solely sexual, of itself a woman’s labia is quite elegant in line and form” he adds, pointing out earlier artistic efforts along these lines, such as Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of flowers.

This aspect of the project is what most intrigued Rox, the model. “I used to be embarrassed by my labia. They are pretty big, and I had no idea what I was supposed to look like – what was normal,” she says, explaining how she believes that if women are able to see other women’s labia in a desexualized light, that they will likely feel much better about their own. A cheerful model named Alice agrees. “My sister used to think that she was ugly and that nobody would ever want to have sex with her. It was a hangup that I am not sure she ever got over,” she says.

“Katherine”, who prefers to remain anonymous, is originally from Latvia, and is by trade a scientist, working in the field of toxins. The lab where she works is a sterile environment that is not encouraging of artistic thinking. To satisfy her creative instincts, she models occasionally. She found Joel’s images to be striking, and volunteered to pose for The Labia Project based on the photographer’s reputation passed along by other models that she knows. She is long and lean, and possesses an angular face and short blond hair similar to that of the late Princess Diana. When she sits, her limbs sprawl out in spindly fashion, her back barely touching the couch that she sits on. She is wrapped in a loose fitting red summer dress with black hoops for straps and looks very much like a very tall, elegant bird. Asked if she is worried at all about being photographed in such an up close, personal manner, she laughs. “No, I am not nervous.” she says, and then stops to think for a moment. “Society is too focused on perfection, but there is no perfect shape or form. We are all so different. Some people are deeply shameful of nudity. If this helps change one persons perception, then it will be a success,” she adds.

The room goes briefly nuclear again. The Wisner’s shutter swings open and then is clamped down at once. A final image is gathered, and both subject and artist share a quiet laugh about something. After all of the paperwork is filled out and they have chosen whether to receive a gallery print or a signed book as compensation, the models all give one another hugs, gather their belongings, and scatter out into the still boisterous parade below. Other than the noise from outside, the room is still for the first time all day. Joel sits on the edge of the bed and sips a cold cup of water. This is how art gets made. Some movements have parades and vibrant parties which intend to unite society in protest of inequality and injustice, such as the one that blares on below this temporary studio of room #221 of the Opal Hotel. Others gather steam quietly, one frame at a time.

Joel Belmont’s artwork stands on the shoulders of the masters and reaches ever higher, striving to evoke thought and capture beauty all at once. In this book, he takes on a taboo subject with originality and purpose of mission. The photographer who worked two years to make this book happen, and the models who contributed to The Labia Project do so with hope that it will help uplift critical thought, and that it will challenge those who needlessly mutilate this necessary and beautiful part of human life to turn away from injustice, and strive towards more humane cultural practices.

Corbett M. Anderson

Marina, CA

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Blunder Dancer (for Laura)

She is a bleach and sunshine

dirty beach blonde

scared of shadows

but glad she has one

it’s one friend she

can never throw away.

 

Supernatural disaster

that she wills

collapsing statues

fill her frame.

 

Blunder Dancer, the vogueing chancer

she see’s her reflection

clearly in the mud.

 

Built you a useless tower

for the midnight hour

when your tanner tenor

sees your play.

 

But what she did not count on

would take just one finger

to soundly express his dismay.

 

Blunder Dancer is no romancer

some build their dreams

she stacks her nightmares

in rotting fields of thorns and clay.

 

Wanna be on television

that was her only mission

vanity unlimited

empire of flimsy tenets

she’s just another waste

in the shroud.

 

Blunder Dancer, the image monger

with unconscious karma

how does her round heart

ever square?

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*The following reviews were originally published in the Monterey County Weekly Best Of 2010 Awards issue in March, 2011.

Best Deli Sandwich

Compagno’s Market and Deli

2000 Prescott Ave., Monterey

375-5987

Ten-hut! Listen up, you seaweed-sucking cuisinartistas: This is actionable intel! The people have spoken, and that means that only one deli can lead this ragtag outfit. Compagno’s Market and Deli, a dietary (term used very loosely in this case) staple of the adjacently interned armed forces and sandwich-loving locals, in large part due to the large parts that make up these tank-sized monster-pieces. A full-sized Marine Special (chicken breast, bacon, Caesar dressing, pepper jack cheese and a full arsenal of produce and condiments, on huge rolls) will stuff you goofy for two, maybe three meals. And that doesn’t include the mandatory explorations into the rarely seen regional chips (like Herr’s Heinz Catsup – usually seen only on the Eastern Seaboard) or rare sodas (Cheerwine – Carolina treat) and beers that effervescent, funny and friendly owner Bennett Compagno stocks to please his globe-hopping clientele.

Best Neighborhood Bar

English Ales

223 Reindollar Ave., Marina

883-3000 www.englishalesbrewery.com

English Ales, the unassuming, beloved brewpub tucked into the rolling dunes of Marina’s business district, once again takes home honors as Best Neighborhood Bar – a fact that ought to make the tightknit regulars there fairly pickled with justified pride. This is a true pub, with comfortable atmosphere, a ceiling covered in hundreds of personalized, numbered mugs, a welcoming bar, great service, a totally underrated, delicious and hearty menu of British grub and always interesting local beer-lovers on hand to entertain. Hard liquor is not an option, which never seems to matter with upwards of 10 hand-crafted brews to study.

Best Bar for Darts

Bulldog British Pub

611 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey

658-0686

For years now, Central Coast dart buffs have flocked to the Bulldog for sharply played matches, and little wonder why. The pub has fostered a passionate community of cricket-chuckers by providing a bloody charming atmosphere (not to mention imbibement) and by hosting semi-monthly, 2-on-2 tournaments that have been dominated by a small, cagey band of legends. But most times the stately board is open to seasoned hustlers and gapers alike on a drop-in basis. A well-peppered American Dart Company board awaits your steady (or not) hand, and fronts a wall chock-full of bulldog-themed paraphernalia from around the globe. The “oche,” or official throwing line, is well-marked on the ornately woven carpet by the copious beers – and tears – spilled there during many a spirited game.

Best Restaurant – Marina

Kula Ranch Island Steakhouse

3295 Dunes Road, Marina (at Sanctuary Resort)

883-9479, www.kula-ranch.com

Consisting of equal parts all-American steakhouse, tropical Tiki lounge and destination sushi bar – a veritable mirror of mellow Marina – Kula Ranch is a culturally and geographically diverse chutney of presentation styles, flavors and olfactory senses. Kula’s burgeoning culinary rep – and this award, likely – comes from its consistently fresh and classily prepared array of steaks and seafood, and a boost from a loyal Otter following. Taco Tuesdays has become a staple of the CSUMB student lifestyle, with hundreds of starving students descending en masse to chow cheaply and live a little in the spacious, niftily adorned house of flavor.

Best Chinese

Tommy’s Wok

Mission between Ocean and Seventh, Carmel

624-8518, www.restauranteur.com/tommyswok/

When you are a small, rather stashed-away restaurant, your food simply has to be outrageously good to win this award, given the competition. Tommy’s, tucked away in one of those classic Carmel nooks – behind a house of fancy skivvies, and all of 600 square feet, with maybe 20 tables – does just that. Tommy’s Wok creates a stir week in and week out with savory, silky wonton soup, oh-my-God-these-are-good broccoli prawns and a full menu of similarly killer fare across the spectrum of Mandarin, Szechuan and Hunan. It’s not unusual to get a freshly made, hot meal in just five minutes. And not overlooked in locals’ vote making: the super-affordable lunch menu, which offers huge plates for generally under $20 for two, with soda and tea.

Best Local Beer/Brewery

English Ales

223 Reindollar Ave., Marina

883-3000, www.englishalesbrewery.com

When your thirst for a real beer in a real pub in a real town overwhelms, head to resurgent Marina and one of its real gems. English Ales serves up nine English-style ales, from the popular, hopped-up Fat Lip Amber, to a bitter and crisp Corkscrew Ale, plus other tastes from all across the brewing spectrum, with wheats, IPAs, lagers, pales and porters. Have a mug there, or take home a growler for later fresh from the taps, or procure yourself a nifty sixer at a local liqueur store. When in doubt, do yourself a favor and try a majestic, marble-smooth Monk Brown Ale. Mmm. Thirsty…

Best Hardware Store (tie)

Pacific Grove Ace Hardware

229 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove

646-9144, www.acehardware.com

Coast Ace Hardware

1136 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove

372-3284, www.acehardware.com

Not to throw the proverbial wrench into anyone’s sense of plurality in naming a clamp champ, but two separate, independently owned Aces share this crown molding. Pacific Grove Ace Hardware and Coast Ace Hardware, each on the opposite ends of Forest Avenue in Pacific Grove, are jam-packed with tools, materials and a billion doo-dads and whatchamadoogies for your every home improvement project. From augers to aerators, paints to plaster, keys to critter cages, it’s all there at the P.G. Aces, where “good service is always in stock.”

Best Place to Rent Videos/DVD’s

Blockbuster Video

1170 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove, 657-0292

2260 Fremont, Monterey, 655-5401

262 Reservation Road, Suite A, Marina, 384-1054

1988 N. Main St., Salinas, 442-3050

1594 N. Sanborn Road, Suite 100, Salinas, 754-0906

www.blockbuster.com

In what is perhaps the most likely category to go the way of buggy whips and the American middle class, Blockbuster Video wins hands down. Of course, due to unforeseen technological advancements, the competition has dwindled to a few robotic Red Boxes and a rather “blue” local video shop. But those of you who haven’t taken the occasion to walk the aisles of an actual movie rental store since the advent of the various couch-potato friendly digital content delivery services will likely be pleasantly surprised at just how refreshingly nostalgic and inspiring the experience is. The good news: The company that revolutionized the home entertainment industry is still here, with five local stores, and their shelves are stacked (thankfully, alphabetically, which is the natural form of how movie browsing should be presented) with current films, from the A-Team to Zoolander, as well as an interior sea of racks packed with classics that are a sensory hoot to peruse, pick up, turn over, read and consider for your evening’s entertainment.

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The Story That Will Never Be Told (Until Now)

By Corby Anderson

It was another soggy Friday in December. I was preparing to leave town in a whisking rush to see a holiday concert in San Francisco when I fielded a call from my editor at the Monterey County Weekly, the effervescent, speed-talking food critic Mark Anderson. We chatted briefly about the paper and my undulating employment status. Being broke at the holidays for the second year in a row had me scrambling for any work that I could drum up, and I had sent an email earlier in the week requesting to be “sicked” on any story that Mark might have for me to work on.

For much of 2010, right up until being laid off at Thanksgiving (specifically, the day after the holiday, and more specifically, the first minute of the first working day after the holiday) I had been locked down and unavailable for reportage due to the demanding hours that were required for my job as a video producer for a small marketing firm in the Central Valley mission town of San Juan Bautista.

But now, after the craptastic excising of my salaried position a few weeks earlier – a situation that left me with just the years accumulated vacation hours (which weren’t much, really, being in my virginal year there) as a razor-thin buffer separating my normal  check-to-check existence from the screeching, thrashing approach of the specter of total financial oblivion – I was literally desperate with want and worry to find any form of income that I could summon up legally, and even that was a questionable standard when studied through the lens of a particularly brain-torching arrangement of potential economic pressures facing me going into the New Year.

After some pat discussion of the upcoming holidays, business was gotten to and I was assigned a vaguely defined personality piece for the coming weeks paper, due Monday. “Go out to Spreckles by the post office and find the store with the cranky old German lady. Write something interesting about her.  I’m told that she’s something else – like the Soup Nazi of Salinas.” Anderson directed, using an unfortunate, but possibly intentionally placed association that made me somewhat nervous.

It was almost four by the time that he called, and with no time left in the day to do the proper research and scouting mission on a Friday (in hindsight, to be fair, I could have easily done a few Google inquiries to find where out the Spreckles Post Office was, made a call there and ask whether there were any angry Nazi’s with stores next door – and if so, to tell me what it was called so that I could look it up and call there to see if the Fraulein there would speak to me, which is what I eventually did anyways), I set my sights on the following day, when I would be returning from San Francisco sometime in the afternoon.

Of course, Saturday got chewed up by our hung over getaway from the City after a rather spectacular, late night of booze and semi-fine cuisine, a powerful, sweet brand of California rock and roll, and the requisitely messy post-festivity festivities. And of course then there was the slow, rain soaked drive home to the Monterey Bay through a persistently oppressive storm, followed by the hurried preparations for the Redhead’s work holiday party that evening. Out of necessity, I punted the Weekly story to Sunday, the Christian day of repentance, home improvement projects, football (or if in a ski town, TiVo and a full day’s ripping) and rest.

On Sunday, I took an afternoon drive out to the old sugar company town of Spreckles. I drove slowly from my still inundated home through the muddy dunes of Marina, flattened and paved over by the Army as if it was one big, twenty square mile wide depot (which it was). But any sand dune worth its shifty weight in fine china has a funny way of imposing itself, even when seemingly smothered by progress, and Marina sand is some of the finest in the world for glass-blowing. From every exposed inch of sandy roadside shoulder or sagebrush-studded bike trail that was spared the pavers whimsy, a fountain of molten dune poured onto the road, spreading in lumpy beige rivulets across the cracked grey skin of Reservation Road, the country road that splits what is left of the natural elevation of the dunes, skirting the old Army base as it leads eastward, and spilling down and out onto the strawberry and lettuce fields of Southern Salinas, and Spreckles, it’s semi-famous, nearly defunct sub-hamlet.

…………….

Spreckles is hardly a town at all, at least not in the hearts and minds of the mapmakers at the Garmin corporation, makers of the fine navigational device that sits atop the dashboard of my Land Cruiser, affixed to a plastic hip bone-like swivel that sticks up above a fancy sandbag, and which somehow pinpoints my exact location, speed of travel, the nearest bank machine, and my expected date of ultimate demise by beaming an invisible laser down to me and back up to a network of orbiting space birds.

To those guys, Spreckles is but a tree-lined backwater vegetable patch outside of Salinas, and any mention of the existence of the place has been summarily expunged from their official version of navigational reality.

But to local historians, and about 500 or so hearty Sprecklites, it is a very real, very important place. It is the once-bustling home of the aptly named Spreckles Sugar Company –  a town named after it’s founder Claus Spreckles, and built – even trucked in a half-home at a time by rail and steam-tractor –  specifically to house the many confectionaries that milled the sugar beets into sweet dust at what was, upon its erection, the biggest sugar plant in the world. It’s glory lasted for almost a hundred years.

A third of the way through its millennia, John Steinbeck’ s father, John Sr., worked as a plant manager there, and arranged for summer jobs for his son working there as a handyman and as a bench chemist. It was during his time living and working in Spreckles that Steinbeck gleaned many of the quirky characters that populated his wonderfully illustrative novel Tortilla Flats. A few decades later, the town is also where the film version of his more famous tome, East of Eden was filmed.

The massive sugar factory officially ceased its operations in 1982 after a series of corporate maneuvers that refocused American sugar beet operations in Hawaii, and appropriately, to Sugar Land, Texas. The hulking silos still soar over the surrounding croplands, their white paint now doused with a drizzling coat of rust and moss.

Now the town has a distinctly ghostly feel to it. I drove around looking for the post office, which was not too hard to find. Its one of about five businesses on the main strip. I parked and scouted the store next door. After a minute of so studying its exterior charm, I decided that it must be the home of my assignment.

As it happened, the store was closed. Probably because it was Sunday, though there was no sign that listed operating hours posted. I walked it’s vintage Americana, time stuck exterior, relishing the flaking white chunks of paint on the Coke mural (“Better with Coke!” it exclaimed) that covered a dozen yards in either direction of weathered bricks. I gandered at the two-bladed steel fan that hung ominously above entryway, eyeballed the unusual hoop steelwork of the stanchions that supported the overhanging eaves and took note of the multiple pieces of paper stuck to the wall by the door, all of them proclaiming this or that to be illegal on the premises.

Skateboards, hats, bare chests, naked feet, food or drink from outside sources, masks (?!) – all banned, and judging by the inflection ingrained in their handwriting, and the haphazard arrangement of the rules, vigorously so. I peered in the windows but could not make out much through the haze of their dusty patina, other than what looked to be the interior of a lunch counter that looked to be straight out of the late 1940’s.

Gathering as detailed an impression as I could without the aide of an actual camera (smashed to pieces in an errant handoff to the wife), or an iPhone with onboard camera (stolen from the sullied depths of my smelly left basketball sneaker at the Monterey Sports Center), or even a voice recorder, which I normally kept with me for verbal notes, when I wasn’t busy habitually losing them in the aftermath of drunken bike wrecks or sunset beach hikes – I left, planning to return on Monday, when the working world renewed itself.

…………….

With an expectant email from my editor glaring at me when I awoke on Monday morning, I set about to do some research. There was no sense in driving all of the way out there if the store was closed again. So, I fired up the Google machine, did a little digital snooping, and found out that the place is called the Spreckles Emporium. I turned up a number and gave it a call.

Holding true to her predicted mean streak, I was hung up on by a very Germanic sounding lady quite abruptly, twice. The second hang up occurred when I was trying to explain that I just wanted to see if she was open, to which she blurted “I WOULDN’T ANSWER THE PHONE IF I WASN’T OPEN!” click.

Fair enough. Warming to the challenge, I drove the dozen miles through varying plats of winter-dormant agricultural lands at lunchtime. On the way, I texted Anderson. That is 1 miserable, wicked bitchshes already hung up on me 2x, I typed. He responded almost immediately, with a curious enthusiasm that made me wonder if I was not being set up. The old Send-the-freelancer-out-to-spar-with-the-Wicked-Witch-of-the-Lettuce-Patch routine. Awesome! Sure. Why not? Describe away, he continued.

I pulled up to the store and found a spot that was not flooded by an overwhelmed gutter. It was miserably cold and raining in a weird, fine mist, but I decided to have a look around outside again, before going inside.

It just so happens that I had chosen that day to start smoking for the first time in my life. And by that I mean to really start a new habit, a conscious decision to make the act of smoking a regular occurrence in my daily menu of vices. Sure, I’d had cigarettes before, but for whatever reason, and probably relating to some very stern, deeply felt direction to never smoke that I’d received from my brother at about age 12, when he was a veteran smoker with a terrific aptitude for the job at the age of 15, I’d never actually committed to the practice. Over the years at one time or the other, I’d tried all manner of pipes, cigars, cigarillos, and cloves before, but nothing ever stuck, and his fierce words spoken in the backyard of our parents house in the suburbs of the East Bay of Northern California had their way of cropping up in a timely fashion and extinguishing any pleasure that I might take from any of those acts of tobacco.

So, perhaps as a convenient loophole to circumnavigating the actual wording of my brothers law, for most of 24 years, my thing has been chewing tobacco – either Skoal or Copenhagen. But now, with the quarter century mark of lip bound imbibement approaching – and all of the guilt and worry associated with reaching that sort of landmark along with it, I felt more than ready to kick the proverbial (and literal) can to the curb. So, there on the corner of Spreckles and Halton Avenues, on a Monday afternoon near the end of my 38th human year, I drew my Djeep lighter, peeled off the protective plastic covering, snaked a fresh stogie out of the fresh pack, and sparked up a Salem.

Just then I got another text from Mark Anderson. Call me, it read. I hit send and the phone connected itself to his own. “Look,” he said. “I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about this story. All of that crankiness that she’s displayed is a good thing. It’s what makes her interesting. It’s her thing. Find out what makes her that way. It’ll be fun,” he added. “But don’t go in there and announce that you are doing a story on her for the paper. Strike up a random conversation and get her to open up to you,” he added, further instructing me to go in, order up something to eat, and observe.

“Get anything you want, within reason. Bill the paper,” he concluded.

I conscientiously extinguished the gross-tasting cigarette, and not seeing an ash can on the street, I pocketed the crumpled remnants of the butt and pulled on the rusty bronze handle of the green wood and mesh screened front door of the Spreckles Emporium. The rusty spring emitted a great sproinging groan that filled the silence of the empty street.

…………….

Inside, a stooped woman of about 70 stood at  eye level with the counter that she manned. Her colorful face was compact and stern, like a small granite gravestone. A pair of impressively thick, salt and pepper eyebrows dissected her forehead, and set themselves at an angle that seemed in opposition to my presence. I said a casual hello as I walked between the aging clerk and another woman, this one younger by perhaps a dozen years. She stood leaning with her back to an unpolished chrome railing that separated the check out are from a series of shelves that had nothing on them. They each nodded slightly, but mostly just stared at me as I passed. I could feel the intensity of their glares through the back of my otherwise impervious raincoat.

I slowly strolled the aisles of the store, soaking in the museum like atmosphere. Its layout was that of a small country grocery, with maybe four or five short aisles and a perimeter of upright cold storage containers. On the walls were a fascinating collection of vintage product signs. There were Hamms beer signs, obsolete diet soda signs and the like encircling the perimeter walls. At first glance, it was difficult to ascertain whether the signs were purposefully placed as a vintage theme, or whether they were simply left hanging because they were what advertising had been provided and there had been no new signs to replace them over the past 30 years.

I continued my stroll around the store when I became mindful of Anderson’s instructions to order something to eat. But as best that I could tell, there was no actual food in the grocery store, at least none that looked unexpired. Glancing over at the counter that the German stood behind, I could see that there was no sandwich making operation, and the coolers were all either empty or held a few plastic, modern bottles of various sodas and a few containers of beer.

For the most part, the shelves along the aisles were almost entirely vacant save for a few randomly dispersed cans of dusty marshmallow spread, a mostly vacant rack of ancient packages of buttons for sewing, an aged rack of obligatory steel-lidded jars of Clabber Girl baking soda, some very old one pound packages of sugar, which I thought fitting. Though, on closer inspection none bore the name of the towns founder.

The whole joint was a marvel of curiosity, lost in time, as if a bomb had gone off and left the place standing, only to be stripped of anything really edible by bandits and vandals, and then left alone to gather dust for a half century. I was stricken with the notion that with all of the vintage coolers, shelving units, sofa fountain and deli machinery that the place would make for a perfect movie location, and shameful at not having seen the film that most represents my home turf in a long time, made a note to ask the proprietress whether East of Eden had actually filmed in the store

Along the rails were some more random items, remarkably few in number, hardly enough product at all to qualify as an actual store. Ironic, I thought, reflecting on the name of the place: Spreckles Emporium. The definition of “emporium” is that of a large retail store with many, varying items. Yet here I was, standing in an emporium that was not, set in a town that was no more.

But every time that the notion entered my mind that I was walking through a museum, I would feel a stinging sensation digging at the back of my head, reminding me of the owners glare, and of the fact that she wasn’t selling novelty tickets, and judging by her lack of wares and her rotten disposition, really didn’t seem to want anyone in her space.

…………….

As I rounded the corner of the last remaining aisle, I pondered the questions roaring through my mind. Why were there no product on the shelves? Why is the store even open? Who shops here?

There was nothing left to study. I would have to approach the birds, who were by now speaking rather animatedly with each other, albeit in the hushed, secretive tones known only these days to older generations. It was a sound that I cling to – an auditory relic that never fails to instantly connect me back to the summer kitchen of my grandmother and all of her sisters, gossiping, relating, whispering the secrets that have fallen from my fruitful family tree like so many soft peaches.

The banter between the two ladies seemed to focus on the larger of two admirably prodigious sailfish that hung on the far wall, and the story of how the Emporium’s owner had caught the fish in Mexico years back.

I approached. The two eyed me conspicuously, so I walked over to introduce myself, mindful of the editors suggestion that I chat the owner up without pegging myself as a journalist wanting to do a story about her for the paper. Remembering to make unrelenting eye contact until a greeting had been properly made, a trick that I was taught by a writer who was renowned for the quality of his reportage, but also for being a drug addled recluse, I went to shake the hand of the woman who was not my story target. But interestingly, as I moved towards her, she recoiled from my outstretched hand, nodding meekly towards the owner. I could see that the taller one who I was trying to introduce myself to was nibbling on some candy, so in recovering from the odd rejection, I mentioned the candy. “I see you’ve got your hands full,” was all that I could think of.

I spun slowly to face the Emporiums owner, steeling myself for yet more weird vibrations, and just before my eyes caught her own, a loud bleating rang out from my pocket. Damn! My cell phone. I’d forgotten to turn it off after my call from Anderson the editor.

The timing could not have been worse. The two women looked at each other with startled, widening eyes. Everything in the room jolted into a slow freeze. The effect was almost sacrilegious. A foreign sound in an old world. It was as if I’d suddenly entered the OK Corral wielding a light saber. The phone rang it’s awkward chime once more, and now my mind drifted. The electronic chime echoed out of my pocket, up into the old rafters, off of the steel beer signs, down each malnourished aisle of food stuffs, and back to my brain in an instant. I wondered if perhaps somehow my phone was the first cell phone to ever sully the hallowed halls of the Emporium? Surely there would have been a sign preventing their presence if the owner had even an inkling of an idea how annoying the devices had become to modern society.

My apoplectic spell snapped on the fourth ring. Time whipped back into normal operating speed. Trying to maintain eye contact while not look panicked, I pounded my left front pocket like a man whose pants were on fire, smacking myself about the hip until the noise ceased to exist. The German’s dark brow pinched in towards the bridge of her nose, and a frown spread through the creases of her face like wall of wind through a field of wheat. “Sorry about that…They don’t let me turn it off. Regulations, you see…” I managed to blurt.

“Zere are no phones allowed in ziss store,” she replied, pointing towards the door. I followed her finger towards the green door.

“Oh? I didn’t see the sign,” I replied, attempting to hold my ground, while remaining cordial.

“ZERE IS NO SIGN!”

“Well, how was I to know, then? Apologies…Here, I’ll turn it off. They wont miss me for a little while,” I said, fishing the blasted thing out of my pocket and hammering on the red on/off button until it emitted the pleasantly blittering knell of its forced demise. The screen went blank, and I showed it to the owner. “See, its off. Again, apologies.”

“Do you live here in Spreckles?” asked the younger woman. I recognized a sizable portion of sarcasm in her voice.

“No. I live over the dune, in Marina.”

“What are you doing here then?” she replied, almost instantaneously.

…………….

My mind flashed back to Mark Anderson’s instructions to not just come out and reveal that I am a reporter working on a story. But then it overshot that quick mental signpost and barreled forth, ever inward. What was I doing there? The answers rushed in on my synapses like a mental meteor shower:

Plenty: I was on assignment, writing a story. Pretending to know what I was doing. Impersonating a reporter. Trying to earn a hundred and eight dollars, fifty cents to put towards my wife’s Christmas gift. Researching. Wishing that I knew more about vintage signs. Washed out of Aspen, Colorado. Recouping my mo jo. Plotting my comeback. Readying myself for the unknown. Keeping my mind off of the terrors of the season. Trying to learn about this funky store. Enduring an almost unbearable dose of ruditee.  All of it at once.

“I’m interested in history,” I replied, figuring that it might stand up better than the litany that my mind had conjured on her prompting. “I was told that your store held quite a bit of it in its beams.” The two nodded at my answer. It seemed to me like this conversation had occurred before, only without me in it. How I knew that, I do not know or understand, for it was not a premonition, just a sense that I was subconsciously following some sort of predestined script.

My words had a calming effect in some regards. For a second I thought that I could see the hackles on their backs ease a tad. I was pleased that some of the tension had been dissolved. It had been nearly too much for me to bear. These had been, after all, not the type of hostile working conditions that I was perfectly situated for.

But then my pride and sense of purpose betrayed me. “And I’m a writer…” I felt myself groaning internally, but I was unable to stop.

“…I write for the Monterey County Weekly. In Monterey. It’s a newspaper. A weekly. I write for it. That’s what I do.” The two women looked at me disgustedly, as if I was a drunken pauper digging my own grave; a worthless waste of worm habitat. I stopped there, pinching off the rest of my spiel before it poured out of my head.

Her German face turned a bitter red. Her eyes narrowed and a palpable, fierce resistance overcame her being. “Well, don’t you go and write no story ‘bout zis store!”

My cover was blown. I had a sudden, itching urge for a cigarette. And a chew. “Well, that’s not why I’m here,” I lied.

She persisted, gathering steam now. “…cause zen zere’ll be people reading it and coming in here all zee time and I don’t nee dat!”

My curiousity was peaking now. Why would she not want business? I asked as much.

“Look around! Are you blind? I ‘ave nozing to zell!”

“So, you don’t sell sandwiches? Or soup? I’d heard that you did,”

“No! Not for a long time.” she spat.

“Well, why not then?”

“Becauze zere are no more wholezellers to zell to little stores like zis one. I can’t get anything to zell in ‘ere.”

“But what about Costco, in Seaside? Can’t you get good deals there?” I asked. Was not that what the original purpose of the big box bulk item-pushers was? Surely it wasn’t to sell coffins and eyeglasses, tires and $1 hot dogs. That had to have just come as an opportune byproduct of its first purpose: to outfit mom and pop stores exactly like the Emporium with cartons and crates of bric a brac that they could then turn a tidy profit on.

“Zat iz exactly right!” she exclaimed loudly, confusing me. “We little people ‘ave been pushed out! So, I don’t ‘ave nottin to zell.”

“So you are saying that you have a store, but nothing to sell? Why do you bother? Surely there is something else that you’d rather be doing with your time,” I braved.

“I already told you! Becauze zis is my store!” the proprietor exclaimed with a practiced ire. I half expected her to fly over the counter and snatch me up by the earlobe to lead me out.

When she stopped talking, there was an uncomfortable pause. I looked around again. Clearly the woman was a relic in her own right. I could see now that she was elementally just the same as the old cans that sat lonely on her shelves. They weren’t her products, they were her friends. They were her comfort and her countenance. She was but another beam in the rafters, another fixture on the gables, another sailfish on the wall. They’d have to pry the mean bitch out of the Emporium if they wanted her to quit coming. Or carry her out, which was more likely.

“Alright. I get it,” I said to nobody, looking around with new eyes.

“And don’t you dare go write any newspaper stories about Gerte. Like she told you,” the woman behind me said pointedly. “I mean it. We’ve got a small town here, but we are loyal to her, she’s been through a lot over the years.”

…………….

I took a deep breath. I could feel my breath shortening. Maybe it was all the dust. “Well, obviously I won’t do that,” I said after gathering myself. “But I’ve gotta say. Your hospitality could use a little work. But, I appreciate your time. Interesting place you’ve got here. It would make a great movie set. Or a museum…Good luck to the both of you,” I said, taking my leave.

I paused just beyond the threshold of the old, creaking swing door. I could hear a low grumbling noise behind me. I watched briefly the runoff that was pouring from the face of the awning on the sidewalk. I looked down the street, first to my left, the west, and then to the east. Nothing moved but the drizzling rain and the barely perceptible, grey mini-clouds that hustled about within the mother cloud that crowded the dark afternoon sky. The great white and chestnut colored towers of the abandoned sugar mill across the street glistened mutedly in their rusting state. Two birds sang an old song behind me in the distance.

I looked down at my hand and saw that I was holding a pack of cigarettes in my left. I hadn’t even realized that I’d reached for the pack in my pocket. My, how our habits come at us so. I was reaching into the pack when an object down on the concrete caught my eye. It was a penny. I bent over, mindful of the needling pain that had been jabbing at my right patella for a few months now, and picked the penny up. I am profoundly superstitious. The coin was old and worn almost flat of profile, with hardly a speck of shine left on either of its surfaces. Abe Lincoln sat there, perpetually unperturbed by his fate, staring perpetually to the right. To his left a single word: Liberty. Above him, the old national motto: In God We Trust, (but whose, I’ve wondered.) And then, down below the Great Emancipator, and shifted slightly to the right, a number, a year engraved in its marrow:

1955.

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December 11, 2010

Manager of Holiday Card Program

Wells Fargo Bank

Consumer Relations

700 Billion Twisted Way

Irvine, CA 91100

To whom it may or may not concern,

‘Tis the season of bright cheer and boundless mirth, and in the spirit of that holiday joy, I would like to thank Wells Fargo for the thoughtful holiday card that arrived in my mail slot on this pristine California winter morn.

The card was from your home mortgage department. Its sender was the very same agent who showed such natural resourcefulness and creative wherewithal when he helped my wife and I purchase our first home a few years ago.

Like many Americans at the time, we were unlikely buyers, especially when reflected on now, from a literal, and emotional distance. My Good Lady and I first spied each other in the midst of a frantic bar fight in a now defunct cowboy bar which, prior to its conversion into a redundantly supplied art gallery, bore the appropriate name of “Ship of Fools”, in Carbondale, Colorado. Once the brouhaha was sorted out and our dating commenced, we realized that our common dream was to step up from our rental-bound ski bum existences into the realm of home ownership, which, thanks to your financiers and a lot of hard work, we were able to do, if barely.

Neither of us had any savings or even enough money to cover the earnest. Her credit was as bad as a year old quart of milk, and mine was only slightly less sour. But together, somehow, we did it! We found The Way, and made our home as happily as two youngsters can.

And so it would follow that in terms of fostering a sincere customer appreciation and good marketing for future considerations, it would be a wonderful thought to send a card wishing well the holidays of such satisfied customers. “The holiday is a special time,” the inner fold of the card reads. “May the joys of the season warm your heart and light up your home,” it continues cheerfully, ending in a firm corporate tag line whose font rides atop a galloping team of ponies that pulls a speeding wagon, informing the recipient that “Together we’ll go far.”

Which is all quite fine and certainly dandy, except for one small oversight on the part of your office. We don’t technically own our home anymore. You do. Just last Monday – coincidentally just 30 minutes after my having been laid off for the second time in two years, I was called by my Realtor, who informed me that my Carbondale house which had warmed us so for so long, was officially foreclosed on by your liquidation department and the local courts. (By the way, that’s quite a name that the thinkers upstairs have saddled your foreclosure team with!) Apparently, the attempted short sale which was in the works was just too short, and your patience with our circumstance too thin. There is a blue joke in there somewhere, but I am loathe to summon it here and now, at this late hour by the unsatisfying cold yellow flicker of the Sterno can that lights our ancient, lobotomized Winnebago where we now call home.

And while I am not sure exactly how it fits into my story, I am nonetheless compellingly reminded of a favorite quote from a TV show that I admire, Mad Men: “One minute you are on top of the world, and the next, a drunk secretary drives you over with a lawnmower.”

There is something to be said about proper timing. Syncronized correctly, and even the foulest of deeds can be assuaged by a balance of good will and a modicum of strong reason. Michael Vick is the perfect example of that. But conversely, bungled badly, and timing can be a major bitch – a real seedy whore with a heart as black as the coal that will fill our stockings this season.

Please don’t take this as me trying to tell you how to do your jobs. God knows that I am no expert in the inner workings of a corporate public affairs office. But it seems logical to me that a simple cross-referencing of those customers who own their actually still own their homes along with a survey of those suddenly former customers whom your company has snatched their homes away from would easily stop the sending of such poorly timed mailings like the infuriating, depressing one that I received today.

It’s just a bit of friendly advice. You can leave it, or take it to your bank. And while I ­­­­­­­­­­­­am pulling all of my remaining Wells Fargo accounts and giving them over to someone who really seems to care about America – the Bank of China, and thus will not be riding shotgun in your funwagon, maybe your marketing department and your liquidation department can get together under the mistletoe during your holiday party and swap more than boozy spit.

Together, it seems certain that you will go far.

Yours in eternal debt,

Corby Anderson

Marina, CA (currently)

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