The Buzz continues. Available next week!
A dead squirrel, unmarked by obvious injury, lies in the street. I pull up to the curb. A turkey vulture, shy and dark, looks up at me. It had been gauging the edibility of the squirrel. It preferred to dine unobserved. I gave it a moment or two to collect itself.
It retreated to my neighbor’s roof.
The vet had asked me to call in 45 minutes. It had taken me 40 minutes to drive home. The rabbit stopped eating again this morning. He was shivering and pallid, and bore an expression that unnerved me — as though he was contemplating a nearby entrance to a warren in the Elysian Fields. “And then I saw this long, dark tunnel, and a soothing rabbity voice saying ‘come away from the light, little one!’”
I took him and his thousand-yard stare to the hospital, dropped him off so the vets could puzzle over him.
The vulture was unsettled. My exiting the truck prompted a skittering across the roof. I ran inside, grabbed the camera and the long lens. I managed just three shots, then the bird got skittish and flew to the eucalyptus down the street.
They are such shy beasts, for all their morbid associations, their cadaverous affect. People call them scavengers with lip curled in disdain, disgust. A truly noble carnivore kills its meals, they imply, and then having dismissed the vulture they wander off to the supermarket, to bring home slabs of flesh that have been dead for weeks.
I find them appealing, skilled practitioners of an estimable trade. They bear the proud lines of their cousins the condors, the teratorns, though on a much smaller scale: the ponies of the buzzard world.
The squirrel fell from the overhead wires, I decide. Only twenty feet up, but the pavement is hard. I wonder if it was one I’ve been feeding. I cannot tell the locals apart by sight. I look up at a passing shadow. The vulture makes lazy arcs on a thermal, gaining altitude without apparent effort.
Springs come up in the middle of our street, buckled pavement and puddles where the rest of the asphalt is dry. They streams flow beneath the surface, carve out channels in our soft bedrock. A month ago one of them undercut the water main at the corner, and when the pipe burst the pavement rose eight inches from the pressure.
That soft bedrock is laced with limestone, and the plants in the garden are rich in calcium. That’s the theory. The rabbit has been slowly filling his bladder with stucco. It showed on the x-ray as though he had swallowed a river rock. Subcutaneous lactated Ringers, one tenth liter a day for the next few days, may well flush out that rabbit limestone. It will at the very least give him all the more reason to hate us. It is another variable in the decision looming as to his eventual home. I had wondered if parting from the garden might sadden him more than parting from me. Turns out that may be beside the point. He sloshes in his cage, isotonic solution in a reservoir beneath his skin, and he is eating again.
My office buzzer hurt my ears. It always hurts my ears. With these ears, that’s saying something. Today it hurt more than most days. I’d been working all night and conked out under my desk. I don’t like sleeping under my desk. It puts me in a bad mood. My tongue felt like it was covered in fur.
I grunted and took a swig from the bottle there next to my head. Turned out my tongue was covered in fur. A long night licking myself will do that. Hey, someone’s got to. I crawled out from under my desk.
The buzzer went off again, tearing off the scab in my brain from the gunshot wound it had felt like the first time. A strange clicking sound came from behind the door.
They call me Thistle. I find things. Sometimes the things I find are worth something. On a good day I get a percentage. This wasn’t shaping up to be one of those days. I’d almost made it to the door when the buzzer went off for the third damn time.
She’d been pacing in the hallway. The clicking was her feet on the hardwood. Those feet were at the ends of the longest, tannest gams I’d ever seen. She was taller than me. I had a pretty good view. Especially since I was lying on the floor. Like I said. It’d been a rough night.
I must have been staring: she let out one of those little, polite, deadly pointed coughs. So I pried my gaze off her gams and let it hop leisurely northward. Eventually I got to her face, and flinched. She looked familiar. I was pretty sure I’d seen her at the racetrack a few times. Running. Now I’m not one to judge. I’m no pinup model myself. But this dame was a dog.
She sighed. She’d been through this before. “Are you quite finished leering, Mr.…?”
“They call me Thistle.”
“Is it your habit to transact business in the hallway, Mr. Thistle, or do you actually have some sort of accomodations for your prospective clients?”
I didn’t need the attitude.
“Let me just save you some time, lady. I don’t work with greyhounds anymore.” That was bitter experience talking. Once bitten, twice shy. The thrill of the chase wears off real quick when you’re staring down the barrel of the fuzzy end of the lollipop.
She sighed again, and flounced on past me into my office. This day was not starting well. I followed her.
In the two seconds it took for me to walk in, shut the door and turn to look at her, she’d gotten pretty damned comfortable, curled up on my divan with those long legs tucked beneath her.
“I’ve been retired for years, Mr. Thistle. I haven’t chased in nearly as long. I’m as trustworthy a soul as you, given the life you lead, are likely to meet.” She bared a set of sharp white teeth at me. I eventually realized she was smiling. “And besides, if you look at the… advance I’ve placed on your desk, I think you’ll see I can make it worth your while.”
On my desk was the biggest pile of lettuce I’d ever seen.
I tried not to react. Things had been tight since my partner died. He was better at keeping clients. The landlady was on my case and my bills all had big red print on them. If she could pay like that, I needed this job. But I couldn’t seem too eager.
I turned to face her. She was watching me coolly. It made me nervous. I swallowed it. “Okay, lady, I’m all ears.”
She was quiet for a second, deciding whether or not to laugh.
“A valued possession of mine has been taken. I would very much like it returned.”
She nodded at the desk again. I walked over. She’d put a folder next to the pile of green. I opened it. There was a photo inside. I looked at it. I looked back at her. She looked at me.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Couldn’t you just get another cheeseburger?”
“If you’re not interested in the job, Mr. Thistle, I understand. Though I am disappointed. Is it the money? I can offer more.”
“The money is fine.” It was the first time I’d ever said anything like that. I figured I’d run downstairs to MacGuffin’s, buy her another cheeseburger, keep the change and everyone’s happy, including a few collection agents who’d been trying to get to know me better. “I just don’t understand why this one burger is so important.”
“Do you have to? Honestly, Mr. Thistle, I really can make it worth your while.” She stretched those long legs, a sweet little groan escaping her lips, got up off the couch and walked over to me. “I really have heard nothing but good things about your… your work.”
It doesn’t matter if she’s a dog. When a dame starts licking me behind the ears, there’s not much I can do but roll over.
Night fell like a dead cat out of a tree. I was cursing myself for a sucker. By the time Lady had told me there was a falcon involved, I’d agreed to take the job. I don’t like falcons. They bother me. This usually isn’t a problem. I leave them alone if they leave me alone. But she’d seen a falcon flying off with the goods. Oh well. Work is work.
There was a place by the docks where falcons roosted. I figured I’d go there and sniff around, do a little digging. I got as far as the produce terminal on Water Street before it started, that feeling I get sometimes, like there’s a conga line of fleas marching up and down my spine. It always means trouble.
Then came the shout. I started running. At least it wasn’t a cat. I hate cats. Cats are trouble. This was just a human, slow and dim, a big monkey angry at the rabbit in his produce. No gun. Just a mop. A sorry specimen.
It’d been years since I’d loitered in the produce terminal. You can’t stay a delinquent forever. Or that’s what they keep telling me. But I guess it’s like using a liberty ball. You just remember how.
My old moves came back. I played with him a little, ran just out of his reach a ways, let him think he was gonna catch me. At the end of the terminal was a huge pile of carrots, and behind the carrots were two shipping containers a foot apart. A refuge. I sprinted. They were some damn good carrots: old-fashioned Danvers, Kyoto Reds, some purple ones from the Middle East somewhere. I had enough of a lead to get a few bites of each. Damn, it was good to taste something besides corner store Chantenays. “Why did I stop hanging out here again?” I asked myself. “Oh, right. The goons,” I answered. He caught up to me, a stupid, evil smirk on his puss. Just as he swung I ducked between the containers. His killing blow with the mop landed on cement. Splat.
I chuckled. I still had it.
I hopped over a pile of trash between the containers and my back suddenly felt like an entire flea nightclub. Something was very wrong. I went back. There was something about that trash pile, something underneath that crumpled, oily newspaper, that set me on edge.
A falcon! I screamed. I jumped. Forgetting where I was I turned sideways in mid-air, hit the side of the container hard, fell, and slammed into the pavement next to the falcon.
The falcon wasn’t moving. Neither was I. That damn prey reflex kicks in at the worst of times. After a minute I realized I wasn’t dead. After another I realized the falcon was. I pulled the newspaper off his corpse and took a look. No exit wounds, no obvious broken bones, not so much as a bent feather. Odd. He’d had an alarmed expression when he kicked it, but when don’t they? I couldn’t tell what had killed him.
And then I smelled it.
I took a closer look at his beak.
He had a mouth full of cheeseburger.
I don’t like it when jobs get this complicated, I thought to myself.
This is one of those diary blog posts.
I didn’t exactly expect to have a good day, given what it commemorates. It started off worse than I’d expected. I was awakened by a rabbit asking for a ride to the emergency vet. Breathing hard, shaking, refusing to eat, ears cold to the touch, and that was just me. Thistle was even worse. We’d been through this before, so the sock full of rice as a bunny hot water bottle was constructed and microwaved in an efficient hurry and it was off to the vet.
Rabbits drop dead astonishingly quickly from not eating and having low temperatures. Today of all days. I steeled myself to kick Coyote’s ass for perpetrating the Meanest Joke Ever.
But the crisis proved elusive. The vet sent us back with bunny medicine to be placed in a bunny eyedropper and squirted into the bunny mouth. There were, typically, no supplies provided to treat the inevitable bunny lacerations and bunny gougings.
I had exactly enough time to sit out back for a few minutes at noon, and then it was off again to accept an astonishingly generous contribution by the Harrington family toward the completion of the Joshua tree book.* There’s a word for a mixture of humility and elation, but damned if I can remember what it is.
Thistle seems better, having weathered two hours of solitude without permanent results, but I spent the rest of the evening about to jump out of my skin with fretting nonetheless.
You know? I hate pets.
But I’m counting his recovery in the “win” column, so it was a good day.
* (Additional generosity was provided by Becky, who drove 100 miles round trip to deliver me to the donation, despite driving being her least favorite thing to do. Thank you, Becky.)
Chris: Ah. Mail’s here.
Chris: Wow! Something from Beth! What could it be? It’s an odd-shaped package. So thin.
Thistle: It’s mine.
(Chris opens package)
Thistle: What did she send me?
Chris: She didn’t send you anything. She sent me a leaf.
Thistle: She sent YOU a leaf? Yeah, right. Give it to me.
Thistle: Give it to me NOW.
Chris: It’s a sumac leaf. It’s not good for you.
Thistle: I want it.
(Thistle sniffs the leaf.)
Chris: I told you.
Thistle: That’s a bad leaf.
Chris: It’s related to poison oak, and it’s probably
Thistle: I hate that leaf.
Chris: Ah, there’s something else in here, in some manila paper.
(Chris pulls the manila paper out of the package. A red oak leaf falls out of the paper, fluttering to the carpet.)
(Thistle leaps on oak leaf, begins eating it.)
(Chris reaches down, takes leaf away from Thistle.)
Chris: Aw, it’s a red oak! I haven’t seen one of these in
Thistle: Give that back now.
Chris: It’s not even for you, and I just want to look
Thistle: It’s mine. I’m not finished eating it.
Chris: Simmer down, bun-bun.
Thistle: GIVE. IT. BACK. NOW.
Chris: Ha. Poor bun-bun.
Thistle: No, seriously, listen. GIVE ME BACK MY LEAF.
Chris: Stop it.
Thistle: Give it back or I’ll fucking cut you, man.
Chris: No you won’t.
Thistle: I have a knife.
Chris: You do not.
Thistle: I have a knife, and I’ll stab you in the eye if you don’t give me back my goddamn leaf.
Chris: You don’t have a knife.
Thistle: I meant to say gun. I have a gun. It looks like a knife.
Chris: Yeah, right. Go eat some kibble.
Thistle: Look. I asked nicely. Now give me my fucking leaf.
(Thistle pulls out knifegun)
Chris: Hey! Put that away!
(Thistle aims knifegun at Chris’ eye)
Thistle: The leaf. If you don’t mind.
Chris: Um, OK. Here.
(Chris hands Thistle the oak leaf.)
Thistle: About fucking time, man.
(Thistle eats the leaf.)
Chris: You’re really pushing your luck, bunny rabbit. You forget that I can
Thistle: Shut up and give me the other leaf.
Chris: You don’t want it.
(Thistle pulls out the knifegun again.)
(Chris offers Thistle the sumac leaf.)
Thistle: Ew! That’s disgusting! What are you trying to do to me?
Thistle: Give me the manila paper. I want it.
(Chris hands the manila paper to Thistle.)
Thistle: I HATE this paper!
(Thistle tears the manila paper to shreds, angrily, and with loud growling noises.)
(This play is a faithful portrayal of actual events. All dialogue is verbatim and everything here actually happened exactly this way, and only a couple things were embellished very slightly.)
Driving home today, thinking about a long time ago and the various selves I have shed along the way, I spent some time thinking about one particular self I once draped over me like a blanket: the folksinger. I had no authentic identity to speak of back then, but folksinger was a good approximation, and I was Chris the musician back in Buffalo, at least as much as I was Chris the anti-war activist and Chris the philogynist.
I gave up that identity when I moved out here in 1982, though: Elissa had brisk and unkind words for me whenever I’d play or sing, and a few weeks of that was sufficient to get me to stop altogether. I never picked it all the way back up again after she left: there are enough people in my life who groan audibly when a guitar-playing singer is not Richard Thompson that I’d pretty much rather indulge in recreational dermabrasion than play at parties anymore.
Becky’s not among those people, nor am I, but between the lack of strict deadlines involved in desultory, private playing and my distractability, I go months sometimes without picking up the guitar. It’s been a year or more. The calluses are gone from my left hand.
But I resolved tonight on the way home to pull the guitar out of its case, and I did. The rabbit watched me. The guitar wasn’t too far out of tune, surprisingly. The sixth string was a note and a half low, but everything else was within a quarter tone. It took maybe a minute to get it right, and much of that was time spent figuring out there was a flat pick wedged between the strings. The harmonics in line, I strummed a soft A minor.
There was an abrupt, solid thump, and the sound of nails on hardwood as Thistle dove beneath the couch. He stomped the floor down under there a couple times for good measure.
Everybody’s a critic.
A week ago: we realized that our decision of the week before that I would stay home to take care of the rabbit instead of going to Seattle as planned — a decision prompted by the lack of boarding slots at the House Rabbit Society — was perhaps not exactly the right decision. After our friend Andrea volunteered to check in on Thistle from time to time, we made new plans. I would drive up to Seattle with Becky to visit her sister’s family and then I’d drive back a few days later, and she’d fly back a few days after that.
Wednesday: realized that my schedule would not likely permit a visit to Nina. Sent an apologetic email explaining such. Accidentally sent the email from Becky’s account, which scared her given my choice of subject line: “Some Sad News”. Consoled myself by deciding to call Auguste for a coffee visit on my way through Oregon heading south, perhaps with a stop at Powell’s Books. Asked Auguste for his phone number. Got some work done. Cleaned house. Went to sleep. Had fitful dreams populated by bitter abandoned rabbits.
Thursday: Put a year’s supply of food and water and a toy into Thistle’s cage and locked him in. Left house painfully early, drove up I-5 to Weed with a visit en route to a blasé woodpecker in a rest stop south of Red Bluff, and then passed through one of my favorite parts of California on our way over to Route 97. Headed north into Oregon through Klamath Falls, rolled into Crater Lake NP around 3:00 in the afternoon. Committed various wilful and wanton acts of blatant tourism. Slept on ground in a forest after reading myself to sleep with The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich, which took some time seeing as it’s a fascinating book.
Friday morning: Drank coffee. Drove to wildflower area. Took some photos. Drove to next wildflower area, this one with a short hike involved. Had forgotten to secure gear in camera bag at previous stop: dumped expensive camera and more expensive telephoto lens onto dusty gravel parking lot from about waist height. Annoyed nearby parents with small children by responding to incident with a short, guttural Anglo-Saxonism. Determined camera, lens still worked. Went on wildflower hike. Fed mosquitoes. Marveled at greenness. Moved on, took more photos of the lake. Harassed innocent corvids. Left park and headed toward Eugene.
Friday noon: stopped at roadhouse on road between Chemult and Eugene, intending to buy coffee. Found that owners had preserved the recipe for the Best Baklava Ever, said recipe having come from owner’s Cretan grandfather. Bought baklava.
Friday, remainder of day: drove from Eugene to Seattle, pausing for an hour and a half to savor the zero MPH average speed of rush hour in Portland. Likewise savored the increasingly insistent blinking of the dashboard alternator light, beginning just south of Tacoma. Made it to Mercer Island, ate dinner, played with kids.
Saturday morning: took car to garage. Verdict: alternator failing. Briefly considered trying to nurse car home over two days. Realized this would probably involve semi-permanent stay wherever the alternator finally failed, probably in Albany, Oregon. Revised plans yet again: I would come home as scheduled, but via other means, and Becky, whose schedule was looser, would get alternator replaced and enjoy leisurely solo drive home in a week.
Saturday afternoon, evening: took Whidbey Island Ferry to appropriate island. Drove, got coffee, hiked, checked out campgrounds, waved wistfully from the Port Townsend Ferry terminal in the general direction of Nina, ate best salmon ever and best mussels ever in Coupeville, made scary noises in abandoned army fort to make three-year-old niece shriek in delight. Drove the long way home through Deception Pass, incidentally bringing me to the northernmost point I have occupied in my life at 48°27’45.02″N.
Sunday morning: arose painfully early. Drank coffee. Went back to bed. Got back up. Was dropped off at Seattle Amtrak station twenty minutes before scheduled 9:45 AM departure of Coast Starlight. Boarded Coast Starlight at 10:50. Left Seattle at 11:10, approximately 25 miles per hour.
Sunday afternoon, evening, late night: Sat on train in Tacoma. Noticed great blue herons along shore of Tacoma Narrows. Watched more green. Thought of things the oddly familiar green made me feel. Determined to write something or other about it. Sat on train in Olympia, Centralia, Kelso-Longview, Vancouver. Reflected that regardless of the town, each one, like most other such in the US, chooses to display its butt crack to the railroad. A trip across country on Amtrak would likely give one the impression that the USA is populated mainly by rusted out junked cars, with distinct minority populations of ominous discarded barrels and torn sofas. Sat on train in Portland. Did not call Auguste. Sat on train in Oregon city, Albany, Salem (which presented an unusual manicured face to the tracks), Eugene. Realized in Eugene that Coast Starlight also goes through Chemult and Klamath Falls. Wished in vain for unscheduled baklava stop. Slept for a few minutes after leaving Klamath Falls. Woke to watch the moon illuminating Mount Shasta.
Monday: Dawn in Redding. Train was variously on time, an hour late, or three or five hours late depending on which Amtrak employee one asked. Sat on train in Red Bluff, Chico, Yuba City. Arriving in Sacramento, it turned out that “three hours late” was the correct answer. Luck held: my connecting train to Richmond waited across the platform when I got off the Coast Starlight. Rode past mouth of Pinole Creek, coffee in hand. BART train was waiting for me at Richmond Station, cab at the end of the BART ride, rabbit at the end of the cab ride.
Tuesday morning, 12:52 AM: coffee finally wearing off, having had two hours of sleep since Sunday morning, I am going to bed.
Life these days has a curious lightness to it, a reprieve from worry. It is as if there is no longer anything to worry about, a palpable falsehood but there you have it.
I wake up, let the rabbit out. I chase the rabbit in and go to work. I come home and let the rabbit out. It darkens and I chase the rabbit in. A significant amount of my time is taken up with chasing rabbits these days, and I have learned from the experience. Sprinting is not a winning strategy, nor is assuming a set destination at any moment. I cannot outrun the rabbit, but I can outlast him, and I think now were I set out in the Mojave with a stick and knife I could keep myself well fed without breaking stride ever.
Were I eating mammals, I mean, which I am mainly not these days.
There are whales in the river again, humpbacks, and they have made it to the Port of Sacramento. How odd the fresh water must feel to them. How odd the sound must be in that confined current, the taste of Shasta snowmelt and Klamath rock. The authorities try to turn them back for their own good. There are too many careless knifeblade props in the water, too many who would try to jump the animals with their jet skis. Too many who would commune with them, as well. The last time this happened was a generation ago, and nothing worked to turn the whale around. He nosed up slough after muddy slough, ignoring all warnings, all entreaties, until they sang to him. They played humpback song on a boat-towed speaker, and he followed it back out through the Golden Gate.
The Sacramento is the nation’s largest unknown river. It rises in the sundew bogs of the Trinitys, the Jeffrey pine groves in the Warner Range, among the Sierran Big Trees, and all its arms, before the dams, ran cold and fast to the valley floor. There they gathered, a massive sea of snowmelt, and one braided, meandering channel to drain them into the delta’s skein of sloughs. On a flat plain a river travels more efficiently in meanders, and the Sacramento Valley is flat.
Five foot contour lines are separated by a quarter mile on Sacramento Valley topo maps, and they hint at the river’s history. Meanders form and deepen. They build goosenecks and then cut their throats, leaving oxbows. Tiny tributary creeks follow the old abandoned riverbeds, and then the inexorable river captures them again.
“Inexorable” — from a Latin word meaning unresponsive to persuasion — is not, I suppose, precisely the right word. One can persuade a river, at least for a time. One can channel the Newtonian Imperative, chain and riprap cutbanks, break levees into floodplains. But only briefly and then all our works will be occulted, odd rills and hollows overgrown with elder and grape and morel, incongruous rises and lakes on someday’s maps. All this will be lost and yet the river flows, and nothing to worry about any longer.