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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Edge of Convict

The seat on Jake’s bike had broken off leaving a rusty pipe sticking up from the crossbar. On more than one drunken ride home Jake had forgotten the bike’s dysfunction and poked himself right on the buckeye. Phil queried if it truly was an inebriated mistake or more possibly a desperate attempt to self stimulate.

On this January day Jake stood on his pedals carefully pumping them around in the freezing cold. Jake’s outermost of six total layers was a beat corduroy jacket with worn elbows and a fur collar. He actually made money when he bought the jacket at the second hand store, there was three hundred dollars in large bills in the front pocket. After a night of hedonistic debauchery Jake figured all he bought with the windfall was an expensive hangover. Jake confessed he was sorry that one of the dimwitted kids who worked at the thrift store didn’t find the money, he was sure they would have put the loot to better use.

The moisture from Jake’s breath froze on his scarf like tiny chrystal balls. Even under the bright winter sun the temperature hadn’t topped -10. As Jake road his bike down the wide side streets of Convict his eyes watered and froze to his face.

Now the cold settles in Convict, Colorado. The cold spot use to be up valley in a small town called Chimeron but when the Army core of engineers flooded the valley to make a reservoir it pushed the cold air down 15 miles on top of Convict. Since the flooding of the upper river valley Convict has earned the infamous reputation as the coldest spot in the USA. Negative thirty was not uncommon for a January day nor was sunshine. 50 years ago a hotel in town offered a free nights lodging if the sun didn’t shine in Convict at some point during the day, a proprietary risk that the innskeep intended to capitalize on, and with an average of 360 days of sunshine generally did.

Hug’s was the forgotten gas station outside of town. For some reason cigarettes were a dollar cheaper there and so it was worth the half mile ride out of town; even in the snapping cold. A tangible seal was broken between the soft warmth of the Hug’s gas station and the sharp cold of outside when Jake opened the door. Even though the same handful of customers breech the threshold of Hug’s each day just to buy cigarettes Emad, the Iranian shopkeep, treats them with the same routine professionalism. If it were your first trip or your three hundred and seventh trip it was always the same greeting. Emad would offer a warm ‘hello’ while make a grand sweep with his arm to show off all the goods Hug’s Food and Gas has to offer. Emad would then return his gaze to the three ring binder of daily inventory spreadsheets allowing you to shop in peace. Despite his invitation to browse the rows of crappy food and windshield washer fluid ninty-nine percent of his customers b-lined for the counter and asked for smokes. As if torn from pressing business but eager to provide exemplary customer service Emad would look up from his binder and ask ‘did you find everything you were looking for?’ Jake had once answered honestly and said ‘actually I am looking for a decent manual pencil sharpener.’ The next time he went in there were a half a dozen x-acto brand pencil sharpeners at $21.99 each hanging on a peg board display.

Since that time Jake ignored Emad’s introductory question and would reply ‘Hey Emad, how are ya? Just a pack of Drum, no lighters, no rolling papers, and no porn thanks.’ Jake had also made the mistake of buying a Club magazine from Hug’s and for six months after that Emad would make a production of letting him know when the new issue was in.

The Regal Rancher Inn was on the south side of the highway and so enjoyed the prime winter sun. Jake leaned his bike on a post and planted himself on the bench absorbing some sunshine, smoked a cigarette and watched the pick-up trucks roll by.

Phil pulled up to the curb in his cream colored Volkswagen Jetta that overnights in a heated garage and so the hood was conspicuously absent of snow. Phil was from the South and was notoriously underdressed. Jake watched him walk up the street in low top chuck taylors with no socks, a pair of jeans, and a denim long sleeve shirt with a logo embroidered on the right brest. No hat, no gloves, not even a sweater.

“It’s fucking freezing out here.” Phil said as he approached.

“No shit Phil.” Jake replied.

“How can you sit out here smoking cigarettes and ride your goddam bike around?” Phil asked.

“My bike is my only mode of transportation.” Jake responded taking a drag of his cigarette. “You’re the only guy I know that owns a car, Phil. The more common of us ride bikes or walk.”

“Not me man, too fuckin’ cold out here.” Phil chattered.

Phil moved to Paradise Mountain, a ski resort town about 30 miles north of Convict, a year ago from Athens, Georgia where he majored in Business. He now lives in his parent’s condo, one of three that they own in different exotic locations, and sells weed. Phil and Jake worked together at the South American turned Thai restaurant at the bottom of the ski slopes. Jake liked working with Phil because Phil had nothing to lose and so would make his own rules. The restaurant was struggling for an identity and as far as the owners knew Phil’s just might work. One night an ”investing partner” walked into the kitchen and asked Phil if he had paid for his shift meal. Phil told him to leave the kitchen and he did. After that incident they offered him a management position and fired him a week later. Phil hasn’t worked since.

Jake and Phil entered the Regal Rancher and sat in a booth by the front window. When the door opened the cold air rushed in sending fresh clouds of steam from their cups of coffee. A family of four towns folk could slip into the Regal Rancher door without letting hot air out or cold air in. In contrast, one tourist and his wife on their way to Paradise Mountain could, with a great deal of awkward pretension, drain the heat from the entire joint as they fumbled about trying to look as if they eat there all the time.

The Regal Rancher offered a common diner menu but boasted the biggest pancake in the state. It was huge, easily the size of a hub-cap. On Jake’s first visit to the Regal Rancher he ordered the monster cake out of pure curiosity. From that day forward Jake allowed other gastronomical impulses guide his ordering. .

“Did I tell you I saw Bill Watterson when I visited my sister in Ohio last summer?” Jake mentioned to Phil after the waitress took their order.

Phil wasn’t listening. He was to busy looking over Jake’s head out the window at, Jake presumed, his car.

“I didn’t even know you had a sister.” Phil answered.

“Well I do and she lives in Ohio in the same town as Bill Watterson, so I was kind of on the look out for him. I mean ninety-nine percent of the people who read his stuff would never even know if he was sitting next to them on the bus. Not that Bill Watterson would need to take the bus, I’m sure he is loaded beyond belief.” Jake sipped his coffee, “I guess he’s really into painting landscapes.”

“Bill Watterson,” Phil looked at Jake as if he just registered he was at the table. “You mean the guy who wrote Calvin and Hobbes?”

“Yes Man, I’m telling you, he lives in the same town in Ohio as my sister, and I saw him in the hardware store.”

“Did you say anything to him or get his autograph?” Phil was looking at Jake with great intensity.

“Of course, that’s how I know he is into painting landscapes. I went up to him and said ‘Bill Watterson, I think your comics are beyond brilliant, thank you so much.’ He said thanks and that now he is really into painting landscapes. Then he walked out with a bag in his hand. I said to the gal at the registrar ‘holy shit that was Bill Watterson’ and she said she knew that.”

Phil said, finally present, “Did the girl at the registrar even know who Bill Watterson is?”

“I asked her ‘do you know who Bill Watterson is?’ She said ‘sure he’s the guy who just left.’ I pressed her ‘you know the comic Calvin and Hobbes?’ She said she didn’t.” Phil’s eyes widened.

Jake continued. “I couldn’t believe it Bill Watterson lives in her home town, she knows him by name but doesn’t know he is the single greatest living comic strip writer in the frickin’ nation. I was in total disbelief so I continued to press her ‘you know the comic strip about the messy haired six year old and his friend a stuffed tiger?’ ‘That doesn’t sound familiar.’ She said.”

“Unbelievable,” Phil interjected.

“Wait it gets worse, so I said ‘you know that little messy haired kid on the back of all those pick-ups who is pissing on Ford’s or Chevys or whatever with a mischievous grin on his face?’ When I said this she freaked fuckin’ out ‘oh my god!’ she said ‘he invented that little kid.’

“She freaked out because she thought she knew the guy who invented the Calvin decal?” Phil asked in disbelief.

“Yes, man that’s what I’m telling you. Isn’t that crazy. This gal thinks that’s all there is to Calvin, a mischievous little fuck who hates another brand of truck so much that he pisses on it’s logo.”

“That is so very sad.” Phil sighed and looked down at his feet. “I love those comics.”

Phil was obviously high. He couldn’t get warm and sat in the booth shivering. He would start in on a topic of conversation and end it quickly with ‘nothing, man it’s too fucked up.’ Phil had wonderful conspiracy theory’s about the federal reserve bank, the gold tassels on the American Flag in U.S. courtrooms, ‘that is a maritime flag which puts you under maritime law.’ and other injustices. He threatened to bring in his own flag to the courtroom if he was busted for anything. Phil was good on the initial set up for the conspiracy but had little to back it up with. Jake once asked what exactly it means to be under maritime jurisdiction. Phil answered ‘nothing man, it’s too fucked up.’

It was a month and a half before Jake returned to the Hug’s gas station for smokes. He had been sick with bronchitis and swore if he ever got well again he would quit smoking. The windows of the Hug’s were steamed up. When Jake entered he didn’t smell the usual disinfectant and slushie syrup combo but curry. Emad greeted Jake with the usual hello and hand sweep. However, this time his arm continued until it arrived upon a rotating cyclone of pressed meat on a spit surrounded by heating elements.

“Gyros,” Emad said with great pride. “Hug’s now offers Gyros sandwiches.”

Jake looked at the rotating meat sizzling under the red heat coils and said, “Sorry Emad I don’t eat meat.”

Emad’s arm returned to his side and his face dropped. Jake could see he was crestfallen. “Did you find everything you were looking for?” Emad asked disheartend.

“Just a pack of Drum, no lighters, no rolling papers and no porn, thanks Emad.” Jake responded automatically.

On his way out the door Jake noticed the half dozen x-acto pencil sharpeners still hanging on the peg board display.

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