Monday, June 6, 2011

THE NAKED ABYSS: A Song of Sojourn

By Jack Random



Vera! Vera! What has become of you?
Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?

She was a simple girl with a simple point of view.
Wanted to find a marrying man and raise a child or two.
Then the bombs came and the world slipped away with the life that she once knew.

Flames spread out like napalm dreams and the terror took root and grew.
I still remember her quivering voice as into the night she flew.

Vera! Vera! What has become of you?
Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?



Pity the poor man who dies without a name on some forgotten street corner. He was some mother’s son. He was the hope, the dream and the smile in his father’s eyes.

There was a time in life as in art and literature when civilization thrived on heroes. They were individuals ordinary and extraordinary that overcame hardship to do great good in the world. Through the tradition of story telling we lived their lives vicariously. We sought to be like them. We borrowed their strength and fortitude. We became better than ourselves by reaching beyond our self-defined limits.

Today we idolize so many people for so many reasons that we have reduced the concept of heroism to celebrity. The legacy of heroism gave way to Andy Warhol’s theory of fifteen-minute fame.

When he was only three he had bright eyes and great ambitions. He was going to make his parents proud. When he was five, he was going to show them all. They were wrong. He was going to be somebody. He was going to save lives. He was going to be a hero. He was going to be a star. When he was seven, he was going to start a band. When he was nine, he was going to join a gang. When he was thirteen he chased his dreams in the land of liquid horizons. When he was seventeen he was going to set the world on fire. When he was twenty-three he did. When he was twenty-seven he shot a man for twenty bucks. When he was thirty he looked fifty. When he was thirty-six he was lying in a pool of blood, his dreams fading, his hopes gone, his view of the world a gutter and his future over the rainbow.

We let him down.

He let himself down. He fell for it. He bought into a system that counted him out before he could discover a larger universe. We will not mourn for him. We will let him pass into the endless night, the naked abyss that awaits us all. We will not reach for him for he would pull us down with a smile of sarcasm. In his dying breath, he only wants revenge.

Vera! Vera! What has become of you?

She became a topless dancer in a jazz club on lower ninth until the inevitable day when her appeal no longer paid the bills. A spiral downward to a trailer park with overgrown weeds and a black market economy. She gasped her last breath faking orgasm with a bald man when a homegrown meth lab kissed the heavens goodbye.


He was driving down Highway 66 heading west from a pilgrimage to the sacred Chiricahua Mountains, where the face of Cochise gazes at the heavens, when he chanced upon an offshoot reading Route 666. He turned around and went back the way he came. There are odds no gambler should take.

He ended up at a dreary motel with a bar across the street. He asked for number nine but it was in repair. He asked for thirteen and she tossed him the key. He stayed for two weeks, drinking, eating salted snacks and waiting for something to happen.

She opened the door and asked him if he wanted a job. He already had one but how could he turn her down? She had dark eyes that sucked him in. They spent three days having hot, trailer park sex, doggie style, down and dirty, drug induced; he never saw it coming.

She drew a map and googled it just to make sure. She told him to meet her at the mark, seven o’clock sharp. Sure he said and drove to the next town.


These kinds of things never happened to him so he was sure it was happening to someone else, someone he could not trust. He picked up a hitchhiker outside of Tucson and began peppering her with questions.

She was on the run. A broken family, an old story, a brutal relationship and a bagful of pills: She asked if he wanted to try something and he said why not, he was going nowhere. They grabbed a six-pack at a local market and drove deep into the desert on a gallon of gas. He made his move but she showed no interest so they popped a few pills and let the barren earth swallow them.

Time cranked to a quivering halt, insects swirling, heat coming in waves, night riding in on a yellow moon and a blue-bellied lizard settled on his nose. The lizard gave him knowledge as they wandered the moonlit night, picking flowers and collecting the seeds of perception.

She placed them in a leather bag tied round her waist. She was building a new life, seed by seed, and he was her appointed guide. A dozen more and they could start their own cult. A dozen years and they could found their own religion.

How can you start a religion he wondered without sex? She folded him in her sprawling limbs and collected the seeds of creation.

He awakened on a broad flat rock, his clothes neatly folded, the sun bearing down on his reddened body. The woman was gone. The car was nowhere. He pulled on his jeans, his shirt, tied his undershirt around his head and began walking. An hour later he found her sleeping in his car: out of gas.

He told her to find another ride and walked ten miles with a gas can. She waited at the car. He came back in a pickup with a kid in his twenties, bucktooth and smiling. She was down to accessories: black panties and a maroon bra. She asked for a ride and the kid with a nod from our hero said hop in.

Later he would wonder: What ever became of his desert queen?

He was sitting in a bar in Sedona, Arizona, when a limo arrived with an entourage of security. Out stepped everybody’s hero John McCain. For a lingering moment he allowed his intellectual curiosity to roam. The old question: If you could stop the monster before he became the monster, would you do it? In the age of cell phone television you could alter history with an awkward moment. Cause him to lose balance. A moment of rage.

He quietly asked no one in particularly: What was so wrong with Ho Chi Minh anyway?

The muscles in the broad round neck of America’s hero tightened, his veins bulged as he visibly struggled not to look in our hero’s direction. He looked around to see if anyone had a cell phone. Maybe. You can never tell. He might have altered history. Then again America’s hero looked like he was down for the count. America’s hero had loser written all over him.

He finished his latte, crawled in his car and drove.


A million thoughts zigzagged through his head and he discovered the calming comfort in random chaos. Windows down and the desert heat permeating a cool breeze, he wondered why the random accelerator particle collider was considered random. If it was truly random the results would be meaningless and anything, including an all-consuming black hole, would be possible. Just a thought he thought while driving nowhere fast.


He noticed them in a flashing image bounced off the rearview mirror: Two men in dark shades and dark suits, sitting side by side in a nondescript gray Chrysler, not the kind to be driving a barren road into the Nevada desert. Something was up.

Was this the good Senator’s work? Was that stodgy old fart so uptight that he would summon the feds for a crack in the local Starbuck’s?

He noticed the cell phone embedded in the dash of his 64 Dodge van (they don’t make ‘em like that any more) and rang up the boys.

“Got some smoke in my mirror, boys, need some roadside assistance.”

Like magic he watched the scene unfold a few miles down the road. An accident, people laid out on the pavement, red lights flashing, people in uniforms. They let him pass but stopped the intruders at the gate.

“Somebody up there likes me,” he thought.

The highway was free and clear for a hundred miles. The scent of sage and melting landscape conjuring images of ancient lands uninhabited by man. He pulled into a roadside café, wondering how they made a living in such a forsaken place. Must be a front. Had to be a front. Something was going on under the hood.

The waitress was thin and oddly attractive with her painted eyes and ratted blonde hair. She asked him what was up with a wink that seemed incongruous. She was emitting some aroma that made him think of the late sixties, free love and plentiful picnics.

He ordered a cheeseburger without the beef. She laughed and gave him a grilled cheese sandwich and an order of fries on the house. There was no cook in the kitchen, no dishwasher, no one but the woman with ratted hair.

She sat down across the counter while he ate, pouring coffee, batting her eyes, waiting for some sign of interest. He asked her how she managed and she replied not well, pointing to a picture on the wall of a large man in front of a big rig named the Silver Bullet.

He went on a run six months ago and never came back. She was minding the store and biding her time, waiting for an opportunity to adventure.

“Where you headed, stranger?”

He told her he was on the road to nowhere, apologizing for the cliché, looking to discover the undercurrents of native life.

The grilled cheese was delicious. She undid the top button of her white cotton blouse. The fries were excellent for the frozen variety. She poured some catsup and joined him. Leaning over the counter his eyes traced the outline of her finely tuned breasts. She locked the door, turned over the closed sign and poured a couple of beers.

“No license,” she explained.

They drank and told stories about life, husbands, wives, families and twists of fate. He did not believe in fate but she did. It was fate that brought them together in this isolated place on the outskirts of nowhere. She opened her legs and he took her then and there on a revolving counter stool with the scent of fries and the rattle of dishes hovering about them.

She asked him if he wanted to stay and he asked her if she wanted to go. A six pack and an hour later they hit the road, headed for Las Vegas, the city of neon, games of chance, random adventures, strippers and hustlers, cheap thrills and costly addictions. The drove through the barren sage littered landscape smelling of half-baked reptilian remains looking like the dream of a cracker without a clue, talking in seamless cycles on parallel plains that never touch.

Periodically, he would take a moment, look at her and nod. She would do the same. It was not the reality of connection that mattered but the formality, the courtesy, the habit that gave mythology its teeth.

If he had been listening he would not have understood even a fraction of what she said but the rhythm of her voice was somehow pleasing. If he had been able to decode the message beneath a stream of sounds he would have understood that she was a gentle compassionate woman stuck in the particle collider of a troubled past. She rewound the dialogues that she perceived as keys to the mystery. She dissected decisions that led to the wrong choices and guided her on the wrong paths. She wondered what she could have done to deserve so little joy and so much sorrow.

He was stuck in the moment or rather a conglomeration of moments surrounding his present circumstance. His memory could only reach back so far and the incident at the Sedona Starbuck’s was as far as it reached. He kept coming back to the incredible arrogance and petty mindedness of the man who wanted to lead the world in war.

On their way to the desk at the Bellagio he plugged a silver dollar into a glittering machine, cashed out and handed it to his companion. They checked in to a room on the thirteenth floor and enjoyed an evening of varied entertainment, replete with gambling, music, fine food and sensual exploration. In the morning he got up early, kissed her gently and let her sleep. He left her cash, a credit card, keys to the van and a house in Malibu, and a message of affection. He had pressing business.

He picked up a copy of the Times, booked a flight to the nation’s capitol and caught a cab to the airport. On the ride over he felt a seizing of his heart and wondered if he would ever see her again. Hers was a giving spirit, a generous heart, and the feel of her limbs rubbing against his eased his yearning. He gazed out the window at a passing ambulance as it turned into the entryway of a local hospital. He hated hospitals. He had nothing against doctors and nurses. There were good and bad in every profession. But he felt in his gut that hospitals were cesspools of greed and disease.

He breathed in and out, a slow and measured pattern, until he sensed strength returning to his life and limbs, and contemplated the road ahead.

***

Joe the orderly reported to work every day with his bag lunch and green uniform checking in at the front desk flirting with the nurses and taking the elevator ride to the twenty-seventh floor. That was where they kept the hard cases, the hopeless, the unfortunate ones whose lives were sustained by machines, breathing machines, blood machines and monitoring devices around the clock until the insurance money ran out.

Despite the downturn in the economy (or perhaps because of it) there was no shortage of customers. It was not difficult for doctors and hospital administrators to convince loved ones, husbands and wives, parents and caretakers, that there was still a glimmer of hope when in fact it was a shot in the dark, one in a billion, the odds of finding a diamond in a trash bin.

Joe did the dirty work, moving from room to room, avoiding the rare and occasional visitor, changing sheets and bedpans, making sure the tubes were in place and the machines were operating. As he worked it was his habit to change the channels of the overhead televisions, which were invariably set to late night movies, heavy on the soft porn, by the overnight staff. He made an effort to judge what the patient might enjoy in the event that any of it seeped in to the subconscious mind, usually settling on cable news or generic music stations.

As he made his rounds he caught the nurse in room 2736 making some adjustments to the patient’s medications and cleaning his body with a wet towel. Her name was Bonnie and she was dangerously cute. The patient, an older man and a recent addition to the ward, had an obvious erection beneath his hospital gown. It was not uncommon for unconscious men and Joe wondered if it meant something really was going on in the minds of these patients.

“Why not ease his suffering?” he asked the nurse.

“Why don’t you?” she countered.

She told him about the patient. He was some kind of businessman. He choked on a giant shrimp while watching a sporting event in his apartment. He was alone and managed to call 911 but the ambulance arrived too late. He had a living will but left no instructions on what to do in the event of incapacity. His wife and family had no clue so after six months in a coma he was transferred to the twenty-seventh floor.

He changed the channel to MSNBC and sat waiting for her to finish up.

“What do you make of that?” he asked pointing to the patient’s still engorged member.

She said the common view was that it was nothing more than an autonomic response. Conscious men think of sex around the clock because their unconscious minds are wired to procreation and leaving a mark on the gene pool. Unconscious men still have the instinct even if their minds are not intact.

“Is that what you think?” he wondered.

She shrugged. She had noticed that some men responded to the sounds of sex on television and some responded to a woman’s touch differently than to a man’s – unless of course they were attracted to the same sex. The talk was making her a little uncomfortable but she let her gaze linger on the patient’s erection before she left with a wink at Joe who was concealing the beginning stages of his own arousal.

Later at break time, they worked the conversation around to the same subject. Nurse Bonnie finally admitted that if it was entirely up to her she would consider it therapeutic to relieve the patient of his pent up sexual frustration but it was not. She could lose her job and anyway no one really knew what if anything was going on inside the patient’s head.

Joe smiled at her with genuine good will and told her that if he ended up unconscious in a hospital bed, he would be pleased to be cared for by a nurse as compassionate as she was. That seemed to please her – enough so that later that evening they would make a date for the weekend. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship in which Joe the orderly’s pent up frustration was regularly relieved by the tender attentions of Nurse Bonnie.

They met every night in room 2736 and sometimes their relationship went beyond the bounds of their profession. One night with a full moon shining through an open window, Nurse Bonnie asked Joe to wait outside and let her know if anyone was approaching.

She leaned over and whispered in her patient’s ear: I don’t know if you can hear me or if you can whether you understand but if you can I want to help you. If you’re suffering, I want to ease your suffering. I want to comfort you. If I do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s up to you to stop me.

The patient did not respond in any recognizable way but it seemed to Nurse Bonnie that his erection was even more pronounced than usual. She wondered if her words, the touch of her breath or the sound of her voice aroused him.

Keeping her head by his, her ear tuned to his voice, she reached down and slowly, gently took hold of his erection. She thought she heard him moan. She could not be sure; it was so soft it was beyond normal perception. She slowly, gently moved her hand up and down, up and down, and she heard his breathing grow slightly stronger.

She ran her fingers through his hair, kissed him on his forehead and stroked his erection until he came. She could not sure but she thought he sighed. She thought he thanked her in the only way he could.

She cleaned his body with a wet towel and called Joe in to help change the sheets. Joe nodded his approval, gave her a hug and a kiss, and then pointed to the patient. He seemed to be smiling.

From that day forward, at least once a week, with Joe standing guard at the door, Nurse Bonnie would ease his suffering and celebrate the healing power of her touch.

***

He took a cab from the airport, picked up a copy of the Post, booked a suite at the Four Seasons and started running up a tab with room service. He bought six executive box tickets to the Redskins game and traded them straight up for two tickets to a production of modern dance at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. He ate at the finest restaurants, attended the most elite clubs and hired an escort everywhere he went.

On the third day he approached the maitre d with an unusual request: Could he arrange a meeting with someone from the McCain campaign? He folded a couple of crisp one hundred dollar bills in her hand as she indicated that she would see what she could do.

Twenty minutes later he received her call in his room. The McCain people were sending a couple of representatives within the hour. She would notify him when they arrived. He thanked her and promised a generous gratuity on his departure.

He had been doing his homework. McCain’s main argument against his younger opponent was experience. He knew that the candidate was notoriously prone to rash decisions based on a gut feeling. He wanted to plant a seed in McCain’s mind and give him a reason to be rash. A survey of the Republican political landscape yielded one name that would appeal to McCain’s vanity and gut instinct and at the same time torpedo his claim of experience: Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska.

She was perfect. She was on the far right, a Christian fundamentalist, and McCain was desperate to please the traditional Republican base. If she had ever expressed an opinion on any issue of national or international importance beyond the sound bites of a political campaign, it was not apparent. She was attractive, confident, ambitious and completely lacking in intellectual curiosity. She was in short George Bush in a pretty package – only Bush was better prepared.

The fact that she is a woman would fill McCain with irrational joy, believing that he could steal Hillary Clinton voters on that basis alone. But as the novelty wore off and voters saw her for what she is (a political opportunist) and what she is not (prepared to lead the nation) they would hold McCain responsible for incredibly poor judgment.

When three men in suits showed up at his door, he asked two of them to remain outside. They looked at each other and deferred to the oldest of the three, a man who looked a lot like G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame in the Nixon era. Maybe it was Liddy. Who knows? He was here to do the dirty work. No burglary this time, no stealing confidential records for political bribery and extortion, just a little “pay for play.”

Before he sat down, he pulled out a small device and swept the room for bugs. It was a clear signal he was prepared for nefarious business. He folded his hands, leaned forward and gazed into our hero’s eyes.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“If you don’t know that already, you’re not doing your job and I’m wasting my time.”

“Fair enough,” replied Liddy. “What have you got?”

Not what do you want but what have you got. Interesting. He laid it on the table clear and unmistakable. This was a negotiation, a deal, an exchange of interests like pork bellies for shares in a coal mine. McCain’s interest was a pressing need for political contributions. What was he willing to give in return?

“I’m prepared to give six figures on one condition.”

He handed Liddy a business card with a name scribbled on the back: Palin.

“The governor of Alaska?”

“That’s right. I don’t know who’s on your list for VP but if it’s another old white guy the deal’s off. We used to be a party with balls. What have we got now? A washed up warrior, a cross dresser, a Mormon demagogue and a preacher from Arkansas, get serious! Win or lose, the party needs new blood.”

Liddy studied the card as if it held the key that would decode a secret message. There was none. It was a straight-up deal. He liked that.

“So you think Governor Palin would give the party balls.”

“That’s right.”

Liddy stood up and shook hands with a tired grin wrinkling his lips.

“I think the old man just might go for it. If he does I’ll be in contact.”

The man left and our hero contemplated what transpired. It was patently illegal to give a contribution of that size and McCain was supposed to be at the forefront of campaign finance reform. He must be desperate. Even the old money must be tired of Republican policies. They took their profits. Now it was time to restore some balance in the economy before the whole scam broke down. No one wins if the bank goes broke.

He wondered if it was even necessary to pull off this little charade. The McCain campaign was running scared. They would have to win with smoke and mirrors, the same old Republican smear tactics, down and dirty.

Well, he reflected, it worked before. No use taking any chances. He was sure McCain would take the bait. He had played his part. The rest would take care of itself.

He checked out of the hotel, fulfilling his obligation to the maitre d, booked a flight to Lisbon and flagged a cab to the airport. He felt a desire for Fado, that centuries old song of mourning and longing from Portugal and the torch singers who embodied it. He wanted to purge his soul. He wanted to be cleansed. He wanted to swim in the sorrows of ancient grief and generations lost and crumbling dreams. He wanted to be reborn in the hope that comes only from shedding his skin.

***

On the flight across the dark blue sea he felt the forces of gravity, the weight of responsibility, the betrayals of human dignity, the indifference of the powerful, the terrifying coldness of social institutions, the course of history on a troubled, choking planet pushing him to the edge of despair. He closed his eyes and felt the breath of someone gentle and sweet caressing his neck, whispering in his ear.

He awakened refreshed, renewed and invigorated as the plane descended on the European continent, the birthplace of capitalism and socialism, democracy and fascism, equality and aristocracy, feudalism and the rights of labor, the land of a trillion contradictions in perpetual shades of gray, the shadow hovering over America and much of the modern world.

He checked into a hotel, ordered room service and a hotel computer and wrote for three days. It was the kind of thing he always wanted to do but there was always someone to tell him not to, that the world was waiting, that you could not shut yourself away. It was an indulgence and now he was free to indulge.

He sent it out on the web and forgot about it. The web was the closest thing to a miracle he would ever know. You could send out your words, your thoughts and images, and as long as no one interfered (or even if someone did) they could wander about or sit still for a thousand years only to be discovered at a time and place you could never imagine.

His mind clear and free, he went down to the street and caught a cab to the nearest Fado club. It was a dark place, crowded with men and women of all ages and colors, all yearning and teaming with desire. The crowd hushed, a bright circle of light went up on a small wooden stage, and a singer poured her soul into a story of longing.

She was a beautiful woman, sensuous and strong. She talked in several languages so everyone in her audience understood the story of each song. Then she sang and grown men choked back tears. Women openly cried and returned the singer’s love with praise, a shower of roses and money.

It was an ancient art and it lifted him from time. It relieved him of a multitude of worries, pressures, resentment and regret. He remembered the love, the pain and the sorrow that always lived within his aching heart and then he let them go. He remained in his seat long after most of the patrons had left (all but the most desperate drinkers) when she emerged from backstage and cast a smile in his direction.

“Hello, stranger,” she said. “You look like you could use some company.”

He nodded and she told him of a place where they served fine food and wine at all hours of the night. It was a quiet place where they could talk, drink and feel free to explore the mysteries of existence in a transitory world. He nodded and she guided him there.

They talked to the morning hours and parted as secret lovers only to resume the play of strangers the next evening. On the third night they gave flesh to their affections, swimming in the moonlight of the only love they would ever know.

He felt the pull of tomorrow and she released him with a kiss. When two bodies have intermingled as theirs had done they will always be together. They will always be connected. They will always dance in the shadows of the mind. They will always be one.

He carried her scent with him on a train to Madrid to Paris to Berlin to Prague to Amsterdam, breathing in the sights, absorbing the land, the architecture, the ancient ruins, talking by day to familiar souls (an older woman who spoke longingly of deeds undone and dreams unfulfilled, a man whose one remaining wish was redemption, another who revered the love of friends and family), dancing and drinking by night with soulful women whose mystery was as enchanting as their beauty.

He walked along the Seine with a youthful Parisian who promised to remember. He shared an intimate moment in a dark, dank corner of a Bohemian castle with a woman in the Gothic mode. He sipped wine until dawn gazing out a window where the Third Reich once reined in horror with a companion whose empathy was without bound. He danced in the arms of velvet memories where a young Henry Miller and Anais Nin once christened their tortured love in vain. He loved them all and let them go as they did he. As he moved forward he folded his memories behind him in the dark spaces of his mind reserved for treasures. He was a pilgrim on a journey of discovery and such a man can only gaze into the prism of immediacy. There will be time for reflection at journey’s end.

Somewhere outside of Copenhagen he felt the bond of home. It was if in silence someone was calling his name. It was as if he was living under a spell. He had forgotten who he was and where his seed was sown. It was as if he had bolted from his own life, broke free for as long as he could survive beside himself. He was not lost or disoriented. He knew who he was and he knew where he belonged.

He boarded a plane and flew across the sea, over the top of the world, across the North American continent, and as he flew he dove into the deep waters of unconsciousness for the first time since his journey began. The walls of perception came crashing down. All that he knew was stripped away like flats in an elaborate theatrical production, leaving him naked and alone with his senses.

He was awakened as the plane descended in sweeping spirals to the golden city by the bay. Gazing out his window he grasped the majesty of life on planet earth, the rich textures of land and sea, the smallness of human achievement, the constant flowing motion, wind and rain, roads and traveling souls.

He walked through the bustling airport, people towing luggage and parents towing children, tearful greetings and goodbyes. He walked away from the swarm of activity into the open space outside where he tasted the sweet salt air beneath layers of gasoline, smoke and dust.

He took a cab into the city where he walked the streets crowded with hustling humanity. Men and women minding their business, never stopping to admire the scents of open air cafes, the bite of currents coursing through concrete canyons, never wondering at the generations who built these monuments to human ambition, who sacrificed their lives with the sweat and blood of labor. Couples drinking wine or savoring coffee, heads buried in books, magazines or newspapers, eyes locked to each other, thoughts folded inward while the world rushed by on the other side of a thin veil of glass. They did not hear the orchestra of city life, the purr of motion, the hum of energy, the waves of anxiety and joy carried by the sounds of voices in conversation or decree. They did not see the homeless man on a church’s steps, the bag lady and her cart, the street musician or the hustler with a plan. They did not know the miracles unfolding above, below, within and all around.

He found himself outside the Bay View Hospital, no longer tentative, no longer afraid, knowing he had reached the last stage of his journey. Peace had found him. Comfort held him in her arms. Love was waiting.

He lingered in the emergency room where the drama of life and death, of suffering and struggle was raw, clawing at his senses like vinegar on an open wound. He wondered what it would take to ease the pain, knowing from a place deep within that it was all a part of the parade, the journey, the book of knowledge, the growing, the living, the passing, the life. He walked through the afflicted like a shadow of kindness and for a moment the sorrow lifted and the suffering eased.

He entered the elevator where an orderly preceded him, pressing the number 27. Glancing at the buttons and looking twice at his fellow traveler, they rose to the twenty-seventh floor and continued in silence to room 2736.

The orderly opened the door and they both walked in: The nurse was listening intently to a visitor, an older woman and her patient’s widow. Her face was wet with tears, as she seemed to seek comfort, confirmation or absolution in the decision she had made. The nurse nodded with as much empathy as she could give and nodded again to the orderly who stood back in the corner of the small hospital room, trying to be invisible.

He understood what was happening and why he was here. He recognized the woman he loved and the woman who gave her love to him without jealousy or expectation beyond the norms of common decency.

He reached out to touch her cheek and felt her shiver. He told her he was fine and he knew she understood. He watched her reach out to touch the patient’s cheek and the tears welled in her eyes once more.

He held her shoulders and whispered in her ear: It’s time. Let me go.

She nodded to the nurse who nodded to the orderly and they went about their business of disconnecting life-sustaining devices.

She placed her hand on her husband’s as he placed his hand on hers and together they watched the dying light of a setting sun.

Somewhere in another part of the world someone was singing:

Vera! Vera! What has become of you?
Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?

It was a song of sorrow and of joy. It was a song of sojourn, of yearning and release.

He kissed her three times: One for the past, one for the moment and one for the unknown still ahead.

Jazz.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

THE GRAND CANYON ZEN GOLF TOUR: A SEMINAL JOURNEY

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THE GRAND CANYON ZEN GOLF TOUR

A Seminal Journey

By Jack Random




Copyright Ray Miller 2011




Dedicated to James Wisniewski

And the memory of Beatlick Joe Speer




INTRODUCTION



In the year I turned forty, I took a cross-country journey from Nashville, Tennessee to central California where I was born and raised. I had only recently moved to Nashville to marry a former love, a singer-songwriter who longed for fame and fortune in the city of music.

The marriage was one of convenience, an unintended consequence of a healthcare system that failed to provide for struggling artists. It was in retrospect destined to fail but the journey was a critical juncture in a life that had become too predictable and uninspired.

In Nashville, I became a writer. Given my isolation from family and friends, I began to discover the discipline of writing. Back then I was writing plays. I soon switched to prose and eventually published a short story based on the news of the day: Burning Churches. I then became Jack Random and published several other works of fiction in literary magazines.

That first year in Nashville, I attended a Welcome Back party for a man who was legendary where I came from: the extraordinary singer-songwriter John Prine. At that gathering I also met a man named James Wisniewski, a gifted musician who operated under the name of Wiz. With wide eyes he introduced himself and wondered if I was a jazz musician. I replied that I was a writer and I was thinking about writing a jazz play. I would subsequently write Dark Underground: A Jazz Play in Sixteen Choruses. Under the guidance of the Wiz, we recruited a couple of actors and recorded a production of that work. We took to the Nashville poetry scene with Dark Underground and a series of erotic poems. There we collaborated with such luminaries as the Beatlicks (Joe Speer and Pamela Hirst) and Jake Berry, a brilliant experimental poet-songwriter from Florence, Alabama.

When I decided to journey back to California in my 1965 Mustang that summer, I invited the Wiz to go with me. He accepted.

We had two common interests, jazz poetry and Zen golf, and a desire to visit the Grand Canyon to gather what inspiration we could find. It was a seminal experience.

When I returned to Nashville I wrote it all down. It was my first book-length work. Life would never be the same.




May this life be but a passage in the journey of your soul.


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GRAND CANYON: LEAVING NASHVILLE

Nashville, city of music, city of dreams, city of heartbreak and ambition, city of sweltering summers, lurid thunder storms and enchanting fireflies, city of suddenly changing seasons, land of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Shawnee and Cherokee, where the Civil War is living history and the rebel cry is still heard on back country roads, city of southern culture and racial strife, city of deafening cicada serenades, red winged birds, ticks and chiggers, city of palatial mansions and southern charm, river city and forest land, city of limestone and rock mountains, city of segregation and homelessness, city that seems to stand still in the eye of the storm, we bid you adieu.

Though we strive to banish you from our thoughts, we will hold you in our hearts, knowing that we will return to you reborn. Like wayward children we will welcome your familiar arms and you, unmoved, will acknowledge our passing. We are but falling leaves in an immense forest, while you are the tree. We are pilgrims in a land of adversity while you are the sanctuary. Whether you remain home to us or become a chapter in the history of our lives, we will think of you often. But for now we must say So Long as we turn our backs and embark once more on the journey to discover ourselves.

GRAND CANYON: BLACK CROW

A large black crow (is there any other kind?) touches down in the middle of busy highway and takes flight as we approach. It is a sign. Wait a thousand years and you will never see that sight again. The crow has appointed itself our guardian protector and guide. We welcome him and shall look for him wherever our journey shall take us. We are anxious, full of the life force, and wish only to heed the signs and yield to our inner calling. We are brothers by our own choosing and have chosen to share the path of this sacred journey. We do not know if our paths will part. We welcome the test of our friendship.

We have shared the Zen of the ancient and sacred game of golf. We are the jazz poets of the Nashville fringe. He is the wizard of the jazz poetry happening and holder of the sacred flute. I am the writer of dreams. We share the vision of the Grand Canyon and an enchanted shot under a full moon. We share the memories of journeys past. We are road warriors who have roamed the interstates and highways in search of life’s illusive meaning, in search of brotherhood and illumination. We have gathered what wisdom we could from the words embedded in Siddhartha, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Dharma Bums, On the Road, Don Juan and Journey to Ixtlan. We have had peyote dreams. We have seen the desert through the eyes of the coyote. We have ridden the wind of a Pacific sunset. We reserve places in our memories for people and places of distant travels. We hold them like treasures of the heart and wish to breathe into them new and eternal life.

We leave behind our loves and the mystery of how they will receive us on our return. For now we are creatures of the universe, open and free, hungry for adventure and eager to greet our common or separate destinies.

For myself, it is a journey home as well as away from home. It has been only a year since I married and left California. Only a year yet it seems so long ago. My life has changed in more ways than I can know and my heart is divided. I sense the unsettling of my soul has something to do with letting go but how can I let go of the friends and family members that have been so great a part of all that I am and all that I value? How do I let go without letting go? Somehow I must find an answer.

We shoot lie a blast of tequila out of Nashville and into the receding sun. The great forestland of Tennessee, Memphis and the bulging Mississippi, the rolling hills and dales of Arkansas and Oklahoma, blur like a mystery of distorted recollection. Rolling through the Texas panhandle in a sunny blaze, Wiz decides to take action.

The process of Mustang Sally’s preparation for the journey included replacing the gas tank, which had somehow rusted in Tennessee’s tropical air. I didn’t notice the missing spare tire until departure day. Too late. Aside from the time factor, the shop that did the deed had gone out of business. I’m willing to risk it but the Wiz is wary about crossing the desert without one and I know he’s right.

He spots a promising side road that leads us to an unaffiliated gas station. The Wiz connects with the good old boys whose checker game we interrupt. They try on three different tires without success and refer us to a junkyard down the road. Who would have guessed the old Mustang has an unusual number of tire bolts? We locate the junkyard and walk in. There seems to be some confusion about whose job it is to deal with us. It’s a family operation. In the small office space there are three generations of transplanted southerners. Wiz draws on his Alabama upbringing and makes inquiry about the spare. It sits a while until a new man shows up in the cramped office.

“Sixty five Mustang. Right.”

He takes off on the search for a usable replacement and we sit back and wait. One by one members of the family raise their heads from their miscellaneous occupations to give us a look over. The youngest of three children playing in the office, whose name is Bubba or Spunky or something akin, approaches the Wiz and demands: Get out of my chair! The Wiz is dumfounded, throws up his hands and rises to find another place to sit. Accustomed to dealing with troublesome children, I make eye contact with the kid, sitting in his chair, and we share a good laugh. It breaks a spell. We are temporarily accepted into the circle of junkyard society. Smiles all around. All is well.

The change in atmosphere gives us the freedom to look around. The walls are covered with old black and white photographs depicting black people in a curious mixture with white folks. Good old boys. The blacks all seem to have large smiles and are generally the center of focus while the whites linger at the sides or in the background, pleased and proud.

Some time later I come to the realization that the blacks are in servitude, whether enslaved or hired servants I can’t decide. A confirmation comes outside where the Wiz is helping the worker try on a new spare. We get a good deal and bid them goodbye. Wiz then points to a bumper sticker on the rear window of the family pickup: The White Empire. There was a reference to God’s Country.

I understand that this phenomenon has no geographical boundaries. There are white supremacy strongholds in central California and the Great Northwest. Still, my own upbringing does not allow me to feel comfortable in these settings. Maybe it’s the respect I have for the blacks I grew up with. Maybe it’s the memory of Ben May, a friend who stood up for me and a group of white boys back in the day. During the summer of Watts, we were walking through the west side when an angry black mob surrounded us. Ben stepped out of the crowd and vouched for us. They let us pass unharmed and I would always remember.

Maybe it’s the Apache blood that runs through my veins. Maybe it’s the regard I have for the Native American spirit. Whatever it is, I am uncomfortably grateful we did not put it together until after the fact. It is one of my eccentricities that I can’t hide my emotions, despite or perhaps because of years of acting experience.

To the folks at the Texas junkyard, we are good old boys with a keen sense of humor. To us they are rednecks, the racist family that gave us a fair deal on a spare tire somewhere on the Texas panhandle. It is something I will ponder when the time comes. For now there is no time to look back. We’re on the road.

We emerge, as if from a long dark tunnel, on the high desert plains, a land of red rock monuments and the endless highway. We drive on across a horizon of blood red and purple shadows to the oasis city of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Here we will rest to collect our thoughts, breathe deeply the spirit of the desert air, and encounter the first destination of our journey.

GRAND CANYON: ALBUQUERQUE

Albuquerque was once a chosen stop in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the College of Your Choice. It was a sacred reference and one that pulled us here now, this odd mixture of a Zen master, gifted musician and an Alabama working man, paired up with a jazz poet, playwright of the underside, and devotee of golf and baseball. In all our differences and incongruities, we held to a core of beliefs that was essentially the same. We were seekers of secret knowledge and divine wisdom. This was where our search led us.

It was a place where Volkswagen busses broke down on their way to the people’s revolution in Los Angeles, Monterey, Berkeley and San Francisco. Fearful of the desert crossing, they staged their own cultural revolution here. It was a stop that somehow eluded both of us on our previous journeys.

Driving into town I was struck with an uneasy feeling. Was it a mistake? What kind of town was this? The outskirts have all the markings of temporary resolve: Tin can shelters on desert mountain sides, trailer camps, junkyards and tacky little shops hung up for business. Were these the dwellings of city Indians or aging hippies on the fringe still waiting for a few parts and a little more mechanical tinkering before braving the road westward?

From the eastside, the closer you get to the University of New Mexico a metamorphosis becomes more and more apparent. Tie-dye and head shops are chic. Congas and bongos are heard on the streets. Coolness is hanging in the local cafes, listening to folk music and poetry readings. Peace symbols and rainbows are everywhere.

They’re not sure what to make of Nashville jazz poets. They are comfortable in their coolness and have no desire for change. We stand our ground and play.

Jazzman on the corner of the Frontier Restaurant
Blowing cool breeze in the dry heat of a desert night
Faces blank, eyes wide, like an alien retreat
They’d never seen our like before

Jazz poetry in a hip-hop café
Dropped like a stone in black water
They long for a familiar refrain

“Oh very young what will you leave us this time?”

Poetry is dead long live poetry.

Wild man on the street brings terror to the peace monkeys

“Fuck peace!”

Afraid to look into the eyes
Peace to you! he cries

Beat cops on fat tire bikes
Khaki shorts and amber shades
Talk with undertones of brother be not proud

Send him on his way and bow
Applause at the sidewalk café

Walking alone into the shadows of the night
He is Bukowski, jazzman of dreams
Banned on the streets of Albuquerque

Poetry is dead long live poetry


Over the next few days we play rounds of nine on three golf courses. Our companions on the links are cool and easy to talk with. They speak of places and layouts and offer advise. The rounds are comfortable and strike a contrast. The University North layout is lined with trees featuring doglegs left and right. The greens are small and moderately slow to match the pace of play.

A nine-hole course next to the airport is windswept and hilly. A sign on the first tee warns against hitting over flying aircraft.

At the University South course we’re forced to play a three-hole beginner course. It is the most enlightening. We circle it three times and watch the progress of a Zen golf lesson on the driving range each time we make a pass. The teacher is a middle-aged woman with an air of grace. On the first pass she speaks of finding your center. On the second pass she speaks of balance. On the third pass the teacher is gone and the student is hitting balls from a one-legged stance. As she slowly takes back the club, she raises her left foot, methodically shifts her knee to center and replants her foot as she strikes the ball. It is a thing of infinite beauty. Golf from the solar plexus. Balance is the first lesson without which all other lessons are unnecessary.

As with golf so it is with life.

Evenings are for performance on the streets, the Wiz exploring new ground with free flowing riffs on his golden flute and me accompanying with the spoken word. We gather a small following of youthful tie-dyes, children of the late sixties who gaze at us with mystery and awe as if we were the beats of a lost generation, creators of a new mythology. The want to board the Magic Bus but that bus has left the yard. They are uncertain of our intentions. The sounds and words of our jazz have a bite. We carry more that a pleasant breeze and dharmic overtones. The message is infused with irony, spiked with a cynical brew, warm with the flames of rebellion.

They give us the respect of a generation removed and cautiously back away. We press on to the poetry café, place our names on the reading list, order cappuccinos and wait. Through the ears of an outsider the poetry reminds me of television soap and Oprah Winfrey confessionals. There are political commentaries tailored to community standards and thoughts while walking through the desert at night.

The emcee makes a joke about playing war as a child. Precision bombing and automatic weapons punctuate his formative years. His reading is an Indian chant accompanied by guitar. I hear drums in the canyons, drowning the messenger with discord. This is sacred land. The white man may settle here for a thousand years more but the Indian will rule like an unseen hand and the coyote will dance on his grave. The poet holds community grace but his satisfied smile undercuts his theme. He speaks of wild days, Jack Daniels, Harley Davidson leathers, tattoos and blowing in the wind as if they were his resume. He has comfort and security as emcee of the local poetry café.

The other poets have made their way to the exit by the time we take the stage. I announce the death of poetry and wonder why the real poets are so hurried to depart before their own words have settled with the lattes and pastry. I summon Bukowski and gain their attention. The exodus is frozen. The Wiz rails on the resident piano…

Play the piano like a percussion instrument until the fingers bleed a bit.

He finds a groove and I begin.

We are the scum that crawls out the cracks in America’s nightmare…

Mid performance I realize that we have become my words in the eyes of our audience. They have met my derision with their own. Karmic dissonance. They make their antagonism clear as water but they listen intently and applaud with vigor at the conclusion of our set. The evening is called to a close.

Our young followers have abandoned us for more promising patronage. Now we are the wild men of the Albuquerque scene. We are the terrorists on the streets. The citizens will not look us in the eyes. I wonder if it is inevitable that we must sacrifice our place in the community of poets in order to sound the discordant notes that spring from our distorted psyches. Are we not men? At what price art? At what price change? Of all people on earth the poets should understand and cheer the death of poetry for only with death can poetry gain rebirth. Must we be content with poets reading to poets, waiting their turns while the family of man remains outside, untouched and unmoved?

After a spell a poet approaches us, tosses a compliment on our multi-media style and advises us to arrive earlier next time. We know there will not be a next time for us. He seems discomforted and withdraws, as if afraid to be identified with the outcasts. He will be here tomorrow. We will not.

Peace to you!

Are we too cynical? Am I? I have played the hitchhiker on previous journeys. The hitchhiker abides by the code of harmony but we have chosen to be messengers of discord on this incarnation. We are instigators and inciters of rebellious thought and we have little choice but to play it out. We reserve our softer side for the golf course where harmony and balance are paramount.

We are not ready to call it a night. The evening at the café has left us with a sense of unease. We need fulfillment. A waitress at the café points us to a downtown nightclub. We cross the railroad tracks and enter the old district. It is the wild side of Albuquerque where leathers, bums, winos, whores and drag queens reign.

There is a burrito stand advertising health food. The attractive blonde working the cart explains that her burritos are lard free. We’re impressed and order a couple. We find them to our liking but we are not allowed to take inside the club for a beer chaser. We hang and listen to the healthy burrito merchant, who strikes me like she belongs on Venice Beach instead of here on the wild side of Albuquerque. She has genuine warmth, a free spirit feeling to compliment an outward appearance that would draw eyes at Cannes. We learn that she’s a college graduate with a degree in accounting. She came to Albuquerque to help her father with his business but it turned out they couldn’t get along. She was now in transition.

Wiz asks her what’s happening around town and she offers a rundown on the bar scene. She says they used to have a hip-hop club but it attracted too many guns. The law in New Mexico apparently allows people to carry guns in bars as long as they’re visible. I wonder why hip-hop as opposed to hard rock or jazz would attract guns. She explains that it’s part of the culture. Our burritos finished we prepare to enter the club and thank her for the conversation. She smiles and wishes us well. She means it. We do not misinterpret her smile and pleasant demeanor as an invitation. They belong to the world and are delivered freely to everyone she encounters.

We pay a three-dollar cover and move inside. The club is divided into three sections in attempt to cover multiple bases. One section has a three-man punk band on an elevated platform with a large-screen video accompaniment. The young and hip crowd is standing room only. In the back an elevated disk jockey plays electronic punk and controls lighting effects on a small, crowded dance floor. Upstairs there is a small bar with sofas and padded chairs. It’s relatively sparse, comfortable and quiet enough for conversation.

We sit back and drink our beers while looking out over the dance floor below. We discuss the generational divide, the passage of time, the distance between us and our lives in Nashville. Wiz takes note of an attractive young woman in our midst. Unlike myself, he is theoretically free of obligation. He is coupled but not married. What kind of understanding or arrangement he and his partner have I don’t know but as of now his sense of loyalty remains. We are willing to enjoy a sense of attraction, to feel the pull of temptation, but we are not willing to cross the line. At least, not yet.

We wander down the street hoping for a jazz club, offer up a dollar to a couple of drunken Indians with a shopping cart full of junk, and encounter a large gathering outside a happening club. Wiz spots what appears to be a Latina fox in a tight black dress and whispers: She’s a man. The club is a drag bar with a scattering of very attractive ladies hanging with queens outside. One of them gives me a look that sends a charge through my libido. We go inside where it looks like a bad production of Pink Flamingos. We walk on. This is not our place.

The evening comes to a grateful end. It is time to leave this town without regrets. The lessons it has delivered will take time to gather and comprehend. Our performance at the poetry café was not we expected or hoped for though we could never be sure what to expect. We had fought to gain acceptance in the Nashville scene and were welcomed into the inner circle where Beatlick Joe Speer of Albuquerque was King. We hadn’t used his name but it was clear that winning acceptance here would take time we didn’t have. It weighs on our minds like a shadow crossing our path.

Like the wild man on the streets, likely the most misunderstood poet in Albuquerque, there must be a better way. Like golf, poetry is not important in itself. But like so many things in life that traditionally offer comfort or some sense of meaning in a chaotic world, poetry is in danger of dying from inbreeding and the deadly diseases of self centrism and boredom. Then let her die gently, in comfort or in rage, for with death comes the promise of transformation.

It is the great hope and we are its messengers. The role of the poet is to shape the living poetry of the future. Maybe it’s already happening. Maybe it’s inevitable. Maybe, as Bob Dylan once projected, it is incorporated in the music.

We should not be too quick to judge rap or hip-hop or any other form of creative expression. All forms are valid. All messages are signs. All messengers are children of gods and creatures of creative light. We should listen most intently to those whom we find most offensive for they bring a message that expands our horizon.

We will choose to remember Albuquerque mostly for the golf. Balance is the first lesson. We will not stray from the path that chooses us. We will find our center and hold to it as an infant holds to his mother’s breast.

GRAND CANYON: GRAND CANYON

Streaking across the desert skyline, Albuquerque to Grand Canyon in a heartbeat, coasting in on the fumes of yesterday’s drive, the dream hanging on by a thin white line. Riding the high plains highway under moonlight, a fleeting glimpse of a higher truth, spoken in tongues and deciphered in dreams.

The sun slowly dissolves with a golden orange and purple glow as we make our way to the continent’s great divide. We have crossed endless miles of Indian reservations. We have failed in our attempt to find mescal, forgetting that the selling of alcohol is prohibited on the reservation. We remember that the once proud tribes are still ruled by foreign invaders. We remember that these are a conquered people, protected by law from the weakness that helped to defeat them.

It is a strange phenomenon to see Quick Stops and Exxon stations, the golden arches and Super 8 Motels, and to be reminded that this is the last resting ground of the Navajo. We have traversed the land of the Zuni, the Petrified Forest, and the Apache land of the Painted Desert. The medicine woman’s spell still lingers in the warm dry air, her weathered face etched in the primordial terrain. The sacred dance is still performed on the mesa in a circle of red rock formations. The shadow of the ancient shaman still hovers above us in the evening sky.

A lone coyote yaps and sends us on our way. The crow is with us always. No mescal. No tequila. No alcohol of any kind.

We decide against a detour to Grey Mountain, just outside the reservation, and race the fading light to this day’s grand destination. Along the path in two-by-four shelters draped with canvas and plastic tarps are the new Indians, the commercial Indians who scrape by on the fringe of free enterprise. Signs proclaim them the Friendly Indians -- Manhattan Island’s revenge. They sell authentic Indian jewelry, hand crafted silver and turquoise necklaces, bracelets, medicine pouches and jade earrings.

The sun hovers in a brilliant amber glow. We have lost the race and pull over to a trace canyon, a small sliver of the Grand. The merchant Indians pack their wares, give us a glance over and sensing that we are neither buyers nor a threat to their welfare allow us to pass unobstructed to the edge of their little canyon. I am struck with awe and sit to ponder the hand of god. Wiz is less impressed. He has been to the Grand before. He has walked her ledge and camped on her floor while my eyes are virgin to this spectacle. I am aware of the great glaciers that cut and shaped Yosemite Valley but this is a different creature, bearing a distinctly different spiritual sensation. In a part of the world that desperately needed shelter it is as if the earth opened her womb and gave birth to the greatest shelter the world has ever known. It is a universe of its own, a monument of such depth and breadth that it challenges the eye and questions the very meaning of existence. It invokes flight of mind and humbles the most jaded and reticent of men.

We savor the remaining moments of twilight as we make our way to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The name begins to take on mythological proportions. Was it here beneath the infinite stars of heaven that Prometheus descended with the flame of human enlightenment? Was it here that the muses entertained the gods with music, dance and poetry? Was it here that Hades abducted Persephone and carried her into the bowels of the earth? We stop briefly at the first lookout. Here, under the light of a full moon, I catch my first glimpse on the unimaginable. Towering mountains, cliffs, valleys and bluffs, encapsulated by this slice of earth so far below the surface that the mind cannot grasp its fullness. Chasms within chasms, another world, separate and distinct, a monument to all forces greater than humankind. Its vastness is beyond the realm of fancy yet I am struck by the feeling that I have seen this sight before. Another life, another dream, a crystal meditation. Here on this holy spot of earth all things are possible.

It is late and we must find our place along the canyon’s ledge before the park ranger discovers us. We stop at the second lookout where Wiz spots a parking lot for overnight hikers. I stay with the Mustang while he scrambles to look for a temporary site to plant our gear out of sight of the rangers. He returns and we unload quickly: Sleeping bags, small packs, two beers, two golf balls, two tees and a five iron.

We scuffle down the hill to the chosen spot. It is a small rock ledge just below and to the left of the lookout. It is majestic. The canyon branches briefly to our left and opens in all its glory before us. The mountains on the canyon floor are divided by chasms in three directions: One toward the north rim, another branching to the east and a third toward the west below us.

A mist begins to gather in chasms of the canyon floor as we explore our location and scout for other viewpoints. Our explorations reveal that we have chosen wisely by intuition. Or rather it has chosen us. We return to our camp and settle in. It is the only place we have seen where a golf tee can be implanted in the ground.

I tee up my ball and carefully clean the path of the club’s backswing. As I address the ball I find two imprints in the granite ledge that perfectly fit the soles of my moccasins. I have no doubt that this is the spot. Like Carlos Castaneda rolling around on the porch of Don Juan, the Wiz in his mad scramble zeroed in on the only place our vision could abide. It was not only the right spot; it was the only spot. Had he not found it our destiny would have been altered in ways we can never know.

We are Zen Golfers. A Zen Golfer does not slap or punch a ball into the Grand Canyon. To do so would be sacrilege, an affront not only to the Canyon but also to the game that has come to symbolize and guide our lives.

I plant my feet in the indentations of the ledge and carefully rehearse the swing. I am aware that the force of a golf swing is more than enough to propel the golfer several yards in any direction, including straight forward. I do not mention this knowledge to Wiz who is relatively new to the game, just as one does not mention water on a water hole or out-of-bounds on a long par four. I will give instruction only by example, by preparing for the shot with due caution and sincerity. Balance is the first lesson.

There will be no second chance.

Satisfied, I lay the club along the line where the toes of my feet will be in my stance. Then I sit and wait for the moment. Again and again I visualize the shot. I see the swing, the rotation of the body, the release and the flight of the ball into the canyon. I free my mind of all other thoughts, focusing completely on my center, and wait.

Finally, as the mist rises in the canyon below, I see the white of the ball glowing as if from inner illumination. Moonlight has sprung through an opening in the overhanging shrubs, forming a sacred triangle around the ball. I rise, take up the club, address the ball and suddenly, as if some external force has taken hold of my body, I begin the swing. Like a pendulum, the club head starts its backward motion, the left shoulder swings downward below the chin, weight shifts inward toward the right knee and hip, wrists cock at the top of the swing, hands spring forward as the weight of the body follows closely behind to the point of impact. The coil is unleashed. The club head, still on a downward plain, strikes the ball squarely, snapping the white tee crisply into two equal halves. The body squares to the target of the canyon as the club completes the cycle on its own momentum. My feet remain planted. The ball has disappeared on contact. A sacred shot into the largest hole on the planet. It is my first hole-in-one. We do not mention that it is indeed possible to miss.

Wiz steps forward, tees up his Hogan and addresses the ball. His preparation is not as lengthy but no less sincere. His swing is powerful, full and fearless. He draws sparks from the granite fractions before the ball, a clear sign of solid contact on a downward plain. As before, the ball vanishes on contact. Another ace.

We have succeeded more gloriously than we could ever have imagined. Now we sit back to reflect and bask in the wonder of the moment. Instantly we are both exhausted. There is only time for a little more jostling and a brief visit from the park ranger above, who does not discover us, before sleep envelops us in her dark womb.

We awaken several times over the course of the night to witness the startling changes in the canyon below us. It fills with mist until the clouds below are joined with the clouds above. A more mystical sight cannot be seen in the physical realm. I wonder if Wiz is struck by the same curious urge to jump into the void. The curiosity is that it is by no means a death wish. It is the suspended belief that we are spiritual entities capable of walking to the stars or floating to the canyon floor. I have felt a similar sensation while driving down Highway One on the northern California coast at sunset. It is the sense of being outside oneself and beyond the hold of gravity.

In the morning, while Wiz is off exploring, I open my eyes to discover my sleeping bag has slid down the ledge. My feet are dangling over the precipice. It is time to rise. I stare at the site of the sacred golf shots for a time before I pack my things up and join Wiz in exploration. Tourists have begun to arrive. A German couple seems shy, perhaps humbled by the Canyon. A Japanese man and woman sport broad smiles. The man lets loose a yell that echoes down the canyon walls. Before we leave our sacred place, a place the tourists do not discover, two large crows rise up from the canyon to greet us and send us on our way. One settles on a bush directly before us, scans the canyon, and peers into the space behind my eyes.

It is said that if you look into the eyes of the crow you will see the future. I am filled with calm and wonder. We stop once more to see an Indian dwelling, a stone tower, round with nonlinear windows for lookout. It has been rebuilt and fashioned as a gift shop for tourists. It is still too early to be open but already a crowd is gathering. More Germans, Japanese and French nationals with their cameras ready and wide-eyed curiosity. It seems strange that there are far more foreigners at the Grand Canyon than Americans. Why is it that we never fully appreciate the beauty and majesty of our own back yard?

We leave the canyon the way we came, east and north through the reservation. The park station is unmanned. We are allowed to come and go without charge. This is the way it should be. A ten-dollar bill is deposited below the floor mat on the driver’s side where it will remain until it is needed.

GRAND CANYON: THREE ROUNDS ON THE ROAD

Next stop Page, Arizona by Lake Powell, the creation of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. Wiz remembers this place as the best swimming hole west of the Mississippi. With passion he describes the translucent shades of blue and green and the sparkling clarity of the mile deep waters. It conjures my own memories of Crater Lake in Oregon.

A congenial grey haired lady at the gas station and convenience store tells us where to find the local golf course and our day is set. It is a flat nine-hole course with wide, tree-lined fairways, water and rabbits by the score. We play with the inner self as a theme. I sink a forty footer for birdie and finish two over par. Wiz beats fifty for the fourth time since taking up the game in earnest only a month ago. I’m not sure he realizes what an accomplishment that is. We both make shots with a five iron that allow us to imagine what our shots into the great moonlit void might have looked like had we been able to see the flight of the ball.

We have a good meal at the clubhouse where the bartender speaks about sexism at the dam. She has a degree in engineering and took a job here fresh out of college. Being both female and fresh out of college, the men under her authority resented her. She was smaller in stature than the men and so was often called upon to crawl into small spaces. On one such occasion she was locked in from behind. A lawsuit followed. The men responsible were fired and she quit. She decide to remain in Page as a local bartender, a good station to keep watch and have her revenge on any man who strays from common decency and the sanctity of marriage. We wish each other well and she notes that they have a band at night should we still be around.

The swimming spot is a water-filled rock canyon next to the dam. The water is still clear and striking but Wiz observes that there is a thin sheath of gasoline on the surface – no doubt from the powerboats. It has only been a year.

How frail the beauty of nature now seems when compared to the impregnable grandeur of the Canyon. In one year man has made a mark, like graffiti on the wall of El Capitan. I now understand why boating and recreation is so regulated at Crater Lake. I recall seeing where people had chipped away at a crystal waterfall in a cave called Crystal Palace and wondering how anyone could be so insensitive. Nature’s wonders must be protected. It is the worst of human instinct to want to own or leave a mark on nature one way or another. The signs of human shame are everywhere we look.

Wiz and I discussed our shots into the canyon, wondering if they could be considered littering. Maybe but I think that a golf ball, white and round, is more a holy object than a piece of trash. If we had fired a dozen range balls into the canyon that could be considered littering but a single shot under a full moon was a sacred offering. We ask forgiveness if we offend the pure of heart.

Wiz sends out some inspired sounds as an offering of peace to mother earth. We hope it will help diffuse the damage humans have done. The gentle soaring sounds emerging from his soul will be heard for a thousand miles and a thousand years. They will calm angry men and inspire children. It strikes me as strange the Wiz chose not to play at the canyon. Maybe he was overwhelmed by its perfection. Maybe the sheer magnitude of the canyon’s grace was too great for accompaniment. I never thought to ask. The answer is too simple: The impulse did not strike.

We are back on the road, our spirits soaring and our bodies renewed, though we have sleep only a few hours. The spirit of the crow goes with us and it is more powerful now than ever. What the Wiz calls the All Force is propelling us forward to a destiny that cannot be denied. We head north and cross quickly into Utah. We are at a crossroad on the journey and our senses are sharpened, our awareness heightened. We fight against anticipation but we cannot subdue a feeling of eagerness, of moving forward with eyes of wonder.

Golf has taken prominence in our minds. We have only two books: One is a collection of Bukowski poems and the other is Golf in the Kingdom. We consider the latter the bible of Zen Golf. We open it at random daily and follow its lessons – a tradition born on the short course in Albuquerque. On one occasion, when we were feeling the weight of the journey, Wiz suggested we take a cart. The daily lesson read: It is not the shots; it is the walk. We did not rent a cart and would not for the remainder of our journey.

We have begun taking notes for a pocketbook of Zen Golf. Its lessons are as varied as the game itself and the geography on which it’s played.

Balance is the first lesson.

Without balance, there is nothing.

The swing’s the thing. Julius Boros.

Find the center.

Be the trees.

See the flight of the ball before the shot.

Clear the mind.

Welcome adversity.

See the energy flow through the field of play.

Any shot that can be imagined can be made.

Approach the game with humility.

Swing easy, hit hard. Julius Boros.

Be the wind.

Let the club select you.

Golf is a game of opposites.

Breathe in, breathe out.

The path of the club, the flight of the ball is one.

Hear the wind through the trees.

Everything around you and within you is one.


By the time we get to Zion National Park we are primed and ready to receive the sign that now appears: A golf course on the roadside laid out in a chiseled valley below the red rock and clay formations, sculptures of mother earth and father time. It is mid afternoon, hot and the wind whips across the course in waves of dry heat. Be the wind.

In my mind there are two ways to play golf in the wind. One is to hit a straight ball and allow the wind to move it to the target. The other is to play a ball that moves into or with the wind, merging with complimentary forces or joining contrary forces. I favor the latter approach.

The Wiz chides me on the first tee. The people in the clubhouse, including a couple of young women, are watching us. He wonders if I am road weary. There is of course such a thing. Too long on the road can turn your legs into rubber and envelop your mind in fog. I have cautioned Wiz before to respect the ways and etiquette of other golfers. I have generally allowed him to chide me, preferring to accept the challenge of distraction. It is, however, a lesson I have often addressed. Back in Nashville I once reprimanded him for what I considered an affront to the game. He had playfully chanted “Hey batter-batter…swing!” while I missed a birdie putt. Before I could check my anger I informed him he had about seven holes of bad karma coming. His game went into an immediate tailspin. After three holes of suffering, I handed him a tee and asked him to repair a ball mark on the green. He repaired several and his game returned to him.

Approach the game with humility.

I hit what is known as a wormer. It never leaves the ground. Wiz steps up, hits a solid drive and continues his good-natured needling as we walk down the fairway. My second sails true to course, gliding with the wind. His shot hops along the ground. By the fourth hole we are both struggling. We are fighting the wind and fighting each other despite ourselves.

Welcome adversity.

Suddenly, I raise my head to breathe in the beauty that surrounds us. This is truly one of the most beautiful desert links courses we will ever be blessed to play yet we like spoiled children are waging war against ourselves. War in Paradise! Breathe in, breathe out, smell the desert air. Be the wind.

Like bad karma, good karma is contagious. We begin to play golf. The ball sails and bends gently with the wind. We steer the path of the ball with our minds. (The great Julius Boros once said: to hit a draw think draw, to hit a fade think fade.) We talk to our golf balls and praise their intuitive intelligence. At the seventh tee we are asked to play through by a family of beginning golfers. We greet them with smiles and explain that we are in no hurry but the father insists. We hit tee shots worthy of Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones. (Asked by a reporter how far Jones could hit the ball, his caddy replied: as long as he wants to.) Our balls have wings and soar like eagles with a force far greater than our swings. We are at peace. We are one with the game in all its ancient glory. We finish our round and resume our journey with the same high spirits we possessed at Grand Canyon.

Not more than thirty miles down the road we are greeted by another roadside golf course. It is evening now but we figure we have a good two hours of sunlight left in this sacred day. Once again we do not hesitate but accept this gift of the gods. A sign instructs us to pay for our round at a gas station convenience store down the road. The cost is a phenomenal three dollars per nine. There is a sign by the cash register noting that the last clerk had been fired for giving away golf rounds. At that price the man should have been hung and the golfers banned from the game. Golf at three dollars a round is a poor man’s blessing. It would open the game to the world and the world would be better for it.

It is a short course with an imaginative layout. There are children and ducks, swans and rabbits on the course. The grass is a brilliant shade of green. (The score boasts, “The greenest grass in Utah.”) There are scores of birch with their distinctive white bark. There is laughter and a pleasant breeze beneath a setting sun.

We tee off on a short par four and overshoot the green to the right. After a short hunt Wiz finds his ball and we proceed to play some of the best golf of our journey. By the time we climb to the elevated ninth tee I am aware that he is playing his best ever round. We are forced to wait while the foursome in front of us tees off and clears the fairway. The sun is nearly down. The groundskeeper has turned on the sprinklers, charging the atmosphere with a pulse and rhythm like a pendulum of the soul. There is a glow in the air. There is an uncommon sense of peace and well being.

At length we hit our shots. Mine sails right into a gully but it is well struck and pleasing to the eye. Wiz sends his dead center. Not bad if you like perfect. We descend from the tee like explorers from a high mountain and stride down the fairway in a state of nirvana: the Zen of Golf.

We are more than brothers now. We are comrades. There is an implicit bond and trust between us in this moment of spiritual high. It is beyond common understanding. It is true and unbreakable. It requires no words as words are inadequate but Wiz speaks of it with a satisfied glee: Don Juan would be proud of us!

At that very instant the sprinkler in front of us, as if guided by the hand and humor of the master himself, alters its direction and sends a steady stream directly at us. I bolt to the left and it follows me. I spring to the right and it stays with me. My momentum carries me full force into the braced shoulder of my playing partner and we erupt in gales of laughter.

The Wiz announces: Don Juan is laughing at us. And we have the good sense to laugh along with him.

We finish the hole in good style and humor. It is the best score relative to par the Wiz has ever recorded but it will be remembered as much more than that. We may often in the course of round tell ourselves that we have found it – the Zen, the All Force, the essence – but we have not. What we seek is essentially unattainable. It is illusive like perfection itself. The one sure thing is that those who have found it (or anything close to it) will have no need to speak of it. It is not a source of personal pride and it is not an end in itself. It is a state of mind, a state of being, that is constantly in motion and constantly changing.

We have but begun our journey.

We have played three rounds on the road in a single day and still found time to bathe in the sun and glorious waters of the Colorado River yet we are not tired. Like a golf ball sailing on the wings of an idea we are charged by a separate source of energy. It radiates within us and fills us with a hunger for adventure.

Wiz calls his parents from the pay phone outside the gas station. It is their anniversary. He relates telling his father about his round and his score. His father replied in disbelief: They’re making you count them now, are they? We have a good meal at the restaurant next door. I take note of a strange statement on the menu: They add a ten percent tip to the tab because 70% of their customers are European.

This is Utah. Where are the Americans? Have we made our roads too dangerous for the youth who once traveled these highways in search of self and country? Where are the working class retired in recreational vehicles and vans that once roamed this scenic landscape as a well-earned reward for a life of struggle? Have they discovered that the fruits of their labor, their life savings, are not adequate to the purpose? Have they just lost interest? It is the second reminder of this phenomenon and it leaves me perplexed. I have crossed the country by road, thumb and rail but never before have I witnessed the vanishing American tourist. The road used to be a place separate from society, almost immune to the changing times. It was a place where a young person could find something resembling freedom and it was always worth it to risk the dangers of the road just to experience that feeling.

What has changed? When did the adventurous spirit of Americans die? When did our love of freedom slip away? Now it seems the road is a desperate place where only the foreign born are found.

We decide against getting a room at the motel, opting instead to cross the barren wasteland of Nevada in the cool of the night. The moon is bright and we are charged with a wondrous strange energy as the high Sierras of California beckon us in the distance.