Heading South

Last night I slept in a rest area. It was wonderful. I’m happy today I didn’t give up and go to a hotel. It would’ve been so easy and it was certainly tempting, to show up at a Motel 6, slide my Alaska Airlines credit card across the counter, and then suddenly be in a room, clean, all my own, taking a hot shower and pulling the crisp sheets that would’ve smelled like antiseptic up to my chin.

I would’ve been lonely.

But instead I kept driving, and I pulled over at a rest stop, where I read a book by John Fante for awhile, a guy Bukowski said was his “God,” and then turned off my headlamp and went to sleep.

I had it in my head that sleeping in a Honda Civic was terrible, based almost entirely off a less than savory I’d had in high school where my friend and I drove around the island all night, looking for mischief or a party, I think this was before I drank alcohol because when I drank alcohol the mischief was always easier to find, the mischief was in a can, and then for some reason we couldn’t go home and so just slept in the car in the senior parking lot.

The key to sleeping in the front seat of a sedan is to imagine you’re in an airplane. If you were in an airplane, it would be luxury! You have a seat that reclines almost 180 degrees, you have your own little compartment, you can get up whenever you want and outside is the fresh air and the stars above you and the sounds of the night, the bugs in the forest, and the whooshing of the cars on I-5. Plus, in the driver’s seat, I had a variety of amenities: tortilla chips, a blend of cruciferous vegetables, Swedish snus (smokeless tobacco), and of course my book.  It was the picture of luxury.

The next day my first stop is Safeway in Longview and the Starbucks in said Safeway. I get up from my earl grey tea to look for the bathroom. “End of aisle 13,” the woman in the deli yells at me.

On the inside of the stall is written “Nazi’s get fucked” and also something like, “Love before hate. There is a God.” I think of two things: 1) the curious punctuation in the first phrase, and also 2) the book Catcher in the Rye where Holden finds the writing in Phoebe’s school, someone has written something terrible including the word “fuck” or something, and it fills him with interminable sadness, he imagines it destroying her innocence, this is the climax of the book, and he scratches it off and walks down the hall.

I surfed the Elwha upon getting out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was flat but beautiful. There were some bros on the beach and I felt embarrassed about being all suited up when there were no waves, I avoided eye contact. But then I felt the familiar surge of excitement I feel before any surf session. My soul was pulsating with joy. I looked out over the strait, seeing the mist-covered mountains of Canada in the distance, longing to be there, longing to have a  girl there, but also content to be at the mouth of the Elwa, looking down as I sat on my board and seeing rocks slide by me, waiting for waves that never came.

Except one wave did come. The tide was dropping and in an hour or two it might actually be good, but by then it would be pitch black. I thrashed into the wave, realizing I had to catch it, stood up, pumped right with all of my life force, looked down at the smooth, black face in the dying light, felt the wave taking me, felt connected to it — just for an instant — and then kicked out the back.

After surfing I drove to a campsite off a forest road where my best friend Doug and I had stayed the weekend previous. But right where I planned to camp, there were two logs blocking the road. I sat there for a minute, wondering whether or not to move them and continue, but then I figured there might be people already there, or someone might be mad if I moved them, and drove on. At the next campsite I got out of the car, wedging my car in sideways in the road to make a sort of barrier between the main road and where my tent would be, and I got out to sit on the hood and take in the surroundings. It was quiet. It was disturbingly quiet. My imagination began to run wild. I imagined someone coming up there and attacking me. The terror I’d feel. I imagined a bear coming out of the woods, trying to fatten up before winter, swiping at my skull in the manner that bears are wont to do.

When I was 25 I worked for a summer in Alaska as a housekeeper, and had two encounters with bears. On the first my friend Phil and I were hiking, keeping to ourselves, not making noise despite this being precisely what they tell you to do. We rounded a corner and 40 feet in front of us was a brown bear, a chunk of exposed flesh in its right flank, possibly from fighting. The bear turned to face us, and in that instant both us that it was coming at us.

Many things impressed up us, like the fact that we could feel the power of the bear’s footsteps in the ground, like you can with a horse. The thing that most impressed upon us, however, was that if the bear had wanted to come at us there would’ve been nothing we could’ve done. Nothing. We wouldn’t have had time even to drop to the ground, such was the power and force evident in the creature.

It didn’t attack us; it sprinted off into the woods, and we stood there, our hearts firing, ant it was a few seconds before we dared to look at each other, and even then we didn’t say anything.

This specific incident wasn’t in my mind as I stood at that turn off on the forest road, listening to the muffled sounds of the night, wondering what lurked in the woods, but bears were in the forefront of my mind, as was Bubba, the man I conjectured who liked to get drunk, drive into the hills, and t murder people. Either way, I just didn’t feel right about it. I try to pay attention to these feelings. It doesn’t happen a lot. Usually things feel OK. The last time it happened I was in Lima, Peru, leaving on a series of local buses at night, trying to get to a crucero where more buses passed on their way south. The further and we got the stronger the feeling became, and eventually I just got off and was on the main road in front of a big shopping mall. I found a hotel, a love hotel with a picture of a woman from the 1980’s wearing one of those swim suit bottoms that looks like a deep v and very uncomfortable, but it was nice to a have secure, semi-comfortable lodging, and I walked to the mall and got a McFlurry at McDonald’s and sat in my room watching people play soccer on some lighted fields across the street.

And last night I also listened to this feeling, feeling such relief relieved as I drove back down the forest road. I got back on highway 112, put a snus in, turned on the radio, and drove south toward Oregon.

Friends and Readers

Today I leave on a trip to the coast, a surf trip. Because of this trip, I will no longer be posting everyday. Instead, I’m going to post one long-form piece every Friday, starting this Friday.

I hope all of you are well on this blustery Seattle morning, or wherever this post finds you.

–Wetzler

Fiction Fridays: “Dear Madeleine”

I had already been living in Brindisi a year when I met Madeleine. She was lying on the beach, looking out at the sea when I approached her. I rarely approached women, but she had been reading El Tercer Reich by Roberto Bolaño, and I had to comment. Did she like it? What did she think of the writing? Wasn’t it magical?

She spoke very little English. She was from Seignosse, a town in France near the Spanish border. She spoke Spanish well, hence El Tercer Reich, but her English was essentially non-existent. She did know the phrase “Jim Dandy,” which I found odd. I told her I was in Italy by myself, that I was a teacher, and she said in English, “So, you are Jim Dandy?”

The next day we met in the piazza to explore the city together. She was wearing a short white dress and tan sandals. She had on dark sunglasses that covered half her face. She looked like a bug. I suggested we sit in the piazza first and have a coffee, but she wanted to get right to it. She wanted to walk. She had legs like a gazelle and could cover three sidewalk tiles in one step.

She kept complimenting me on my French, despite the fact that I didn’t speak this language. I’d taken two years in university but that was just because I liked sitting next to a Russian girl named Olga who never spoke to me. My teacher, John, was from Georgia. He was a hard-ass. If kids were talking in the back he wouldn’t reprimand them; he’d just sit staring down at his desk, breathing loudly through his nostrils. When his nostrils flared he looked like a warthog.

I could’ve watched Madeleine walk all day. She had a confident walk. I liked confident women. I myself was not confident. Approaching Madeleine had taken every ounce of courage in my body. I could feel my insides trembling, my pancreas starting to shudder. I started thinking about my gall bladder and what would happen if it ruptured. What was the medical attention like in Italy? Did they anesthetize with Chianti? Would the doctor correct my pronunciation of the words “aqua frizzante?” But still, I  approached Madeleine.

“Do you like Roberto Bolaño?” I said.

“Yes.”

I sat down next to her. “I’m writing an essay on the intertextuality of Bolaño and William Faulkner.”

“Quoi ?” she said. I laughed. She laughed. I looked out over the Adriatic, at a sailboat bobbing in the distance and at the sun reflecting off the waves.

After a half hour of walking through the city we stumbled upon an art gallery. It was called Il Francisco and dedicated to an obscure Italian painter who lived in the 17th century and painted only melons. Canteloupe, to be exact. One honeydew, too,  after which he’d apparently had a nervous breakdown. We explored three rooms of the museum, commenting on each piece as we passed by. Madeleine would either say “magnifique” or “terrible,” but there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to her appraisals. One time she said “magnifique” while looking at a fire alarm. I, for my part, stayed mostly silent, but would nod my head when I agreed with her, and let out a small snort when I didn’t.

After the art gallery I walked her back to her hotel, and agreed to meet her at 8pm sharp to go to a pizza restaurant. She had chosen the place; I would tag along. Of course, having lived in Brindisi, I already knew the restaurant. It wasn’t one of my favorites, but I didn’t dare say anything.

The owner of the restaurant, which was called La Toscana, greeted both of us with a kiss on the cheek, and called me by my name.

“Do you know him?” Madeleine asked.

“I’ve seen him once or twice,” I said.

To drink we had a Soraie made from partially-dried grapes. The wine was exceptional;the pizza was not. The crust was doughy. The artichoke hearts, I saw after stealing a glance back at the kitchen, came from a can.  To my horror it seemed even the mozzarella wasn’t fresh, but that I couldn’t confirm.

I asked Madeleine about her youth in Brittany and later in southwest of France, and then she turned the attention toward me. What was my life like in Brindisi? How had I ended up there? What was teaching at the local university like? Did I get bored? We talked for over two hours and then saw that the wait staff had started cleaning up. “Shall we head back?” I asked. She nodded, finished her wine and stood up.

In the piazza on the way back I kissed Madeleine. Her tongue was a like a dead anchovy. The romanticism of the night evaporated. I suggested we have another drink — anything to extend the nigh — but she said she had to get up early the next day. I kissed her again and she reciprocated, this time there was even less passion. She disappeared into the lobby of her hotel without looking back.

The next day I went to the beach. I didn’t see Madeleine. I walked up and down, looking at the tourists, paused to take a dip and open my eyes underwater,  where I saw nothing but blue and sand. When I surfaced I saw a girl sitting next to a friend. They looked American. One was reading A People’s History of the United states by Howard Zinn.  Under normal circumstances I didn’t approach women, but this time I had to comment.

 

Volare

I CAN’T LISTEN to the song “Volare” by Domenico Modugno anymore. It’s associated with strong memories, and I don’t want to taint them by listening to it in contexts different from the original in which I heard it over and over while working in an Italian restaurant in Chile in the summer of 2014.

My friend Jose had told me about the Italian restaurant. He told me, “Go there, you’ll get work. They always need people and they love to hire foreigners. The boss is kind of a jerk but it’s fine. You’ll work hard and the money won’t be great, but you get tips.”

I arrived to Puerto Varas with some hand written resumes on pieces of paper that said, “Mark Wetzler. Waiter/Kitchen Helper. Languages: Spanish, English, French.”  I walked along the water out of town along el Lago Llanquihue until I got to the restaurant, Da Alessandro, which was on the outskirts of town but next to the lake. I knocked on the door and a balding man with white hair answered.

“I’m looking for work,” I said.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Mark.”

“Yes, but who are you? What can you do?”

“Well, I’d like to help with anything. Waiter, kitchen helper.”

“Hold on a second.”

He went inside to make a phone call and came back a few minutes later. “We can give you a tryout this afternoon, he said. Come at four o’clock.  Does that sound good?”

“Yes.”

That afternoon I started as the assistant to the head pizza chef. I was freshly shaven. They gave me an apron. I went downstairs and pablo, the main pizza chef, started to train me. He showed me how to parcel out the dough balls for each pizza, 145 grams, give or take, for each pizza. You had to weigh them. Then he showed me how to make the sauce. Whole tomatoes mixed with a store-bought pizza sauce, mixed together in a blender. I made a huge vat, filling the entire bowl, and then put it under the counter to store it. At one point I took it out to spread it on a freshly-rolled pizza and it caught the edge of one of the shelves and spilled all over the hardwood floor.

“I can’t believe it, gringo,” said Alessandro, the boss.

Marcelo, the man who i’d spoke to earlier, caught wind of it. “The gringo just spilled an entire bucket of sauce all over the floor!” he said.

It’s no problem, they said, don’t worry about it.

At night the restaurant would get busy and Pablo and I would get slammed. He’d roll out the pizzas, and I’d “arm” them, which meant put on the sauce and the cheese and all the ingredients. The waiters and waitresses would cover over, carrying little slips of paper, and announce each pizza order. “I need a large ham and arugula, and a small eggplant.” “One prosciutto and pineapple and a caprese bruschetta.” I would get stressed out but if Pablo got stressed out he never showed it. We kept glasses of coke on the windowsill behind us we’d sip if we had a free moment. If the sauce ran low, i’d scuttle off to the back to make more. I was also in charge of stocking all the ingredients. The chefs in the back, who were all women, would find me slicing onion after onion with the meat slicer. I’d be crying. They’d laugh. When I had to go out to the fridge outside to get more arugula i’d almost always hit my head on the corner of the roof when I came back in. I’d get pissed off; they’d laugh. I’d wash the arugula and pick the snails out. I’d add a tiny bit of bleach to sanitize it. And then i’d spin it until it was dry.

I loved talking to the other waiters and waitresses when it was slow. There was Katie, who i flirted with. Sometimes i’d talk to her in english. She understood nothing. “Listen, Katie,” i’d say. “I’m feeling pretty strongly about you. This is getting serious. Should we get married?” “Que?” she’d say. And then she’d ask someone else: “What is he talking about?”

There was a kid named Santiago from Viña del Mar. When he found out i was only paying 8 dollars a night for lodging, with breakfast included, he moved into a room of the same house. The owner of the house was a woman named maria, probably in her 70’s. She was a hoarder. She saved orange rinds. In the morning she’d serve us tea and bread. When we came home from the first part of our split shifts, she’d serve us more tea and bread. At night i’d lie in bed, reading 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. I’d leave the window open, and sometimes when i came home from work a huge cat would look at me, as if caught red handed, and dash out the window. Sometimes at night Santiago and i would share a box of wine in his room and watch tv. He was quite a bit younger than me, but he was my favorite. He had a good sense of humor. He took nothing too seriously. Alessandro would yell at him in the restaurant, but Alessandro liked him too. He had him help out behind the bar. Santiago was charismatic and it was hard not to like him.

After work we’d usually smoke cigarettes and drink piscolas. Sometimes it would just be me and Pablo, sometimes me and Pablo and his girlfriend, and sometimes all of us. I remember after work one time we all got into the back of a pickup truck, we were all smoking cigarettes, and someone drove us into town so we could go to a bar. I never spoke anything but Spanish. We’d drink micheladas at the bar or piscolas. We’d talk about work and other things.  I was the gringo to the other employees, but i was also one of them. We were working long days. We were all in it together. AT the end of each night, when we were cleaning up, at 1 or 130 in the morning, we’d put on the music we wanted to listen to, have a drink, sing along, and Alessandro would come by to each of us and give us our tips in cash. It was usually 30 bucks, sometimes 40. In total I probably made 50 dollars a day for 12 hours of work. But few times in my life have I been happier. I remember andy, one of the waiters, singing along to Calle 13, after work, a smile on his face.

The sharpest memories i have though are the ones tied to the music. At the beginning of every afternoon shift Alessandro would put a CD of various Italian hits. I’d look out at the lake, which sparkled in the sunlight. It was February and the weather was beautiful. It was high season. There were tourists everywhere.

Usually I’d been parcelling out the dough or making a pizza when the song Volare by Domenico Modugno came on. Now when I listen to the song I can see the floor beneath me, the dough that was stuck in between the floorboards. I can feel the heat of the oven that would blast out at us every time we opened it to put in or take out a pizza. I can smell the dough, smell the bread baking.  I can smell the tomato sauce that I had to make gallons and gallons of. And of course I can see the lake outside, the softening of the afternoon sun as it turned to evening and customers began to trickle in. The start of the evening. The moments of calm and tranquility before it became dinner time and the heat was on. Pablo and i making pizza after pizza, the music playing, the din of people talking, Alessandro yelling, “Get that thing out of there!” when we left a tray of ingredients in plain sight of the customers. Sometimes, when things were dying down at the end of the night, Pablo would wipe the sweat from his brow, set down the rolling pin, and say, “Gringo, time to get famous.” This meant I was in charge of making the entire pizza, from rolling it out, to putting on the sauce, to adding ingredients, to scooping it up and putting it in the oven. Scooping it up was the hardest part, especially if it was a large pizza. If you didn’t put enough flour underneath it it’d get stuck, and would catch on the edges of the flat metal spatula we used to transfer the pizzas to the oven. I ruined several pizzas like this. It traumatized me. Usually Pablo would step in and save me. I worried I’d have nightmares about it.

I only worked there a few weeks, in the height of the high season. For those few weeks, the restaurant Da Alessandro was my life. Making pizzas was my life, chopping onions, ladling out the sauce, putting on the perfect amount of cheese. The employees were my life. The restaurant was my life. Cigarette breaks were my life. Looking out at the lake was my life. And of course, Volare by Domenico Modugno was my life. Now, sometimes when I’m bored, I put the song on, but I only allow myself to listen to the first minute or so of it. I close my eyes and lean back in the chair. All the sensations and smells come rushing back to me. I can see that dirty floor beneath our feet again, and I can hear Pablo telling me to make myself famous. But I don’t listen to it too much. I don’t want the memories to be tainted by any other context than that restaurant.

I wonder if the memories will fade, or if they’ll always be as sharp. I wonder if I’ll always be able to see the floor and smell the dough and see the lake. I wonder if I’ll always feel the nervousness of having to scoop up a pizza by myself. I wonder if I’ll always remember the laughter of my co-workers, sitting in a bar after work, smoking cigarettes and drinking piscola.