Magritte: The True Story of a Road Trip’s Aftermath

What exactly is this relationship between big hair and handicapped animals in American society? The bigger your hair, the more likely you are to share your life with a domesticated animal missing a limb. Case in point: the tripod canine hobbling around the pool at our motel in El Rio, Oklahoma and his owner, the motel”s proprietress, a big-haired, faux blonde with acrylic nails.

This dog reminds me of Jesus. We”re swimming on a summer night. All the heat trapped in the air enhances the dark blue of the night sky in such a way that lighter objects seem to glow in contrast. This dog is such an object. His sandy and grey flecked body shines against the swelling blue Oklahoma night. He seems heavenly.

And he whimpers. Whimpering does not preclude heavenliness. Jesus wasn”t all shimmer and gilt. He cried out on the cross. He wanted out. This dog wants out. He hobbles around the pool, translucent and crying. His owner, the motel”s proprietress, leans against a stucco wall and releases cigarette smoke into the blue night. She wants out.

We left Atlanta at 7 o”clock that morning. Fourteen hours later we”re a few miles west of Oklahoma city, at this motel, in this swimming pool. Our destination, San Francisco, is twenty-five hours away. Tomorrow night at about 9:30, after having just crossed into California at Bakersfield, we will make the decision to drive through the night. But tonight, we stop. It”s hot, we”re dirty, we swim, the dog whimpers, the big-haired, faux-blonde smokes. I get out of the pool.

I”m laying in the street, bleeding. I”m at the intersection of 2nd and Market at a red light. People with power–power ties, power suits, and power pumps–step over me as they traverse the crosswalk, moving north-to-south and south-to-north on their way to and from power lunches. A group of homeless men on the corner in a drumming circle begin chanting, “ouch, that hurt, ouch that hurt” over and over as they beat on their plastic buckets. I pick up my bike and my body, pretending that I am not in pain. Two minutes earlier I had no idea that my bike would capsize if I rode on top of the streetcar tracks. The light turns green, I mount my bike and ride down Market Street with the fervor of someone who knows exactly what she is doing.

I hit the next light green and cut over to Sansome, beginning my climb into Pac Heights. I think this is the best way into Pac Heights. Today is only my second day as a bike messenger; next week I will learn how to loop around the Embarcadero and enter Pac Heights from the north. At this moment, the most power I have in my life resides in my legs. My right leg is slightly numb and bleeding. I hate having a job. This is the sixth job I”ve had in eighteen months. I will have one more before I move to Utah. My parents think there”s something wrong with me. “Honey,” they say, “you have been beautifully educated, why can”t you get a real job?”  Because I enjoy sitting on a bench along the Embarcadero at 8:30 in the morning, watching the pigeons twitter and pick, watching the homeless unfurl from their blankets and cardboard boxes, watching the standing traffic on the Bay Bridge, waiting for my dispatcher to call me with a pick-up. I prefer my life this way.

I arrive at the graphic design office where the drawings are to be delivered. The receptionist is old and fat. Her glasses are thick and large, covering her cheeks. A knotted chain dangles from the sides of her glasses. She has smeared makeup all over her face, perhaps to conceal her deeply etched wrinkles, and she smells like the Clinique counter at a suburban mall. I hand her the tube of drawings from my bag and ask to use the restroom. “I”m sorry,” she whines, “our restroom is for employees only.”  I turn and leave, still bleeding.

The Canon to the Ordinary just fired me. He called me into his office, an office blanketed in plush green carpet, an office with two wingback chairs in one corner and an expansive mahogany desk in the other, an office much larger than the Bishop”s office. He sits behind the desk, instructing me to take a seat in one of the wingbacks, a good ten feet away from him. “This just isn”t working,” he tells me. “It”s just not working out,” he clarifies. I don”t tell him that ordering the Bishop”s coffee and tea supplies is not a good use of my “beautiful education.”  I don”t tell him that the only thing I like about my job is riding the cable car to and from work. I don”t tell him that I think he treats his secretary like crap. And I don”t tell him that two weeks ago, exactly two weeks ago, I gave my two weeks notice, meaning today, the day he is firing me, is, technically, my last day. I sit and listen to him yell. I turn in my keys and leave.

I walk across the Close to the Cathedral. Grace Cathedral sits atop Nob Hill, right along the California cable car line. Grace draws crowds; tourist and locals come to see the stones, the stained glass, the doors, the Bishop himself, but mostly they come to walk The Labyrinth, a maze to spiritual enlightenment, first designed by the Catholics in Chartres. Grace has two Labyrinths:  one carved onto the stone of the Close, and the other, a velvety carpet model, sits in the Cathedral”s nave. I have never walked The Labyrinth, and I do not do so today. Today, I cry.

I sit in a pew and cry.

The B.V. M. stares at me. I am sitting beneath her. The Window of the Annunciation shines down on me: Gabriel bestows God”s message on an overjoyed virgin. I have nothing. This is what I think. I quit my job and was fired from my job. Unemployment does not scare me; losing my health insurance scares me. Zoloft, my antidepressant of choice, costs $93 a month for a subclinical dose. I am on a subclinical dose. The Rev. Gwyneth Murphy breezes past my perch beneath The Annunciation. I recognize her from a staff cocktail party. She wears a 2″ clerical collar. Most female priests in the Episcopal Church wear the 1″ collar. Three years from now, she will work at St. Mark”s, the Episcopal Cathedral in Salt Lake City, and I will live 2 blocks away. I get up and leave.

After our swim, Jonathan and I decide to get some food. Not being familiar with the local cuisine in El Rio, we end up at Denny”s. We think it”s better to know in advance that our food will be bad rather than hope for something fantastic and regional, only to be disappointed and disgusted. I have no idea that San Francisco will disgust and disappoint me and that, after two years, I will leave it for Utah.

I want an omelet. It arrives and the waitress, attuned to our travel fatigue and noticing, perhaps from my short hair and Jonathan”s tongue ring, that we are not local, asks where we”re headed. San Francisco. “On I-40?” she asks. Yes, on I-40, straight through Texas. “Be careful in Groom-there”s a speed trap there. Also, right outside Groom is the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere. It”s beautiful.”  She smacks her gum, slaps the bill on the table, and turns on her heels.

It is the summer of clergy deaths. In addition to ordering the Bishop”s coffee and tea supplies, one of my duties in the Diocesan Office is to make and send out clergy death announcements. Clergy death announcements are postcards, a somewhat questionable generic decision given the postcard”s message. But I do not dispute the use of postcards; I simply make them. At first, I try to have fun with the assignment, crafting in large, obnoxious text: “Dear Clergy, Hey!  What”s up?  Weather”s great, wish you were here…all of you except the Rev. Bill Riley “cuz that motherfucker bit the dust!  Have a good summer. Love, The Diocese of California.

Marilyn Belove is an exacting person. She has been the Bishop”s secretary for five years; before that she worked as the Canon”s secretary, but she fell in love with him. The Canon to the Ordinary dealt with the situation by firing her. The Bishop hired her. Her new desk sits right outside the Bishop”s office door and right outside the Canon”s office door. Her new desk is one foot to the right of her old desk. As the Bishop”s secretary, she has the same paper weights, paper clip dispenser, sticky notes, mousepad and file tabs as she had as the Canon”s secretary. And she swoons every time the Canon walks by in his dark cleric suit, tortoise shell glasses, and wavy blond hair.

Marilyn studies the language on my postcard. “Beautiful,” she says. I have used my father”s favorite words in the Book of Common Prayer for my third batch of clergy death announcement postcards: “a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming.”  Marilyn asks me if these words need to be italicized. It”s a nice touch, I tell her. I”ve made 400 of them, I tell her. “Yes, but they”re all different sizes,” she replies, holding up a clump of oddly-sized postcards. I”m not good with the paper cutter, I tell her. “They need to be fixed,” she says, “they all need to be exactly the same size.”  They”re fine, I say. Marilyn spends the next two hours trimming the edges of 400 clergy death announcement postcards. I hop on a cable car and go home. Tomorrow I will give my two weeks notice.

Lynnie is skeptical. Lynnie, a forty-something lesbian with hairy legs, blue spiky hair, and an unlit cigarette somehow suctioned to her lower lip, is reading my resume. My over-education concerns her. “You could do anything you wanted. Why exactly do you want to be a bike messenger?” she asks me. I”m not sure what to tell her. I like to ride my bike and wish for the chance to be caught by the Bay, to take a peek on my way up a hill and see the vast grey waters spread out before me. Seeing water on my way up a hill surprises me. I tell Lynnie that I just want to try something different.

She hires me with the warning that I had better not “fucking flake out” after six months. I quit after two because the surprise of the water is no longer enough. A swinging taxi cab door throws me over my handlebars in Portrero casino Hill. A Marin Country widow drives right over me on Van Ness. Another messenger slams into me on Battery. I take down a pedestrian on Montgomery. January and February, the months that I worked, are San Francisco”s wettest. Eight hours a day I skim along the surface of downtown streets, blinded by fog and unrelenting rain. Gortex begins to retain water after two hours of uninterrupted exposure. My forearms get the wettest in the rain. And it”s hard to see the Bay through the burdened clouds.

On one side of the Texas stretch of I-40 are signs which read, “Caution: Hitchhikers May Be Escaped Convicts,” and on the other is, as our waitress at Denny”s promised, the largest free-standing cross in the Western Hemisphere. But what our waitress at Denny”s in El Rio, Oklahoma didn”t tell us is the largest free-standing cross in the Western Hemisphere is surrounded by about twelve respectably sized statues of Jesus, each one depicting the Son of God in various poses of distress. There”s “Standing-Up-Tall-Jesus” who, despite his erect posture, sports a look of mournful foreboding. This statue is followed by “The Back-Bent Paschal Lamb” in which our Lord and Savior appears somewhat stooped. Next is “The-Word-Made-Flesh-at-90…Degrees,” a concrete masterpiece, immortalizing Jesus”s flexibility. This forward-falling motif progresses through the rest of the statues and culminates in the final statue, “The Collapsed Christ,” in which the Messiah lays prostrate at the foot of the largest free-standing cross in the Western Hemisphere. I think about the whimpering, heavenly dog at the motel.

We live in a bad neighborhood. Women have broken beer bottles over one another”s heads in the street. DEA snipers have staked-out on our roof. There”s a woman with wiry hair shooting from her head who wanders around half-dressed, screaming. She screams things like “bitch, get your black ass back to Oakland” or “I ain”t yo” niggah, niggah.”  Sometimes, she carries a one-armed doll and swings it to accent her screaming.

I am under the kitchen table, screaming at Jonathan. Get down, I tell him. Turn off the lights and get down. He tries to tell me it was a firecracker. I know it”s gunfire because I saw the man running down the street firing the gun. Was his shirt yellow or grey?  Forty-five minutes later, when the police officer asks, I can”t remember. He asks me at approximately what time did I see this man?  I tell him 8:40.

Jonathan and I crawl on our bellies into the living room. The lights are out. We climb on the couch, peek over the back of the couch and out the window. DeMarco Jenkins lays face-first on Buchanan Street. A woman in pink flips him over. Jenkins is twenty-one years old and does not live in my neighborhood. He has a beautiful Afro-it is voluminous and thick and flecked with fresh blood.

The espresso machine is temperamental. I explain this to Jean-Jean, a fashion design student on exchange from Belgium, because he is laughing at my apron. It looks like a Jackson Pollack original, done in java. I just made a double cap dry for the testy gay man who lives down the street and, as usual, the machine exploded, pelting me with ground espresso. Jean-Jean thinks this is funny. He orders a Magritte.

The Magritte is my favorite, to eat and to make. I have a weakness for Nutella. The batter sizzles on the crepe wheel as I quickly chop a banana. I flip the crepe over and wrestle with the Nutella; it is thick and solid and resists being spread over the warm crepe. But soon it melts, giving in to the demands of my wrist and forearm. I add the banana, fold everything up, dress it with powered sugar and whipped cream, and hand it to Jean-Jean. I am drunk and I am stoned and I have made another beautiful crepe.

When my shift ends, I drive to Oakland to see my girlfriend. We spent a great deal of our time having sex-in the bed, in the bath, on the kitchen floor, in organic supermarket parking lots. My girlfriend takes fourteen pills a day because she is a bi-polar, borderline, OCD, dyslexic, anorexic self mutilator. In three months, she will light herself on fire and I walk out of her life forever.

It”s three a.m. and we are, for the second time in as many days, at Denny”s. Jonathan hands me the car keys. It”s my turn. In the past ten minutes, I”ve had three cups of coffee and five cajun chicken fingers. We are sitting at the counter. Denny”s is doing good business in the middle of the night; many of the booths are full, even if only with one person. Our waitress, with a ponytail and bangs, smiles at me every time she tops off my coffee. We leave her a good tip.

The Mojave Desert is dark at 3 a.m. There are no streetlights along the highway, nor are there any reflectors along the lane lines. I”m guessing. Jonathan is curled asleep against the window, clutching a pillow. The pillowcase, a yellow and orange array of floral patterns, is the brightest thing I can see. I sing Madonna to stay awake. I yell Madonna to stay awake: “Borderline. You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.”  Three and a half hours later, I tell Jonathan it”s his turn. The sun starts to come up over the hills of San Mateo County, and my pupils are so dilated from caffeine that I can”t squint enough to keep out the light.

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