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Friday, February 25, 2005

The Adventure, Part V: It's Easy to Go Home Again If You Go Fast Enough

Nostalgia (which is preferable to neuralgia) swept over me as I took in the sight of the trees and houses on the hills of South San Francisco and San Bruno. Traffic, by Atlanta standards, was nonexistent, the freeway was wide and pothole-free, and I approached the southern edge of The City with both trepidation and glee.

As the freeway gets to San Francisco, it changes suddenly, like a jump cut in a dream, to being just a city street with parked cars and homes and streetcar tracks. A horde of commuters waited on a train platform built in a faux-Chinese style. Teenagers meandered across the street in a small pack. Traffic moved easily from red light to red light.

In a few minutes, I was entering Golden Gate Park. I thought of Spreckles Lake, which was really more like Spreckles Puddle, a mile or two to the west. My model ship had sunk there in its ill-fated maiden voyage during the one year we lived on 36th Avenue, and George Harrison had led a crowd of sycophants, fans, and Hell’s Angels past there while I was wallowing in my ignorance of this great event some half-a-block away.

And then, the street signs. Balboa, the street one of my schools was on; Geary, the street on which we sat in a pizzeria and watched the smoke from the Cliff House fire drift overhead; California Street, the thoroughfare from which my brother and I would run like maniacs to catch our connecting bus on Geary on school mornings.

I only caught fleeting glimpses of the Presidio as I sped under it and through it, but I had already come to a decision. I had to come back and bring my wife and son with me.

My driver’s ed teacher, many years ago, had instilled in me the notion that drivers should always plan ahead. Just think of how proud he would have been had he seen me, in the airport parking garage, place a wad of cash on the front passenger seat in anticipation of paying a toll to cross the Golden Gate Bridge some 20 miles away. Okay, maybe the word isn’t “proud”; maybe it’s “concerned.” But that is neither here nor there because I was prepared.

Well, imagine my surprise when I rounded the bend to get on the bridge and saw a sign reading, “No Toll Northbound Lanes.” The northbound tollbooths of my youth were empty, forlorn. It’s a good thing my boyhood ambition to be a toll-taker on the Golden Gate Bridge went unfulfilled. I’d probably be out of a job now.

The bridge itself was The Bridge, stately, magnificent, and thrilling. I envied the tourists who walked along it, even the guy who was testing the tensile strength of the cables by tugging on one. I stole a quick glance out toward the endless Pacific and imbibed its beauty.

My next challenge involved finding the right exit off the freeway Californians call “The One-O-One.” Dividing my attention between driving and consulting the directions I had printed off Yahoo!, I was able to determine that I was supposed to take the exit for the Richmond Bridge and I-580. I saw a sign that said something about the Richmond Bridge. I took the exit. There didn’t appear to be any I-580 at the bottom of the ramp, so when the light turned green, I just went straight ahead to the on-ramp and got back on “The One-O-One.” The correct exit was a mile or so further along.

I got lost at first, and had my suspicion concerning this confirmed for me when I got to a dead end in a subdivision, Stepford Village or something like that. I retraced my steps and found the motel, after having been forced onto a couple of side streets because of a strange local custom involving terminating lanes for no apparent reason. I checked in, got my key card, and was informed that my Internet associates, Mark and Bernie, had been asking for me.

I parked the car and removed myself and my things from it. As I closed the car door, I heard a voice from above. It was Mark, standing at the rail of the walkway on the second floor. He didn’t seem to be wearing any pants.

Tomorrow, Part VI: The Show


Robert G. Margolis said...

The Bridge: it seemed to span toward them from the farther shore of some either long-ago or still distant future Golden Age. The bridge could either be coming from or going toward that Golden Age, depending on where you were coming from and going toward. To cross the Bridge, safely and successfully, was to personally contend with all the great rational achievements of civilization as held together by the nuts and bolts of the Iron Age. The guardians of the Bridge, the love maddened lower body maddogs of those cruelly changed and deformed by poisoned love, could smell one's fear broadcast to them on the slightest ocean-going breeze. Their insatiable appetite to inflict their own suffering on others made them devour every passing opportunity, in the form of every unwary passerby, for others' hope and happiness. The rotting, headless corpses of many carefree autonauts who had tried to navigate the Bridge, unaware that they were anything but free and without a care, lay strewn around the bases of the Bridge or floated on the waters below, waiting their recovery by the Styx Ferry Company (they were always airbrushed out of the postcard photos of the Bridge sold to tourists).

The fifth beetle, however, was remarkabley resilient for a generic rent-a-car; it seemed powered by the Wind herself, for each time the vicious, snapping teeth
of a lower body love-poisoned love dog was about to rip into a chunk of tire or rip off the car's roof, the car accelerated just beyond its reach. Inside the fifth beetle, Odysseus and Sallie Forth were frantically working the intricate system of pedals, gears, levers, and knobs, keeping their eyes at once on the navigation charts, the road ahead, and the roaring waters that swirled and foamed under the Bridge; at the same time, Joseph the K., his hands lashed to the Steering Wheel, lest their ally the Wind blow him overboard, struggled mightly to maintain their course, as if willing their vessel to keep straight between the extremes of extreme distraction and destruction on either side of the Bridge.

Suddenly, the Wind calmed, and the sounds of furious pursuit and vicious, devouring, barking rage were gone. The fifth beetle resumed traveling within the designated speed limit. Joseph the K., Odysseus, and Sallie Forth, their partnership not even a day old and lucky not to have soiled themselves, had just safely crossed the Bridge and were entering the World of Big for the Sake of Big. Sure, it was a World that had just tried to kill them, but quickly the excitement of their road trip and the possibilities of their new acquaintance had them laughing and talking as if nothing had happened. Intimations of hope, of happiness, of being on the verge of entering a Golden Age, all three felt these, and their ordeal of the Bridge was already becoming a good story they'd tell when the got back home.

Joseph the K. had but one clue to the case he and his road trip companions were working on: the name "Pacific Heights". But Joseph the K. was afraid of heights and the name "Pacific Heights" only frightened him more: how could an ocean be above sea level? A mortal's fear, however, acts as further incitement to the Fates, who have a wickedly accurate sense of humor: and so, that's exactly where Mr. Zeus had his Castle residence, in the highest, most exclusive area of Olympus, "Pacific Heights", so exclusive, in fact, that he was the only one who resided there. So much for Joseph the K.'s only clue. He and his companions would have to solve this case the old-fashioned way, by making it up as they went along.

Mr. Zeus, who was not comfortable associating with those outside his tax bracket, blusterred through introductions and a few minutes of social niceties. Then, with a predictable joke, he got right to the point: "My daughter's latest suitor was a heel." Sallie Forth, her wind-tossed hair still tossing, rolled her eyes. 'Is this what I crossed the Bridge for?' she thought to herself, with an almost audible feeling of boredom and disappointment. Odysseus kept his eyes on the floor or averted his gaze from meeting the eyes of Mr. Zeus. The two of them seemed already to know each other and clearly were on guard in each other's company, Joseph the K. observed. Refreshments were served, but the three noticed that all the finger food looked suspiciously like the batter fried parts of people whose lower bodies were love-maddened dogs. They politely declined, saying they'd just eaten before they crossed the Bridge.

"Well, will you take the case, or not?" lowly thundered Mr. Zeus, who frequently shouted in order to compensate for the lack of self-confidence the size of his own castle made him feel. He was the Biggest of the Big in the World of Big for the Sake of Big, and the Bigger he got, the more room he needed to feel there was still a need for him to get Bigger.

Joseph the K. smiled at how often the Biggest of the Big needed the little guy to get anything done. "There's still the question of our fee, Mr. Zeus," he began to reply, but was interrupted by a harsh laugh from Mr. Zeus that nearly shook the Castle walls. "I think you'll be working for me for free," growled Mr.Zeus who then pointed at Odysseus. "Your cunning friend here knows what I'm talking about," he growled again. Joseph the K. and Sallie Forth looked at Odysseus and then at each other like people do when their first feeling of familiarity has vanished into total disbelief at what they're actually doing together.

Mr. Zeus saw the three's bewilderment, that he'd taken their collective metaphorical legs out from under them, but he chose not to press his advantagement. Not yet. Being the Biggest of the Big for the Sake of Big meant taking the Big View for the Sake of Big. "Look, you're tired after your ordeal on the Bridge. Why don't you sleep on it?" said Mr. Zeus in a voice that, at least to him, sounded soothing. "I insist you stay the night here in the Castle as my guests."

Robert G. Margolis said...

Fenton Hardy was worried. He had encouraged his sons, Frank and Joe, to make friends with the new boy from out of town, Odysseus, but now he wasn't so sure that had been a good idea. Tolerant, accepting of others, hospitable to strangers, yes, of course, he wanted his sons to be all these, and yet, this time, he felt suspicion, solely on the basis of an unusual sounding name, was warranted. Not that he needed a warrant to exercise suspicion, and he smiled in spite of himself.

The boys had gone out boating, early that morning, with Odysseus. Sailing together was a good way for the three boys to get acquainted with each other his sons had said, and Fenton Hardy had agreed. Frank and Joe had packed a lunch for the three of them and leaving with a slam of the screen door, had called out that they'd be back in the late afternoon. Fenton Hardy had remembered how the boys' mother used to get mad and scold them everytime they'd rushed out of the house, letting the screen door slam, but this time he could only shake his head and call out to the boys to have a good time.

Mr. Hardy had prepared lemonade and sugar cookies, like the boys' mother used to do, as a treat before dinner, for when Frank, Joe, and their new friend returned. But they had not yet returned, and it was already after dark. Nor was the family boat back in dock; he had gone down to the water to check, just before sunset. Fenton Hardy poked his index finger idly at the ice cubes in his glass. His worry focused his concentration; a recollection, which had been forming all day at the edge of his memory, became definite in his mind. He sighed loudy as the memory increased his agitation and upset.

Fenton Hardy put his lemonade glass aside on the serving table and leaned forward in his armchair, concentrating hard to elicit more details from his initial recollection. A young boy had vanished from Pacific Heights, a community on the ridge, just north of the Hardy residence, which overlooked the town. Local, state, and federal investigations found nothing. The boy had truly vanished without a trace. The disappearance remained unsolved, though there was talk of a cover-up in high places. Startled at what he'd just put together, he realized that it had been ten years ago to the day.

Frank and Joe were, respectively, just 6 and 7 years of age at the time the boy vanished, but their questions and interest about the case already showed they both had their father's talent for detection. Ordinarily, Mr. Hardy admired and encouraged the initiative his sons took in looking into situations and following clues neglected by local law enforcement, but not this time. If his hunch was right, this case had dangers his sons could never suspect; it was a case that went back to antiquity, and its dangers had crossed centuries, oceans, continents, civilizations and cultures to now, inexplicably, arrive, literally, in their own backyard.

It had not been 24 hours yet, so he could not file an official missing persons report. But Fenton Hardy had plenty of friends in the local police force and in the Coast Guard for whom he had done plenty of favors over the years. It was time to call in one of those favors. He made a phone call. The local police said they would coordinate a search effort with the Coast Guard.

His friend on the local police force had told Mr. Hardy to relax, that Frank and Joe would probably be home any minute with some story about how they'd found an abandoned house in the woods and couldn't resist taking a look. But Fenton Hardy did not share his friend's confidence. He could not sit still when he was certain his sons were in more danger than they ever could dream of.

The name of the young boy who, ten years ago, had vanished from Pacific Heights was: Odysseus. Fenton Hardy was certain it was no coincidence. And, knowing his sons as he did, he was equally certain Frank and Joe had come to the same conclusion.

Mr. Hardy quickly put on a tie, and then his coat and hat. He ran from the house and within minutes he was disobeying the speed limit in his hurry to drive to town and to find the old blind man. Most of the townspeople ignored the old blind man's talk, dismissing it as a drunkard's ramblings or the inventions of a lonely man's imagination. But on several occassions the old blind man's ability to see what others could not had been invaluable to Fenton Hardy in solving a case. Fenton Hardy prayed that this time the old blind man could see what everyone else had been missing these past ten years. For his sons Frank and Joe, it might be their only hope.