North Carolina – Roadtrip: The ¡Gramango! Edition #4

Chapter 2
North Carolina

Sunflower

Thursday, March 14th

“Today is Wednesday, though,” G-Mah says to the sink.

“Hm?” I ask, looking at Uncle Bill and getting nothing in return. Must be a pretty pressing news story.

“You said Thursday, March fourteenth, hun. It’s August twenty-first today, and it’s Wednesday. If it was Thursday the garbage trucks would’ve come,” as she turns herself around, glass in hand.

Slowly G-Mah wheels herself back to the table. When she’s all locked in, she gently places the glass next to my laptop and folds her hands together. I look over at Uncle Bill to see that he’s put his entire face through the newspaper so his head looks like a shitty rendition of a sunflower. His hands are also folded, waiting.

The eagle has landed. After maneuvering my car up the winding cliffside roads of Carriage Park through the darkness of night, I pull into the driveway and Mister Fisher comes right outside to greet me. I give him a hug and he tells me they already picked Zak up and told him he was staying at their place for the weekend, but they didn’t tell him why. My coming here is a big surprise; from Zak’s perspective I’ll just walk down the stairs like I’ve lived here all along.

Now if there’s one thing you need to know about Zak, it’s that he loves to talk. His motor mouth could easily outpace a V8 engine, good day or not, but when he first sees me, he’s utterly speechless. The look of surprise on his face cannot be described with words, it’s that great. He couldn’t believe that I would drive twelve hours just to see him! And honestly, I couldn’t believe I just drove twelve hours either! But here I am in North Carolina. There’s no time to waste.

Zak introduces me to their dog Henry (as in Henry Ford) and gives me a tour of the abode, a lovely bilevel townhouse that’s less townhouse and more house you would find in a town; the basement has two full bedrooms (one for me and one for Zak), a bathroom, a Train Room (a room full of cool collectibles, model trains and stuff), a living room with a few couches and a huge TV, an office, a storage room, and finally, a sizable bilevel deck that hangs over the hillside and offers a beautiful view of the sun as it rises over the valley in the distance. We go back upstairs and Zak shows me the great room, the kitchen, the sitting room, the master bed with a big walk-in closet (the closet is the size of my bedroom), the master bath (with jacuzzi tub), the powder room, and then the upstairs balcony.

Following the tour, Zak helps me lug in my luggage and Ronnie (Zak’s father) puts together dinner for me, a delicious turkey, lettuce, and cheese sandwich on rye with a sliced apple and potato chips. It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten after tasting basically nothing but my own saliva all day. I thank him profusely through a stuffed mouth.

As I inhale, Zak, Ronnie, and Margaret (Zak’s mom) join me at the table and we discuss the plans for my North Carolinian holiday; the weather tomorrow is supposed to be on the dreary side, but other than that we should have clear and sunny skies. There are restaurants to eat at, a main street for shopping, a state park to hike through with dozens of towering waterfalls, a comedy bus tour of the neighboring city Asheville; it’s going to be a packed weekend, and I can’t wait to get it started.

Smile

Well, I’m here. I survived the twelve-plus-hour drive all by myself (along with the voices in my head of course) and now I’m vacationing with Zak for the next four days. Oh yeah, that back/neck/everything pain I was ranting/raving/bitching about earlier? That immediately disappeared as soon as I stepped onto the Fischers’ driveway. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Anyway, I’m exhausted and about to knock out. After completing my journey, I can contrive only three words to put the cap on today: I made it.

“Congratulations, honey! Was that Roadtrip??” G-Mah asks me through a mouthful of “seltzer”.

I tell her she can swallow her drink before she speaks because I’m not going anywhere anytime soon as there’s still quite a bit left to read. I thought saying this would make her smile, but instead G-Mah rolls her eyes and takes another swig of her beliquored seltzer.

The Museum

Friday, March 15th

I awaken to a gentle gray light peeking through the curtains draped between myself and the window.

“Where else would they be draped, huh? Over your balls?” asks my Uncle Bill in a gruff voice. He’s just mad because his mother is speaking to me and not him, I try to not take his aggression to heart.

Try.

It had rained, or according to Zak and his family, it had stormed and thundered with the force of a Norse god last night, but I heard nothing. I guess that drive really did take a lot out of me.

The deck is damp when I walk out to catch the vista, but I hardly notice. The view of the valley and the nearby mountain, although it’s slightly obscured by trees, is nothing short of beautiful, breathtaking even; to be able to wake up and see this first thing in the morning is a dream. Below the deck is a grove of laurel trees growing so close together their leaves interlock and, under the right circumstances, I could see it looking like an algaeful pond with a ripple cast across the surface. The morning fog is just drifting back into the sky and a gentle gust blows across my face; I take in a deep breath, filling my lungs with that glorious North Carolinian mountain air. It smells like the forest down here. I’m infatuated already.

Zak is just waking up when I walk back in. He’s about as groggy as I am, as our mutual grunts of acknowledgment show. Both of his parents had left for work hours before we woke up and we have the house to ourselves, more or less. He makes a dash for the bathroom to take a shower and whatnot and I walk upstairs to be hounded by a happy to see me Henry. I dish out a generous helping of pets and scratches before returning to the dungeon to do a quick workout so my brain wakes up.

Twenty push-ups, twenty sit-ups, twenty squats; three sets, done. Zak finishes his shower and gets dressed in time for me to get in the shower before the water heater has a chance to cool down. No cold and awkward waiting in the naked today, thanks a bundle.

After the old lather’n’rinse, I dress myself and head upstairs to find Zak eating some breakfast. He tells me they have cereal, bread for toast, eggs and drinks in the fridge. I can help myself to whatever. I toast up some white bread and smother it with a butter spread, then grab a few stalks of celery and pour myself a cup of juice. I hoarf the food down quick, and as I’m washing the plate I used, I notice a note on the counter. Not only had the parental Fishers left us forty dollars to get lunch today, but they also managed to procure tickets for the bus tour on Saturday. Such kindness. I’m grateful to be here.

“An’I’m gra’eful y’r’ here wi’me today, hun,” G-Mah says with only a slight slur bridging her words together.

I look up to see that G-Mah is no longer facing me. She’s out in the middle of the kitchen doing donuts in her wheelchair. Mango is trying to catch her. Looks like a dog chasing its tail. I look to Uncle Bill for some grounding. He’s shirtless, still with the newspaper on his face. I’m not sure if he took the newspaper mane off to take his shirt off and then put the mane back on or if he was never wearing the shirt in the first place, but it doesn’t really matter. Uncle Bill is as Uncle Bill does, and Billy do. Oh, does Billy ever do…

On today’s agenda, sans lunch, is a tour around Hendersonville; there is a park Zak wants to show me, then we’re going to hang out around Main Street for a while. Before we head out, however, there are some chores that must be done, specifically the emptying of the dishwasher and the doing of Zak’s laundry. We get busy working on the dishwasher, I dry what needs drying and Zak puts the dishes away in their rightful places. Then, we tackle the laundry.

While we wait for the washing machine to finish the clothes, Zak shows me a slew of pictures of various fancy cars he’s spotted around town. He’s seen them all, every single fancy car: Corvettes, Porsches, Lamborghinies, Ferraries, Maseraties, he even has a picture of the Batmobile and, of course, Herby from Herby Fully Loaded.

Zak’s family is very automobile-friendly, and Zak is certainly no exception. His favorite maker is Volkswagen and his favorite model of car is, without a doubt, the Beetle. Before he moved down here, he drove a red Beetle named Jasper that his parents bought him as a surprise Christmas gift our senior year of high school.

After the photo gallery, Zak seems a little anxious; he’s pacing, messing with the furniture, revving his motor mouth, classic anxiety stuff. I suggest we have a meditation sesh to quell the inner beast and, reluctantly, Zak agrees to humor my hippie ways. I set a timer for ten minutes, sit down with my legs crossed on the floor while he mans the couch, and we drift away to the astral plane. When we come to, Zak is significantly calmer. He even tells me it put his mind at ease. I feel much calmer too, the entire energy of the household seems to have slipped into a state of zen.

By now the laundry is done, so without further ado I snatch the forty off the counter and we head out. Bessy follows the winding road down the mountain and leaves the development, merging onto the main road that leads to downtown Hendersonville. The Fisher folks told me last night that their development, or rather their collection of nineteen individual developments all enclosed in a mountainside community with a guard booth and a sensor gate, is called Carriage Park. Their specific development is Carriage Commons, or just The Commons, which I find to be ironic because I operate a publishing company called The Hillside Commons which, of course, I refer to as The Commons. As they say: great minds think alike; as I say: that, or we’re all idiots.

The Fishers also mentioned that Carriage Park is a retirement–

Retirement home?!” G-Mah shouts, throwing her empty bottle off the table with a grabber tool she wields like a short sword. Then, with the grabby end gripping my Adam’s apple tight, “You better not be trying to tell me your Mother’s planning on putting me in a home, young man. I swear to God, if you are…!”

My eyes dart from grandMother to Mango to Uncle Bill, then to the single hair sprouting from Uncle Bill’s right nipple, then back to G-Mah who looks none too thrilled about any of it, any of it at all.

“Well?!” she demands.

“Uh, uh-uh uh, huhhh, uhm…” I stutter, not sure of what to say. “I’m not… why would you think that, Gram?”

The tension deflates. grandMother looks more thrilled than she did a moment ago. She also releases my throat.

“I’m sorry, honeybun, sometimes I hear certain things and they trigger me into infuriation. Sometimes it happens when certain folks talk in general, too… like, your Uncle Will?”

I look over to Uncle Bill, who’s now down to his tightie-whities, and watch as his face boils from a tannish pale to a reddish pink.

“When he talks to me, hun, it makes me want to get back into my crack habit. I mean really, I can’t even make it up, he comes here just to drone on and on to me about the latest cornhole competition he watched on Tee-Vee, like, really? Nobody gives a shit about what you’re stuffing up your cornhole, Will! Nobody cares!”

My poor Uncle Bill, with tears streaming down his face and dirty black newspaper ink dripping like hot asphalt from the soggy streaks in his mane, stands from the table with such intensity that the wooden chair he was stationed at flies into the wall behind him. He slaps the table with one hand, then slams both his hands down, then he starts punching the tile-top table like my cousin Chad does a sheetrock wall after he has two too many Re’ Bu’l vo’kas. Despite the commotion, G-Mah remains cool and collected, steadier than steel, expectations higher than ever.

The Fishers also mentioned that Carriage Park is a retirement community if it’s anything else, and that they’re among the youngest residents who live there. Even though I’ve only been in the area for a few hours now, I can see why it’s a desirable retirement destination. It’s very calm down here; the sun is warm, the air is balmy, the forests are everywhere; it’s just a very peaceful–

“Can you stop, please?!” I demand. The words burst out of me in a voice coarse enough to smooth hardened cement.

Uncle Bill freezes mid-punch and stares wildly at me, terrified. Then a blood vessel breaks below his right iris, causing him to grab his face and dash into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him so hard that it doesn’t even make a sound. At least, not a sound I can hear with my lowly human ears; Mango, eyes and ears wide and alert, trots off into the hallway.

G-Mah, on the other hand, considers me. The look on her face is both impressed and slightly frightened.

“Sweetie… are you sure you don’t want any liquor? You might, uh… maybe you could use it?”

I look at the glass for a moment and consider it. Then I continue reading.

…it’s just a very peaceful town, like an old-worldy village set back in the forest, close enough to the coast to share in the warm weather but inland enough to avoid the storms. Rolling towards main street, I notice a couple other retirement villages lining the sides of the road. None are as grandiose as Carriage.

Zak begins the tour as we enter the heart of Hendersonville. He points out a bunch of places he frequents – places he once worked, the road that leads to the supermarket where he works now, all that good stuff. He then directs me to Illustrious Park, the actual name of which escapes me. We drive a loop around a few fields until we find a parking space near a patch of woods where we can take a quick walk. In this moment I realize why everyone calls these places parks; you park your car and get out into nature. Thank you, the complex English language and its intelligent and creative progenitors.

The patch of woods isn’t sizable in any way, shape, or form, but there’s a nice little trail that runs through it and Zak leads the way. I quickly learn that this path is part of a disc golf course, one that Zak helped build, no less, and he shows me one of the metal baskets. It’s a convoluted contraption comprised of plates, poles, and tiny chains, it stands roughly four feet high with a two-foot diameter, and it kind of looks like a birdcage if you squint your eyes until they’re shut. The trail then takes us to a small and deserted playground where Zak and I swing on the swings for a few minutes before heading back to my car and hitting the town.

We snag a three-hour parking spot at the foot of an empty brick building that once housed a business called Dad’s Collectibles. Part of me wishes it was still open, the concept of its existence makes my resale senses tingle more than the Train Room at the Fischer house; some collectibles, specifically old trains and action figures, are worth major cash if you can find the right dude to pay out his ass for them. Anyway, at this point our light breakfast has worn off considerably, we’re hankering for something to fill the void. I ask Zak where he wants to eat and he mulls it over for a few minutes, listing some of the places we could go. His parents weren’t kidding when they said there’s a ton of great places to eat down in the NC; there are more restaurants along main street than I can count on two hands and just as many feet. Eventually Zak decides on his favorite pizza place, the unmatchable East First Woodfired Pizza.

East First is Zak’s favorite pizzeria because he has a friend who works there whose name I will casually omit because I do not know her. I forget exactly how they met, through work at the supermarket or something like that, but she’s always very kind to Zak. She goes out of her way to make sure everything is perfect for him whenever he eats at her restaurant. She’s also very beautiful, to quote Zak; he’s a ladies’ man if nothing else.

The building is set a block off main street and it feels bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. There’s a very artsy, almost rustic feel to this joint; massive paintings hanging on the walls, a giant brick pizza oven decorated with multicolored mosaic tiles behind the counter, a spiral staircase leading to who knows where, light music playing in the background, a stranger in a dark cloak with his hood up standing on the catwalk high above the eating space… oh no, wait, that’s just a smudge on the wall, probably a grease stain or pizza oven exhaust or something. Regardless, the lofty atmosphere is definitely on point.

Shortly after we walk in we’re approached by Zak’s friend and seated at one of the few open tables. Before I can blink we’re served drinks, myself a water and Zak a cola, and then we’re ordering – I’m not sure if the service is just that good or if Zak gets special treatment, but honestly? I’m not sure I care either way. Zak orders a one-man pepperoni pizza and I order a one-man meat lover’s. Zak gulps down all but a single sip of his soda by the time our pizza is served.

The Carolinian pizza is scalding hot but absolutely phenomenal, leagues better than that place I hit up in Virginia. Not too greasy, the dough is cooked to perfection and the crust is loaded with herbs, and it has a nice crunch to it to boot. We don’t just eat our pizza today, we inhale it. Zak’s friend hooks us up with the check and a receipt. As we’re leaving, she asks if we want a drink to go. Apparently this is the norm down here, whenever you leave a restaurant you’re usually offered a drink to take with you. I like this. The hospitality is real.

The next place Zak wants to hit is the Pinball Museum, a local haven of vintage pinball machines and arcade games. You pay a flat admission price and you can stay however long you want and play as much as you want. The only thing is, it won’t open for another hour, so we have no choice but to wander around aimlessly for now, just two specs of dust drifting through deep space as we wait until we’re sucked into the black hole of arcade-era pre-video and video games.

To kill time, Zak shows me a few of the stores he likes, the most notable of which is the Mats General Store. It’s a modern old-timey general store, they sell everything from clothing to souvenirs to toys to appliances. They even have barrels full of candy all over the store. The one thing they didn’t sell was doormats, which shocked me.

After Mats I spot a new-agey hippie shop and drag Zak through it. He doesn’t seem as into the crystals and whatnot as I am, but he humors me nonetheless. The front is kind of barren, as if they just recently moved in, and in the center of the floor they have a display case loaded with gemstones and crystals of various shapes, sizes, and mystical persuasions. The guy at the front counter is friendly enough, I guess, but he’s very preoccupied by a text he apparently needs to answer right this second, so I peruse around unguided.

In the back of the shop lurks a grizzled elder with thick, tangled gray hair tied up in a ponytail that falls past his knees. His eyes are a bit red, almost the same shade as the many tinted glass paperweights in his display case, and he’s standing there behind his counter lazily gazing into space. Curious, I ask Zak what’s up with the dude, but he doesn’t have an answer. Zak is far from the target consumer base of this store, dude comes in here about as often as I come down to NC. Letting my wonder wander me back to the back counter, I strike up a conversation with the spacey man and learn that he’s a gardener of sorts, been growing his plants for years and they only get greener as time goes on. My parents are both into the horticulture thing too, so I ask him what he grows.

It is at this point when I realize what all those colorful little glass sculptures in his display case are – smoking pipes. This man grows freaking weed, like, what?! Not that I have a problem with it; I’m a pretty straightedge fella, I don’t do drugs myself, but I think others should be able to if they want. Who am I to judge?

I ask the guy about the pipes. He tells me they’re all hand-blown by local artists. I notice some vacuum-sealed baggies filled with what I have to imagine is weed – he tells me it’s actually hemp flower, not marijuana (whatever the difference is), and that it’s totally legal. Then he grabs a bag, opens it, and shoves it into my face. It smells… like a plant, I guess. It almost has a skunky smell to it but it’s more sweet, closer to black licorice than anything else. This is the first time I’ve ever been in close proximity to something that even remotely looks like weed. Part of me wants to get the hell out of this store before I get arrested, but the other part of me is almost curious.

Almost.

Zak, about the farthest thing from a smoker one can possibly be in this world, tells the gardening man we’re not interested and grabs me by the collar, drags me back to the sidewalk. We meander down the street from the hippie shop and I spot a sign advertising a mineral and fossil museum with free admission. It’s been ages since I’ve been at a museum and we’ve still time to kill before the pinball museum opens anyway, so we venture in and take a peek.

“Wait, so you didn’t buy any of the guy’s weed?” G-Mah asks.

“No, Gram!” I say, partly embarrassed and partly shell shocked. “Of course I didn’t. I don’t do drugs, remember?”

G-Mah, her gaze transfixed on the empty glass of alcohol next to me, says, “Yeah, I’ve heard. Can I be honest with you, sweetie?”

“Sure Gram,” I say, “what’s up?”

“You should try doing some drugs.”

It’s not a massive room, maybe four hundred square feet in all, but the place is absolutely packed with artifacts from myriad different ages. We see immaculate sculptures chiseled out of colored crystal, Native American arrowheads, dinosaur bones, fluorescent rocks set aglow under an ultraviolet light. They even have a fully completed skeleton of a tyrannosaurus rex, which I especially enjoy. Zak and I embark on a conversation with the curator and just as we’re about to dip out, she claps her hands and the lights suddenly go dim.

With everyone present’s attention stolen, the curator of the free museum humbly thanks her crowd for coming down and checking out her rock collection. She says that she, “Has shit to do today,” and that, “Because the museum is free of admission, it will be closing in about fifteen minutes.” Until then, she has a presentation for us.

Fog machines kick on. A few inches of haze spill out over the floor. The lights go from dim to off, then to strobe. The fluorescent rocks shine bright like stars, the crystal sculptures glow like they were composed of luciferin, a soft power ballad lilts over the loudspeaker. Then, I hear it; it’s quiet at first, a very low rumble, I’m not even sure if it’s real, but then Zak shoots me a look and I know – something is coming. The roaring is growing louder, the footsteps heavier, but it’s so dark, I can’t see anything with the strobe light. What could possi– oh fuck!!

Grabbing Zak by the wrist, I turn and we sprint towards the exit. The door is shut, locked by two different mechanisms; we don’t have time! It’s coming for us!!

As the footsteps approach, I flip the deadbolt and find the little switch on the door handle. The creature somehow roars as we blast through the door and race up the three flights of stairs that take us to the street. There’s no way it could have fit through that tiny door, it couldn’t have followed us. We’re safe now… the guys and gals who were inside that museum aren’t safe, hell no, but Zak and I are. And that’s all that matters.

Zak grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me so hard that the glasses fall off my face and clack to the ground. He shouts at me a few times, asking me if I’m okay and whatnot, and I tell him I’m fine, if not a little bit confused. I ask him if he’s okay and he just looks at me. Feeling like there’s an elephant on the sidewalk with us who’s being allowed to play the cello without receiving any tips, I ask Zak why he wasn’t as scared as I was by the reanimated t-rex skeleton that chased us out of the museum. With a truly indescribable expression, Zak shousplains that it was a three-dimensional movie and we could only see the thing because of the plastic glasses they gave us when we walked in.

After studying the lenses between Zak’s eyes and myself, I look at the sidewalk and study the cracked plastic 3D glasses Zak shook off my face a moment ago. Huh, I must have forgotten they gave us those. Oh well. We find a bench and chill out in the cool pre-spring air until the pinball museum opens up.

The Pinball Museum

We’re the first ones inside. A walk through a dark foyer leads us to a room filled to the gills with pinball machines. Early ones with paper dials for point counters, modern ones with screens and brilliant LED lights, and everything in between. They even have a dusty old model opened up so their patrons can see the exposed innards of a pinball machine before it gets restored. As we walk past the fossil, Zak eyes a Transformers game and comments that they must have added that one recently because he’s never played it before. Following that logic, I comment that they must have recently added all of these machines because I’ve never played them before either. Zak sniffs the air and says nothing else.

Past the first pinball room is the main counter where we pay and get our wristbands. The guy behind the counter recognizes Zak and greets us with a friendly smile. He tells me that Zak’s a regular here and that he can show me which games are the best. Zak’s back in the game room before I can even enunciate the word word.

As if guided by a force of nature, Zak gravitates directly towards the Transformers machine. There’s a huge rendition of Bumblebee in both forms on the scoreboard. Bumblebee is hands down Zak’s favorite Transformer – he turns into a Volkswagen Beetle, after all. I start in on an Avengers machine and quickly learn that my pinball skills leave much to be desired; by the time I burn through all three of my lives, Zak is still playing his first. I hop between machines with haste while Zak works each one to the bone, running up high scores and garnering looks of awe from a rapidly growing audience. When we got here seconds after they opened and it was empty I thought we would have the place to ourselves the whole time, but my goodness was I mistaken. It’s a zoo in here. The cacophony of all the humans excitedly playing pinball is almost matched by the vintage orchestra of blips, booms, dings, and pews. It’s a symphony the way the sound-waves all clash together in the air like this, it’s enamoring. I want to lose myself in here!

After what feels like only twenty minutes passes, I chance a peek at my smartphone and notice that I have about two half minutes left of my three-hour parking. Whoops! I find Zak and describe to him the situation. He asks if we should leave, but what would be the fun in that?

I tell him I’ll be right back and I run to the entrance to make my way down the street towards my car, checking both ways for skeletal dinosaurs before I exit the building. After passing the last storefront, which looks despicably unfamiliar, I realize I went the wrong way entirely and now my car is twice the distance I just walked away from me, and it’s on the other side of the street. Awesome.

Eventually I find Bessy and just as I’m pulling out of the expired parking spot, I see an open spot right next to me that doesn’t have a three-hour time limit. Fuckin’ heck yeah.

When I get back to the pinball museum, I look around for Zak but he’s nowhere to be found. I almost resort to asking someone if they’ve seen him, but then I realize something: the first game room is only the beginning. There’s an entire second room full of not only pinball machines, but also old-school carnival shooters and a raised platform with vintage arcade games. At first I was underwhelmed by this place, but now I understand why Zak loves it so much. I find my dude teaching a pinball a lesson, so I hop on a carnival shooter right next to him. As it turns out, I’m about as talented with the point-and-shooters as I am with the pinball machines. Oh well, I still have fun playing. I move on to a Vietnam war game and notice Zak following in my footsteps. After I hop off a game, he gets on and turns my high score to dust. Every. Single. Time. Who is this kid?

After I spend a solid cubic meter of minutes killing aliens on an old Galaga game, Zak finds me and tells me he’s about finished. I blast one more unidentified pixelated object before we take our leave and brace ourselves for the sunlight to burn our eyes to a crisp. The pinball museum was lit up like a vintage arcade, meaning there was hardly any illumination at all save for the lights coming off the games. It added a nice touch to the experience, but that touch just evolved into a backhand.

“So…” grandMother says whilst spiking another innocent bottle of seltzer. “You two got chased by a… dinosaur?”

“Yep,” I say, proud of myself for being able to outrun it. “It was technically a skeleton of a dinosaur, but yeah. Crazy shit. I don’t know why nobody else freaked out when they saw it, but, whatever.”

G-Mah, her bubbly red drink cut right down the middle, corks her frosty bottle of bumbleberry liquor. She places it on the table and slowly slides it next to the little empty glass standing beside my computer. I stare at the opaque bottle for a moment, G-Mah staring at me all the while. Her eyes whisper what her mouth dares not to.

At this point we’re getting a bit peckish so we head back to base camp to sniff around for some rations. As we’re coming up the hill past the gate, we pass a waving Ronnie zooming down the hill in his Porsche. A few ticks later, as we’re pulling into the driveway, I hear the sound of an engine tearing down a street in the distance. Hah!

In the kitchen we find a note that Ronnie must have written not even five minutes ago; he’s, “Going out to get a haircut…” and if we get back before him, could we “…please take Henry for a walk.” One half of the prophecy is complete; now, the rest is in our hands.

As Zak fiddles with Henry’s leash, I run downstairs to grab an extra sweatshirt. When I was packing for this trip, I didn’t bother to check the weather. I just assumed that since I would be down south, it would be warm. But uh, to put it simply, March is March and I’ll have to make a choice between being the winter variant of a Jersey man or not wearing more than half the clothes I brought. Plus, I’m just realizing now, I forgot a belt, which pretty much eliminates the other half of my choices because my jeans don’t fit me right. Oh well!

I come back upstairs to a still, empty house. I walk outside and see Zak halfway up the road already – he left without me! I run to catch up with him and we take Henry for a very pleasant walk around the hilly block. During the walk, Zak opens up to me about his oldest brother’s passing.

Seven years ago, during the summer before our senior year of high school, Zak’s eldest brother Mike got into a tragic work accident at a park that just happened to be a venue for our cross country races; while he was locking gates around the park on an especially stormy evening, something inexplicable happened and Mike got struck by lightning twice in a row in the same spot, leaving him to suffer severe internal injuries. He passed away in the hospital later that day; Mike was Zak’s best friend, he understood him in a way not many others do. To support Zak’s family that summer, the whole cross country team attended the memorial service. We also dedicated our season to Mike that year by having a Mike patch sewn onto the back of our racing singlets. Obviously the accident was very hard on the entire family, but it was especially so on Zak; he’s still struggling to move on more than seven years later.

I tell Zak about my cat Milkshake who recently passed away in a very sudden and tragic manner. Milkshake was my best friend like Mike was to Zak; even though he was a cat and I am a human, I felt that he understood me in a way that no one else did. We would hang out all the time, listen to music, go for walks, I even took him hiking with me a few times. He was kind of crazy, just like me, very different than any other cat I’ve met. In a way, he taught me how to be myself. But like the very best of things, Milkshake came to an end; one day while I was working at the auction hall, my brother came home and found Milkshake crawling with his front paws, half his body dragging behind him – for some reason, my boy’s back legs stopped working. I don’t want to get too into the details because I’m starting to tear up just writing about it, but I had to put him down later that night.

“Rest in peace, Milkshake,” G-Mah says. “He was a good boy.”

“The best,” I concur.

I tell Zak that, as humans, we’re not going to understand the why behind the majority of what happens in life. Sometimes tragic things happen for what seems to be no reason at all, but I think we only see it that way because we can only see one side of the situation, that side being the side that directly impacts our lives. But us, our planet, even our galaxy is tiny compared to everything else out there; sometimes, I think there might be so much out there that folks don’t understand how little they actually know.

I explain to him how when someone dies, their soul – the energy which gives them life and makes them who they are on the inside – leaves their body like a snake shedding its skin and goes somewhere else. Whether that somewhere else is a body in a different country, in a different time, on a different planet, or in a different universe or different plane of reality altogether, well, that’s not for us mortals to know. When we come here we come for a reason, we come to Earth for a purpose, and when we leave the planet, we leave for a purpose too. Sometimes it’s because our Earthly purpose has been fulfilled, but other times it’s because a greater purpose for us lies elsewhere.

Zak tells me about a dream he had not too long ago. I forget the exact context now as I’m writing this, but essentially what happened was that Mike appeared to him. Mike told him that he’s okay, that everything’s okay and that it’s time for Zak to move on. Zak asks me what that means, and I tell him that dreams are, among other things, a way for passed spirits to come back and spend time with us, a way for them to talk to us after they’ve gone into the light. Zak seems to find comfort in this, but I can tell he’s still distraught. I ask him if he wants to talk anymore, but he says has some thoughts to mull over.

On the return trip home I spot something glimmering amongst the red woodchips at the base of the neighbor’s mailbox pillar. Upon closer inspection, I realize it’s a smoky quartz crystal. When Zak isn’t watching, I discretely pinch it into my pocket.

Once we get home, I smuggle my pretty rock into the bathroom and wash off the little bit of dirt clinging to it, to bring out the luster. Zak’s back in his bedroom at this point, so I walk in and sit on his bed with him, presenting him the crystal. I place it on his windowsill and explain how crystals, especially smoky quartz like this one, have a way of capturing light and energy; whenever he wants to feel close to his brother, he can hold this crystal to feel Mike’s light radiating through it and into him. Zak loves the idea of the crystal more than he does the rock itself, but it does the job well enough.

Zak’s parents get home about an hour later and announce that they’re taking us to a local joint called the Blue Grass Café for dinner. We pull up and the outside seating is packed, but there are plenty of booths available inside. The waitress is a belle; two tons of character, a pink apron, the textbook image of a stereotypical North Carolinian waitress. She and the Fishers convince me to ditch my water and try the sweet tea, which, according to Ronnie, will give me diabetes. I’m sure it’ll be worth it, though.

I take a sip and correct him; the sweet tea could give an elephant diabetes, but it’s delicious so I have no choice but to gulp it down. I order a chicken tenders basket and Zak gets a burger. I’m not sure exactly what the parents get, but it sure looks delicious.

I find that a good way to measure the edibility of an eatery’s food is to order their chicken tenders. They’re relatively simple to make yet easy to screw up; if the kitchen staff can’t do chicken tenders well, they probably can’t do real food well either. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case for tonight because my basket of tender chicken and everyone else’s food is all top notch. We talk to the waitress for a few minutes before we leave, I tell her about the trip and whatnot, and she has nothing but kind things to say. We leave her a nice tip and head back home, but not before being offered a drink for the road. That southern hospitality, through and through.

The rest of the night is quiet. Zak and I hang out for a while, he shows me more pictures and videos on his phone. Footage from a Weird Al concert, pictures of cars and monster trucks, pictures from Tate’s wedding during which Zak was best man. Apparently, hiding somewhere in the untapped data mines of his phone, there’s a video of Zak’s wedding speech. He searches through the archives but can’t find it. I tell him not to worry, there are still almost a hundred hours left before I’m heading home. There’ll be plenty of time.

That’s pretty much the night though. Zak has, for lack of a better phrase, a very strict bedtime routine. When he’s ready for bed, he’s ready for bed, and he knocks out as soon as he hits the pillow. I’m the exact opposite, sleep eludes me on a nightly basis like words do my mind whilst trying to formulate a good riff for how sleep eludes me on a nightly basis. I lie in bed fully awake for at least three more hours before I finally drift off.

[It is 2:34 in the morning as I edit this. Why am I editing at 2:34 in the morning? Because sleep eludes me on a nightly basis.]

The Bus Tour

Saturday, March 16th

“So all that was one day, huh?” G-Mah asks, head in her hands.

I look up from my laptop screen and catch her dozing. Mango had come back from the hallway, apparently, and now she’s sprawled across the kitchen table and on top of the newspaper Uncle Bill was reading before he disappeared into the bathroom.

“Yeah, that was the first day. It’s the longest by far, we’re almost halfway through the second chapter now. It was the busiest day, so I think that’s why it was the longest, but I also just do that sometimes when I write. The beginning is always a lot more fleshed out than the end.”

“Oh honey, that is very nice, but I didn’t ask,” as she checks the watch on her wrist. I’m about to start reading again but grandMother verbally jumps in with, “Hey, uh, how is your foot feeling by the way, hun?” before I can send out the words.

“My foot?” I ask, not sure why she pulled that card. “You mean from the Uncle Skylar thing? That was a month and a half ago Gram, I’ve been walking again for a couple weeks now.”

“Ahh hah hah shit! I told you two to be careful with the tequila!”

“I didn’t even drink any tequila, Gram! That was all Skylar!”

This throws grandMother off for a moment, but she grabs right back on. “Oh yeah, that’s right. Wait, so… so you ran around on that rocky riverbed without shoes… on purpose…?”

I roll my eyes and smile at grandMother. I’m glad I could come for this visit today.

Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise. If that’s true then so too must be the opposite, so I offer this: late to bed, late to rise makes a man lazy and hazy in the eyes.

During the drive down, both of my ears stopped allowing me to pop them, and I’m still having trouble popping them now. I think I was mildly traumatized by the car ride, ironically enough. I can wake up fine after caving my skull in, but after enduring a twelve-hour ride in a car? Forget about it. A minuteish ago Zak knocked on my door asking if I was up yet. I told him I’m getting there. I suppose I should stop getting there and just go.

After devouring the delicious home-cooked breakfast of bacon, fruit, and chocolate chip pancakes Margaret made for us, Zak and I take a quick walk around the block. I am chillingly underdressed yet again. I go outside in shorts, a tee, and no shoes and promptly have my ass frozen off – or at least I would have, if I didn’t have that Jersey blood. Regardless, talk about a wakeup walk!

“You walk barefoot a lot, huh?” G-Mah asks.

I tell her yes, I do, because I like to feel connected to the Earth. I then go into a fifteen-minute spew about grounding and allowing the Earth to swap its electrons for your own because, as humans, we are magnetic beings; we’re all like batteries, and getting a recharge is important. I revert back to the book when G-Mah rolls towards the brink of falling asleep.

When we return, everybody piles into the minivan and we drive Zak to work. In waking up so late I almost made Zak late, for which I humbly apologize. He usually likes to get to the job at least fifteen minutes early, but today it’s only going to be two minutes early. Sorry about that, buddy! I tell his parents that I had a lot of trouble sleeping last night and they remind me of the heaping cup of sugar with a few choice droplets of water in it called sweet tea I drank at dinner. That makes the gears click. It wasn’t the chronic insomnia, I was buzzing because of a sugar high. I didn’t realize! No more sweet tea for me.

From the supermarket we go to Zak’s apartment complex so we can check out the single he’ll be moving into in April. It’s a nice spot, needs a little bit of work, a new paint job maybe, but it’ll fit him quite nicely. He has a roommate living with him now, but Zak isn’t really a roommate kind of guy. I don’t blame him. I’m not one to share a room either. I’ve always preferred having my own space. Privacy is very important to me. How can one be a recluse without a space to reclude to?

From there we drive up a mountain somewhere else in town to a spot called Jump Off Rock. At an elevation of about three thousand feet, the peak offers a sprawling vista of miles upon miles of forests and mountains littered with human houses and whatnot. One could see into a different state from here, I reckon; oh god, where did that come from? I’ve never unironically said I reckon once in my life… the south must be getting to me. That’s fine. I only regret not bringing my camera up here to capture the moment; because I don’t have my camera, this visit is rather short lived. We return to the Fisher abode posthaste.

When we get back, Margaret says she has some work she needs to do around the house. Meanwhile, Ronnie decides to take me for a spin in his Porsche. He tells me he’s giving me a tour of downtown Hendersonville just like Zak did yesterday, but this tour will likely be very different. And different it is – where Zak showed me his favorite pizza place, some shops he likes, and the pinball museum, Ronnie plans to cater more to my interests.

The first thing Ronnie points out is the bears; dotted all around town are these four-foot-tall fiberglass bear statues with custom paint jobs. Each year the town of Hendersonville fabricates and sells blank bears to local artists to be painted and auctioned off; all the proceeds get donated to charity organizations. Some businesses buy the blank bears outright and commission artists to turn them into doorstops to lure consumers into their stores, too. I like the idea. I wish Ringwood would do something like this. We could paint mountains or UFOs or arrowheads or something.

Next we hit an art store that rents out studios to local artists. The studios offer both a working area and a display area, and art created in-house can be sold on consignment through the store. Patrons can sign up to take lessons with the in-house artists, rent their own studio, and sell their own art from a display space in the front of the store. I think it’s a wonderful business.

From there we venture to an antique store with two floors. They sell everything from vintage junk to immaculate antiques to a suit of armor with glowing red eyes that follow me each of the eight times I walk by. One piece that really sticks out to me, though, is a Chinese throne-style armchair with intricate dragons carved into it. If I were to buy the chair I don’t know that I would sit upon it, but with a price tag of $3,300 I don’t think I’ll have to be making that decision.

“You bought a chair for thirty-three-hundred-dollars?!?” G-Mah screams, channeling the spirits of our ancestors.

The spirits, who were paying attention, heard me say I did not buy the chair, so they don’t do much.

On the way to the next store, we spot a pub that’s boasting free samples of their craft hard ciders. I’m not a drinking man when it comes to traditional beers and IPAs and all that nonsense, or ever, but Ronnie loves a good hard cider. I humor him and we go inside.

The place is empty, barring us, and we strike up a conversation with the bartender, a young guy who seems very proud to be working where he does. Ronnie coyly brings up the samples and the barkeep gives us a list of varieties; they craft a blueberry cider, a strawberry, a peach, just to name a few. Ronnie opts for the peach and the ‘tender gives him half a shot glass full. He downs it in one gulp, says it’s sweet with just a hint of tang, with a slight carbonation that really brings the whole thing home. Before we leave, the barkeep gives him another sample, this time of the blueberry cider because it’s his favorite one. I take a sip too, we’re both blown away; hidden between the folds of fermented fruit juice is a perfect combination of sweetness and sour. Ronnie said he would have ordered a pint if it weren’t the middle of the day, but it is so he doesn’t and we’re out on the street once more.

“Ah-ha!” G-Mah touts, pointing at me from across the table.

Mango twitches a little. I hear a low groaning coming from the bathroom. Poor Uncle Bill, dude’s been in there for a while.

“What?” I say, my expression that of a deer in headlights. Okay, so I’ve tried alcohol once. It didn’t even taste that… alcoholy, I guess one would say. It was brewed on site, and it was room-temperature, and, and I didn’t even feel anything, I don’t think, and… whatever.

“Fine, yes, I’ve tried booze once.”

“Aaaand?” Gram asks with a serene smile.

“Aaaand…” I begin. “I don’t know. It wasn’t fantastic. Probably wasn’t nearly as strong as that syrup you keep hittin’ on over there.”

As I say this, grandMother draws both the phial and my drinking glass across the table to herself. While making direct eye contact with me, G-Mah uncorks the liquor and slowly fills my cup a quarter of the way to the top. The alcohol is thick and pours like it was oozing – slow, rich, pretty much like syrup. My quip was on point for sure.

We have about forty minutes left before Zak gets off work, and Ronnie tells me there’s one more place he wants me to see. I forget the name, Something Boutique, but we go in and I immediately feel a hint of claustrophobia; the front room seems tiny for a full store, probably about the size of the closet in the Fisher’s master bedroom. I say hello to the cashier, an old guy draped in a dapper suit, and ask him how he is. He tells me, “Well I’m here, aren’t I?”

There are some clothes on racks, some costume jewelry, some knickknacks lining the shelves – I ask Ronnie what’s so special about this store. Without a word he points to a hallway in the back I swear was not there when we walked in. Down this hallway are no less than fourteen other shops. They’re small, no larger than the room in the front, and they’re all packed with wares. Each store is different, too; some sell clothes, some jewelry, some shrunken heads, some crystals and incense; it’s like an entire main street all stuffed into one store. If I was a shopper, I would lose my mind in there, and my wallet.

After spending more than a few minutes in the antique booth in the back of the boutique, Ronnie and I make our way back to the Porsche and hit the road. On the way to Zak’s supermarket we make a pitstop at the local PetsMart to grab some treats for Henry. Shame how a big corporate company like this is so much more successful than the mom and pop shops back in town; one could fit at least five or six of those fantastic little storefronts into the warehouse PetsMart has here. I suppose that’s just the way of the world, the local business has been traded for the country-wide, even global corporation where everything is the same no matter where you go. I happen to prefer a unique regional flavor over a ubiquitously bland vanilla but, as I step down off my proverbial soapbox, I digress.

We get to the supermarket a couple minutes early, so we walk in to meet up with Zak. He introduces me to his manager and a few of the humans he works with, and before we make it out of the store we’re stopped by a shopper who hasn’t seen Zak since February and wanted to wish him a happy birthday. It’s just like it was in Ringwood, everyone knows Zak down here. He’s the mayor of the town.

It’s a beautiful day, so we put the top down for the drive home. We’re only there long enough for Zak to change into street clothes, and then we’re right back into the car. ElZoom, the comedy bus tour, starts in about an hour and it takes some time to get into Asheville, and we’ve still yet to eat dinner. I opt for Taco Bell, but nobody else shares my love for the locos tacos so we stop at a Five Guys Burgers & Fries instead. This was hands down Zak’s favorite place to get grub back in high school, the cross country team would often come here for dinner after meets and the food is even better than I remember. We chatter about the old days between bites of burger and fry.

We wind up getting to the ElZoom Room about fifteen minutes early, so after we check in, we take a stroll up the street to get a taste of Ashville. It’s like downtown Hendersonville, but bigger. Buildings are taller, storefronts more open. It’s like NYC and Hendersonville had a baby – a small town with big attitude and cityish flair. We see a couple homeless folks, too. And street performers. And homeless street performers. One was a child, he couldn’t have been older than eleven or twelve, playing the violin. His instrument case had the most bills in it by far. Some humans do have heart, after all… says the guy who didn’t give any money to anyone.

As we get back to the ElZoom Room, which is a full-service bar by the way, the bus is just pulling up. At one time it was a school bus, but it’s since been gutted, refurnished, given a funky purple paint job mixed with some plastic surgery, and it had its windows removed in favor of a plastic sheet draped insecurely over its sides. This is done so the passersby on the street can hear the comedy and participate in the tour as the bus drives on by. Or be made uncomfortable by it. To each their own.

Our host’s name is Kelly, she does a great job of riling the crowd up for the main act with more than a handful of devastating roasts of the drunk college guys sitting in the front of the bus. Before long we meet our tour guide, a man by the name of Oliver. Both his mother and father were tour guides, he was born into the business. He’s a little creepy, stares at you for a couple seconds too long, touches you on the thigh when he walks down the aisle – a true picture of a North Carolinian cityboi hick with the accent to match. If the dude’s playing a character, he deserves an Oscar, and if not, more power to him. Elastic-strap overalls and everything, good god.

The bus tour takes us through the urban cityscape and dips into the suburban areas festering outside the city. This city has a mansion for every one of its breweries, and there are a lot of breweries down here. You know how cities have a Starbucks on every street corner? It’s kind of like that, except instead of coffee they brew beer and hard cider. As for the mansions, well, according to y’boy Oliver, back in the early colonial days of America, doctors would purportedly write their patients legit prescriptions for Asheville mountain air as a cure for tuberculosis. One would literally venture out to Asheville to rent a grandiose wooden mansion so one could sit on the balcony (or as it was called back then, the breathing porch) and breathe in the pure mountain air to cure oneself. It was a simpler time, I guess, although today’s aromatherapy treatments are sort of the same thing, inhaling a calming atmosphere in the hopes that your ailments will be cured. If it works it works, right?

Halfway through the tour we stop at a pub for a quick reprieve and Ronnie gets a tall can of local hard cider. He says it’s not quite as flavorful as, say, an Angry Orchard or a Strongbow, nor the cider samples we got in Hendersonville, but that certainly doesn’t stop him from enjoying it. Zak’s not a big fan of alcohol, he doesn’t get why humans drink that nasty stuff. I tell him I don’t get it either as his dad downs another sip and winces when the crap bites at his tongue. The fresh cider wasn’t awful, but most alcohol tastes like trash from what I hear, and it’s vehemently bad for the body, but hey, you know what they say: We’re here for a good time, not a long one.

Well, some are, at least.

On the second half of the tour we get stuck in traffic and Oliver holds an Asheville trivia competition; whoever answers his questions correctly wins a prize from the Magical Silver Box O’Comedy. The first winner, a man without any facial hair, gets a fake mustache! The second winner, a clean-shaven woman, takes home a fake mustache! The third winner, a man with facial hair to rival the love child of Fu Manchu and Chuck Norris, wins – you guessed it – a fake mustache! The fourth winner, because usually there’s only three questions and this traffic is holding us up, gets a choice: either a fake mustache or a can of cat food! She chooses the fake mustache; Zak once had the same options, and when he did, he chose the cat food. My man.

After the tour ends, we’re offered a free drink as compensation for being held up in traffic. It was my first tour so obviously I have nothing to compare it to, but I hardly noticed the traffic. It did not seem to hold up the tour at all. Oh well, not going to say no to a free drink. Ronnie gets another can of hard cider, as does Margaret, and Zak and I get sodas. Ronnie only drinks half of his and gives the rest to Zak to finish, but he doesn’t want any. Ronnie tries to pawn the can off on me too, but I deflect it, dooming the poor dude to finish his own free hard apple cider. Aww 😦

I think Ronnie has a fairly sufficient buzz going at this point, but that doesn’t stop us from taking a walk back into Asheville to enjoy the evening air. We check out a few storefronts, stop in a candy shop to pick up some chocolate-covered pretzels, then head back home. I’m not much of a city guy – the constant construction, the undulating masses of humans, the towering buildings that make canyons out of the narrow streets, it’s just not for me – so I’m secretly thrilled.

We have beef barley soup and some of Margaret’s homemade banana bread for dinner. The bread is to die for; she baked a healthy dose of chocolate chips into it, a welcome surprise when the morsel graces my tongue. Shortly after feasting, everyone hits the hay, myself included.

“So you really didn’t like the hard cider, huh hun?” G-Mah asks. She’s almost halfway through her current serving and Mango’s taken notice she keeps pawing at the mouth of the bottle trying to knock it down so she can get herself some sip.

“Nope, I don’t like alcohol in general. You better drink this glass you just poured me, because I’m definitely not touching it.”

Carefully, G-Mah eyes me with one eye held shut. A challenging smile, then, “Oh-kaaayyy.”

DuPo
int State Forest

Sunday, March 17th

I woke up on time today! Huzzah! To my surprise I fell asleep fairly quickly last night; not only that, but I also had very vivid and lifelike semi-apocalyptic dreams. I even realized I was dreaming while I was dreaming, a feat I have never before accomplished. Lucid dreaming has always intrigued me, the ability to be conscious and aware when you’re dreaming seems like it would be an incredible experience to have, so long as you could manage to remember it. The way I figure it, I’m reasonably close to consistent lucidity; I often have vibrantly vivid dreams, and sometimes when I wake up in the morning it takes a few minutes for me to realize that I was dreaming and that I’m back in “real” reality and not the dream’s reality. This isn’t the case today, though I will admit, stepping out onto the deck and feeling that cool mountain air hit my lungs, feeling that early morning chill ripple my skin, looking out over the woody valley at the mountain ranges rising and scraping the sky in the background as the sun hovers over it all; it feels like I might still be dreaming. This book is not going to end with me waking up from a dream, don’t worry. I wouldn’t do that to you. It just feels like I’m dreaming.

I go upstairs and wish everybody a good morning. We all slept well last night, there’s nothing like a night out on the town to get your head right. I then go back downstairs because the parents are groggy and not very talkative.

While I’m waiting for Zak to shower, I happen upon an orange ball sitting on the floor. I pick it up and squeak it. The pitter-patter and scritchy-scratching of dog paws scurrying across the floor erupts above my head, almost as if on command. Thus appears Henry at the bottom of the stairs, wide-eyed, alert, ready for action. We play fetch for a solid ten minutes before Zak relinquishes the bathroom.

On the agenda for today is a family breakfast at a local café, then Zak and I are going on a hike through DuPoint State Forest to check out all these waterfalls everyone keeps telling me about. Then, we’ll regroup with the ‘rents and hit a few repurpose shops as a unit before embarking on one final adventure, the specifics of which Ronnie and Margaret won’t reveal. I’m good with it, I like surprises.

“I,” G-Mah reminds me, “hate surprises.”

During the car ride to the local hotspot, I’m told Hendersonville has a flower shop and the owner has a pet pot-bellied pig that serves as a mascot for the business. I think that’s pretty fantastic. I also learn that Zak wants to write a car-themed joke book. I think that’s even more fantastic. Everybody should write, you included, hypothetical reader. Being creative is what being human is all about.

When we pull up at the café, Mean Mr. Mustard’s Café to be exact, I’m a little bit taken aback. It looks more like a bilevel house than a café. The place was probably a house at one point, someone just converted it into a business. Whatever works, right? And let me tell you, this place works. It’s themed around this little rock group called The Beatles – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them, they made a bit of noise in the sixties, I think – and the walls are adorned with Beatles memorabilia of all kinds: album art, newspaper articles, caricatures of the band members’ faces, psychedelic color schemes, the whole bit. Beatles music plays in the background and joining the instrument-shaped salt and pepper shakers at every table is a deck of Beatles Trivial Pursuit cards.

I look the menu over. All the dishes have some sort of Beatles reference in the name. Paul’s This and Ringo’s That, it’s all great but nothing really jumps out at me. The waitress returns and tells us the specials for the day – this is when I’m grabbed. Today they’re serving a fresh lobster and steak quiche topped with crab meat. I’m not a not a big egg eater, not a quiche guy, not a world-renowned connoisseur of seafood, but something about this dish speaks to me. I order the special, pair it with a biscuit and a helping of grits (whatever grits are) and patiently wait out the meantime with some trivia.

Fun fact: I am awful at Beatles trivia.

“Well what’s so fun about that, hun?” asks G-Mah. Before I can answer, she tips her head back and drains her seltzer bottle.

“What’s so fun about what?” I ask, eyeing my own glass out the corner of my eye. No, I am not going to try drinking today. Not at grandMother’s house.

“The fact,” grandMother answers. “You said it was a fun fact. What’s the fun part?”

The quiche has arrived. I’m a bit hesitant at first, not being a fan of eggs, seafood, nor quiche in general, but as soon as that first bite tingles my tastebuds I am long gone. I inhale the entire slice in all of two minutes, savoring every chomp while simultaneously stuffing my face like I’ve never seen food once in my life. The biscuit, smeared with locally sourced cinnamon apple butter, is cinnamon-a-riffic, and the grits, whatever the hell they are, are to die for. Needless to say, we all make short work of breakfast. Back home to prep for hiking.

I change into a tiedye shirt and jeans with holes in the knees, fill my backpack with a few waters, and then Zak and I set off towards the state forest, bumping Magical Mystery Tour the whole way down. The Beatles mood is infectious, to say the least; I’ve been singing I Am the Walrus in my head since that first bite of grits. Zak’s favorite song off the album is All You Need Is Love –the man’s got good taste.

The parking lot at the state forest is as dusty as it is packed, but after a few laps we find an exceptionally okay parking spot. We set out along the High Falls trail. The woods itself looks similar to the woods in Jersey except the trails are about three or four times as wide down here. It looks like a dried-out riverbed the way they’re carved into the Earth, it’s almost like a halfpipe. Maybe at some point in the past, rivers flowed here. Who’s to say?

I talk to Zak about how much I enjoy being in the forest, how it brings my mind to a peaceful state of tranquility, and he tells me he feels the same way, although I can sense he’s mulling over something in his head. He’s clearly deep in thought, he has both hands clasped behind his back and his eyes are glued to the trail. I can feel his brain whizzing from four feet away.

I ask him what’s on his mind. We talk about his brother a little bit before coming to the first waterfall, the sight of which puts us both into silence.

Pictures do not do nature justice. Nor does the word awesome. I don’t mean that like yeah, totally awesome dude, I mean it like awe-some, awe-inspiring. The waterfall towers over the Earth. The sound of the water cascading down into the river below results in a beautiful natural cacophony. It flows into a real river too, at least eight or ten feet wide, massive compared to the creeks and streams back home I can effortlessly leap over. I can’t really put into words how incredible this sight is – if you’re there, hypothetical reader, life truly is about the simple things. One must find the immaculate, the incomparable beauty that hides in plain sight out in nature. There really is nothing like it.

“But honey, I can’t walk,” I am reminded. “How am I supposed to see nature in a wheelchair, honeybun?”

From the High Falls Loop we take a wrong turn or two and wind up walking the entire Tri-Falls Trail and then some before doubling back the way we came and following High Falls to the visitor center. What was originally going to be a two-mile walk turned into four and a half or five miles, but I’m not complaining. Hiking was one of the things I was looking forward to the most when I got down here, and I undoubtedly got my fill today. On the way back home we listen to the Analog Man album by Joe Walsh, another favorite artist of Zak’s. His favorite Walsh banger is Life’s Been Good, probably because of the one line that says Maserati. Good ol’ Zak.

We’re only home for a few minutes before we hit the road for the repurpose shops. They’re more warehouses than they are shops, as far as I’m told. I keep my eye out for a Taco Bell but there doesn’t seem to be one anywhere down here. ¿No quiero? No; I will have my Taco Bell before the end of this trip, mark my words.

But anyway, the repurpose warehouses are insane. Set up in a similar fashion to the art store with the booths and studios rented by the artists, each warehouse is divvied up amongst the sellers. There’s always a little bit of everything in these places – literally anything you could possibly imagine finding down here, you will find. Antiques. Depression glass. Metal work. Art. Pallet furniture. Knickknacks and paddywhacks. Seats from amusement park rides. Gas station signs. Antique hand tools. Clothing. Golden doubloons. Working and not working electronics. Construction grade lumber. Tables. There’s so much more, I cannot name it all because frankly I don’t know what half the stuff is. I take a few pictures of pieces I think I can reproduce from scratch back home, most of all the pallet furniture, and after wandering for a while, we move back into the sunlight and on to the next barn.

We must hit three or four barns before sunset. Having gotten our fill of random stuff looking for the day, we pile back into the car and proceed towards the surprise, which ends up being a big arcade with a go-kart track on the side. Zak perks right up when he realizes where we are, and before the car is even off he blazes his way to the track, the rest of us struggling to keep up with him.

The line is short and before I know it I’m strapped into a gas-operated metal contraption that excites me as much as it terrifies me. To put it bluntly, the thing looks one crash away from spontaneous combustion, and there are a whole lot of other karters on the track with us today. Oh well, red-yellow-green and we’re off.

After the first lap Ronnie passes us both, and Zak pulls a lead on me for the majority of the race, but I manage to pass him up right before the last lap. He crushes me on the last lap, of course, but I was beating him for that fraction of a moment, which is enough for me. At one point, I even watched Zak pass a racer so hard that the kid’s go-kart flipped off of the racetrack. The race was exhilarating, I haven’t done that since I was a boy. It really is the simple things.

Back inside we play some arcade games. I get rekt, pwned, and other vidyaspeak words for beaten by Zak, and after a couple free replays we mosey on outta there. I thought the parking lot was going to be a disaster because of the crashed go-kart and the likely mangled corpse of the driver, but apparently the cleanup crew here is the most efficient cleanup crew in the world because the lot is clearer than my head is after breathing in all them exhaust fumes.

On the way home we hit another pizza place, this one called Pi-Squared because, you know, they serve square pizza, and it’s pretty great. Back home, like, my home, we call this style Sicilian pizza, but hey, words are just mouth noises, merely symbols we use to describe certain props we come across on this vast drama called life. If, back in the day, the human who first called pizza pizza decided to call it, I don’t know… asphalt, for example, then I’d be eating quite a few squares of asphalt right now.

Just like I did on the go-kart track.

Oh wait, that was cement.

Getting home just in time to settle into a staggering pizza coma, Zak and I play the video games for a couple hours before neither of us can manage to keep conscious any longer. I wish him a good night before closing the door to his bedroom and stepping out on the deck for a few minutes to breathe in the tuberculosis-curing mountain air. I can only enjoy it for one more day, gotta soak it in while I still can.

Not that New Jersey’s mountain air is really any different. Just at a slightly lower altitude is all. While these mountains will cure you of your ailments, my mountains attract UFOs and produce crystals like humans produce earwax. Both are mystical, just in… different ways. Regardless, that hike really kicked the crud out of me; usually I hike every day, but with the trip and all this was the first time in almost a week that I’ve hit the trails, and I’m feeling pretty sore. I think I’ll be sleeping very well tonight.

I look up. G-Mah is fast asleep, hunched over her kitchen table, her face flat on the tile. I’m not sure how long she’s been asleep, but it must have been a little while; Mango has since repositioned herself to be laying on top of G-Mah’s back. Her tail flits between G-Mah’s neck and her ear like a feather duster in the hands of Loki, God of Mischief. I look over at the glass of alcohol next to my computer. It’s only a quarter of the way full.

“It’s only a quarter of the way full,” I whisper to myself. “It’s not like I would be drinking the whole thing.”

My hand reaches out and the swirly pads of my greedy fingertips almost graze the smooth, cool surface of the drinking glass, but then I stop myself. I can’t do it. I will not. I don’t do drugs, and even if I wanted to start doing them, I’m not going to start at grandMother’s house. Mother would kill me where I stand, and even if I didn’t tell Her about it, grandMother would. That’s how it works around here. The grapevines are paper thin and little birdies speak many tongues. I might as well just keep reading. Maybe the sound of my voice will wake G-Mah up.

Fresh On-Site

Monday, March 18th

And sleep well I did. Just like on Friday, Zak and I wake to an empty house, save for Henry. We have some breakfast, Zak eating cocoa puffs and me eating buttered toast made out of banana bread. Zak seems to have a lot on his mind this morning, I can tell something isn’t quite right. We get to talking and he shows me a couple pictures around his house, the last of which is a photo depicting him and his parents with his brothers. They’re all dressed up in suits about to go to Zak’s grandfather’s funeral; it was the last picture to feature all five of the Fishers, Zak tells me. It was taken twoish weeks before Mike’s untimely passing.

I ask Zak how the picture makes him feel. He tells me it makes him feel very sad, that he feels like he needs to cry. I tell him it’s okay to cry, that it’s always better to let your emotions out, to experience them rather than bottling them in and hiding from them. When you bottle stuff up, you never really get over it; having feelings is nothing to be ashamed of. I cried for days after my cat passed, hell I still cry about it, and he was just a cat; I can’t even imagine losing a brother. Shout to Jarome, don’t go anywhere homie.

Zak nods his head and walks into his bedroom, lies on the bed. The tears begin to flow; it’s a soft cry, no loud sobs, no fits of rage, no bawling his eyes out, just… just a series of whimpers, as if he’s so familiar with the sadness, so full of it that he’s relieved to finally be letting some of it out. I sit with him on his bed for a while, patting his back and keeping him supplied with tissues to blow his nose and wipe the tears off his cheeks. I’m happy I could be here for him for this, this is what a shaman is supposed to do. Help others heal. I just wish there was more I could do.

After a short while longer Zak asks if he can be alone, so I show myself out and close the door behind me. I can hear him continue to cry for a few minutes, but he eventually falls asleep. I hate to see my friend in pain, but I’m glad he’s allowing himself to let the hurt out. Maybe this will help him move on a little bit.

About an hour later Zak wakes up and tells me he feels better. Hooray! Almost like clockwork, Ronnie comes downstairs and tells us he’s going to run to the supermarket to pick up some steaks for dinner, and that he left Zak twenty dollars for snacks at the movies. I’m not sure if I mentioned it, in fact I’m sure I didn’t, but Zak and I are going to see Captain Marvel today at a theater in the Biltmore Plaza. Zak tells me the seats recline and the movie screen is massive, but I’m just excited to see the movie itself!

We play video games in Zak’s room for a while, then we go out and mingle around the plaza until the movie begins. Our first stop is a toy store Zak mentioned to me a few times over the weekend – the front door is guarded by two towering drummer-boy statues standing on their drums. They don’t move an inch as we walk between them because they are statues and that would be silly.

We peruse through the selection of toy cars and whatnot before heading back outside. Our next stop is a little herbal tea store which boasts a gigantic collection of herbal teas both in raw form and pre-bagged. I get an ounce of licorice root tea, my favorite herbal tea by far; when you drink it, it leaves a pleasantly sweet aftertaste in your mouth. The taste dances across your tongue, I say!

From there we get a couple cupcakes at a little bakery. There’s a huge, very muscular, and just slightly intimidating black guy behind the counter wearing a hot pink apron that reads something along the lines of kiss the chef. Literally the polar opposite of who I expected to be working at a cupcake bakery. In fact, I’m pretty sure this dude could bench press the entire bakery if he wanted to. He explains that all his cupcakes, and ice cream, are made fresh on-site. Zak chooses a peanut butter cup cupcake, I opt for a red velvet, and… fuckin’, the taste of these confections transcend that of any baked good I’ve ever eaten prior. The luscious, moist cake, the smooth, decadent icing – I damn near float out of my chair by the time I’m done.

With our sugar highs on, we make our way to the movie theater. The place is gigantic, the front room is wide and open and it boasts posters of upcoming films on the walls next to a full arcade of arcade games you already know Zak’s going to play before the movie. Along the back wall is a monumental concession stand, and the food, well, the food is overpriced as all hell. It’s a movie theater, what else can one expect? Popcorn and drinks and in we go.

Turkey

Big surprise, Marvel’s latest movie was phenomenal! I liked it a lot more than I thought I was going to, and my bar was already set pretty high. Zak felt the same way, although going into it he did not expect much. He’s not as big a fan of comic book movies as I am, to each their own. I’m just glad we both enjoyed it.

After Zak let some of his sadness out this morning, he seems to be in a much better mood. We talk about the movie the whole way home, he doesn’t bring up his brother once. Sometimes, a good cry is all you need.

Zak’s parents cook us a killer dinner when we get home, steak paired with steamed veggies and pasta that looks like rice. They even pack me a bagged sandwich lunch for the road tomorrow! They are too much, I can’t accurately express the gratitude I feel towards these wonderful humans. It was so kind of them to put this trip on for me.

Mango steps between me and my screen. Her paws press every one of the keys on my keyboard. I look at her, and she looks at me; neither of us blink, I don’t even breathe, we just sit there staring hard at each other for a long moment. Then, suddenly, she squints at me and begins to hover again. Her legs lazily hang down like strings from a bundle of balloons. I watch as Mango hovers over to the sink, pees in midair, and then hovers back to the table where she finally touches down on grandMother’s back like a helicopter on a landing pad.

Afterwards I finally get to see the video of Zak giving his speech at Tate’s wedding. His speech was very well written; Ronnie told me Zak’s uncle helped him with the grammar and all, but Zak wrote the body of the text himself. I’m pretty impressed. I felt myself choking up while I was watching it.

I think I figured out why Mango came up to me a second ago – I said the word turkey.

Now the only thing left to do is bring Zak back to his apartment. His parents thought it would be better to bring him back tonight so he can have some time to get ready for the rest of the week, I totally feel that. Before we leave, we go digging in their storage room to find a prayer card from Mike’s funeral to give to Zak. The parents give me one too, along with a framed work of photography that Mike shot when he was still with us. I’m quite moved by this gesture. After this weekend, I really feel like I’m part of the Fisher family. I didn’t know Mike well, but I’m told he was a very artsy, very outdoorsy man. Very unique. He loved photography and biking and he was born during a thunderstorm; his middle name was actually Storm. He was a special creature. It is a terrible tragedy Mike had to pass away so early in his Earthly career. Ride in peace, Michael Storm Fisher. I’m positive you look down on Zak and smile every day.

Hunter Was Here

The drive is so quiet. I feel myself getting emotional as we pull up to Zak’s apartment. It’s sad to leave him here, I’m gonna miss the guy. We walk up the stairs and he introduces me to his roommate whose name escapes me, then he shows me his own apartment. His shelves are decked out with model cars (mostly of the Volkswagen variety), the walls are covered in monster truck posters, there’s a cardboard cutout of Danica Patrick standing in the corner; it’s a very Zak living space. I wish I could stay longer, but homie’s got some chores he has to catch up on and he needs to get ready for the week ahead. I give him a farewell hug and take my leave. I have nothin’ but love for you, Zak. I can’t wait to see you again.

The rest of the night is pretty quiet. I watch Big Bang Theory with Zak’s parents until my eyelids are heavier than a black hole, and then I head down to my room to retire for the night.

Before I hit the sack, though, I write a little note saying Hunter was here and hide it in Zak’s bedroom for him to find the next time he stays at his parents’ house. As I’m writing it, I feel myself starting to get emotional again. I really miss having Zak in my everyday life. I wish he didn’t live so far away.

All in all, I had an absolutely fantastic extended weekend down in the NC. The Fishers are some of the kindest, most welcoming and genuine beings I have the pleasure of knowing. They’ve truly set the bar for the phrase southern hospitality for me, I cannot thank them enough for letting me stay here this weekend, for making this whole thing possible. Ronnie, Margaret, Zak, if any of you are reading this: thank you and God bless you, from the bottom of my heart.

“We’re almost done, Gram,” I say, my voice animated and full of life. “You still with me?”

grandMother, passed out across the table from me, snores and doesn’t say much else. All’s quiet on the bathroom front and Mango is just hangin’ out, doing that thing cats do where they squint and un-squint their eyes as they look at you. The glass of alcohol is looking at me, too. Staring at me. Making unflinching eye contact. I think I can hear it speaking, whispering sweet nothings in my ears. Maybe if I… no. Can’t drink, not today. Not here. Not ever. Must stay sober. Mother says drugs are bad for me, and I believe Her.

What choice do I have but to believe Her?

Jump Off Rock

Tuesday, March 19th

I finally wake up early enough to see the sunrise for the first time this trip. Figures it happens on my last day here. Que sera sera. It really is breathtaking, though, seeing that glowing orb of light rising up over the mountains to bathe the horizon in a gentle sheen from millions of miles away – what a way to start the morning. Fishers, you certainly have it made down here.

I have an hour or two before I need to leave, so I take my time; make myself a little breakfast, tidy up the guest room, the whole nine yarns. When all the loose ends are burnt off I pack up my car and, as I’m snagging my lunch out of the refrigerator, I notice that Ronnie and Margaret left me a kindhearted note on the counter thanking me for coming down for the weekend. Please, guys, the pleasure was all mine. I write them a note back and then I head out for the last time, locking the door behind me.

The last thing I do before I start heading out of North Carolina is return to Jump Off Rock. I can’t help but crave that view, I need to see it one more time while I still have the opportunity. I brought my digital camera this time too, but honestly, the pictures don’t do it justice. You’ll never see them, as they’re for the Zak version, but still. Pictures do not do the view justice.

Technology

I have some space left here. I shall use it to muse. It’s funny, so many members of today’s brave new world venture out on hikes to grand vistas like that of Jump Off Rock just to take a picture of the view rather than going for the purpose of taking in the sights for themselves. It’s the same thing when folks record concerts and entire music festivals on their phones; why do you bother trying to capture the moment on that tiny little screen? Part of the fun, part of the beauty of art lies in the fact that it’s temporary, that it will not last forever. The band will get tired and the music will stop. You will get hungry and you will leave the mountain. The book you’re reading right now, the one I wrote – the second one I wrote – will bring you to its last page. No piece of technology can adequately capture the feeling of being there in the moment and appreciating the art with your own senses, so why bother trying to capture it in the first place?


This has been chapter 2 of the book Roadtrip: The ¡Gramango! Edition. Here is everything you need to know about it:

Roadtrip
The ¡Gramango! Edition

  • A satirical travel novella about an author reading the actual travel novella to his grandmother
  • Book stats:
    – 202 pages
    – 37,117 words
    – Spiral: The Highest One Writing | Arc: II
    – Series: W-63 | Entry: 2
    – Revision Date: June 10, 2021
  • Click here to read the book for free
  • Buy from Amazon:
    eBook: $2.50
    Paperback: $5.46
  • Buy from The Hillside Commons:
    Signed Paperback: $14.00

I’ve written a few other books, too. Click here to see the list.

The Hillside Commons has a Facebook page, too. Here’s that.

If you’re there, hypothetical reader, thank you for being there. From this day on, we move forever forward~

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