Thursday, March 14th
“Today is Wednesday though,” G-Mah says to the sink.
“Hm?” I ask, looking at Uncle Bill, getting nothing in return. Must be a pretty pressing news story.
“You said Thursday, March fourteenth, dearie. It’s August twenty-first today, and it’s a Wednesday. If it was a Thursday it would be garbage day,” 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 the Carriage Park housing development 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 he and his wife 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 complete surprise for the boy; from his perspective I’ll have just appeared here, like a magician minus the cloud of smoke.
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 literally can’t be described with words, it’s that great. He couldn’t believe that I would drive twelve hours just to come and see him! And honestly, I couldn’t believe I just drove twelve hours either! But I’m here, at his parents’ house in North Carolina, and there’s no time to waste.
Zak introduces me to their dog Henry (like Henry Ford) and gives me a tour of the abode, a lovely bi-level townhouse that’s less townhouse and more house that you would find in a town; the basement has two full bedrooms (one for me and one for Zak), a bathroom, the Train Room (a room full of cool stuff like model trains and other unique collectibles), a living room with a few couches and a big-screen TV, an office, a storage room and, finally, a sizable bi-level deck that hangs over the hillside and allegedly offers a beautiful view of the sun as it rises over the valley.
From there we go upstairs and the tour continues full steam ahead. Zak shows me the wide-open great room, the kitchen, a secondary living room that can accurately be described as a sitting room, his parents’ bedroom and their closet (the closet almost as big as my entire bedroom back home), the master bathroom (complete with a jacuzzi tub), a secondary bathroom that can accurately be described as a powder room, and the upstairs balcony.
Following the tour, Zak helps me take my luggage inside and Ronnie (Zak’s father) puts together some dinner for me, a delicious turkey, lettuce and cheese sandwich with a sliced-up apple and potato chips. It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten after such a long day of tasting basically nothing but my own saliva, and I thank him profusely through a stuffed mouth.
As I inhale, Zak, Ronnie and Margaret (Zak’s mother) join me at the table and we talk about 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 skies and sunny days. There are restaurants to eat at, a main street for shopping, a forest with dozens of towering waterfalls to hike through, a comedy bus tour through the neighboring city of Asheville; it’s going to be a packed weekend, and I can’t wait to get it started.
Well, I’m here. I survived the twelve-plus-hour drive all by myself, accompanied by the voices in my head of course, and now I’m chilling with Zak for the next four days. Oh, and all that back/neck/everything pain I was ranting/raving/complaining about earlier? That immediately disappeared as soon as I stepped out of the car. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Anyway, I’m exhausted and about to knock out. After considering my whole journey down here, there’s only three words I can come up with to wrap up today: I made it.
“Congratulations! 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, and that there’s quite a bit left to read. I thought saying this would make her smile, but instead she rolls her eyes and takes another swig of her liquor-ish seltzer.
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, over your balls?” asks my Uncle Bill in a gruff voice. He’s just mad because his mother is speaking to me instead of him.
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 outside to catch the vista, but I hardly notice. The view of the valley and the neighboring mountain, even though it’s slightly obstructed by a few trees, is nothing short of beautiful, breathtaking even; to be able to wake up here 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 imagine it looking like a 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 inside. 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 down to the dungeon to do a quick workout so my brain wakes up.
Twenty push-ups, twenty sit-ups, twenty squats; repeat three times and we’re done. Zak finishes his shower and gets dressed just in time for me to finish up and get in the shower before the water has a chance to cool down – the scald gives a welcome burn.
After the ol’ lather, rinse & repeat, I dress myself and head upstairs to find Zak eating some breakfast. He tells me they have cereal, bread for toast, eggs and some drinks in the fridge, and that I can help myself to whatever I want. I toast up some white bread and smother it with a butter spread, accompanying it with a few stalks of celery and a cup of fruit juice. I hoarf the food down rather quickly, and as I’m washing the plate I used, I notice a note on the counter. Not only had the elder Fishers left us forty dollars to get lunch today, but they also managed to procure tickets for that comedy bus tour on Saturday. Such kindness, I’m so grateful to be here.
“And I’m grateful that you’re here with me today hun,” G-Mah says with only a slight slur linking her words.
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 whilst Mango tries to catch her, almost 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.
On the agenda for today, other than lunch, is a tour around Hendersonville; there’s a nice park Zak wants to show me, and of course we’re going to hang out around Main Street for a while. Before we head out, though, there are some chores that must be done, specifically the emptying of the dishwasher and the doing of Zak’s laundry. I get busy working on the dishwasher, drying what needs an extra drying and Zak putting the dishes in their rightful places, and then we tackle the laundry.
While we wait for the washing machine to finish up with the clothes, Zak shows me a whole slew of pictures of various fancy cars he’s seen around town. He’s spotted everything from Corvettes to Porsches, Lamborghinies, Ferraries to Maseraties, he even has a picture of the Batmobile and, of course, Herby from Herby Fully Loaded.
Zak’s entire 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 got him as a surprise Christmas gift in December of 2012, our senior year of high school.
After the photo gallery, Zak seems a little anxious; he’s pacing a bit, messing with the furniture, revving his motor mouth, classic anxiety stuff. I suggest we have a quick 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 into 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 certain state of zen.
By now the laundry is basically done, so without further ado I snatch the forty-dollar bill off the counter and we head out the door. Bessy follows the winding road down the mountain and leaves the development, merging onto the main road that leads to downtown Hendersonville. The Fisher folk told me last night that their development, or rather, collection of nineteen individual developments all enclosed in a mountain-side community with a gate, is called Carriage Park. Their specific housing development is called Carriage Commons, or just The Commons, which I find 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; that, or we’re all idiots.
They also mentioned Carriage Park is more of a retirement co–
“A retirement home?!” G-Mah shouts, knocking her empty seltzer bottle off the table with a grabber tool she wields like a medieval sword. Then, with the grabby end gripping tightly upon my Adam’s apple, “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, then to my Uncle Bill, then the single hair sprouting from my Uncle Bill’s left nipple, and then back to G-Mah, who looks none too thrilled.
“Well?!” she demands.
“Uh, uh, uhhh, um…” I stutter, not sure of what to say. “I’m not… why would you think that, Gram?”
The tension suddenly deflates and grandMother looks significantly more thrilled than she came off as a moment ago. She also releases my throat.
“I’m sorry hun, sometimes I hear certain words and it triggers me. Sometimes it happens when other humans talk, like, your Uncle Will?”
I look over to Uncle Bill, who’s now down to his tightie-whities, and watch as his whole face boils from a tannish pale to a reddish pink.
“When he talks it makes me want to get back into my crack habit. I mean really, I can’t make this up, he comes here and drones 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 corn hole Will, nobody cares!”
Uncle Bill, tears streaming down his face and dirty black newspaper ink dripping like hot asphalt from the soggy streaks in his mane, stands up 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 hands down, then he starts punching the table like my cousin Chad does a sheet rock wall after he drank three too many Monster energy drinks. Despite the commotion, G-Mah remains cool and collected, steadier than steel.
The Fishers also mentioned that Carriage Park is more of a retirement community than anything else, and that they’re among the youngest residents that live here. 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 peacefu–
“Can you stop, please?!” I spontaneously ask, the words bursting out of me in a voice coarse enough to smooth cement.
Uncle Bill freezes mid-punch and just looks 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, both her eyes and ears wide and alert, trots off into the hallway.
G-Mah, on the other hand, considers me, the look on her face both impressed and a little 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 many other retirement villages lining the sides of the road, although none are as grandiose as Carriage.
Zak begins the tour as soon as we hit the heart of Hendersonville. He points out a bunch of places that he frequents – places he used to work at, the road that leads to the supermarket he works at 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 couple different 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; it’s a place to park your car and enjoy nature. Thank you, the very complex English language and its intelligent, 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 the path is part of a disc golf course, one that Zak helped build, no less, and he shows me one of the elevated metal baskets. It’s a convoluted contraption comprised of metal plates, poles, and chains, standing roughly four feet high with a two-foot diameter on a good day, and it kind of looks like a birdcage if you squint your eyes until they’re completely 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.
I find a three-hour parking spot in front of an empty brick building that once housed a business called Dad’s Collectibles. Part of me wishes it was still open, the very notion of its existence makes my resale senses tingle even more than the Train Room; some collectibles, specifically old toys and action figures, are worth major cash if you can find the right dude to pay out his ass for them. But 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 here; there are more restaurants along main street than I can count on two hands. Eventually Zak decides on his favorite pizza place, the unmatchable East First Woodfired Pizza.
It’s his favorite eatery because he has a friend who works there who’s name I will casually omit because I don’t know her. I forget exactly how they met, maybe 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 allegedly very beautiful, to paraphrase Zak; he’s a ladies’ man if nothing else.
The building is set a block off main street and feels bigger on the inside than it looks on 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 man with a dark cape and a top hat standing on the catwalk high above the eating space… 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.
Soon after we walk in, we’re approached by who I assume is 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. Zak orders a one-man pepperoni pizza and I order a one-man meat lovers. 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 back 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 and as we’re leaving, she asks if we want a drink to go. Apparently this is the norm down here, whenever you’re at a restaurant you’re usually offered a drink to take with you as you leave. I quite like the idea of this, the hospitality is real.
The next thing Zak wants to do is hit the Pinball Museum, a haven of vintage pinball machines and arcade games. You pay one flat price of admission and you can stay however long you want and play as much as you want. The only thing is, it doesn’t open for another hour, so we have no choice but to wander around aimlessly for the time being, 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 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 literally a modern day old-timey general store, they sell everything from clothes to souvenirs to toys to appliances, they even have candy-filled wooden barrels polka-dotted throughout the store. The one thing they didn’t sell was doormats though, which I found to be pretty shocking.
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 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 old dude 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 just kind of standing there behind his counter, lazily gazing out 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 and he’s in here about as often as I’m in North Carolina. 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. My parents are both into the horticulture thing too, so I ask him what he grows.
It’s at this point I realize what all those colorful little glass sculptures in his display case are – pipes. This man grows freaking weed, like, what?! Not that I have a problem with it; I’m a pretty straightedge dude so I don’t do any drugs, but I think others can if they want. Who am I to judge?
I ask the guy about the pipes and stuff and he tells me they’re all hand-blown by local artists. Then I notice the 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 the opening 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 anything 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.
Zak, about the farthest thing from a smoker one can possibly imagine, tells the gardening man we’re not interested and grabs me by the sleeve of my shirt, dragging me back outside. As we meander down the street from the hippie shop, 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, paying more attention now than she has been all day.
“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 huge room, maybe four hundred square feet, but the place is absolutely packed with interesting artifacts from lots of different ages. We see everything from immaculate chiseled crystal sculptures to Native American arrowheads, dinosaur bones to 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 nice 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’s attention on her, the curator of the 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, though, she has something of a little presentation for us.
Fog machines kick on and a couple inches of haze spill out above the floor. The lights go from dim to off, and then to strobe! The fluorescent rocks shine bright as stars, the crystal sculptures glow like they were composed of luciferin, a soft power ballad plays 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 possib– 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 door, it couldn’t have followed us. We’re safe now… the guys and gals who were inside that museum aren’t safe, 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 that’s being allowed to play the cello without being tipped, I ask Zak why he wasn’t as startled as I was by the gigantic skeletal tyrannosaurus rex that came to life and chased us out of the little museum. With a truly indescribable expression, Zak shousplains that it was a three-dimensional movie and that 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 for a bit, I look at the sidewalk and study the cracked plastic 3D glasses that Zak shook off my face a moment ago. Huh, I must have forgotten they gave us those. Oh well – now that we’re back outside, we find a bench and chill out in the cool pre-spring air until the pinball museum opens up.
The Pinball Museum
Being us, we’re the first ones in. A walk through a dark foyer of sorts leads us to a room that’s filled to the gills with pinball machines – early ones with paper dials for point counters, modern ones with computer screens and brilliant LED lights, and everything in between; management even has an old model opened up so all their patrons can see the exposed innards of a dusty old 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. I comment that they must have added all these machines last night because I’ve never played them before, either. Zak sniffs the air and says little else.
Past the first pinball room is the main counter where we pay and get our wristbands. The guy behind the counter recognizes Zak immediately 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 both of Bumblebee’s forms on the scoreboard; Bumblebee is hands-down Zak’s favorite Transformer, he reminds me, because he turns into a Volkswagen Beetle. 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 the high scores and garnering looks of awe from a rapidly funneling in customer base. When we got here seconds after opening and it was empty I thought we’d have the place to ourselves all day, but my goodness was I mistaken – it’s a zoo in here, the cacophonous sounds of humans excitedly playing pinball is almost matched in volume by the orchestra of vintage blips, booms and dings. All the intersecting vintage sound waves make for one hell of an arcade-powered, human-derived symphony of wild vibrations in the air.
After what feels like only twenty minutes passes, I chance a peek at my cell phone 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 that I’ll be right back and I run towards the entrance to make my way down the street towards my car, checking both ways for any skeletal dinosaurs before I exit the building. After walking past the last storefront, which looks despicably unfamiliar, I realize that I’ve walked the wrong way entirely and that my car is all the way across town, and 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 finally get back to the pinball museum, I look 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: that first game room was only the beginning. There’s an entire second room full of not only pinball machines, but also vintage shooters and a raised platform with vintage arcade video games. At first I was underwhelmed by this place, but now I fully 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 old point-and-shooters as I am with the pinball machines. Oh well, I still have fun playing and as I move on to a Vietnam War game, I notice Zak following in my footsteps. As I hop off a game, he hops right 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 bumble berry liquor. She places it on the table and slowly slides it next to the empty glass standing beside my computer. I stare at the opaque bottle for a moment, G-Mah staring at me intently all the while, her eyes whispering what her mouth dares not to, before continuing.
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.
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.
Zak fiddles with Henry’s leash as 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 either being the winter variant of a New Jersey white guy 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 the clothing I brought because my jeans don’t fit me right. But 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 talks 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 very tragic accident at work. He worked at a park that just happened to be a venue for our cross country races, and while he was closing up shop on an especially stormy evening, something inexplicable happened and Mike got struck by lightning twice in a row in the same spot, forcing him to suffer some very severe internal injuries. He passed away in the hospital later that very day; Mike was Zak’s best friend, he understood him in a way that not many other humans do. To support Zak’s family that summer, the whole cross country team attended the memorial service. We also dedicated our season to him 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 nobody else really did. We would hang out all the time, listen to music together, go for walks, I even took the cat hiking with me a few times. He was kind of crazy, just like I am; 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 dragging himself across the floor – 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 my son 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, there’s a lot that goes on in life that we don’t really understand. Our lives, our planet, even our entire galaxy is so small compared to everything else out there; sometimes tragic things happen for what seems to be no reason at all; I think we only see it that way because we can only see one side of the situation, that side being the side that affects us.
I explain to him how, when someone dies, their spirit – the light and energy which gives them life and makes them who they are – leaves their body like a snake sheds its skin and goes somewhere else entirely. Whether that somewhere else is a different country in a different time, on a different planet, in a different universe or a 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, sometimes it’s because there’s a greater purpose for us 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’re gone. Zak seems to find some comfort in this, but I can tell he’s still distraught. I ask him if he wants to talk anymore but he has some thoughts to mull over.
On the return trip to home base 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 nobody’s watching, I discretely pinch it into my pocket.
Once we return home, I smuggle my 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 with the shiny crystal. I put it on his windowsill and explain how crystals, especially so with quartz, have a way of capturing light and energy; whenever he wants to feel close to his brother, he can hold that crystal to feel Mike’s light radiating through it and into him.
Zak really loved the idea of the crystal.
Zak’s parents get home about a half hour later and announce that they’re taking us out for dinner to a local joint called the Blue Grass Cafe. We pull up and the outside seating is packed, but there are plenty of booths inside. The waitress is an older belle; two tons of character, a pink apron, she’s 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 will be worth it though.
I take one sip and correct him; the 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 overall 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 humans working at a food stop can’t do chicken tenders well, they probably can’t do real food very well, either. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case for tonight because my tendie basket, and everyone else’s food, is top notch. We talk to the waitress for a few minutes before we leave, I tell her about the road 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 he went to, more pictures of cars and monster trucks, some pictures from Tate’s wedding, during which he served as the best man. Apparently, hiding somewhere in the untapped data mines of his phone, there’s a video of the speech Zak gave at the wedding. He searches through the archives but can’t find it, unfortunately. I tell him not to worry about it, there are still almost one hundred hours left of my being here. 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 sheets. I’m the exact opposite; sleep eludes me on a nightly basis like the words do my mind whilst trying to formulate a good comparison to how sleep eludes me on a nightly basis. I lay 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 dosing off. Mango had come back from the hallway, apparently, and now she’s sprawled across the kitchen table, laying all over the newspaper that 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’s 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 how is your foot feeling by the way, hun?” before I can formulate the words.
“My foot?” I ask, not sure from where she pulled that card. “You mean from the Uncle Skylar thing? That was like a month and a half ago Gram, I’ve been walking again for a couple weeks now.”
“Ahhh hah hah shit, I told you two to be careful with the tequila!”
“I didn’t even drink any tequila though Gram, that was allllll Skylar.”
This throws grandMother off for a moment, but she caches 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 than 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 my skull caving in, but twelve hours in a car? Forget about it. A minute or so 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 and aromatic home-cooked breakfast of bacon, fruit and chocolate chip pancakes that Margaret prepared for us, Zak and I take a quick walk around the block which, again, I am dreadfully underdressed for. I go outside in shorts, a t-shirt & 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 call!
“You walk barefoot a lot, huh?” G-Mah asks.
I tell her yes, I do, because I like to feel close 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 kind of like batteries and getting a recharge is important. I revert to reading when G-Mah rolls towards the brink of falling asleep.
When we get back home, everyone piles into the car and we drive Zak to work. In waking up so late I almost made Zak late, for which I humbly apologized. He usually likes to get to work 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 cup of sugar with a few choice droplets of water in it called sweet tea that I drank at dinner, and then the gears click. I was buzzing because of a sugar high, I didn’t even realize it! No more sweet tea for me.
From the supermarket we go to Zak’s apartment complex to 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 currently but he’s not 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 place to reclude to?
From there we drive up a different mountain 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. My only regret is not bringing my camera up here to capture the moment; anyway, since I don’t have my camera this visit is rather short-lived, and we return to the Fisher abode posthaste.
When we get back, Margaret has some work she needs to do around the house so Ronnie takes me out for a spin in his Porsche. He tells me he’s going to give 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, and the pinball museum, Ronnie plans to cater more to my interests.
The first thing Ronnie points out to me is the bears; dotted all around town are these four-foot-tall fiberglass bear statues decorated with custom paint jobs. Each year the town of Hendersonville molds and sells blank bears to local artists to be painted and auctioned off, and all the proceeds get donated to charity organizations. Some artists match the bears to the theme of their chosen charity, some use the bears as attention-grabbers to bring consumers into their stores; it’s a very cool idea, I wish Ringwood would do something like this. Maybe we could paint mountains.
Next we hit an art store that rents out small studios to local artists. The studios offer both a workspace and a display area; all the art created in-house can be sold on consignment directly out of the store. Patrons can sign up to take lessons with the artists, rent their own studio and/or sell their own creations from a display space in the front of the store, it’s wonderful.
From there we venture to an antique store with two floors, they’re selling 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 it. 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’d even sit in it, but with a price tag of $3,300, I won’t have to be making that decision.
“You fucking bought a thirty-three-hundred-dollar chair??!?” G-Mah screams, channeling the spirits of our ancestors.
The spirits, who were paying attention, heard me say I didn’t 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 nothing of a drinking man when it comes to traditional beers and IPAs and all that nonsense, or ever to be honest, 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 free samples and the barkeep gives us a whole 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. The man 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 even take a sip, we’re both quite blown away; hidden betwixt the folds of fermented fruit juice is a perfect combination of sweet and sourness. 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 doesn’t move a single unit of measurement and I hear a low groaning coming from the bathroom. Dude’s been in there for a while, poor Uncle Bill.
“What?” I say, my expression matching that of a deer in headlights. Okay, so I’ve tried alcohol once, it didn’t even taste that… alcohol-y, I guess one would say. It was brewed on site and room-temperature and, and I didn’t even feel anything, I don’t think, and… whatever.
“Fine, yes, I’ve tried booze once.”
“And?” Gram asks with a serene smile.
“And…” I begin. “I don’t know. It wasn’t fantastic. Probably wasn’t nearly as strong as that syrup you keep drinkin’.”
As I say this, grandMother reaches across the table and grabs the phial, draws it close to her. Then she grabs my glass and summons that to her side as well. While making direct eye contact with me, G-Mah uncorks the liquor and slowly fills my glass a quarter of the way to the top. The alcohol is thick and pours like it was oozing – slow, rich, yeah pretty much like syrup. My quip was on point for sure.
We have about forty minutes until Zak gets off work at this point, and Ronnie tells me there’s one more place he wants me to see. I forget the exact name, Something Boutique, but we walk inside and I immediately feel a hint of claustrophobia; the front room seems tiny for a store, probably about the size of the closet in the Fisher’s master bedroom. I say hello to the cashier, an older 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 that I swear wasn’t 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, but they’re all absolutely packed with wares. Each store is different, too; some sell clothing, some sell jewelry, some sell shrunken heads, some sell crystals and incense; it’s like an entire other 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 pit stop 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 these days, the local small 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 pull up to the supermarket a couple minutes early, so we walk inside to meet up with Zak. He introduces me to his manager and a few of the humans that he gets to work with, and before we make it out of the store we’re stopped by a random shopper that hasn’t seen Zak since February and wanted to wish him a happy birthday. It’s just like 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 on the drive back. We’re only home 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 team would often come here for dinner after meets and the food is even better than I remember.
We end 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 the Ashville flavor. It’s just like downtown Hendersonville, but bigger; the buildings are taller, the storefronts more open. It’s like New York City and Hendersonville had a love child – 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 ten or eleven, playing the violin; his instrument case had the most money in it by far. Some humans do have a 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 real school bus, but it’s since been gutted, refurnished, given a funky purple paint job mixed with some plastic surgery and had the windows removed in favor of a plastic sheet that’s insecurely draped over the 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 – that, 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 about 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 & father were tour guides, allegedly, so 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 – the very picture of a weird North Carolinian cityboi hick, with an accent to match. If he’s playing a character the man 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 more suburban areas that fester 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 some 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 come out to Asheville, stay in one of these grandiose wooden mansions and sit out on the top floor’s balcony, or as it was called back then, the breathing porch, where one would breathe in the pure mountain air to cure oneself. It was a simpler time, I suppose, although today’s aromatherapy treatments are more or less the same thing, inhaling a calming atmosphere in the hopes that your ailments will be cured. If it works it works!
Halfway through the tour we stop at a pub for ten minute’s reprieve and Ronnie gets a can of local hard cider. He says it’s not quite as flavorful as, say, an Angry Orchard or a Strongbow, or the cider samples we got in Hendersonville, but that certainly doesn’t stop him from enjoying the hell out of it. Zak’s not a big fan of alcohol, he doesn’t get why humans drink that nasty stuff. I tell him that I don’t get it either as his dad downs another sip and slightly winces when the solution bites 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 some traffic and Oliver holds a little 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, receives a fake mustache! The third winner, a man with facial hair to rival the love child of Fu Manchu and Chuck Norris, wins a fake mustache! The fourth winner, because usually there’s only two questions and this traffic is really holding us up, gets a choice: either a fake mustache or a can of cat food ! She chooses the fake mustache; when Zak had the opportunity, he chose the cat food. My man.
After the tour ends, we’re all 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 didn’t seem to hold up the tour at all. Oh well, not going to say no to free drinks. 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. Awh 😦
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 and then head back home. I’m not much of a city dude – the constant construction, the undulating masses of humans, the tall buildings that make canyons out of the narrow streets, it’s just not for me.
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 the mix, they serve as a welcome surprise when the morsel graces my tongue. Shortly after the feast everyone hits the hay, myself included.
“So you really didn’t like the hard cider, huh?” G-Mah asks. She’s almost halfway through her current bottle 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, don’t like alcohol in general. You better drink up this glass you just poured me, because I’m definitely not touching it.”
Carefully, grandMother eyes me with one eye. A challenging smile, then, “Oh-kaaayyy.”
DuPoint State Forest
Sunday, March 17th
I actually woke up on time today! Huzzah! To my surprise I fell asleep fairly immediately last night, and not only that, but I also had some very vivid, lifelike and semi-apocalyptic dreams. I even realized that I was dreaming while I was dreaming, a feat I have never before accomplished. Lucid dreaming has always interested me; the ability to be fully conscious and aware when you’re dreaming seems like it would be the most incredible experience to undergo, if 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 breathing in that cool mountain air, feeling that early morning chill hit my skin, looking out over the woody valley and seeing the mountain ranges rise up and scrape the sky in the background as the sun rises over them; it feels like I might still be dreaming.
This books’ 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 everyone a good morning. We all slept well last night, there’s nothing like a night out on the town to get your head back into the right space. Then I go back downstairs because the parents are groggy and not very talkative.
While I’m waiting for Zak to finish showering, I happen upon an orange ball sitting on the floor in the basement. I pick it up and squeak it; the pitter-patter and scritchy-scratching of dog paws scurrying across the floor above my head follows. Thus appears Henry at the bottom of the stairs, wide-eyed and alert, ready for action. We play fetch for a solid fifteen minutes before Zak relinquishes the bathroom over to me.
On the agenda for today is a family breakfast at a local café, then Zak and I will depart on a hike through DuPoint State Forest to check out some waterfalls. Then we’ll regroup with the ‘rents and hit a few repurpose shops together before embarking on one final adventure, the circumstances surrounding which Ronnie and Margaret won’t reveal. I’m good with it, I like surprises.
“I hate surprises,” G-Mah reminds me.
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 joke book; I think that’s even more fantastic. Everyone should write, you included, hypothetical reader.
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 bi-level house than a cafe. The place was probably a house at one point, just converted into the business. Whatever works, right? And let me tell you, this place works. 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 – the walls are adorned with Beatles memorabilia of all kinds: album art, newspaper articles, caricatures of the band members’ faces, psychedelic color schemes abound. Beatles music plays in the background and joining the instrument-shaped salt & pepper shakers at every table is a deck of Beatles Trivial Pursuit cards.
I look over their menu. All the dishes have some sort of Beatles influence in the name. Paul’s This and Ringo’s That, it’s all wonderful but nothing really jumps out at me. The waitress returns and tells us the specials for the day, and that’s when I’m grabbed – today they’re serving a fresh lobster and steak quiche topped with crab meat. I’m not a quiche guy, not a big egg eater, not even 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 mean 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?” G-Mah asks, draining her seltzer bottle.
“What’s so fun about what?” I ask, looking at my glass out of the corner of my eye. Not going to try drinking today, not at grandMother’s house.
“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 or quiche in general, but as soon as that first bite tingles my taste buds, I’m a goner. I inhale the entire slice in all of two minutes, savoring every bite while simultaneously stuffing my face like I’ve never seen food before in my life. The biscuit, which I smeared with some locally sourced cinnamon apple butter, is cinnamon-a-riffic and the grits, whatever the hell they actually are, are to die for. Needless to say, we all make short work of breakfast and then it’s back home to prep for hiking.
I change into a tie dye shirt and jeans with holes in the knees, fill my backpack with a few waters and then Zak & 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 a parking spot and 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 almost looks like a dried-out riverbed the way they’re cut into the ground; maybe at some point in the past rivers did flow here, who’s to say?
I talk to Zak about how much I enjoy being in the forest, how it brings my mind into a peaceful state of tranquility, and he tells me he feels the same way, although I can sense he’s mullin’ over something up there in his noggin. He walks like a man deep in thought, hands clasped behind his back and eyes on the trail; I can sense his brain whizzing away behind the scenes.
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 befalls us both into total silence.
Pictures don’t do nature justice, and neither does the word awesome. I don’t even mean that like yeah, totally awesome dude, I mean it like awe-some, awe-inspiring. The waterfall towers over the landscape, 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 cross in a single stride. 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 strive to find the immaculate, incomparable beauty that hides in plain sight out in nature, there really is nothing like it.
“But hun, I can’t walk. How am I supposed to see nature in a wheelchair, hun?”
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-miler 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 Analog Man 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, which are 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 & 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. Custom metal work. Art. Pallet furniture. Knickknacks and paddywhacks. Amusement park rides. Gas station signs. Antique hand tools. Clothing. Golden doubloons. Working and broken electronics. Construction grade lumber. Tables. There’s so much more, I can’t even name it all because, quite frankly, I don’t know what half the stuff is. I take a few pictures of pieces which I think I can reproduce from scratch back home, especially the pallet furniture, and after wandering for a while, we move into the sunlight and on to the next warehouse and/or barn.
We must hit three or four barns before the sun starts setting. Having gotten our fill of random stuff looking for the day, we pile back into the car and proceed towards the surprise, which turns out to be a giant arcade with a go-kart track. Zak perks right up when he realizes where we are, and 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 me 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 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 kid so hard that the kid’s go-kart flipped off of the track. 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 crew here is the most efficient crew in the world, because the lot is clearer than my head 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 that we use to describe certain props we come across on this vast drama called life. If, back in the day, the human who 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 video games for a couple hours before we can’t 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. While these mountains cure 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 and 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 flitting between G-Mah’s neck and her ear like a feather duster in the hand of Loki, God of Mischief. I look over at the glass of alcohol next to my computer, only a quarter of the way full.
“It’s only a quarter of the way full,” I say aloud to myself in a whisper. “It’s not like I would be drinking the whole thing.”
My hand reaches out and the swirly pads of my greedy little fingertips almost grace the smooth, cool surface of the glass, but then I stop myself. I can’t do it, I won’t. I don’t do drugs, and even if I wanted to start, I’m not going to start at grandMother’s house. Mother would kill me where I stand; even if I didn’t tell Her, grandMother would. That’s just how it works around here, the grapevine is paper thin and little birdies speak many tongues. Might as well just keep reading, maybe the sound of my voice will wake G-Mah up.
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, his parents and both of 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, taken about two weeks before Mike’s untimely passing.
I ask him 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 and 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 room, lays down on the bed. The tears begin to flow; it’s a soft cry, no loud sobbing, 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.
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 that 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 much 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 that I mentioned it, in fact I’m sure that 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 all 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 little while before heading out to mingle around the larger Biltmore Shopping Plaza until the movie begins. Our first stop is a toy store that Zak mentioned to me a few times over the weekend – the front door is guarded by two towering drummer-boy statues posted up on top of 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 boasting a gigantic collection of different teas, both in raw form and pre-bagged. I get an ounce of licorice root tea, my favorite herbal tea by a long shot; 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 some 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 really wanted to. He explains that all his cupcakes, and ice cream, are made fresh on-site; Zak chooses a peanut butter cup cupcake, myself opting for a red velvet, and… fuckin’, the taste of these confections transcend that of any baked good I’ve ever eaten prior. The luscious cake, the smooth, sweet icing – I damn near float out of my chair by the time I’m done.
After getting our sugar fix, we make our way over to the movie theater. The building is gigantic; a huge open front room shows off posters of upcoming films juxtaposed next to arcade games that you already know Zak’s going to play before the movie, and along the back wall is a monumental concession stand. The food is overpriced as all hell but it’s a movie theater, what else can one expect?
Big surprise, Marvel’s latest superhero 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 didn’t 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 overall. 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 wonderful steak dinner when we get back, paired with steamed veggies and pasta that looks like rice. They even pack me a bagged turkey sandwich lunch for the road! They’re too much, really, I can’t even express the gratitude that I feel towards these wonderful humans right now.
Mango steps between me and my laptop’s screen, her paws tapping every single 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 never-ending moment. Then, suddenly, she squints at me and begins to hover again, her legs lazily hanging 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 lands, back on grandMother’s back.
Afterwards I finally get to see the video of Zak giving his best man’s speech at Tate’s wedding. His speech was very well written; Ronnie told me Zak’s uncle helped him with the grammar and whatnot, but Zak wrote the body of the text himself. I can’t lie, I’m pretty impressed; I even felt myself choking up a bit 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 set himself up for the rest of the week, I totally feel that. Before we leave though, we go digging in their storage to find a prayer card from Mike’s funeral to give to Zak. His parents also give me one, along with a framed work of photography that Mike shot when he was still with us. I’m really quite moved by this gesture; after this weekend I really feel like I’m part of the Fisher family. I never knew Mike well, but I’m told he was a very artsy, very outdoorsy human. He loved photography & mountain biking and he was born during a thunderstorm; the man’s middle name was even Storm, he was a special creature. It is a terrible tragedy that Mike had to pass so early in his Earthly career; that said, and please, pardon my saying, but I can’t fathom a more appropriate way to go than bodying a double lightning strike. Ride in peace Michael Storm Fisher, I’m sure we would have been great friends.
Hunter Was Here
The drive is 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 before showing me his current apartment. His shelves are decked out with model cars (mostly of the Volkswagen variety), the walls covered in posters of various monster truck drivers, 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, so I give him a farewell hug and take my leave. I have nothing 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 leave a note saying Hunter was here in Zak’s bedroom for him to find the next time he stays at his parents’ house. As I’m writing it, I can feel myself starting to get emotional again; I really miss having Zak as part of 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 ever had the pleasure of staying with. They’ve truly set the bar for the phrase southern hospitality in my book, I really can’t thank them enough for letting me stay here this weekend, for making this road trip possible. Ronnie, Margaret, Zak, if any of you are reading this: thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
“We’re almost done Gram, are you still with me?” I ask, my voice animated and full of life.
grandMother, still 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 that 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 ear, 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.
Jump Off Rock
Tuesday, March 19th
I finally wake up early enough to see the sunrise for the first time this trip. Figures that it’s on the last day, que sera sera. It really is breathtaking though; seeing that glowing orb of light rising up over the mountains, bathing 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 in North Carolina is return to Jump Off Rock. I can’t help but take in that view one more time, while I still have the opportunity. I even brought my digital camera this time, but honestly, the pictures don’t do it justice.
I have some blank space left here, so please allow me to muse: it’s funny, so many members of today’s brave new world venture out on hikes to grand vistas just to take a picture of the view rather than taking the sight in for themselves. It’s the same thing as teenagers recording 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’s top. The book I’ve written that you’re reading will bring you to the last page. No piece of technology will be able to adequately capture the feeling of being there in the moment, so why bother?