by: Jon Krampner
Inspired by the lyrics of Roger Miller, a humorous work of fiction that examines the occasionally preposterous cost of enlightenment…
Shortly after dawn on a chilly August morning in Yellowstone National Park, the sun’s first rays shoot out from between the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Absaroka Range on the eastern horizon. Down below, a meandering stream wanders back and forth across the lush green Hayden Valley. Songbirds flit about, and there’s a pungent scent of sagebrush in the air.
Tourists have risen early to glimpse one of the few remaining wild buffalo herds in the continental United States. They (the buffalo, not the tourists) feed at a salt lick thoughtfully placed near the roadside by a concession company that runs the park’s hotels and restaurants. It’s a typical summer scene in Yellowstone, with one exception: a young man about five foot eight with olive skin and dark, curly hair has just put on a pair of old-fashioned metal roller skates over worn, beat-up sneakers and is awkwardly skating toward the herd.
“Mommy, look at the man on the skates! What’s he doing?” a little blonde girl of five asks her mother.
“Hush, darling,” her mother says. “He might hear you and bother us instead of the buffalo.”
The young man, wearing an old green sweatshirt and blue denims against the morning cold, appears unsteady on his feet. He’s only taken up skating recently, and the grasslands of the Hayden Valley lack the smooth, polished surface of a roller rink. But the young man is determined, and anxiously negotiates his way out to the salt lick, where he rather quickly finds himself in the middle of the herd.
For a while, things go well. Buffaloes are notoriously ill-tempered, but they pay more attention to the salt lick than the young man. One time when he falls, a buffalo calf shyly wanders over to curiously examine this newest and oddest addition to the herd.
Then, disaster strikes.
“Hey, buffaloes! Cheese!” cries a middle-aged manicurist in Bermuda shorts from Topeka. Her flash goes off, along with those of her overweight husband and three middle-school children. The buffalo, placid up until that point, stampede. Fortunately for the tourists, the buffalo head out into the valley, away from the barrage of terrifying lights. But the young man on skates barely misses getting trampled. To add insult to near-injury, a park ranger in a squad car pulls up and arrests the young man on a charge of “molesting the wildlife.”
The jail section of the park’s headquarters at Old Faithful is spartan. Its walls are a faded green, its stuffed chairs bear the impressions of decades’ worth of backsides and the imitation-wood grain tables are old enough to have had Moxie spilled on them. The flags of Wyoming and the United States stand proudly on stanchions in the corner near portraits of the Yellowstone Park superintendent, the governor of Wyoming, and a man with a tangerine toupee.
The young man is not in a cell, at least not yet. He’s being questioned by Milford “Smokey” Baer, the straight-arrow ex-marine who hauled him in. Every summer for the last twenty years, as soon as school has ended, he’s left his job as a high-school chemistry teacher in Bozeman, Montana, to work as a park ranger. He’s seen a lot in his time, but this is a first.
“Name,” Baer says, more as a bored assertion of routine than a question.
“Don’t take this personally, young man,” Ranger Baer asks, “but are you nuts? You could have been killed.”
“I’m on a quest, Mr. Baer,” Phil explains. The ranger likes the fact that Phil calls him “Mister” — today’s kids don’t know the meaning of respect — and his manner softens.
“What kind of quest, my kamikaze friend?” he asks. Phil explains.
After graduating a year ago from Vermont State College with a degree in Liberal Arts, Phil found himself at wits end. Even his friends with useful degrees were having trouble finding work and paying down their crushing load of student debt. He took a job as a pizza deliveryman in Greenville.
Greenville is a picturesque New England town, boasting a church with a soaring white steeple and trees that burst into kaleidoscopic color every fall, luring tourists from around the world. Greenville also specializes in maple-sugar candy pressed into the shape of a maple leaf. But you can only eat so much maple-sugar candy, and when tourists tire of it, they order out for pizza. In a sense, that’s what started Phil on his quest.
One day he found himself stuck in a traffic jam of leaf peepers while delivering a medium pizza with pepperoni to a crotchety couple from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The pizza was cold by the time he arrived, the couple complained to Phil’s boss (who didn’t like him anyway) and there went his job. To make matters worse, that’s when Phil’s girlfriend Angela chose to dump him.
Phil is ordinarily even-tempered, but the one-two punch sent him into a tailspin. After moping around for months, he came to a decision: he was going to seek the meaning of life. He had enjoyed his course “Buddhist Thought and Practice in the Modern World” at Vermont State, so he stitched together some discount flights, cratered his savings account and journeyed to the Far East.
On a rocky ledge high in the Tibetan Himalayas, Phil met Jamyang, a Zen holy man. Seated, with a shaven head, Jamyang’s manner was contemplative and his robe was an orangey-yellow color that reminded Phil of paella. Taking stock of the young man’s spiritual crisis, Jamyang said that to understand the meaning of life, he would have to perform the tasks that Roger Miller said could not be done in his 1964 country-pop crossover hit, “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.”
“Oh, wise one, I did not realize you were a fan of Roger Miller,” Phil said.
“I’m really not,” Jamyang replied, “but every now and then people bring me CD’s when they’re a little short in the tribute department.” Raising his eyebrows and glaring at Phil, he added, “Don’t get any ideas from that. I’ve got the toughest collection service in this part of the Himalayas.”
“How will performing these tasks teach me the meaning of life?”
“It is what we who practice zen call a koan,” Jamyang said, “a paradoxical injunction one must meditate upon. For example, what is the sound of one hand clapping?”
“One hand clapping, oh holy one?” Phil asked, scratching his head. “Can’t we start with something easier?”
In exasperation, Jamyang slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. Why couldn’t he have gone into real estate like his cousin Naprayanda?
“Oh wise one, is that the sound of one hand clapping?” Phil asked eagerly.
“No, my son,” Jamyang said sardonically. “That is the sound of one hand slapping.”
In his sect, he added, they don’t just meditate on an injunction — they back it up with action. “Go forth on your quest, young man,” he told Phil. “And don’t forget to keep those checks coming, or it’s no enlightenment for you.”
Ranger Baer takes this story in thoughtfully and rubs his chin. He likes the kid, although he still thinks he might have a screw loose.
“I’m going to let you go, Phil, and I’ll even expunge the record of your arrest on one condition.”
“Don’t ever come back to Yellowstone.”
“Promise,” Phil says. The scenery is nice, but so is Vermont’s.
Milford Baer shakes hands with Phil, who’s halfway out the door when the ranger speaks again.
“Just one other thing.”
The young man stops in his tracks.
“What’s that?” he asks anxiously.
“You’re not going to jump in a geyser on your way out, are you? Because those things are hot and if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s fricasseed tourists.”
“No way,” Phil grins. His beat-up ’01 Corolla and the trip back to Vermont await.
Arriving back in Greenville, Phil pulls up at the house on a locust-shaded side street where he rents a room in back. Inside, he cozies up in his thrift-store rocking chair under a poster of an Ansel Adams photo of Half Dome and dials Angela’s number. Answer, answer, answer, he thinks. She picks up on the third ring.
“How ya been, Phil?” she asks politely.
“Considering that I miss you and that I almost met my maker in a buffalo stampede.”
There’s a tapping noise on the phone, as if Angela is trying to shake the static out of it.
“You almost what?”
Phil explains he’s on a quest to find the meaning of life.
“Phil, I’d like to ask if you found enlightenment out there with your buffalo friends, but I’m a little pressed for time right now. I’m moving.”
“Where?” he asks with a sinking feeling.
“Well,” she pauses, figuring as well now as anytime, “I’m moving in with Joe.”
“Joe Apollodoro? That jerk?” Phil says, maligning last year’s Vermont State student-body president as might be expected of someone resenting the man who has supplanted him.
“He’s not a jerk,” Angela says evenly, having anticipated Phil’s response, “he’s just a bit…domineering at times.” A mewing undertone creeps into her voice which suggests that’s part of his allure.
“Don’t come crawling back to me when it doesn’t work out,” Phil says.
“Don’t worry, I won’t.”
A hot, muggy and humid summer day in New York gives way to a hot, muggy and humid evening. Phil and his best friend Louis Johnson have concealed themselves, along with a garden hose, in the aviary building of the Bronx Zoo. Despite Louis’ efforts to talk him out of it, Phil is ready for the second task of his quest. Roger Miller said you can’t take a shower in a parakeet cage, but here, perhaps, you can. The cage, large and airy, could accommodate several hippos and still have room left over for a former pizza delivery man.
Louis, who had the good sense to major in physics at Vermont State, is working for a high-tech start-up in Burlington. He knows his friend is going through tough times, but wonders if this is going to help.
It’s past closing time. Everyone’s gone home, and the two emerge from hiding. Phil starts to jimmy the lock to the parakeet cage, while Louis attaches the garden hose to a nearby fixture. The parakeets are a panoply of pastel blue, yellow, dark green, violet and white. The Bronx Zoo has an impressive collection of Plum-headed parakeets, Budgies, Indian Ringnecks and other species in a roomy jungle-like cage that reaches to the ceiling of the aviary building. In a minute, Phil will be in there taking a shower with them.
The lock is sprung, the garden hose attached. The parakeets become chatty with the approach of the interloper.
“Mabel, where’s my camera? Mabel, where’s my camera? Squawk! Squawk! Mabel, where’s my camera?”
“Let’s eat lunch at Marty’s! Let’s eat lunch at Marty’s! Squawk! Squawk! Let’s eat lunch at Marty’s!”
Phil tells Louis to let ‘er rip, and he’s doused by a cascade from the hose. The parakeets enjoy it as much as Phil; as far as they’re concerned, it’s just another tropical rainstorm. Droplets of mist hanging in the air fracture the waning daylight into a glorious, iridescent rainbow. Phil is momentarily hushed by its silent beauty. After a hot, clammy day, the stream of water is crystal-cool and revitalizing. In a burst of exuberance, Phil peels off his t-shirt, loops it through the belt of his cut-offs, pulls out a bar of soap and washes himself down while singing “Takin’ Care of Business.”
Louis is still hosing him down, but Phil stops singing. There’s an ominous buzzing sound coming from high up in the back of the cage. That’s when Phil notices a group of large parakeets with dark squarish bodies, blood-red tailfeathers, a hood of black feathers around their eyes and impressively large beaks and claws.
“Yo, Louis,” Phil calls out, trying not to sound worried as the buzzing intensifies, “what kind of parakeets are those?”
“The black and red ones?”
Louis turns off the garden hose and thoughtfully reads the placards at the front of the cage while the black-and-reds chant “Dive-bomb the intruder! Dive-bomb the intruder! Squawk! Squawk! Dive-bomb the intruder!”
“Let’s see…Ah, here we go,” Louis says. “Parakidensis Barracudicus: Brazilian Killer Parakeets. Raised by head-hunters in the Amazon, they are sometimes called “piranhas of the air” and are the only known species of parakeet to ever have attacked and devoured…”
Before Louis can finish, the black and red parakeets arrange themselves into a V-shaped echelon formation pointing straight at Phil’s head and begin a steep dive from the top of the cage. Phil runs for the gate, but falls on the now-slick floor. He gets up, but the bar of soap falls from his pocket and he slips on it, his legs gyrating in the air like Wile E. Coyote’s after going over a cliff in futile pursuit of the Road-runner. Phil breaks his fall by grabbing a bamboo plant on the way down, picks himself up again, runs to the gate and slams it shut just ahead of the avian posse.
“Polly want a human. Polly want a human,” Louis chants in his best parakeet falsetto as they trudge out to the parking lot. “Squawk, squawk, Polly want a human.”
“Sorry to hear about Angela,” Louis says on the drive back to Greenville, “but why stick with a slacker when she can have the Big Man on Campus, eh?”
“I don’t understand it,” Phil says with rueful irony. “Other than a good job, perfect abs and parents with a condo in Barbados, what’s he got that I haven’t got?” After two years with Angela, he’s still disconsolate at losing her.
To distract himself, Phil starts to talk about the quest. He explains the zen idea of the koan, how its purpose is to help you gain enlightenment by jamming your normal thought processes so you can access a higher form of insight.
“Phil, I’m your best friend and all,” Louis says. “But are you sure you want to jam the ones you’ve managed to get up and running?”
“Just because I wasn’t a physics major – “
“No offense,” Louis says. “But now that the pizza thing hasn’t worked out, when are you gonna get a job?”
“You sound like my mother,” Phil says. His parents have retired to North Bay Village near Miami Beach. Phil’s father is cheerfully indifferent to his not having found a job yet. “These are his salad days — let him toss around a little,” he tells Phil’s mother, who keeps sending him brochures for grad school. He hasn’t told his parents about the quest yet. His father will be delighted by its sheer impracticality. His mother will wonder where she’s failed him.
When Louis drops Phil off in Greenville, he still has a few green feathers in his hair.
Once he gets settled in to his trusted rocking chair, Phil calls his neighbor Lois Belsky.
“I want to change the film in my camera,” he says.
“So who’s stopping you?” she asks.
Phil explains about the quest and that the third injunction of Roger Miller is that you can’t change film with a kid on your back. Lois, who’s in her late thirties, is divorced and works as a paralegal for a law firm in Greenville. Her son is a hyperactive third-grader named Tim that Phil isn’t overly fond of, but he and Lois get along and he doesn’t know who else to ask.
To Phil’s distress, Lois wants to talk about Angela. She feels for Phil, she says, but can also see Angela’s point of view. Her father, Frank Romanucci, is the senior partner in the law firm where Lois works: Romanucci, Winograd and McMullen. Lois knows about the history of heart problems in the Romanucci family and the live-for-today attitude it engenders. In the case of Frank Romanucci, that’s meant several affairs, with only the strict Catholicism of Angela’s mother having staved off divorce. In the case of Angela, Lois says, it probably means she’s in a hurry to settle down. And, Lois thinks but doesn’t say, that Joe Apollodoro is some catch.
Unfortunately, this makes Joe wistful, conjuring up the vision of Angela, five foot six and slender, with long, jet-black hair, large brown eyes, smooth skin the color of café au lait, and a come-hither smile which will never beam at him again.
“So, ummn, can I borrow your son?” Phil asks Lois.
Lois is unhappy with Tim right now. He just got in trouble at school. On the playground, within earshot of a teacher, he told another kid to “go fuck himself,” earning him a reprimand from the teacher, a mother-and-son visit to the principal’s office and a stern lecture from his mother. This will be part of his punishment. “Sure,” she says.
On a cool, windy afternoon when the leaves are again starting to change, Phil is in Lois Belsky’s kitchen. Tim reluctantly wanders in.
“Now just hop on Phil’s back,” Lois tells him.
“Oh, boy! Are we gonna have chicken fights?” He’s seen the junior high school boys engage in the combat ritual where a smaller boy gets on the back of a larger one and grapples with another small kid similarly perched, trying to unseat him.
“No chicken fights today, Tim,” Phil smiles. “I just need to change a roll of film.”
Tim is a child of the digital age. “What’s film?” he asks.
“Why do I gotta sit on your back?”
“Why do I have to sit on your back?” Lois corrects.
“I’m on a quest to find the meaning of life.”
This only registers as white noise with Tim, who points his right index finger at his own head and, while looking at Phil, rotates it in a counter-clockwise manner.
“Go ahead, sweetie,” says Lois. “I’ll buy you a cone at O’Farrell’s later.”
“You drive a hard bargain,” she says. “I’ll be in the living room if anyone needs my help.”
Phil’s vintage Pentax, with film shot at the Bronx Zoo still inside it, is on the kitchen table next to a new roll. He crouches down and Tim jumps on his back. He’s only fifty-five pounds, but it’s a squirmy fifty-five pounds.
Phil picks up his Pentax and starts to unscrew the knob that fastens the leather case to the camera. He holds the camera with his left hand and turns the knob with his right. It won’t budge. Phil squeezes it as tightly as he can and turns the knob while squeezing, applying so much pressure that the serrated edge of the knob is imprinted in flaming red on the inner crook of his thumb.
Because both his hands are busy with the camera, neither can hold onto Tim, so Phil leans forward and by adjusting his balance, he is able to keep Tim steady on his back. But Tim isn’t sure this is going to work.
“I’m gonna fall,” Tim cries. “I’m gonna fall! Man overboard!” Lois, who knows her son’s unofficial motto is “Never suffer in silence,” remains in the living room doing needlework.
“Just hold on, man,” Phil says.
The case of the Pentax finally comes off. Phil rewinds the roll of film already inside the camera until he hears the s-p-r-o-i-n-g! sound which means the leader of the film has been slurped into the film canister. He pops open the camera, removes the roll of film, picks up the fresh canister of Ektar and starts to load it.
That’s when Tim Belsky decides he’s not going to wait for ice cream. He wants a cookie, and he wants it now. Lois Belsky keeps the cookie jar on top of the refrigerator because Tim can’t reach that high. But on Phil’s back, he can.
As Phil lays the new roll into the camera and stretches it across to the take-up reel, Tim says, “The cookie jar is on the fridge.” Phil looks up.
“So it is.” He’s so anxious to successfully complete his first task of the quest that his palms are sweating.
“I want a cookie!”
“Okay, Cookie Monster, just wait a minute.”
Phil starts to insert the film in the take-up reel. All he needs to do is get it in and shut the back of the camera.
“I want it now!”
“Hold your horses!”
“I want. I want. I want!”
Tim pinches Phil’s arm hard, and more out of surprise than pain, he drops the camera.
“Shit,” Phil mutters.
“Mommy, he said a bad word!”
As Phil crouches over to pick up the camera, Lois charges in, still holding her needlework. She is not going to have another parent-teacher conference to explain why her little boy is such a foul-mouthed reprobate. Lois asks Phil to leave, whether he’s completed his task or not. As Phil leaves, Tim shoots him a triumphal look. Phil decides right then and there he never wants to have children.
Several nights later, Phil is looking out his kitchen window at the dark silhouettes of locust trees across the alley behind his room. He’s boiling some water in preparation for his usual dinner, Spaghetti alla Ragu. So far, his quest has been uniformly marked by failure and Roger Miller’s fourth injunction, that you can’t drive around with a tiger in your car, seems especially fraught.
Louis Johnson calls Phil later that evening and tells him about a friend of his, a student in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Vermont. He’s temporarily taking care of a large Siberian tiger on loan to the Burlington Zoo. A perfect opportunity has presented itself.
Given his track record, Phil wants to lower his exposure on this one.
“Do you think I could just put it in the trunk?” he asks.
“Naw, man, that would be cheating,” Louis says. Having participated in the quest, he now feels invested in it and doesn’t want his friend taking any shortcuts.
Phil protests. He quips that it won’t fit into his Corolla. “Not to worry,” Louis says, suggesting that Phil can borrow his company’s Ford “Titanic” SUV. Phil wonders if this is another bad sign.
Chuck Newsom, Louis’ friend in vet school, knows he could get in trouble for this, but Louis promises to forgive his considerable debts from their Friday-night poker games if he complies. Two days later, with a light dusting on the ground from a late-October snowfall, Phil backs the navy-blue Ford up to the loading dock at the vet school in Burlington.
Newsom meets him there and, with the help of a winch, they load the anesthetized tiger into the back. It’s eight feet long and weighs six hundred pounds, pale orange with brown stripes. Even asleep, it looks fearsome.
“Don’t worry,” Chuck says. “He’s just a big pussycat. Aren’t you?” He playfully tugs at the tiger’s ruff, but there’s no response.
“He should be out cold for the next few hours,” Chuck says. “Call me if you have any questions.”
Phil is eager get going. He thanks Chuck and heads east on I-89. He’ll turn off and head north over Smuggler’s Notch toward the Cold Hollow Mountains, pass the Greenville Reservoir into Greenville and circle west back to Burlington. Going over the notch, Phil looks up at Mount Mansfield. Small farms with split-rail fences line the road at the base of its craggy, snowy slopes. Blue-green hemlock trees and white pines are interspersed with sugar maple, beech, and ash trees whose colors are fading and whose leaves are falling.
Everything’s going according to plan as Phil enters the town limits and sees the familiar sign, “Welcome to Greenville — Pop. 3600. Friendliest village in the Northeast Kingdom. Spend your tourist dollars here!” The white spire of the First Congregational Church looms ahead. It’s New England autumn tranquility at its finest until Phil’s cell phone rings. It’s Chuck Newsom, his voice several octaves higher than it was back on the vet school loading dock.
“Where are you right now?”
“I just got into Greenville,” Phil says breezily. “What’s up?”
“Oh God, I’m so sorry…”
“About what?” a puzzled Phil asks. “Everything’s fine.”
I just realized I gave our cat the wrong dose of anesthetic. It should have been twice as strong!”
Just then, Phil hears a drowsy growl from the back of the SUV.
“I should have known better than to agree to this,” Chuck says. “I figured ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just like slipping him a few Xanax.’ They don’t teach anesthesia until the second year.” Chuck had just finished his first year of vet school.
“Pull over, lock it up and don’t let him get excited,” says Chuck, sounding pretty excited himself. “I’ll be right up there with a tranquilizer gun.” The growls from the back are becoming louder and closer together.
As he pulls up to the stoplight at Maple and Main Street in downtown Greenville, Phil looks out the partially-open passenger-side window of the Ford to see a familiar white Miata with a gold racing stripe and “JOE #1” license plate. It’s none other than golden-haired, lantern-jawed self-assured Joe Apollodoro, with Angela sitting next to him, both in matching Brooks Brothers sweaters.
“Where’d you find that gas-guzzling monstrosity? At a flea market?,” Joe yells at him. “Get a hybrid, pal!”
Angela rolls her eyes and waves apologetically at Phil.
The tiger, fully awake now, sticks its head out the window, struggling to get a look at the source of the noise and see if it might make a good meal. Spotting Joe, he attempts to pounce, but can only get his head and shoulders out of the SUV. Only several feet from Joe, he rears back his head and roars, a deep, rippling bellow that was the last thing ever heard by generations of boar and elk on the eastern Siberian plain. The color drains out of Joe’s face, and he turns the corner so quickly that he clips a fire hydrant, which shoots out a geyser-like spray that drenches the Pepperoni Palace Pizzeria, where Phil used to work. Owner Jim Reiner runs out into the street to see what’s going on, only to have a secondary water jet from the hydrant send him sprawling into a petunia planter. He climbs out, soaking wet and covered with snow and peat moss. Among the gathering crowd is Tim Belsky and several third-grade friends. “This is cool, Mr. Bernstein,” he says. “By the way, did you ever get that film changed?”
Phil, eager not to become the tiger’s next meal, ignores him and pulls over just out of range from the spewing hydrant and locks up the SUV as the big cat prowls around in the back. Shortly after the fire department arrives to fix the hydrant. Chuck, with several speeding tickets on his dashboard, pulls up, gets Phil to unlock the monster SUV and tranquilizes the now fully-awake Siberian tiger. The police chief pulls up in his cruiser and Phil explains what happened.
“Are you mad at me, Chief Obenstar?” Phil asks.
“Not at all,” the chief says. “We haven’t had this much fun since Lindy Miller got her dress caught in a cider press while giving a demonstration for a bunch of Chinese tourists. But you’re under arrest for illegal possession of a Siberian tiger.”
“What about Joe Apollodoro? He just took out a fire hydrant!”
Chief Obenstar ponders this. Then he reflects that Joe’s father is the leading contributor to the Police Athletic League in Greenville and helps the department buy equipment — including Chief Obenstar’s own cruiser — that increasingly stingy federal grants no longer cover.
“That was an old hydrant,” the chief tells Phil. “We needed to replace it anyway.”
Phil spends the night in the Greenville Jail. The next morning, Louis takes the bus up from Burlington to bail him out and reclaim the company SUV of Vermont Biotechnology, Inc. Phil pays a fine and signs an agreement not to transport large carnivorous predators within the town limits of Greenville again.
Back in his room, Phil makes several calls. The first is to his parents in South Bay Village. They still subscribe to The Greenville Gazette and Phil wants them to hear about the quest and its sometimes-unfortunate consequences from him first.
“Arrested? My son has been arrested?” Sophie Bernstein yells into the phone. “What am I going to tell your Aunt Clara? Her son Howard has just been accepted into medical school at Brandeis and now I have to tell her you spend your days running away from buffalos and parakeets and destroying public property?”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds, Mom. I’m on a quest to learn— “
“Quest, schmest. I never should have read Doctor Spock,” she says. “But your father, the expert on everything, says, ‘Let’s be progressive. Let’s be tolerant’ And what do we get? A son who’s public enemy number one. Irwin, pick up the phone!”
“Do you need any help, Phil?” his father asks.
“No, that’s okay, dad,” he says. “I just didn’t want you to – “
“Did you get that catalogue for the Wharton School of Finance?” his mother cuts in.
“Ah, to be young again,” his father muses, recalling tramp steamers to Europe and service in the Merchant Marine before he married the love of his life, had a son and settled down to forty-five years of work in a government cubicle. “Yellowstone at dawn, the Bronx Zoo at twilight — can I come along on your next adventure?”
“Not before you help me make sandwiches for our bridge party this afternoon, Mister Spirit of Adventure,” his mother says. “Like father, like son.”
Phil knows he shouldn’t do this, but it was good to see Angela again, so he calls her.
“I’m alright,” she says. “But you should see the gash in Joe’s Miata where we hit the hydrant.”
“So he’s not always the big hero.”
“No one is,” Angela says evenly.
“You could be happy if you were mine, too,” Phil gamely warbles.
“Is that supposed to be a line from ‘You Can’t Roller Skate In A Buffalo Herd’?” she asks.
“But of course,” Phil smiles.
“You’ve got it wrong,” she says. “It’s ‘you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.’”
“Oh,” she mimics.
Phil asks if she’s moving so quickly with Joe because her family’s history of heart problems is making her act rashly.
“Whatever’s right or wrong with my heart, Phil,” she says, “it isn’t with you anymore.”
In the afternoon, Phil calls Jamyang to report on his progress. As Jamyang sits on his windy Tibetan ledge, looking out at a panorama of the Himalayas and balancing his books for the third quarter, his cell phone starts to play Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” It’s the young man from America.
“Oh, wise one, I’ve failed at everything,” Phil laments.
“How can the soaring frigate bird transit the highest peak,” Jamyang asks, “when the mollusc laughs at the thrashing of the shark?”
This makes no more sense to Phil than trigonometry, but he tries to go with the flow.
“Within, you shall find the answer you seek,” the wise man says in the purring manner of a contented tabby cat. “And don’t forget to put the right amount of postage on the envelope when you send me your check, the Nepalese post office just raised the international rates.”
Roger Miller says you can’t go fishing in a watermelon patch, but Phil Bernstein is on a quest to find the meaning of life and must find a way. Watermelons are grown all over the United States, as far north as Indiana. But it’s November, so Phil heads south, hitch-hiking the entire way. He has to, he’s sold his Corolla to finance the quest.
A long-haul trucker heading back to Georgia picks him up. They get to talking, smoke some of the trucker’s stash, and the trucker tells him about a place an hour below Macon where he used to hang out with friends. It was on Farmer Smedley’s place — he grew peanuts and soybeans, but on the back forty acres overlooking Martin’s Creek, it’s planted to watermelon. It comes right up to the edge of the creek, the trucker says, so Phil can do his fishing there. It would be from the watermelon patch more than in it, but that’s practically the same thing, he says.
So the trucker drops Phil off at the dirt road leading to the watermelon patch. Farmer Smedley is a pretty good shot, the trucker says, but he and his wife usually vacation in Miami at this time of year. Mrs. Smedley’s arthritis acts up in the winter, plus they have a married daughter in Miami Shores. Phil finds the place and, to his delight, even catches several catfish.
But then — and there always seems to be a “but then” with Phil Bernstein — something goes awry. Phil walks back along the dirt road to the highway, pontificating on the meaning of life and looking forward to broiling the catfish he caught. But then Farmer and Mrs. Smedley pull up alongside him in their pickup truck with its fully-loaded gun rack. Phil realizes that, to this South Georgia farmer, he may appear less as a man on a mission than a trespassing Yankee Jew.
Mrs. Smedley’s arthritis hasn’t bothered her much this year — for some consarned reason, the farmer muses, the winters keep getting warmer — so they cut short their stay in Florida. Rather than threatening Phil, though, Farmer Smedley is amused by the idea of the quest. But he has a question for Phil.
“Son, did you notice all those shiny green and red plants you had to walk through to get to the melon patch?” he asks.
Phil says he did.
“Well, that’s poison sumac. I need to get to work on clearin’ it out or the Mrs.” — the smiling, portly woman with gray hair and a few remaining strands of blonde smiles — “will never let me hear the end of it.”
Just then, Phil realizes he feels a little itchy.
Phil comes down with a world-class case of poison sumac. In the emergency room in Atlanta’s Baptist Memorial Hospital he meets Sheila Rothenberg, a reporter/photographer for National Geographic. She’s suffering from hypothermia, having been pitched into a freezing Georgia creek when the kayak she was paddling overturned while she was on assignment. They get along. Phil may lack focus, but he’s a likeable guy, and they wind up visiting each other in their respective wards. They keep in touch after they get out, and when an opening comes up in Sheila’s unit at National Geographic, she recommends Phil.
Sheila and Phil now work together, roaming the world as part of a five-member team, descending into the calderas of volcanoes, climbing to remote mountaintops, doing whatever it takes to produce the illustrated articles so many want-to-be adventurers read every month. They’re getting along so well that they’ve moved in together. The first time Sheila speaks with Phil’s parents, his father says, “You mean he’s doing the same things he was before, but now he’s getting paid for them?” His mother is more interested in who this young lady is.
“So tell me, Sheila,” she says, “what does your father do?”
Sheila tells her he’s a career prosecutor with the Department of Justice in Washington.
“And what did you say your last name was?”
“I didn’t,” Sheila says, “it’s Rothenberg.”
“Rothenberg? You’re Jewish? Phil isn’t dating shiksas any more? Irwin! Hey, Irwin! Come here!”
Sheila also gets to read a note from Jamyang, the sage of the Himalayas. Phil’s payment to him was delayed — even with higher rates, the mail service in Tibet is unreliable — and his check crossed in the mail with a note from Jamyang, handwritten on goatskin paper. “Remit at once,” it said, “or face the consequences.”
Phil was looking for the meaning of life, but found Sheila instead. She’s not what he was looking for, she reflects, but she hopes she’ll do.
Jon Krampner is the author of “The Mazeroski Blues” (Across The Margin, June 2016), “Why I Built My House The Way I Did” (Across the Margin, January 2017), “The Provence Lane Haunting” (Eclipse Magazine),and three books of nonfiction. He lives in Los Angeles and tweets at @pbj06.