the umpeenth coming by peter nolan smith

In the summer of 1971 my three friends and I tripped on LSD in White Mountains. the window pane was fierce. A twelve year-old emerged from the forest. For a minute almost believed he was Jesus, but his name was Jessie from Bethel NH

Music by doug henderson ex-drummer of Spongehead

Vortex sculpture by Dave Henderson also of Spongehead

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YIM YET MUNG by Peter Nolan Smith

Over twenty golf courses are located within an hour drive from Pattaya, Thailand’s infamous beach resort.

Whacking a little ball around the world-class fairways gave many long-distance travelers something to do during the day, while waiting for the night to fall on the Last Babylon. Jamie Parker preferred sleep, however his girlfriend Ort had been poking his stomach for the last week, saying, “Uan.”

“Fat?” Jamie looked in the mirror. His traditionally flat stomach was thickened by beer flab, but uan was an overstatement. “I’ve never been fat in my life.”

“Now not never. Now you uan.” Ort was wearing an imitation Gucci shirt and fake Levis. She weighed less than when they had met at the Paris a Go-Go. She wasn’t the prettiest girl in town, but she was sexier than most of the girls on the circuit and Jamie was happy with her about 50% of the time.

“Really?” The New Yorker’s nickname on the Lower East Side was ‘el Flacco Blanco’.

“No problem you fat. No girl look at you.”

“I thought Thai girls liked fat men.”

“And you think they love you long time too?” Ort brushed her long black hair, so the strands fell down her back like the mane of a mare.

“I’ll show you ‘love you long time’.” Jamie threw her on the bed, but halfway through their love-making his lungs were depleted of oxygen.

Ort was right.

The 51 year-old ex-con was fat and out of shape. As a retired criminal both could be a death sentence and he fell asleep vowing to change his life of indolence.

The next afternoon he rode his bike to the Asia Hotel Driving Range. Ort sat on the back of the scooter. She didn’t trust him out of her sight.

At the range he picked out a driver and ordered two buckets of balls.

Neither of the pros commented on his wearing flip-flops.

“You play golf before?” Ort ate fiery sum tam salad in the shade.

“Only mini-golf.” Jamie had played several games on summer holiday. He had lost each time to his younger brother. Nothing in the intervening years had diminished his ignorance and he observed a 70 year-old man swing at a ball. It traveled 200 meters in a straight line.

“Chok dii.” Ort devoted her attention to the spicy mango salad.

“I’ve always had beginner’s luck.”

Jamie balanced a ball on the tee and grasped the driver like a Louisville Slugger. The heft of the shaft was too small for his hands, but he instinctively understood that his thumbs were in the way. Jamie clutched the club like he was hitchhiking with two hands and spread his legs like the old man, who had whacked his next ball to the 250 meter mark.

Head down Jamie swung at the ball and missed by two inches.

“What mean beginner?” Ort’s face displayed her displeasure at his effort. Thais hate losing face.

“Someone who is learning to do something.” Jamie adjusted his grip and stance.

“Meuu-ma.” Ort rollercoasted her inflection through the word.

“Yes, Meuu-ma.”

Jamie grasped the golf driver like he was hacking a watermelon with a samurai sword.

Jamie had played baseball for Xaverian Brothers in Brooklyn. Nothing felt better than the ball meeting the sweet part of the bat and the euphoria of smacking the next golf ball 270 meters was an unexpected epiphany. The old man turned around to smile with appreciation of his tee-shot and Ort lifted her head from the plate.

“Sometimes beginner’s luck takes more than one try.”

That week Jamie’s morning began with a visit to the Asia Hotel Driving Range.

Ort liked one of the golf pros. He was Thai. Jamie didn’t care, since he got free lessons out of her flirtation.

He switched the flip-flops for Nike Air Max golf shoes and bought a used Ping driver from the pro shop.

A few lessons from Ort’s admirer advanced his drives into the 300 range.

Several golfers asked him to join them for foursomes at the various golf courses around Pattaya. Jamie thanked them for offers, but refused to venture further than Sukhumvit.

“Something about that road makes me think I might die on it.” He had seen numerous collisions at the intersection of Sukhumvit and Pattaya Tai. Cars and trucks had a serious weight advantage over flesh and blood on bikes.

Ort was proud of his prowess at the driving range and home.

“You are now a handsome man again,” she whispered with a hint of naughtiness.

“I was always handsome.” He had also cut down on his beer consumption.

“You not fat now. You man #1.” Her tongue slipped into his ear like a sea snake seeking his skull.

They went home and didn’t see daylight for three days.

Life was good. The weather was temperate. Jamie was treated by the staff at the Asia Driving Range with deference. He was a good tipper. The Thais called him ‘Jame’. None of them could say ‘Jamie’.

One day he stroked the balls almost 325. He thought nothing else in the world could be more perfect, until he saw Ort’s face.

She was scared to the marrow.

“Bpen Arai?” He turned to see a group of stiff-faced Thais standing in front of a top-end Benz.

Their eyes glared at him.

“Are those people the problem?” None of the paunchy men appeared ready to fight, but they had money and money bought trouble cheap in Thailand.

“They want use tee.” Her cautious nod was a timid wai to five Thai middle-aged men before the Mercedes.

They glowered at Jamie, as if no farangs should live in Thailand.

The headman wore a diamond-encrusted Rolex. His hair resembled a toupee, but he wasn’t bald and he might have been good-looking 20 years ago. At 50 too much bad karma had passed his eyes.

“I’ll go when I finish this bucket.” He had 15 balls to go.

“No, we go now.” She signaled the waitress for the chek-bin.

“No, we don’t.” He put all his muscle into the next drive. The ball sailed out of sight into the distant protective net. 350 plus.

“Okay, go now.” Ort grabbed his hand.

“Why?” Jamie had a good idea why.

“This men khon yai,” she whispered the words like she was an innocent slave caught in rebellion.

“Khon Yai.” 95% of the Thai population had been chattel until 1905. The King had freed the masses with a signature, yet the khon yai or big people continued to regarded the people as animals.

Their greasy smiles threatened Ort with the long tradition of domination.

“I know who they are.” People whose families overcharged the price of gas, sold cars for twice the cost in the USA, and stole land from the poor.

Same as the rich in America.

Al Gore one year.

GW Bush the next.

“You not know these people.”

“I also know they’re not the king or anyone in the royal family.”

Jamie respected the king with the reverence of a god.

He was the one true Thai and his family was deserving of the same respect.

Putting another golf ball on the tee was not a crime against lese-majeste.

“The only khon yai in your life is me. Now sit down.” Jamie had been to prison. He was well-versed in talking tough and even more skilled at the art of staring down tough Thais. The boss looked over his shoulder to the drivers. The pros and staff of the driving range were visibly shaken by this silent confrontation. Ort looked ready to cry. Jamie gauged the distance to the fat man as less than 3 meters, but with a gold club in his hand the man was less than 6 feet away.

“Jamie. I love you.”

She had been with a lot of men before him.

The word ‘love’ came out of her mouth too easily at the wrong time, but her eyes revealed she didn’t want to see him dead and he picked up the bucket of balls. The Thia men snickered with the glory of their triumph.

Jamie said nothing on his way to the cashier.

Neither did he flinch hearing the word ‘farang’.

Most Thais called all westerners ‘farang’.

This was their country and he told Ort to get on the motorbike, while he paid the bill.

The golf pro wai-ed him.

“Thank you.”

His smile said sorry.

“Mai-bphen-rai.” Jamie tipped him a 500 baht. “I know when to have ‘jai yen’.”

He wai-ed the golf pro and the five men laughed at his use of the Thai gesture.

Jamie had been in Thailand long enough to know how to smile in Thai.

Each smile had its own meaning.

His smile clearly said ‘yet mung’.

The Khon Yai gritted their teeth and narrowed their eyes.

He sat his bike and Ort wrapped her arms around his waist.

“Thank you.” She was happy that no one had died at the driving range.

Jamie was happy too, because it’s one thing to have bad manners, it’s another to know when to not use them.

The answer is never.

Especially in a foreign land.

FEAR OF HEIGHTS By Peter Nolan Smith

At the end of the summer in 1989 I hitchhiked north from Perpignan by the Spanish border over to the Provence to visit friends before heading north into the Alps.

Two resistance fighters in their 60s gave me a ride to Col d’Iseran. At 2,764 metres the Haut-Alpes pass is the highest mountain crossing in France. The Marquis combatants spoke of ancient battles, as their Peugeot struggled up the steep incline. Like humans the old car performed better at sea level.

Neither man spoke about Nazi reprisals.

The SS had killed civilians in the thousands.

The resistance had known the cost of freedom and France had learned that lesson as well.

The Germans abandoned France in the summer of 1944. Now they came as tourists. Same as me.

“Au revoir,” the two wished me at the pass. I waved good-bye and pulled on a sweater before setting out on a path leading up into the mountains. The sky was gray and the drops of rain dotted the dust. Autumn came early at this altitude.

The boulders along the trail were monumental. Gods had rolled them down from the heights. The sun came out and torched my skin.

I reached a false col. One more step took me off the cliff. The drop was a thousand feet. I backed off slowly with a tremble in my legs, realizing that I had a fear of heights.

The sun was lowering to the peaks in the west. The night wasn’t far off and I returned to the road by a narrow path.

I saw no people on the descent. Only goats gnawing the grass slopes to the nub.

I smelled the treeline an hour before seeing the firs. The fragrance odor of burning wood marked the return to the land of Man. The sigh of the wind disappearing with the buzz of a chainsaw.

I hitched a ride to Bourg St, Maurice. A night train was leaving for Paris. I turned around to gaze at the mountains. Clouds obscured their peaks. I was sad to think I would never see them again.

I liked the City of Light.

The French capitol had lots of life.

In 1997 I was touring France with my father. Sam Royalle showed up unexpectedly from London. The Englishman had problems and France was a good place to hide from Brixton yardies.

After dropping my father at the aeroport I said to Sam, “I have another week left before moving to the far west of Ireland and the rented car is ours for that time. What a road trip to the South of France?”

“An excellent idea. The farther from England the better.”

I played Human League DON’T YOU WANT ME BABY.

I phoned the Brials. They said come on down.

We listened to French pop music.

I loved Etienne Daho. I knew him from Paris. He was a gallant fumeur.

Olivier Brial’s family was happy to see me. We said nothing about Sam’s difficulties, although both thought that Sam seemed to be on the payphone often.

Brials commented

Women trouble.”

“Ah,” replied the doctor and then said, “That explains everything,”

I had spent a lovely holiday with them in 1982.

His son had told his father that I was the 17th ranked tennis player in the USA. I had denied Olivier’s claim, but the doctor thought I was being humble. He later learned the truth, but to this day my friends in that Catalan city called me ‘Mssr. 17’. It didn’t matter that I sucked at ‘le tennis’. A laugh was a good laugh and I remain a member of the large Brial clan.

Sam was also happy to hang in Carnet-Plage, a nearby beach resort on the Med. Madame Brials cooked up sardines on a wooden fire. His mother had a special recipe. Fire and fish followed by a cold Cote de Rousillion. We ate more than we should as drank twice as much as was good for us, but woke in the morning no worst the wear. Good food and good wine can never really hurt you.

The next day was more of the same.

Like most native of the rainy British Isles Sam Royalle loved the sun and spent long hours working on his ‘bronzage’ between lengthy long-distance phone calls to London.

“Une femme,” asked Mdme. Brial.

“Ouais.” It was a lie, but in truth everything was about world on this planet. Without them none of us would exist. I had none in my life and hadn’t for years. I played Human League’s DON’T YOU WANT ME BABY more than once a day.

Sam said nothing.

As a good friend he understood tha tI had missed love more than once.

Stephani was in Barcelona. She was married with a kid.

Candida was in Paris. We had seen spoken since 1986.

And Barbara was back in America. She lived down south with her husband. A weekend once a month was a romance. Nothing more.

After five days we said good-bye to the Brials. I had to return the rented car to Paris and gead over to Ireland. They gave us food for the road. “Reviens bien-tot.”

“I will. Promise.”

And I meant every word.

“So are we heading back to Paris?”

All of France lay before us.

“Not just yet. I have a hankering to see the Luberon Valley and the Alps. It’ll be a slight detour.” I liked driving the small Fiat Uno. It had good gas milage and economy was really important at the French gas pumps.

“I’m in no hurry, mate.”

The yardies back in Brixton were not in a mood to hear about a tour of France.

We exited the Autoroute du Sud at Avignon. The old papal city was packed with tourists admiring the medieval architecture. During the Middle Ages the enclave had been the center of knowledge in Europe and students still thronged to its university.

After a lovely lunch of steack and frites I drove along D901 to Ile-sur-la-Sorgue, a pretty market town. Sam had been a photographer. He liked taking pictures and shot me in front of a small canal.

“Are we stopping here?”

“No, I have a surprise for you. Let’s get back in the car.”

I put on the Velvet Underground CD. None of their songs were in France.

I turned north of D938 and then east on D25 in the direction of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.

“What this place?”

“The Fontaine de Vaucluse is a spring flowing from a cliff. Supposedly it’s the fifth largest spring in the world.”

The Vaucluse ran to the right of the road. The water was the color of cloudy emeralds. The hills were becoming mountains.

The Latin poet Petrarch lived here and fell in love with a young lady of birth, Laura. He wrote several famous sonnets about her and love.”

“Do you know any?”

“No.” My brain was trained in that skill, but I had memorized the highways and byways of the world on maps and through my journeys. I knew my way around the world and said, “Get ready for this.”

I put on Serge Gainsborough’s MELODIE NELSON.
Every second.
Every Note was sexy.

We turned a corner and the ruins of a religious castle sat on a small hill across the fast-moving river. A massive limestone cliff fills the background and Sam shuddered in the passsenger seat.

“What’s wrong?”

“I have a fear of heights.”

“We’re not high.” The road was wide and smooth.

“Yes, but seeing that cliff threw me for a loss.”

“You want to stop?” I recalled the incident at the fake pass above the Col d ‘Iseran. “We’re going into the Alps. They are much higher.”

“No, I’ll be fine.”

The summer in Provence was always dry and the water in the Font was low in the grotto.

“Come the spring and the water rushes over this rocks.”

“Have you swam in it?”

“Yes, but it’s cold enough to give you a stroke. Let’s go. We have a ways to go.”

After a glass of rose wine at a riverside cafe we got back in the car. I let Sam drive.

“I’ll be co-pilot.” I held a unopened map in my hand. I was familiar with this land and directed Sam up the Luberon Valley. Stray fields of lavender awaited a late harvest. In July they robed the valley with purple.

“Over there is Gordes. People drive hundreds of miles to see the charming little town.” The buildings to the north of D900 shone white in the afternoon sun.

“How do you know this road so good?”

“In 1989 I summered with friends in Oppede-De-Vieux, a town of ruins under the cliffs.”

“I think I see it.”

“I had been in Perpignan with the Brials for the summer. Writing a book of short stories. I thought I had written a masterpiece, but with my tying and grammar it ended up more a minorpiece.”

“I like your writing.” Sam had finished grammar school and then a little more of English Private schools before dropping out to pursue his fortune. I was smart enough to never care about fame.

“Thanks.” I pointed to a white gash on the northern face of the Luberon mastiff. “That’s a quarry. I almost threw myself off the edge in 1989.”

“Why?” Sam glanced at the drop and shivered at its height.

“After finishing that book I experienced a down. Like giving birth. I was staying with friends. They had family. I had no one. I thought ‘what’s the use?’ and climbed to the plateau.

I could see the Rhone River, the Mediterranean, and the Alps. It seemed like the right time. I walked toward the cliff….”

“I’ve heard this story before. A baby pig runs out of the bushes and the mother charges you saving you from suicide.”

“Not really. I had suffered an attack of ‘vertige’.”

“Vertigo like the Hitchcock movie?”

“Exactly.”

“As a kid in England nothing scared me more than Jimmie Stewart hanging on for dear life.” Sam loved the movies.

“Just out of reach, but the real sell was Kim Novak. Hitchcock love blondes. According to him blondes made the best victims like virgin snow only showing the bloody footprints.”

“Eve St. Marie in THE BIRDS.

“Grace Kelly.” Sam spoke the dead princess consort’s name with reverence. She had died in a car crash over seventeen years ago. Her daughter Stephanie survived the accident. She was no Grace.

“Monaco. TO CATCH A THIEF.”

“And Princess Diana.”

The woman who might have been queen had died in a car crash in Paris.

Less than a month ago.

Sam and I had laid flowers before her Kensington palace. The pile was chest high. The mourning tears could have filled the Thames.

We drove in silence listening to France-Inter on the way to Gap. I fell asleep most of the way and awoke on Route 85.

“The emperor traveled this way to Waterloo.”

“Which he lost to Wellington.”

“Thanks to the Irish and the Scots.”

Over a third of the Duke’s army was Irish.

“Fuck off. We Brits did all the fighting.”

Even to this day the Brits don’t admit a debt, but Sam was a friend. He always saw right in the end.

We drove though the foothills of the Alps. The radio station faded in and out. I liked these mountains. Some of them were over 12,000 feet high. The sunset sun set on the snow fields lying like broken teeth. Sam looked at me and said, “Magic.”

Our fear of heights was conquered by the beauty.

We stopped the night in Bonneville-sur-arc.

The hotel restaurant served trout. We ordered them and a bottle of white wine.

Arriving in our rooms I opened the windows. The mountains glowed with the moon. I lay bed and mumbled, Magic.”

That night I dreamed of Stephania.

She was no Princess Grace.

She was real. It was a good dream for one without sex.

The next morning Sam woke and joined on the small terrace.
“The Alps.”

“Nothing like it on the East Coast.”

“Nor in England.”

“Are you okay?”

“You mean my fear of heights?”

“Yes.”

“And your fear of heights?”

The Golden Gate bridge was on the other side of the world and Sam answered, “None.”

We had a breakfast of croissants, coffee and Calvados.

“You think you can handle a small hike. I did it in 1989.” I told him aboiut the resistnce fighters and the false pass.

“Where?”

I pointed behind me.

My Calvados tasted of Normandie.

A flat land.

With good apples.

“I think it’ll be okay.”

I ordered the l’addition from the waiter. The bill came to 40 francs.

Less than $3 each.

We had another Calva before hitting the road.

On the way up D902 Same tuned to me and asked, “So now I realize this entire trip has been like reliving the past again.”

“Not at all.” I was good at lying to myself. Most people were.

“Perpignan, the Alpes, and then Paris. What do you want o relive there?”

I had never told him about Auggie. She was secret and I said, “Just drive.”

In 1989 I fell in love with her.

Paris

It’s a city made for love.

Katie.

Karine was from Avignon, Why hadn’t I called her?

And Gussie.

My life was meaningless. Bob Dylan’s DON’T THINK TWICE was playing on the radio.

Every word was as familiar as the road.

My mind was talking to itself.

It wasn’t saying good things.

“Stop here.”

Sam was right. I had been here before. I had been everywhere before.

Col d’Iseran.

On sunny day.

Sam didn’t care about the telephone.

I didn’t question my lost lives.

We headed up the trail.

Same as before.

Sam wasn’t scared,. Neither was I.

We headed up the path.

I wasn’t thinking right.

Life, Mountains. Heights.

I stood at the precipice and stepped closer.
Nothing had changed.

Sam grabbed my arm.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Sam’s body was in earthquake mode.

“Nowhere.”

“Wrong, we’re going to Paris.”

“Paris”

The word was magic and I stepped back from the cliff.

“I like Paris.”

“And so do I.” Sam crawled on his hands and knees back to the car. At the car he regained his breath.

“You okay?

“Yes, you?”

I nodded and handed him the key, then we drove through the night to the City of Light.

Nothing was tall in Paris other than the Eiffel Tower and we both felt safe in our Hotel.

Even on the fourth floor.

Because Paris offered life and we knew just the bar to make that happen.

The Cafe le Flore.

Wine, women, and Welsh Rarebit.

And best of all it would never be the Alps.

ROUGH ROAD by Peter Nolan Smith

Peru sucked in 1995.

The country was under siege.

The War of Drugs had replaced the War against the Shining Path.

The capitol city Lima was cool, but I had unsuccessfully spent the better part of two days trying to score a bag of cocaine. The airport police fingered me as a user and an undercover squad tailed my ventures into the slums. Their obvious presence had scared off any steerers. To the dealers I was either DEA or a fool.

Ms. Carolina didn’t understand my mounting frustration. The golfer pro had been reared in a convent. People like me didn’t frequent the 19th hole at country clubs.

The blonde southern beauty and I had been seeing each other for over five years. Her husband was in his late-60s. They had an understanding. Charles had given his wife space to take trips on her own, so she didn’t feel trapped after twenty years of marriage. Ms. Carolina came back with a smile and the small town doctor had a monthly week of peace and quiet. The arrangement had worked for years, except Ms. Carolina had violated an unspoken tenet of her pact by falling desperately in love with me on a winter ski trip.

While the Ten Commandments had no influence over my soul, I had met the old doctor at a party in New York. Charles was a good old boy from the tar forests. He helped people black or white and my rule about never sleeping with the wife or girlfriend of someone I respected was stronger than any law from the Bible.

Charles and his wife were meant for each other and Ms. Carolina deserved better than a nightclub bouncer.

I figured nothing said an affair was over faster than a coke binge in Peru.

The Lima police refused to cooperate.

On our last night in our seaside hotel Ms. Carolina stroked my skin and mewed with pleasure. Convent girls were tough to refuse in the dark, even in their 40s, so I pretended to be asleep.

The next morning I left the hotel and there were no police on the sidewalk. A heavy fog was rolling off the Pacific and I headed over to a plaza in Miraflores, where I noticed several nasty pieces of work hanging on the sidewalk. I approached the one with the best clothing and explained my proposition. I gave him $20 and promised another $80, if he came back.

“Non problema.” The dealer shifted his eyes left and right. “Trente minudos.”

I sat at a cafe and ordered an expresso. The bastard hadn’t shown up by my third. I swore under my breath, thinking I had been ripped off, then spotted the dealer across the plaza. He walked, as if he was carrying the mother lode. We exchanged smiles. My hand went into my pocket. A car screeched to the curb. An undercover squad of ‘tomba’ hit the pavement and threw us against the wall.

“I am screwed.” I muttered several times, but the cops cut us loose.

“Bamba.” The lead detective hefted the bag of powder.

“Bamba?” This word didn’t register in my lexicon of Peruvian slang.

“Fake.” The detective spoke English like he had spent time at a police academy in LA. “You got ripped off. Via con dios.”

I returned to the hotel in a black mood.

Ms. Carolina and I had been together long enough for her not to question my mood.

After check-out we exited from the hotel. A black rental Nissan Sentra was waiting outside. I sat in the driver seat. The odometer read 70,000 miles. The steering wheel betrayed the real wear and tear. Lima’s potholes had taken their bite from the suspension, but once out of the city the coastal highway was smooth as the surface of a frozen Maine lake.

We drove north along the Pacific, taking turns at the wheel. I acted ‘nice’ and put CDs in the stereo. Ms. Carolina liked my music as we passed through a desert without houses or no trees, only a few giant chicken farms with millions of chickens pooping out eggs into basket for capitol’s consumption dotted the sand expanse far from the rare towns huddled next to streams flowing with the Andes glacial melt.

According the guide book the Sechuran Desert received close to no rain each year.

The ocean was a dark blue mystery. The Humboldt Current surged south from the Arctic. Balboa had named it ‘Pacific’ as a joke. The waves crushed ships on desolate shores, doldrums starved men to death, and storms sucked armadas to the fathomless depths.

I went for a swim at a nameless beach. The cold water stun my skin. Seals surfed the waves. Ms. Carolina took pictures. She was happy. It would have been easy to make her sad, but I kept my mouth shut, as she handed me a towel.

Back on the road Ms. Carolina handed me a Pilsen Callao. The bottle was icy cold and I thanked my passenger.

“You’re a good traveler companion.”

“Is that all, precious?” She only said the words precious to dogs, children, and people who annoyed her.

“Why?” It was a question a man is never supposed to ask of a woman.

“Because there’s also this.” She held up a bag of green leaves and explained with a southern accent, “Coca. I know it’s not what you want, but it’s the best I could do with my limited habla espanol.”

“Okay, you’re a saint too.” I stuck a wad of dried leaves in my cheek.

Breaking up was hard to do with a woman this nice.

“That’s what I thought too.” She smiled and joined my predilection for epiphany.

The coca and the beer loosened my tongue.

I recounted Pizarro’s conquest of the Incan Empire. His march in 1532 had traversed the coastal wasteland. “His troops numbered less that 200. They headed into the mountains and found the Royal Incan at a place now known as Baños del Inca. For some reason Atahualpa and his army of 80,000 were defeated by a sneak attack on the king. They later garroted the Incan when he didn’t give them more gold.”

“Nice people.” Ms. Carolina loved hearing my shortened versions of history and smart enough to absorb the parts that sounded almost true.

“You know that coca makes you real talky, precious.”

She was right and I said, “Pass me a beer, please.”

Like Pizarro we left the coast and drove east into the mountains. The road to Huarez wound through an arid valley walled by ever-steeper cliffs to arrive on the high plain with the horizon blocked by snow-covered mountains.

This was the first sight of the Andes for both of us and Ms. Carolina lowered the window of the rented car to admire the sun gleaming off impressive peaks.

“Mind if I drive?”

“How are you feeling?” I asked Ms. Carolina.

Traveling in rural Peru was more dangerous than Lima, since the local motorists drove as if they were used to empty roads. They passed on blind corners and sped through switchbacks with deadly intent. Being a defensive driver I anticipated their every stupid move with an almost ESP alacrity.

“Fine.” She sounded a little dreamy.

“Good, the coca makes it easier to breath at this altitude.” We were 3000 meters above sea level, which was higher than most of the Rockies.

“You want me to drive?”

“No, I’m good.” The surface of the valley road was impeccable and she said, “You enjoy the view.”

She loved the mountains and we arrived in Huaraz in the late afternoon. Our hotel was cheap, but cheerful and we sat on the roof drinking wine and examining the map for the next day’s travels.

Ms. Carolina held THE ROUGH GUIDE TO PERU. She loved reading about where she was to learn the history and geography. As the sun set the temperature dropped, but we were warm in our alpaca sweaters purchased at the city’s farmers’ market.

“Those mountains are the Cordillera Blanca.

About fifty miles north of here a road crossed the Andes to descend into the Amazon jungle.

“It’s probably dirt and none of it good. I bet fewer than ten westerners travel it each year.”

A couple of years before the trip would have been too dangerous. The Shining Path had ruled the Andean highlands. Their president had been captured by the military and there was no number two to take over the role of leader for the Maoists.

“What are you thinking?” She fluttered through the guide book without finding any references to the region. It was terra incognito.

“It might take two days from here and back to Lima.” I spit out a gigantic chaw of coca, which hit the tiled roof below us with a splat.

“Then I’m all for it.” Ms. Carolina tried to imitate by projectile gobbing. The green goop rolled down her chin onto her new sweater. Girls from convent schools were terrible at spitting.

“Good thing your sweater is green.” I brushed the dregs from the alpaca with my sleeve. She laughed at the absurdity of this gesture and we clinked glasses to honor the possibilities of tomorrow’s trip.

The Olluquito con charqui accompanied our excellent dinner of lake trout. The waiter hailed from Matibamba. He pointed it on the map. His hometown town was on the other side of the Andes.

“No one goes there. Only people leave.” His eyes clouded with suspicion, as if we might be DEA.

“We’re not the police.” Ms. Carolina had changed into a lovely traditional dress. Her smile reconverted him to our side. She knew how to treat men and bought him a beer.

“How’s the road?”

“Road? Malo. Muy malo e mucho peligroso.” He begged us to only visit the twin glacial lakes east of Yungay. “Very beautiful same.”

“Muchos gracias.” She toasted him for braving his fears as well as his compliment.

Gringos were never good luck in Latin America.

As we retired to our room, Ms. Carolina hooked her arm with mine.

High altitudes played havoc with hard drinking. Now was not the time to say that we were over. I kissed her with the tenderness of a sailor about to leave his port and fell into bed as soon as we reached our room. I didn’t have to fake going to sleep.

At dawn I stood on the veranda and watch the sun glow over marshmallow white glaciers cloaking the Andes. Some of the mountains rose to 6000 meters plus. Their names came from the Quechuan language.

Stone fireplace, hummingbird beak of ice, and the butcher were just a few.

Climbing those monster were for experts.

Driving through them was strictly for fools.

Ms. Carolina put on her explorer outfit. The pants and shirt had an excess of pockets. I wore jeans and a leather jacket. This was a road trip and not a safari, then again she was a woman and women like looking good in case they have to get dirty and handed her a wide-brimmed hat.

“I like that hat.”

“You do?”

“The sun is strong up there.”

“But I feel like I’m traveling with Indiana Jones.”

“Sore sport.” She threw me my Red Sox cap. “Jock.”

It was a not good way to start the morning and we left the room.

While she ate breakfast, I filled the gas tank and had a mechanic check the engine and tires. When I told the mechanic my destination, he wished me luck.

“Mucho Gracias.”

His comment reinforced my opinion that crossing the Andes in a rented car was plain old stupid.

But we weren’t turning back, but it was asunny day.

Ms. Carolina got provisions for the journey. She had been born in the Adirondacks. Camping in the north woods required planning. Bad weather killed fools.

“You know I’ve been thinking about this trip.” We had another fifteen days in Peru. This drive might eat two or five.

“Thinking what?”

That it might not be a good idea.”

“Listen you always play that Steppenwolf song for me.” She got in the car and motioned for me to get behind the wheel. AS I snapped on my seatbelt, Ms. Carolina said, “That singer sings ‘looking for adventure and whatever comes our way. I didn’t come here with you to stay at the Holiday Inn and drink chardonnay. Let’s see whatever comes our way. What the worst thing that can happen?”

“We get stuck in a remote town and kidnapped by banditos.”

“I was thinking about something less worst.”

“We get stuck in the remote town and have to tow the car back to Lima.”

“Now that’s not a worst worst.”

“What is?”

“Running out of coca leaves.”

We supplemented the coca in our cheeks and I started the car, thankfully we were set for an emergency.

The road to Yungay was well maintained by work crews. They were happy for the work and good at it. Ms. Carolina lay the map on her lap and held the guide book in her hands.

“Yungay was destroyed by a glacier avalanche in 1970. Over 70,000 people were killed. The town was buried under ten meters of debris.” She read the facts and I spotted the slide.

Twenty-four years later a mile-wide scar marked the slope under Mount Huascarán.

“Looks safe today.” I turned right and the dirt road weaved through the fertile farmlands into a pine forest and then a series of switchbacks. I kept the speed under 20 to avoid potholes and roads. Several battered cars covered with dust came from the other direction. A relic of a bus appeared at a corner. The passengers waved to us. There were no towns at the lakes, so they had to be coming from the other side of the Andes.

“That’s a good sign.”

“What?” Ms. Carolina studied the valley floor for car wrecks. She suffered slightly from vertigo, but the coca was working a miracle to calm her fear of heights, however when the Sentra squeaked around a hairpin curve and it was my turn to feel the fears.

We rose into the chasm with the sensation of sinking, as the twin giants topped with millennia of snow and ice loomed over the road. They were close enough to shiver from the cold trembling off their unattainable summits.

More vehicles came from the east.

“Those cars are coming from where we want to go.”

“Good.” Her lungs were wheezing from the lack of oxygen.

“Are you okay?” I played three hours of streetball every day back in New York. My chest rivaled the width of Henry VIII and he was a fat man. Aided my the coca leaves I was fine.

“A slight migraine that’s all.” Ms. Carolina was a sport, but high altitude sickness was no joke.

“If it gets worst let me know.”

The road leveled out for two azure lakes glistening under the high Andean sun. We parked the Nissan by the side of a creek spilling into Laguna Llaganuco. Shredded clouds fingered the cliffs and the sun blistered the lake surface with mirrored flashes of light. I stripped off my clothes and told Ms. Carolina, “I’m going for a swim.”

“It has to be cold.” The water was straight off a glacier.

“It’s a purification rite.” My anti-Catholicism didn’t interfere with my spirituality. I wore my shoes into the water. The beach was water-smoothed stone. I leapt from the shore. The cold was deeper than a plunge into a Bar Harbor beach in March. Ice crackled my capillaries and I stroked back to the shore. Ms. Carolina spread a huge towel on the stones. I shuddered for several minutes before regaining the power of speech.

“Cold?” She handed me a glass of pisco. Ms. Carolina knew how to treat a man.

Stupid ones too.

“Fucking cold.” I lay on my back.

Ms. Carolina lay next to me. She was warm. We were close to the sun. Ten minutes later I was on my feet. I pointed to the top of the pass.

“Beyond that the unknown.” I dressed in my dry clothes and sat behind the steering wheel. I turned up the heat.

“You want me to drive?” Ms. Carolina was genuinely concerned about my condition.

“No, I’m good.” My hands were shaking from the effects of exposure and I chewed more coca leaves. They weren’t helping and I put the car in drive. “I’ll take it slow.”

Several cars passed us. They knew the road and I increased the speed to 30 mph to keep up with them. I looked out the window. The valley of lakes disappeared under a cloud bank. We were at flight altitude.

“Precious, keep your eye on the road.”

“Yes, boss.” I turned my head to scowl at her. The car scrapped over a rock with a screech of metal. The stench of gas filled the car. Ms. Carolina smelled it too.

“Damn.”

I got out of the car and lay on the dirt. Gas spewed from a gash in the tank. My attempts to staunch the flow with electrical tape were failures. I stood up and looked up the road. The pass was obscured by a thick fog. It might be snow.

“We have to turn back. We have a full tank and it should get us back to Yungay. At worst we can roll down the mountain.”

“On the road, I hope.” She lifted her hand. “Just trying to be funny.”

“Ha, ha.” My humor was diminished by the prospect of having the rental car towed back to Lima. I gave up trying to estimate how much that would cost in my head. “That was my bad. I’ll pay whatever it cost.”

“This is not a ‘me’ world, but a ‘we’ world. 50/50. Let’s get going before I have to push us.”

I drove down past the lakes. They were as beautiful the second time as the first, but we didn’t stop for photographs and the Nissan rocked through the potholes and shivered across the ruts. The gas meter read half-full.

We made Yungay with a quarter tank to spare.

I asked a local woman about a mechanic. She pointed around the corner. The building was surrounded by wrecks and scavenged hulks. There was no way that I was leaving the Nissan here. The three men in the garage lifted their heads from a V8 block. The oldest man was sealing a crack in between two cylinders with an acetylene torch. He sniffed the air with a knowledgeable nose and turned off the torch.

I stepped out of the car. The boss signed for his young helpers to take a break. They lit up cigarettes and the older man shouted at them in rapid Spanish. Admonished by his tirade they put out the cigarettes.

The older man shook his head and wiped his grimy hands on grimier overalls. His eyes squinted in the bright sunlight like his mind was calculating the price of his solution to my problem. The passenger door opened behind me and his eyes shifted over my shoulder.

“Senora.”

The boss bowed his head with a polite deference.

Blonde hair the color of the sun was an abnormality in the high Andes and the boss offered her a chair, then quickly examined the gas tank after which he explained in passable English, “This not big problema. Road bad. Rock cut tank. I fix. Take out tank. Empty petrol. Seal hole with solder. Turn tank back upside down. Car OK. Good idea.”

“What is plan numero two?” I asked to re-establish my standing as the man here, not Ms. Carolina. It was a futile effort.

“Plan two?” The mechanic smirked at my question. “Plan numero two I go to Lima. Get new tank.”

“Sounds expensive.”

“Si mucho caro. Plan numero uno est better.”

“Very good idea. How much?” Carolina got to the point.

The man held up two fingers. I thought $200 was a rip-off, but he smiled and said, “$20.”

“Very good idea.” Ms. Carolina shook his hand.

None of his grime came off on her hand.

Goddesses were above dirt.

The man introduced himself as Chocho, “I like Chocolate.”

“Who doesn’t,” Ms. Carolina told our host that I was her husband. The lie was easier than explaining the truth.

“Bueno.”

Chocho ordered beers.

The two young man jacked up the Nissan and yanked off the tank, as Ms. Carolina shot photos of the mechanic and his children. He laughed hearing about our wanting to see the other side of the mountain.

“Nothing there. No hotels. No beer. Nada. Everyone leave there. Come here or go to Lima.” He clapped his hands and ordered his children to leave the garage, as the young men drained the gasoline into a plastic bucket. They hauled the empty tank into the courtyard and our new friend advised that we get something to eat.

“Senora, better you not here, if tank go boom.”

His fingers flicked up to aid our visualizing his plan # 1 going bad.

“Not worry. If go boom. We do plan two.”

The two young men didn’t join his laughter. I didn’t think it was funny, but Ms. Carolina laughed so hard that she swallowed her cud of coca leaves, which stuck in her throat. Chocho slapped his palm on her back and she expelled the wad across the street to strike the wall with the intensity of a bazooka shell hitting the side of a Panzer tank.

“I guess I went boom boom.”

Her joke got a rib-ripping chortle from Chocho and we had a classic Peruvian lunch of cuy chactado and olluco, roasted pig and Andean tubers along with roasted peppers. After several glasses of pisco Chocho looked at his watch.

“Car finish. You can go now. You go to other side of mountain?”

“No, I think we’ve gone far enough.”

“Si. a gas tank can only be flipped one time.”

The repair looked good to my eyes and Ms. Carolina paid Chocho, then tipped the two young boys $5US, which was a good day’s pay in this part of Peru. I thanked them for their help with two baseball caps. The three of them waved good-bye, as we pulled out of the garage and Ms. Carolina checked the air with a quick sniff.

The air smelled of the ancient Andes.

“No gas.”

“And they put what they took out back in the tank.”

The Nissan had a quarter tank.

“So what the plan?”

“Head to the coast and then back to Lima. Chilbote is a city with two bays.”

“I’m sure they have good fish.”

“Me too, but you know I came down here for a reason and it wasn’t a coke binge.” I had to tell her my feelings. The word love was dead on my lips.

“Honey.” Ms. Carolina lifted her hand. “We’ve been together five years. I think I know what goes on in that little head of yours. Not everything, but sometimes you’re easier to read than a comic book.”

“I am.”

“You’re a man. I’m a woman. You’re a comic book. I’m a mystery.” Her sunglasses hid her eyes, but there were no tears, despite the hurt warbling in her voice. “We had a good time. We can still have good times, but only on two conditions.”

“Which are?” My mind shuffled through the possibility of conditions like a card shark.

“No explanations. They don’t change anything and second as long as you never introduce me as a ‘friend’, I can live with being an ex-lover.” She caressed my hand. “Can you live with that?”

“I only want to make you happy.”

“You want to make me happy, then give me that bag of coca leaves.”

She stuck a clump of coca in her cheek and I put Jess Winchester’s’s YANKEE LADY on the stereo and sang the words with Ms. Carolina joining me on the chorus. The insurmountable mountains paraded down the valley to the sea and the sun dazzled off their peaks. It was a good day to be on the road.

Two Weeks And Counting

The US Federal Government shut down has entered its third week. Parks and Federal offices have been closed, over 380,000 federal employees have been furloughed and more than 420,000, such as the TSA and the Coast Guard are working without pay because Congress and the White House have not funded their agencies due to Trump’s desire to have his Wall with Mexico.

During the 2016 presidential campaign Trump vowed to have the Mexicans erect a wall on the southern border to prevent the flood of illegal aliens from Latin America. #45 has yet to meet with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist president on Mexico, however Vicente Fox, the ofrmer leader said for Trump to go fuck himself, if he thought Mexico was contributing a peso to the Wall.

Trump then said the USA would construct the Wall with American dollars.

$55 billion, which was the exact amount Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld claimed to be the cost of the Iraq War.

They were off by $1.5 trillion.

ps the foto is humvee Staff Sgt. Michael F. Barrett, military policeman, Marine Wing Support Squadron 373, was riding when it was struck by an improvised explosive device attack in Iraq 29 September 2004. Barrett was severely injured in the attack and is still recovering from his wounds.

Frustrated by the 24-hour surveillance Trump declared a government lockout right before Christmas.

No bonus for the Federal employees.

No lit Christmas tree.

Trump flew to Iraq for the first time to visit with troops fighting the endless war.

The soldiers appeared genuinely happy to see him.

One even said, “You’re the reason I joined the Army.”

Making America Great Again.

What about Melania’s desert boots.

They are bigger than Donald’s. Small boots means small hands and small sox and some other things, but back to the shutdown.

Donald had invited people over for Christmas.

He ordered pizza.

No one came.

Alone and steaming.

He tweeted that the shutdown was just starting.

“It could go on for months or years.”

Mean old Donald.

He really wants that Wall.

I see two in Tijuana.

One in Algodones Dunes, California.

But Trump wants something even more elegant and then the lockdown will be over.

He ain’t getting shit.

Not with the Democrats controlling the money in Congress.