As far back as I can remember, birthdays have always spelled trouble for me. The minute I ever woke up I started misbehaving.
These days the epiphany might not hit at all. I am only vaguely aware of what month it is, let alone what day. It just keeps raining and there's a flock of Canada geese that seems to have settled in the three acre paddock where I plan to grow potatoes, corn, squash, etc. As long as water stands in the fields the geese are welcome. They make quite a racket with their honking, but I like the sound. When it comes time to plant corn, though, I'll sic my 13 year-old son on them with a pellet rifle if it comes to that.
I got this message on the answering machine Thursday night, with my seven year-old son singing this hippie version of “Happy Birthday” and my ex clearly coaching him in the background. So on Friday morning I was well aware this was my birthday and the jinx was about to set in. Over and over again, in the first, second grades, on up through high school I always got sent to the principal's office on my birthday. I saw it happen to plenty of other kids. You really should just stay out of public on your birthday, I say. But I was supposed to meet up with the four year-old and his mom at the Boonville General Store on Friday morning at 8:30 or so, so I had to venture into town. My plan was to drink some coffee, meet up with the kid who would run from my ex's sedan to the front door of the restaurant so my ex and I would not have the opportunity to say anything to each other. We've declared a silent truce, you might say.
The plan was thwarted by Caltrans, though. Somebody in the upper echelons had directed the crew to chew up an eight foot wide strip of asphalt directly in front of the building, and the whole town had taken on the festive atmosphere of a carnival with orange trucks, graders, front end loaders, and cones with yellow caution tape strung up. It reminded me of the Orange Bowl parade in Miami, New Year’s Day.
The scene was so incredible that a friend and I stood out in front of the building, sipping coffee and observing the theatrics. We watched a grader that appeared to be hot off an assembly line with maybe a 400-horse diesel motor and a high-tech controller doing fluid hydraulic maneuvers on the ten-foot blade, using that impressive force and finesse to chip off the tiny plastic reflectors from the double yellow in the center of Highway 128 one at time.
“You could do that quicker with a flat bar and a hammer,” said my friend. He was also waiting for his ex to drop off their daughter. Both of us are currently advised to meet our ex in the middle of town for the exchange of the future of the world. “She has a fear-based psychology,” said my friend when I was wondering out loud why the hell I have to meet up with my ex in the middle of town and not talk to her. I guess my friend has been attending these counseling sessions with his ex, and they've determined the basis of their psychologies. “Just like my ex. They're fear-based. I think I have an anger-based psychology.”
Anger based, he said. He was wearing this orange sweater. It was wool dyed orange. The guy carries around snacks all day for his daughter, totes her around half the time.
“Yeah, I can see that,” I said. “I suppose everybody's motivated by some vice. You might say that I'm beer based, based—” I cut off abruptly. Somehow I simultaneously noticed my friend's orange sweater and this white construction helmet in the back of a temporarily abandoned Caltrans truck. “Man, can I borrow your sweater?”
“Just trade me.” I was wearing this aqua blue Speedo jacket that made me look like a swim coach outdoors in Michigan in May that my ex's mom had given me for Christmas. I was wearing it out of sheer sentimentality.
We scurried inside the General Store to trade jerseys, so to speak, and exchanged our overcloaks somewhat inconspicuously.
In the orange sweater, my armpits leaking about a gallon a minute, I strode to the rear end of the Caltrans truck and pulled the white construction helmet from next to the yellow Gatorade cooler. From there I proceeded to the cab. The keys were indeed inserted in the ignition. The transmission was automatic. The radio was set on the KOZT from Fort Bragg, with Led Zeppelin doing “Black Dog.” I headed north on Highway 128, past the Caltrans yard, turning right on what they seem to call, “Deer Meadows” road. It's a jog and then another. I'd imagine the Caltrans truck had not bumped along over washboards too many times, so I took it easy as we climbed the steep ones. When we reached the cow pasture I pulled off halfway in the ditch, hoping to God I could get the thing out.
Mostly I was checking on a couple of cows who are due to calf sometime in May, to see if their udders were swelling or something. They weren't. Everything was in order. I really wanted to get back to Boonville before my ex showed up with our four year-old so I drove the truck up the road and backed it into somebody's driveway, turning around, shifting into low so we wouldn't bounce too fast down the hills. The last thing you want to do, spending taxpayer dollars in a Caltrans truck, is magnify the potholes and washboarding, even on a privately-maintained trail in the hills. I was practically running on a welfare check, so I did my best not to bounce the death out of the suspension system.
Back in Boonville, I parked on the southbound side of the highway, sort of in front of the Redwood Drive-In. I left the white construction helmet in the cab of the truck and walked up the road, watching the magnificent asphalt-eater chewing up a four or five foot swath of highway, spewing the bits into the bed of a dump truck.
My ex was standing in front of the General Store building, holding hands with our four-year-old son who was absolutely transfixed by the sheer badness of the asphalt-eater. “You're, like, 15 minutes late,” she shouted over the roar of the machinery.