When I woke up, I was struck first by the silence — a deep and complete absence of sound that seemed to have a shape and weight all its own — and then by the cold. My breath puffed visibly in vaporous plumes as I struggled to orient myself to the prevailing reality. I was in a bed, under a quilt, and the air had that raw, untreated quality you generally find outdoors. There was clearly no central anything in this wherever-I-was.
It wasn't the first, nor probably even the 50th, time I'd woken up confused and dislocated, nor yet the coldest — I am from Colorado, after all — but there was something unique about my surroundings, not only in my unfamiliarity to them but being unfamiliar with anything remotely like it. Later, of course, I would attribute that feeling to the shock of leaving a bustling metropolis and waking up in an extremely rustically appointed cabin in a wet, cold forest in an area about as densely populated as the moon, and that with a pool of eccentrics who could only grow and thrive in this very specific environment, like the organisms occupying the boiling vents in the seafloor, but at the time I just felt perplexed and waited patiently for the lights to come back on.
I steeled myself, tossed back the covers, jumped out of bed and on to the cold floor. The bracing air must have jogged something loose because it then hit me: Albion, California. That's where I was. I had been on an Adderal-and-vodka binge, boarded a bus in Colorado Springs, stopped in Salt Lake to smoke a little crack with the locals, continued west to Ukiah, and was thus conveyed to this most remote of outposts where I stood hopping from one foot to the other and shivering as I chafed my bare arms.
I needed to warm up and fast. I left the sleeping alcove (I hesitate to call it a bedroom, given its dimensions) and entered into the main living area, the centerpiece of which was a Franklin stove, quite idle, and by its side a neatly stacked supply of fuel. My experience up to then with heating systems was limited to tracking down the wall-mounted thermostat and adjusting it to meet my needs. Simple, convenient, and one of the bonuses of not being born during a time when it was necessary to generate an actual open conflagration to get warm like a common caveman. I felt that woodstoves belonged to the era of horse-drawn travel and medicinal bleeding, and hoped the locals had progressed beyond that. It wasn't as if I'd never built a fire before, but they'd been of the camp or romantic variety. This thing looked like it might be capable of exploding if not treated properly. I flipped the flue back and forth experimentally a few times, wondering what the correct position was, and opened the door. Someone had thoughtfully laid a bed of tinder and kindling, which I lit and immediately discovered the flue needed to be open, which it wasn't. Properly oxygenated, the kindling was soon crackling merrily and I duly loaded several fat logs on the fire and shut the door. Ten minutes later, the thing was roaring like a blast furnace, ticking like a bomb and turning a dangerous-looking shade of orange. I choked off the oxygen supply a little and the beast gradually settled down into a condition of thermal equanimity, throwing off a respectable amount of heat. I sat there absorbing it, feeling exceedingly proud of my pioneer skills. No telling what I might accomplish out here in the sticks, I thought. If there are any pigs about I might just smoke a ham.
A knock sounded at the door and I opened it on two women, fortyish or thereabouts, one tall, one not so. The short one looked like Edward G. Robinson in drag, and the other like the wife in the American Gothic painting if she'd been riding with the Mongols for a few years. The little one was nipping from a pint of Kessler as I opened the door. "Hey, we heard you was here and we come over to see what you looked like," one of them said.
"Tah-dah," I said half-heartedly, holding my arms out wide and doing a slow turn.
"You ain't much, are you?" said the other one.
"Yeah, I haven't been well. Come on in. I don't know if there's coffee, but…"
“Got it," said the smaller one, who I dubbed Thing One and the other Thing Two. I know their names and normally I'm not shy about identifying folks here in the ol' StoLo but frankly, those two scare me and I don't feel safe from them even here. Maybe if I was in a nice, secure, prison like San Quentin, but this place is just too porous.
Thing One set to making coffee and Thing Two passed me the Kessler, which was most welcome.
"Your aunt's gone to Garberville to consult with an animal acupuncturist, she sent us here to make sure you're settled in, see if you need anything," Thing Two said. "She'll be back tomorrow. There's food, and weed in that container there." She indicated a tin on the counter labeled Tea.
"Mighty neighborly of you," I said, getting into what I thought might be the spirit of the place.
Thing One poured coffee and we chatted a couple of logs' worth and finished the whiskey. Thing Two stood up to leave and One leaned forward, put a hand on my knee and looked at me earnestly. "You need anything at all, my number's right there by the phone. Food, sex, whatever."
Wait, what? She gave my knee a squeeze. "I mean it, anything, you call me. But if a guy answers, hang up." "Uh, alright then. Pleasure meeting you guys."
They took their leave and I spent the next couple of hours exploring my surroundings, getting stoned and reflecting on my visitors. Sure are friendly out here in the boonies, I thought.
Around noon there was another knock at the door but before I could open it, it swung wide and in stepped two people, a chubby gent with an extravagant mustache and a tiny elderly lady. "Greetings, my name is Paul and I am an artiste," said the man, holding out a hand like a duchess expecting a kiss, "and this is Ruth, a renowned poetess. We come to welcome you to the rocky shores of Albion." He gave a courtly little bow.
"Thanks, glad to be here. Isn't just 'poet' suffish?" I said.
"Oh, pish-tosh for political correctness. You have the face of a medieval scoundrel, you absolutely must sit for me. How do you feel about nudity?"
"Depends on the context, I guess."
"We must also warn you of an Enemy of Art in the vicinity," said the woman in a faint German accent.
"She's a Philistine and just as tacky as anything," said Paul. "Her name is Sherry Glaser and you want to watch out for her."
"Will do. Can I get you guys anything?"
"No thank you. We are on our way to Fort Bragg to procure a quantity of eels. Please give our regards to your tante when she returns," Ruth said.
"I shall, and thank you for stopping by," I said.
They left and I wondered if maybe I should spiff myself up and put out some hors d'ouevres for the next group. People certainly were welcoming in this place. A year later, of course, these four gracious people would be at the vanguard of a throng of villagers armed with torches and pitchforks, chasing me down Albion Ridge Road, but at the time I was quite favorably impressed with their courtesy and warmth. As it turned out, my freewheeling, devil-may-care lifestyle was a little much for the peaceful denizens of that tiny hamlet, whose eccentricities and idiosyncrasies were of a more personal and private nature. Apparently some light got thrown into some corners better left darkened, but that's another story entirely.
As it turned out, there were no more visitors that day. I killed the rest of it walking around, eating, and watching movies. Sometime in the early evening I nodded off in a chair and was woken an indeterminate time later by the ringing phone. "Hello," I said blearily.
It was Thing One. "Listen, go into the bedroom and in the closet there's a gun. Go get it and make sure it's loaded," she said.
"Wait, what? What the hell are you talking about?
"GO-GET-THE-GUN! My old man's on his way over there and he's pissed."
"Your what? Who? What the hell does this have to do with me?"
"I don't know, maybe you shouldna been flirtin' with me. Don't shoot him lessen you have to. Later."
She hung up and I sat there for a moment trying to process the situation. I guessed she must have mentioned in passing coming over to visit me and the boyfriend, a jealous type, made an accusatory comment and she snapped back with an emasculating retort in the time-honored manner of dysfunctional couples everywhere. He, being genuinely afraid of his psycho girlfriend, thought he'd come over and work out his anger and frustration on me. Been there, done that, drank out of the commemorative shot glasses.
I went to the closet and located the gun in question, an ancient single-shot 12-gauge, broke it and popped in a shell from the box on the floor, and put a few more in my pocket. Snapping the breech back together, I felt the old thrill of imminent combat. Alright then, I thought. Let's do this.
I turned out the lights to avoid making myself a target and stepped out the front door into nearly complete darkness. I looked up to where the sky usually is and can be identified by a number of twinkling points of light and one big romantic orb, but that direction was just as flat and featureless as whatever was in front of me. It was like being inside of a cow that had fallen into a well. At night. Well, if I couldn't see my own feet, he couldn't see me either. I sat down on the steps to wait. The silence was as complete as the dark and I'd hear anyone coming from a mile away.
After 45 minutes of unrelenting gloom and stillness I figured that Thing One and her unfortunate paramour were probably panting and banging away in frenzied make-up sex as I sat there loaded and ready for battle. I decided to call it a night, but I have a strict policy about guns. Any ammo that goes in must leave through the barrel. You load it, you fire it. You wouldn't put bread into the toaster and not have toast, would you? I pointed the shotgun into a direction I presumed was up and kaboom! It sounded so good I popped off a couple more. "Hallooo, Albion!" I shouted into the dark. Wherever Boyfriend was, he probably heard that and hopefully decided to stay home. Ears ringing, I went back inside and crawled into bed, wondering what adventures the next day would bring. No telling what kind of trouble a city boy might get into out here in the sticks.