It was a day in name only, unidentifiable by simple observation. A look out the window, generally sufficient to get a rough idea of one's orbital position vis-a-vis the sun, was no help — it looked like half-past nothing on a distant planet with a visibly noxious atmosphere. I checked my phone. 10:00 a.m., its readout confidently declared, and I hadn't known it to err or deceive yet.
The very shank of the morning and usually a time when the sun is at its most intense, but it was behaving like a loathsome shirker and casting a viscid gray pall over the region. I stepped out onto the porch. It was the kind of day that could tip a depressive over into the suicidal, and I smiled grimly at the thought. The ocean looked like a vast expanse of buckled and rusting sheet metal. You always wanted to live in a seaside town, I thought. Girls in bikinis, french fries in paper cups, volleyball on the beach. Hah! Fort Bragg is like Finland without all the tango-ing. Such girls as venture to the shore dress, of necessity, like Arctic explorers and are unrecognizable as female. Neither fried potatoes nor frivolity can gain any traction at this latitude.
I went back inside and my dog, Hector, darted out from under the couch and bit my right Achilles tendon. "Hector, you little sonofabitch, " I said. Having greeted me thusly, he leapt up onto a chair and glared challengingly at me, growling and licking his chops. It has been said of dogs that they are man's best friend; Hector definitely did not get the memo. If indeed he has any friends, they are probably of a demonic nature. His mission in life is to annoy, to harass, to vex, to torment — hence his name.
I found him at the dump where he was locked in mortal combat with a huge rat that matched him in size and, it appeared, surpassed him in ferocity as the dog was definitely getting the worst of it. I broke up the fight, trapped the dog in an old diaper box and took him home where I discovered, too late, that what I'd taken for a vicious death match was simply a father-son domestic dispute. I kept him around anyway, as a reminder of the ugliness and hostility of the world and in the vain hope that human contact might temper his depravity.
No luck as yet. "Hector," I said, "one of these days I'm going to bring home a Chinatown alley cat and the second-place rooster from a TJ cockfight. Just as a sort of social experiment. Whaddaya think'll happen then, huh?"
In response, Hector trotted over, lifted his leg and deposited a few drops of urine on my foot. My intention on gathering this fearsome crew would be to put Hector in his place, but it occurred to me that they'd probably recognize a kindred spirit and form a sinister alliance whose evil deeds would begin with my own murder and consumption, followed by a bloody rampage up and down the coast. Best leave well enough alone.
If I wasn't proactive about its prevention, the damp wool overlaying the world at large, or at least the part of it impinging directly on me, was liable to spoil my day. I needed to TCB ASAP, which in this case meant the application of a little concoction I like to call Cafe Mexicali. You've heard of Irish coffee? This is its peppy South of the Border variant. What you do is, first dissolve one gram of crystal (meth) in 3 ounces of high-grade tequila — I prefer 100-proof Herradura Silver — and top it off with some extra-strong freshly brewed coffee. Thanksgiving's Pony Express is my bean of choice. Could you use generic instant and rotgut tequila? I suppose you could; you could also cut some holes in a burlap sack and wear it in lieu of smart and fashionable clothing, but why would you? Don't cheat yourself — treat yourself.
It doesn't take much more than a sip of a properly crafted Cafe M. to begin feeling a thoroughgoing sense of optimism and well-being, followed by a bodywide suffusion of pure ambition. By the time you upend your cup to gather in the last few drops you're back on top of the world, looking for wrongs to right, structures to erect, and problems to solve. I'm not sure — my knowledge of chemistry is like my knowledge of most other things, which is to say largely composed of some judiciously applied technical terms delivered in a confident and grammatical manner, thereby imparting an appearance of erudition — but I suspect the tequila molecules form a coordinate covalent bond with the constituent stimulant atoms, with the resultant crystalline lattice assembling itself into a super-mega-molecule with powers beyond the reach of ordinary garden-variety molecules. It certainly feels that way.
Thus refreshed, I went back out onto the porch to reassess the situation and sure enough, a radical change had taken place. The world was still uniformly gray, but it had taken on a lovely pearlescent luster. It's all a matter of perspective, and chemistry.
My newly acute hearing detected the sound of dog-nails on concrete. Hoving into view was Alan, a corgi from down the street, followed closely at the end of a lead by his owner Opal. Opal's a single mom in her 30s with an explosive mass of red curls and a complicated sort of face that can unman you in/at certain lights and angles. She's a little scattered and way oversupplied with drama, but on the whole a welcome sight and a likely source of interesting conversation.
She and Alan stopped in front of my fence and looked around worriedly.
"Hey," Opal said. "Is Hector inside?"
"Yep, it's safe," I said.
"You need to have that thing put down," Opal said.
"You could try it, I guess. I won't go near him," I said. "But mornin', Ope! Alan."
"Good morning. Ugly day, huh? Day like this you just want to stay in bed, but this one's gotta stretch those poor excuses for legs, hunh buddy," said Opal, bending down to give Alan a scratch on his muzzle.
"Well, they're long enough to reach the ground, I guess," I said in defense of Alan and all short-legged creatures. "So what's been going on with you?"
"Oh, God. I had to go to court in Ukiah yesterday for that pre-custody thing. My car's in the shop so I was driving this loaner they gave me, which I like way better than my car which was ready three days ago but I pretended I didn't get the message. That loaner could use some attention now, though. Anyway, I got pulled over right as I turned off Highway 20 by a Willits cop for I don't know what, and this cop is giving me attitude because I can't find the, the, that stupid thing they always want…"
"Registration? Insurance?" I interrupted.
"Right, registration. Whatever the hell that is. I think my kid was messing around in there. So they have to call the dealer to verify that I should be driving the car and then I barely make it to the courthouse in time. My ex Galen is already there and he's wearing a suit, and he's got a lawyer, and acting all lah-di-dah and parading these stupid witnesses out testifying what a goddamn prince he is. This idiot judge says he doesn't see any reason to maintain the TRO in light of blah blah blah, Mr. Cicarelli seems to be making a genuine effort to yadda yadda. Can you believe that sonofabitch? Getting his shit together? Of all the sneaky, underhanded tactics, am I right?"
"The nerve," I said dutifully.
"So I told the judge, I said I will sell those goddamn kids into slavery before I let him so much as smell 'em. See if I don 't. Long story short—"
"Too late," I chimed in.
"What?" said a derailed Opal.
"To make a long story short. The short story window passed by several stops ago. But don't trip, I'm enjoying it. Continue."
"I will, if you quit interrupting me. So we go back and forth for awhile and bottom line, the judge says we have to go into mediation. Mediation! Is that the damnedest thing you ever heard or what?"
"So very damned," I agreed.
"The way I understand it, we have to sit down and calmly and rationally work things out, which is not my style at all. I'm more confrontational than anything, you know?"
"I do know that about you. It's part of your everlasting charm," I said.
"Aw. You're sweet. Come by later if you're not doing anything. Let's go, Al."
She tossed her curls fetchingly and they were gone.
I went back inside and Hector was worrying a table leg and growling insanely.
"Bad dog," I said without much conviction. Hector stopped briefly, seemed to consider the notion, dismissed it as a meaningless distinction and resumed his gnawing. "You know, some dogs care what their masters think," I said. "C'mon, let's go outside." I opened the back door and Hector lit out like a shot, clearly hoping to surprise some unsuspecting prey, but word had spread among the local fauna and our backyard hosted nothing larger than a pill-bug. Even the birds had designated it a no-fly zone.
I went back inside as Hector was raping a bag of peat moss and constructed another Mexicali, this one sans crank and more of a soothing nostrum. I had a clear, if casual, invitation to visit Opal later and I needed a catalyst to not only steer things in a romantic direction but make it her idea. It hit me: paella. Its aphrodisiacal properties are well-documented and I make paella like a Barcelona dona. There was not, however, a single thread of saffron in the house and my financial situation was, as usual, less liquid than might be hoped for. A Mexicali-driven plan coalesced and I assembled a little varietypack of intoxicants: a little buddage, an Oxy, some zippety-doo-dah and four Kolonopin. I don't like to sell drugs — I'm more of a consumer — but desperate times and all that. My plan was to go to Harvest Market, find some likely homeless type with an EBT (food stamp) card and offer him a dip into the bag to go get me $50 worth of saffron. It couldn't fail.
As I threw my leg over my trusty steed, I thought of apples and fleeces and other aureate foci of mythic quests, my own pursuit of this golden spice and, ultimately, a sassy ginger divorcee with custody issues.
Feeling as purposefully noble as Odysseus himself, I pedaled off into the gloom in search of a sun of my own.