Sunday, September 25, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 273: Tucker Mythology - Worst Best Man, Pt. 2

Tucker Mythology
Worst Best Man

Part Two, Replanted

Earlier in the day, I'd called and let the phone ring twenty times with no answer. That wasn't unusual with my parents. It wasn't odd even when they were home and my father could hear the phone. I kept trying. By the fifth call, late in the afternoon, I managed to connect with my mother. 

"Hold on a second," she said as soon as she heard my voice. She set the handset down on the foyer desk. The screen door slammed behind her. She must have been holding it open. Something else rattled on the desk, probably her gardening trowel. She pulled off one glove, picked up the phone, and removed the second glove. "Okay, I'm ready."

She wanted to talk about her gardening first. After a few minutes, I managed to mention my idea of moving back to Maryland. Instantly, my mother volunteered to host me and Andrea.

"You could stay with us until you find an apartment," she said. "What do you think?"

"That would be nice." I'd been planning to ask for a grace period of two weeks. Since she had made the offer, I mentally gave myself a couple months. "We're coming to stay in Maryland for the long term, I think, but the reason I want to make the change now is because Tucker is getting married at the end of the summer. Staying across the street from his family would probably be smart. You don't mind?"

"No, it's fine."

"What about dad?"

"Oh," I heard her arm move as she waved off his opinion. "He'll be fine. But you should know, he's complaining about us having a mouse problem in here. One of them ate the bottom out of his box of crackers. There were cardboard pieces and cracker crumbs everywhere."

"Don't you still have the cats?" In my teen years, sometimes she'd had over thirty of them after the females had given birth to three litters at once. My mother had given most of them away, of course. She always kept a few because she had grown up with barn cats. In her view, the cats had a job. They were in charge of pest control. "How can you have mice in the house?"

"Well, we have only three now and I guess they're all too old to go chasing mice. They're not catching them. Didn't you say that one of your neighbors had a batch of kittens?"

"Yeah, they're cute."

"Are they weaned yet? See if you can bring two of them down with you."

In my mind, she still had a houseful of animals. It was weird to hear that she didn't have enough. "You want more?"

"Kittens. Two of them." She loved keeping pets for themselves but this was business, too. "I want to make sure we get a mouser."

"You know the trick for that," I said. And she did. Let a cat have a litter of kittens and she'll turn into a hunter every time.

"Right." She paused, probably nodding to herself. "Make sure one is a girl."

There was only one female in the litter. I knew I'd better get my dibs in on it right away. After the phone call was over and my mother returned to her gardening, I put on a jacket and headed out to reserve our kittens.

So one of our first decisions when moving to Maryland was to acquire cats for my parents. When we got out of the car at the end of the long drive in early June, we were ready to call Tucker, but first we had to stretch and unpack. And introduce the kittens.
 
Eight hours is too long to keep any animal in a box, even a pair of reasonably sleepy kittens, so we had given up on containing them early. We let them out to roam the car as soon as we crossed the state line south into Connecticut. The young male, Jasper, took a liking to my lap as I drove. Aside from climbing to my shoulder once or twice for a look around, he seemed content. His sister, Scrapple, roamed a little too freely. Once, she scrambled around my feet as I worked the brakes and clutch. Andrea snatched her up. We decided Scrapple was too dangerous. Andrea took charge of both kittens and kept them entertained, except during their naps, for the rest of the trip.

We reached my parents' house at six in the morning. After I parked in the gravel driveway, we unkinked our bodies and paused to take inventory. The kittens made it easy. They ran to the cracks at the top of the windows to smell the Maryland air.

"It does smell nice," Andrea allowed. She had been eager but a little uncertain about moving south. "That's a whole lot of tree pollen, though."

We scooped the kittens into their box. We gathered up our first round of bags. But as we headed out across the yard, I could see the kittens trembling in awe. The Massachusetts woods had been nearly silent. In contrast, the Maryland forest was a cacophony of rude sounds from crickets, cicadas, and songbirds.

"Wow." Andrea stopped to listen to the difference. It impressed her, too.

I bent down and let out the orange, long-haired male, Jasper.

"Are you sure?" Andrea said.

"Yeah."

I could tell Jasper trusted us. And he was eager to get down into the grass. When he reached the ground, he stiffened. It was too much for him all at once.

"Let out Scrapple, too," I said, "It'll be fine."

As soon as Andrea put down the kitten, Scrapple headed toward her brother in three big pounces. She bumped him and bumbled on past. Jasper turned to follow. They veered their own directions. The two of them inched through the grass, which was freshly cut but still half as high as them. Every few steps, they paused to listen. They twitched their tails. They froze when they saw a beetle. After a moment of study, Jasper advanced to nudge it on the head. The beetle turned and tried to march away over the green blades. The kittens hunkered down to watch. 

A grasshopper chirped nearby. Scrapple and Jasper jumped. Their hackles rose. They landed with their claws extended and searched for source of the noise.

For a few minutes, we let them explore. Every time Jasper felt he'd gotten too far away, he dashed back to my feet. His sister roamed farther but she bounced back to us. Every bug in the grass, every bat fluttering overhead in the twilight, every call from a songbird was new to them. The yard was a source of fascination, caution, and curiosity. 

Thirty feet north of us, we heard the front door open. My mother strode out of her house. 

I turned to see she was dressed for the day in jeans and her gardening jacket. She must have heard us drive up. She strolled across the porch, down the steps, and approached the nearest kitten, Scrapple, with a smile. Scrapple dashed toward her for a few steps but stopped, feeling a momentary sense of panic. Andrea scooped her hand underneath the cat's furry belly and raised it beside her shoulder.

Next to me, my orange ball of fluff bumped into my foot. I grabbed it. 

"Mom, this is Jasper." I held the cat up in my arms as my mother came closer. 

"And this is Scrapple," Andrea said, "your future mighty huntress."

My mom paused to give Andrea an approving smile. She put an arm out, let the kitten sniff her fingers and, after a moment, she petted Scrapple's head. She withdrew her hand. We all waited a few seconds and watched the animals as they, in turn, watched her. She stroked the kitten again. This time, it started to purr. I could hear it from a few feet away. Andrea and my mother smiled.

My mother strode over to me to give Jasper as similar treatment. 
 
"You said Tucker would call." She gave me a stern look as she let the cat sniff her hand. "He hasn't."

"Well, he told me that he would. No big deal." Jasper accepted a few pets. He didn't purr but he seemed happy anyway. "It's too early to ring him up. Later today, I'll see if we can talk. We need to meet, really. I've got to get info from him and Laura both."

"I'm not sure how to help Laura," said Andrea.

"Yeah, and I don't know what Tuckers wants me to do as best man." I nodded. "He's been too busy to talk on the phone. But now I'll get to see him."

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 272: Tucker Mythology - Worst Best Man, Pt. 1

Tucker Mythology
Worst Best Man

Part One, Invited

Usually, high school friends leave town and drift apart.

It didn't happen with Tucker. We drove away to our distant colleges. We dropped out at different times. We returned to other schools at mismatched semester breaks. For years, hundreds of miles separated us. So did our divergent American sub-cultures (ROTC, punks and hippies). Yet we managed to remain friends. At Hampshire College, I took courses in creative writing. It wasn't hard to discipline myself to write letters to friends as well. The surprise was that Tucker wrote back. Sometimes he splurged to speak to me on the phone. He said that he charged the calls to his parents or lumped them into his college payments.

In all the time I was at college, we were best friends despite the ever-present distance between us. He visited me at Hampshire. Once I took off for a semester and worked in Maryland. Tucker had returned to Darnestown, so he and I went running together every day. We talked about women, school, and life philosophy while getting physically fit or sometimes while shooting a basketball around the hoop in my back yard.
 
Eventually, Tucker went back to college in Rochester. I finished undergraduate school and settled down in Massachusetts. We still saw each other from time to time. But it became a rarer thing. We talked only when I made the effort to visit. He had a fiancé, Laura. I was living with a woman in Amherst. Neither of us seemed to have free time.

One morning, two years after my graduation, I got a call from Tucker. He had moved back to Maryland. Since his return there, I hadn't heard from him. I'd sent letters but had gotten no replies, no calls, nothing for sixteen months. Then the phone rang and my girlfriend handed it over to me with a worried look.  

"Hey, man," Tucker said. He sounded tired. "I've got news. I'm getting married."

"To Laura? Congratulations." I had expected a dire report, not a good one. Laura had once or twice mentioned the idea of marrying Tucker. In contrast, he'd mentioned problems with her. But apparently that sort of drama was in the past.

"Yeah." He paused. "Well, thing is, Eric, I want you to be my best man."

"You do?"

We were so distant at this point, I was surprised to get an invitation to the wedding. Still, an invitation for old time's sake seemed normal. Getting asked to join the wedding party seemed a bit much. I didn't trust that. Getting asked to lead the wedding party seemed outright wrong. But here it was, a request for me to step in as best man.

"I thought you said you had a bunch of new friends." That was one of the first things he had told me about moving back to the Gaithersburg area, just before I heard nothing else.

"I do. But none of them would be really on target."

"None?" That seemed reassuring, in a way, although possibly a source of needless drama as well. I understood the idea of reaching back to a high school friend as sort of a traditional thing. If that's what it was, I could certainly make my peace with it. I'd have to, since I liked Tucker and it was an honor to be asked.

"Seriously. It has to be you, man. It's right."

"Then I'll be there." 

My girlfriend marched over to stand beside me. She had a sense of when a call turned important. She knew Tucker and Laura, too. 

"Hey, gotta go, man. Things to do." Tucker ended the call abruptly. The whole conversation had taken two minutes. My girlfriend raised an eyebrow but refrained from comment. I placed the plastic handset back on its stand. It was one of the slightly-cheap knockoff brands that were available now that AT&T wasn't allowed to own all of the phones. I took a deep breath, hands on hips.

After half a minute, I started to feel inspired by the call. Tucker still thought I was his best man.  I gave Andrea a sideways glance as I considered my options. 

"I've been thinking about moving back near my old home," I ventured, "maybe to Frederick."

"Oh really." She folded her arms across her chest.

"Frederick has a real downtown, like Northampton. You said you wanted to live in a place with a downtown so you didn't need to drive. Well, you can walk anywhere you need to go in Frederick. And you graduate soon."

"I'd better." She had finished her academic hurdles, she thought, but not every professor had completed his or her side of the required paperwork. 

"How would you feel about moving to Maryland with me?" 

We would soon have the freedom to go anywhere we pleased. Why not get an apartment in a town close to where Tucker was getting married? It made logistical sense. Maybe it would seem like a good decision for other reasons later. For a second, Andrea scowled. Not much later, she cracked a smile.
 
"Anywhere away from here." She put a finger to her lips for a moment, then added, "That isn't upper New York State." 

And so it was decided. 

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 271: Tucker Mythology - Night Riders

Tucker Mythology
Night Riders

In the summer when I was sixteen, I got my driving license. The world changed.

Now I had bursts of freedom from my parents. Tucker found that he could escape his for a while, too. Every Saturday, he hopped into the front side seat of my parents' station wagon, leaned over to me, and said, "Where are we going?"
 
Accompanied by the smell of my father's stale cigars in the ashtray, we drove to every place we could reach that wasn't another cluster of farms. We visited book shops, the malls, the Ben Franklin convenience store, the movies, miniature golf, our friends in their houses, and others who snuck out of their houses and met us to go into arcades. We jangled our pockets full of quarters. We uncrumpled dollar bills to make change for more games. We accepted donations from our friends. Tucker spent everything he had and he volunteered for chores around his home, hoping for more.

"Do you mind if I steer?" Tucker asked after a few weeks of our new summer routine.

"How would that work?" I glanced to my right, where he sat upright at the end of the green, vinyl bench seat. He wasn't slouching. He was smiling. He tapped his gold-rimmed glasses.

"One of my other friends, Mike, let me steer his car. It was easy." His left arm stretched toward the wheel. I gripped it harder with both hands. "It's better when the road is mostly straight. All you have to do is take your hands off the wheel and let me keep us on the road."

We had been headed down the hill away from our homes on Black Rock Road. As we passed over the bridge above Seneca Creek, the gravel path straightened for an eighth of a mile. He put his left hand on the wheel. When we rolled off the bridge, I let go. He kept steering.

The front end of the car wobbled.

"Hold on, I'm getting it," he said. He pushed one way and then the other. Gravel pinged against the undercarriage. The station wagon drifted over the lip of the road and growled in the dirt. An instant later, it jerked back to the middle. While he was in control, I rolled down my window. The smell of summer brambles, dried mud, and mossy rocks drifted in. Black Rock road passed through the middle of a state park, an area that grew thick with oaks. A few, stray birch or poplar trees stood at the edges, near the clearings.

We passed a strand of oaks and poplars. At the next hairpin turn, I took over. We kept on, headed to our friend Debi, who wanted us to take her to the mall. On the straightaways, Tucker begged for every chance to practice his steering. That's how we pulled into the parking lot of Debi's apartment complex, where Debi saw Tucker steering. She decided she wanted her turn.

"Why don't I sit between you guys?" she suggested. She cozied up next to me as if she intended to flirt. However, she had her eye on the steering wheel.

Soon enough, wherever we went, I only worked the pedals on the straightaways. The weeks rolled by in our drive-by-committee fashion. Tucker grumped when Debi did most of the steering, especially after she decided to tease us by aiming us at other cars, or trees, or the curb. When she did, I would snatch the wheel back and guide us out of trouble.

"Aw," she would pout as if to say she only wanted to crash us a little bit.

"God dammit!" Tucker shouted once. "That was really close."

"It was pretty close," I allowed.

"This thing can take on most cars." He straightened from the crouched position he'd taken. His mouth still open, he stared behind us at the narrow bridge. Then he glared at Debi. "But not a school bus."

After a couple near misses, Tucker volunteered for the back seat. He returned himself to the front within the week, though.

During the fall, Debi did a lot of steering. She was short, so sometimes she mashed her body against mine in order to pull us off course. A few times, she pumped the brakes when I was on the highway. She hit the gas pedal when I was parking, or aiming for a spot. That was more dangerous than the brakes. She pushed the steering wheel right or left at random. I learned to keep sort of alert, even when I had the wheel in my control and she was giving me an innocent look with her hands in her lap. Everything could change in a second.

Debi was cute and smart. Her willingness to steer us off the road started to feel like a challenge to Tucker, somehow. When he rode with us, or even with me and no one else, he felt he had to step it up. But Debi had a deft touch. Tucker didn't. On his second or third prank try, he steered me over a curb. As I grabbed the wheel back, I slugged him in the shoulder. But I didn't really need to. He had already been backing off.

"I'm not brave enough for this," Tucker said. "This is crazy. Debi is just outright insane. How does she know when you have time to recover?"

I had no answer for that. Sometimes, Debi misjudged me. Twice, she pulled me into oncoming traffic but when I snapped back, we found a dodging car coming at us and needed to make another escape.

By November, Tucker had gotten a better idea. It started when we were headed back home in my parents' station wagon. We were near our curfew. I was so tired that, on Black Rock, I closed my eyes for a moment.

"You can drive home on reflex now, I guess," Tucker observed.

"Yeah." I yawned. I blinked and tried to watch the edges of our lane more carefully.

"Could you keep us on the road if I turned off the lights?"

"As long as we kept to the same speed, yeah." I meant my reflexes were based on timing. They were connected to the feel of the road. The gravel path of Black Rock angled a lot, not just up and down along the hills but off to the sides. My muscle memory found it natural to locate our car's position by the tilt and momentum. If we kept to the same speed every time, I could make every turn based on feel.

"When we get to a straightaway, turn the lights off for a second."

We swung left, then right, then came to a hundred feet of straightness. The boughs above us had lost their leaves already. Now they parted over our heads, too, and we could feel the sky. I pressed down on the knob to my left. The interior of the car turned black. Outside, the headlights blinked off.

To my surprise, I could see. The surface gravel and the trees on either side had instantly filled with a silvery glow.

"Thought so," said Tucker. "The full moon is perfect."

"It's more light than I need," I pondered.

Tucker thought about that point for a moment as we glided through a turn. Leafless branches closed off most of the cloudless sky above. Although I couldn't see much, I still wasn't worried. There were lighter shadows and darker ones. And the feel of the road, a tilt low and to the right. We straightened for a few feet and slid around another gravelly turn. I could hear the tires on the road more clearly than ever before. Or maybe I was simply paying attention.

"You know what?" Tucker concluded. "Me too.  I think I could drive this during less than a full moon. I'd want a little bit of light from something above, though, maybe a really clear night with lots of stars."

He didn't have his license yet but I knew what he meant.

When I passed my test, the ability to drive had given me freedom. But soon enough, it turned into something more. Driving became my way to be with friends. It was almost the only way there was, living out where we were. The car gave me a way to impress them, even. Clearly, Tucker was impressed by driving at night, headlights out. 
 
The next week, we drove back the same way. I cruised along Black Rock. Tucker turned out the lights. In silence and moonlight, we cruised on.
 
#

My impressions of cool driving tricks came from Debi and Tucker. But they could be back-seat daredevils. Debi had her license but no car. Tucker wanted so badly to learn and to be more free. 

My parents bought a Volkswagen Rabbit. With it, Tucker and I learned how to manage a manual gearbox. He had to learn to shift left-handed, of course. We drove around Gaithersburg and Rockville on double-dates, spilled beer on the seats, and told our parents the car had broken down when we came home late. Sometimes to impress girls, I'd take my hands off the steering wheel and, without a word, Tucker would take over.  He always loved to turn off the headlights as we cruised Black Rock and show everyone we didn't need them.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 270: Tucker Mythology - Here There Be Dragons

Tucker Mythology
Here There Be Dragons

When I first met him, he wore a green windbreaker.

In tenth grade, when I was fourteen years old, Tucker moved into the house across the street. He brought with him the windbreaker, a few one-color shirts, some blue jeans, a set of parents, and a pair of younger brothers. He also brought a strange shyness. He smiled as if he were ashamed to be happy, as if he expected to be punished for it. His hands started out nervous and stayed that way, really, for years. Tucker had a habit of playing with things half-consciously and of dropping them when anyone's eyes turned to him. 

I recognized that self-consciousness. I had some of my own.

He barely introduced himself before my younger brother grabbed him and headed off to visit his house. For a couple of weeks, I held back from joining in. I sulked over the departure of my former neighbor and crush, Jean Fisher. But she was gone. We had another family in the neighborhood now. I had to accept it. One day, I hiked over to visit the new guy. Then I realized how fun he might be as a friend.

Anyone talking with him for a few minutes would realize Tucker was quick witted. And we did more than talk. We figured things out together, mostly in games at first. We played bumper pool in his basement. We played poker at my house. We threw footballs in his yard or mine. My brother and I lent Tucker baseball gloves so we could play hotbox and catch. While it was warm enough, we introduced Tucker to the creek and to hikes through the woods.

We took him around the neighborhood to see the other kids, although there were only two of them and Tucker didn't seem to find them interesting.

When the cold weather arrived, we doubled down on the card games and board games. Tucker continued to learn poker from us but we tried Hearts, Spades, Crazy Eights, Rummy, and Cribbage, too. We pulled out our boxes of Chinese Checkers, Dominos, Monopoly, Life, Scrabble, Parcheesi, and Mastermind. 

Then, in December, I got a Dungeons and Dragons manual from my brother for Christmas. 

I'd already played a few games of it, none finished. I'd learned about the first version months earlier at Sidwell Friends, where we used four primitive pamphlets and a lot of graph paper to create dice-rolling adventures. It was not quite a board game but it was similar. You drew your own maps. And unlike most other games, you got to make your own storyline. 

Since I'd played before and enjoyed drawing maps, I decided to make an adventure for Tucker and Dylan. None of us realized how addictive our sessions would become. When I played at Sidwell Friends, I'd seen the potential but it still surprised me. During those winter months, we spent all our energy on D&D - Tucker, my younger brother, and I - until the three of us could sleep only in school. On the occasions we were awake in class, we drew maps, created monsters, figured out numbering systems, and lived to fulfill our fantasies of power. 

That was the allure, of course. Our young, teen lives were captives of the demands of our parents and school systems. But in our D&D fantasy worlds, we could have valued skills. We could have imaginary respect. We could team up. We could split up, too, and decide what direction to take in our lives. We could show how clever we were. Tucker loved to create characters who won by using guile as much as strength. 

When the weather warmed, we cut down saplings and beat each other with them like errant knights. We researched ancient combat techniques. We discovered stories about samurai and lamellar armor. We made shields and chestplates out of cardboard and padding. We destroyed them in seconds and returned to research more medieval battles. 

Sometimes we fought like savages, like deranged and destitute samurai. At other times, we let ourselves be ordinary kids in the woods. We threw eggs and rotting peaches at passing cars. We built illegal bonfires in the park and shouted to the lonely forest.

By the following winter, though, we returned to our D&D adventures. We huddled in the basement. Tucker put on his green windbreaker when my parents made me turn down my baseboard heat. He cradled his hot tea or a cup of cocoa, careful not to spill it on his character sheets or maps. For hours at a time, Tucker could show that he was clever and brave. He could defy the authorities and no one would humiliate him or hit him for it.