Chapter 1: Shedding Some Detritus -or- What a Load of Schist!
“Thanks for calling the Marquis d’Sod, I’ll whip your lawn into shape!” I cheerfully announced, answering the telephone. Actually my name is really Mark, but frankly I like my new business name much better these days. I can’t remember the last time I’d wanted to cheerfully answer my phone, ‘Dr. Marcus Irving Snodgrass, Megalithic Oil Geophysics Department’. What a waste of thirty years, including most of college and graduate school! I should have never quit mowing lawns as a teenager!
There are several advantages to mowing lawns for a living. First, is that you will get a lot of fresh air, sunshine and exercise. I definitely needed that after over twenty years of riding a desk ... even driving a riding mower now at least gets me into the fresh air and the sunshine. Working on a lawn also gives you a lot of time to think. There is also something almost hypnotic about the rhythm of mowing back and forth, the drone of the cutting blades as they sweep across the lawn, exacting their precise harvest, while creating something uniform and even. Not a blade of grass out of place. It can be very zen-like, to become one with the lawn and the peaceful surroundings.
And the best part is that I’ll never have to put on a tie again for work!
On the not so good side is working outside in the hot South Texas summer sun, where it’s 99 degrees in the shade and something close to 120% humidity. But you do get used to it ... sort of, a bit.
I never realized how profoundly unhappy I was with my life and my work (mostly the same thing) until my wife died a few years ago from a sudden but severe illness. The large and well furnished house that we owned in a fashionable neighborhood of our metropolis seemed afterwards like an old derelict blimp hangar, a place for the storage of old useless things, mostly memories, with nothing needful or useful left over.
While my first youthful marriage had been a dreadful mistake for all of the parties involved, my beloved second wife Erin had been the complete and total love of my life. I had loved her deeply and now that I was alone, I had no thoughts whatsoever about how to fill the rather large empty place that she had held in my heart. For lack of anything else to do, I then buried myself as deeply as I could in my work. It succeeded for a while. We had no children, and while we hadn’t regretted it at the time, now there was nothing left of her left and this deeply and profoundly saddened me.
Any thoughts of reconciling with my first ex-wife were laughable. She had left me over twenty years ago after she had initiated an affair with the husband of her best friend while I was still a doctoral student back in Wisconsin. That mess caused two divorces and quite a few years of anger and semi-dysfunctional levels of bitterness for me. She had ‘upgraded’ two or three more times since and the last I’d heard she was reasonably happily married to the Chief of Surgery of a hospital in upstate New York. Now she had a big house outside of Buffalo right on the Erie Canal and living the life to which she had always wanted to become accustomed. More power to her. As for me, I learned long ago that money isn’t everything, and sometimes not even much of anything either.
I wasn’t exactly hurting myself. If nothing else, being a professional geophysicist for a major oil company can be an extremely lucrative position. On the other hand, it took five years for my BS (a double major of Geology and Physics), another two for my MS, and then the final slog to get my Doctorate. I was dangerous close to thirty years old before I was done with college! This did earn me a healthy six-figure starting salary, stock options, nice benefits, etc, but they also tried to work us nearly to death.
As the saying goes, ‘money can’t buy you happiness, but it will let you choose your own form of misery.’
My prescription for hiding my emptiness, a full eighty-hour work week, proved to be rather unfulfilling as I discovered the very first moment that I gave myself a few empty hours with nothing to do but think. I didn’t ever take my vacation time nor did I get to go on business trips often, so every single day of the week I put on my shirt and tie and went into my office. Why I didn’t keel over with a heart attack I don’t know!
Then ... one day I couldn’t just send a minion to visit a pipeline construction site near San Antonio, I had to go myself, in person, and that broke the glass bubble I’d been living in. For some reason I’ve never enjoyed flying, so when I elected to drive there, it gave me nearly four uninterrupted hours all by myself for the first time in years. I didn’t like what I heard myself saying, and the drive home was even worse, if at all remotely possible.
The job was going to kill me, I decided. No ifs, ands, or buts. It was just a matter of when I was going to utterly work myself to death ... and for what?
A few years ago my department had a work group team of about twelve people and now currently it was just myself and four others ... doing at least the same amount of departmental work. There had been layoffs (‘rightsizing’), transfers, a heart attack (not mine!), and a promotion to management to another department for our most incompetent and disliked team member, whose EEOC status as a minority made it legally impossible for anyone to fire her (even for gross incompetence and frequent blatant insubordination), so ... they promoted her. She got moved up to a supervisory position in the same pay grade as mine just so she couldn’t screw up the workflow anymore.
Sometimes shit like this made me wonder just how badly I’d have to fuck up in order to get promoted into senior management myself! That’s the trouble, I decided, with being ‘absolutely indispensable‘, in the words of both of my direct upper management bosses. Somebody actually had to get the real paying work done – and that was me and my team. Nope ... my ass was never going to get moved into that corner office where I could screw around all day and play a computer golf game like my boss did.
Now, when my pension very nearly fully vested, with almost a full twenty years at this company, I began to have a slight paranoid suspicion that maybe they were trying to work me to death or encourage me to quit before my pension became fully vested. Probably not in my case; They needed my group to get our work done on schedule as we generated a significant amount of corporate income, often handling 3-D seismic projects sub-contracted from other oil and gas companies. My department was a profit center, so really I was actually probably safe from most HR machinations. Still, you could count on one hand the number of twenty-year plus veterans still working in the other departments at this division of the company. Endless rounds of ‘right-sizing’ had long ago trimmed off any fat and the latest series of staff cuts had carved right to bone.
I put these unwholesome thoughts back into their locked cupboard in my head for a few more months and kept my nose down and the eighty-hour work weeks rolling in. Nose still to the grindstone, but my thoughts increasingly full of sedition. I just ignored how increasingly tight my chest was starting to feel for those last nine months of my continued death march, until that wondrous and glorious day when I officially received my official notice of being completely 100% vested in the retirement program.
Reading the paperwork frontwards, backwards and even sideways a time or two, I decided to make my escape plans immediately, before I had my first extremely overdue heart attack. I ran the numbers over and over until my keyboard keys began to squeak. If I quit immediately and took early retirement now, I’d still be entitled to about half of my current monthly salary (still a six figure income, but barely). I could even keep my medical benefits and continue on with the company health plan for a moderate monthly cost. There was also an option to transfer and cash in the prorated salary value of all of my remaining unused vacation and sick days directly into my 401k plan. I gave that a good look-over too. It was just one mouse-click away from being transferred over to an independent brokerage firm the minute I retired to then be diversified enough so that even if my old company pulled an Enron, all of my retirement account would not just be in company stocks and bonds (as it currently was).
Suddenly I felt happier about myself than I had felt in years!
The next Monday morning bright and early I planted myself in my boss’s office (a semi-useless git of a kid that I had personally trained over ten years ago who did sloppy seismic work but could push papers and pass the buck with the best of them) and politely, but very firmly gave him a few ultimatums.
Immediate promotion of at least one pay grade and with a better job title, like Senior Manager Immediate reduction of my work hours back down to the theoretical normal forty-hour week. I made it clear I going to start keeping 8-5 hours, regardless of how backed up our work log was Immediate hiring of at least two additional junior geotechs for my department (with another two to be added for the next fiscal year budget). Or alternatively, if none of the above was possible - a company transfer to another division with a promotion jump of at least two grades (to VP level), with a guaranteed staff and full departmental control. Hah! They’d never agree to that.
Naturally, I received sympathy ... but nothing else. None of my demands were at all ‘feasible’ at this time, but he would take up my requests to higher management in the future. About what I expected from the lame git. He was just a MBA and not a scientist. I don’t think the kid ever really understood exactly what we did for a living anyway ... even while he was there working among us for six months supposedly learning the ropes.
I was not at all discouraged, and I visited his boss, and then his boss’s boss later on the same week, preaching pretty much the same story ... and receiving the exact same blow off. No surprise whatsoever – that was exactly what I expected right from the start, but I had to go through the motions. Now, my conscience was clear!
It was a good finish to the work week to walk into our HR Department at 4 p.m. on Friday to turn in my already filled out my Retirement paperwork. I even gave them a month’s notice of the effective date. Since I was currently carrying three extra weeks of vacation that they wouldn’t pay me for (I had seven and they’d only pay out for a maximum of four) I’d already made arrangements to be ‘on vacation’ for the final three weeks of my employment. All very official, by which I mean I made a near-perfect forgery of my boss’s signature on the vacation form and left it in his administrative assistant’s in-box. I carefully didn’t mention that I would also probably take ‘sick time’ for most of this upcoming week too.
My one week long ‘last month’ came as a bit of a revelation and major ‘Come to Jesus’ moment for everyone. I gave my team a heads up to warn them that they would be even more shorthanded soon, especially since I did more than my share of the menial grunt work. Not surprisingly, several of my team admitted to me that they were entertaining job offers elsewhere and now they would definitely be jumping ship also, ASAP. Everyone was tired of being over-worked with no hope for promotion into even the lower rungs of corporate management, even for average standard industry pay. My very best young geotech just went ‘fuck it’ and quit on that same Friday too, without even bothering to give notice. The kid had been getting calls from headhunters for months and I heard he started a new (better hopefully) job a week later.
Oh, there was howling once the news of our insurrection hit the executive floor a few of the smarter VP’s upstairs did try belatedly patch things up before our entire group became scattered to the four winds, but there was too much resistance to give in to our ‘extortion’ and in the end their appeasement efforts came to nothing. This didn’t hurt my feelings one little bit – now I was certain that I had made exactly the right decision.
My boss would have to start working for a living now apparently, and it didn’t agree with him. As the saying goes, ‘The floggings will continue until morale improves’.
Within six months the last member of my old work team had left and their replacements weren’t nearly knowledgeable enough to even handle the easiest sort of our routine work, let alone getting it done under impossible time deadlines. This formerly very profitable department of the company was now losing money (and clients) and my former boss was suddenly no longer on the corporate fast-track to a nice upstairs corner office. He tried the whip approach with the new team and the good skilled young scientists all quit, so he cleaned house and fired everyone ... then brought in a new batch of new hires. The floggings continued, morale sunk to bedrock, the quality newbies quit, the company lost more contracts for seismic processing, and upper management became very, very annoyed. My old boss was fired and they brought in a new MBA who had even less of a geo-science background than his predecessor and the same cycle continued endlessly thereafter, from what I heard.
None of this was any longer my problem.
Finding something to do with my retirement was much harder. I’d sold off the big house that my late wife and I had shared, and I then moved into a much smaller furnished condo. Even most of the old furnishings from the house were giving me sad memories so they went to Goodwill. While packing and moving, I discovered that there was actually very little of my old stuff that I really wanted or needed to keep. Even my collection of several decades’ worth of scientific journals went as a donation to my local library, mostly still unread. I bet they just tossed them into a paper recycling bin, entirely still unread.
Most guys dream about being able to retire financially secure at the age of fifty. They could then play golf and chase golf balls all day or chase women, or travel or do something ... but within a week of being home and doing nothing I was already bored silly.
If working was just dying slowly, then sitting around the condo all day watching TV and brooding was even worse. I had absolutely no reason to even get out of bed in the morning, and some days I just didn’t. I needed to find something to do with my life now!
I gradually entertained the idea of going to work again in my field for a competitor and made a few casual phone calls and even put on the suit once again to do a few interviews but they didn’t amount to much of anything. I did get a few job offers to do essentially what I had been already doing for the last twenty years, but the thought of getting back into that grind all over again had no appeal to me. I declined, and spent the next few months having a passionate affair with the Turner Classic Movies channel and old single-malt scotch.
I tried chasing little white golf balls and then tennis balls for a while, but I just didn’t find either sport that interesting. Even the idea of chasing women again just didn’t have the appeal that it used to. I signed up for a dating service and discovered very quickly that most women about my age wanted the ‘big house in the suburbs’ routine that I had just quit and furthermore, they didn’t want a ‘early-retired’ husband kicking around the house all day either. All too many of them were looking for the big ‘upgrade’ to their lifestyle, and I just wanted my life to get simpler. In fact, the majority of my lady dates reminded me entirely too much of my first ex-wife.
Nope ... not happening.
It was a dream about an old memory from my childhood that suddenly woke me up while I had been dozing on the sofa late one night. It was the first little spark that stoked the fire of ambition in my belly again and brought with it a sudden burning desire to get off of my lazy ass and do something with my life. In this dream I was sitting on a riverbank fishing with an ancient black man who seemed as old as the river himself. The man was familiar to me in the dream and after awakening, I remembered him as a friend I’d met during my middle school years. Everyone knew him locally as Catfish John, but he had once privately told me that his real name was Joshua and that I could call him Josh.
He lived in an old cabin that had been in his family for over one hundred years, along the Lovett River, about a mile before it emptied into a small estuary bay by the Marsh-King’s place. He did some odd jobs for the poor farmers and ranchers in the area for extra cash, but he grew most of his own food and also fished for his dinner (and the local fish market) on most nights. This was during the 1960’s and even into the 70’s, when everyone was dirt poor in Lovett in those days.
My mother didn’t take to him and didn’t like me to be around him at all, even absolutely forbidding me to visit him at one point, but I didn’t take much notice. It was the beginning of the Civil Rights era, and I thought the world would be better off without a few of my mother’s rather outdated racial attitudes and traditions. She wasn’t a bad woman or even particularly prejudiced, but she had just grown up in southern Alabama under some old and rather peculiar institutions and she didn’t much like the thought of change, even change for the better.
I was proud to be his friend, and Catfish John taught me more about how a man ought to act and behave than my own father had done. It shamed me more than a little to realize that I hadn’t even thought of old Josh in well over twenty years. If he was still alive, he would have to be at least eighty years old by now. Heck, I had just turned fifty recently myself!
It seemed really unlikely that he would still be alive, but still the thought of seeing my old friend again began to grow increasingly stronger inside me, almost as if he were calling out for me to come to him. Frankly, it wasn’t the worst idea I’d had since I called it quits with the world and retired.
I packed up an overnight bag and left Houston driving for Lovett at first light the next morning.
My father had moved our family to Lovett in the mid 1960’s while he was working an oil rig job based out of Goliad. The cost of living in Lovett was cheaper than anywhere else around, and he and my mother could rent a house that didn’t look much better or larger than Josh’s antique shack for pretty near the same amount that it would have cost for a small tin mobile trailer closer to his job site. We only stayed in Lovett for about three years, but it became the closest thing I had to a home town. Even being supposedly only thirty miles from my father’s work, we didn’t see him most nights, or even sometimes for a week or two at a time. His rigging crew stayed on the road working oil fields everywhere between Corpus Christi, Austin and Beaumont.
Mother was dead certain that my father had other women in his life and their marriage was not an especially happy one. Over the years his absences seemed to become longer and their reunions more frequently marred by loud accusations and bitter fighting. By the time I left for college on a scholarship offered by my father’s company in Beaumont, they were officially separated and my father was already openly living with another woman. Neither of my parents lived long enough afterwards to see me graduate. My father died from a heart attack about two years after the divorce and my mother lingering for about nine months afterwards until her own years of hard drinking finished her off rather too early as well.
The Lovett years, when I was a boy of thirteen to fifteen, which didn’t quite seem so idyllic and pleasant at the time, turned out to be, upon later reflection, the happiest years of my entire childhood. At this point in my life, I would welcome all of the happy memories I could find.
Driving for the first time back in thirty-five years to the town of Lovett, I found that it had hardly changed in most ways, now at the very start of this new century. Oh, there were the new large offices for the big computer gaming company near the Town Centre, which was also looking much revived and prosperous, but otherwise I don’t think more than a handful of buildings in the rest of town had even received a new coat of paint in the thirty plus years since I had left. In many ways it was just as if I had walked out of a time machine and gone back into my past. The young geek programmer guys and gals walking the streets, displaying their skin ink and piercings everywhere, did tend to warp my memory images a bit though. I guess Father Time had moved on a bit after all.
I most certainly didn’t remember the short mile long length of Lovett beach being clothing optional either in those days, not to mention numerous couples (some of the same sex) openly cavorting on the beach with the local County Sheriffs keeping a benign blind eye to nearly everything. Apparently when The Church came in, right about the time my family left town, things began to liberalize a great deal. In fact, for a good many years, naturalist tourism (i.e. the local nudist colony) was the single largest economic entity in the entire County. For over twenty years, it had been bare sun-kissed breasts and bouncing balls that kept some minimum amount of money flowing into this poverty stricken hardscrabble community. If there were any remaining prudes left, they were either well hidden or kept their mouths zippered tightly shut. My mother would have been horrified, but it was pure Darwinism at work – adapt or die.
Lovett, apparently, has always been extremely good at adapting to an ever-changing world.
Nowadays, things seemed to be a bit better economically, and there were some other new businesses growing in this small area. The bone grinding poverty that I had remembered as a child seemed to be at least a bit alleviated now. Most of the old gothic Victorian houses near the Centre still needed desperate repair and a fresh coat of paint, but at least that old vintage diner and motel down by the coast road near the beach had been magnificently restored and renovated, and there was even an upscale European café right on the town Centre. The old art deco movie theater building was still boarded up, unchanged since the 1930’s. This was oddly relieving to me somehow. Something about that old building just gave me the creeps as a kid!
Speaking of weird creepy things! That large dark seven-foot-tall pointed black basalt monolith right smack in the middle of the Town Centre was still there and still gave me the total heebie-jeebies. Still no signs, no historical markers, no warnings around it, just bare dirt and brown dead looking grass. Supposedly John Lovett had placed it there himself on the day he founded the town, but no one could or would explain to me why, nor did anyone then particularly care to find out.
I wasn’t at all sure about how to track down Old Josh. Sure, I remembered exactly where my former family house was on the western swamp-side outskirts of town (the old neighborhood hadn’t changed a bit) and I probably could have made the fifteen minute run over to the river and found his shack with my eyes shut. On the other hand, I didn’t want to face the emotional pain of going there to find out that the shack was tumbled down and abandoned, long empty and Josh long dead or gone.
It just seemed like a prudent idea to first go find another old-timer in town to ask a few questions from before I made a complete fool of myself. The newspaper office was my first thought, remembering the old coot who used to run the county’s paper and who paid me just enough to support my baseball card habit to deliver a small number of subscriptions near my home. Now, there was a thirty-something guy with a hard edged look in there running things and doing everything on computers, with the old manual type printing press still in the back, but dusty and forever silent. I backed out there quickly, that kid probably didn’t know Josh anyway.
My luck was better at the County Courthouse across the street, in fact I met the old County Judge herself coming out of the building as I was about to go inside. They were just about the same age, I reasoned, and undoubtedly did know each other. And ... Yes! Old Catfish John was still among the living and living at his same old hut out by the riverbank and would probably be very happy indeed to meet an old friend, she commented with a smile.
Thanking her, I left, but didn’t head straight out to Josh’s, at least not right away. It was a warm day in the late spring and I had remembered that Josh always enjoyed taking a good long nap during the heat of the day, as he often stayed up all night, fishing until dawn. I tried lunch at the new European style café, Chez Chris, and enjoyed it immensely, promising to return. They didn’t normally serve dinner except for Friday and Saturday nights, when they were invariably standing room only. The need for reservations being virtually mandatory was impressed upon me. I took an instant liking to the owner, Chris and his wife Rose. They were a bit younger than me and relatively new to town also, having just relocated here fairly recently from Houston, too. I resolved to try and get to know them a bit better on my next visit.
The rest of the day I walked up and down the beach slowly and taking long rests on the short seawall. I’ll also confess to finding and become a devout patron of Phil’s Cantina, enjoying a refilled glass full of hard frozen lemonade after each circuit. Phil himself was off at the Courthouse today, as he also doubled as the Head County Clerk, but I got to meet him and his girlfriend Charli (and his ex-wife Calista) a few hours before sunset and we hit it off like gangbusters. I found it unusual to say the least that a guy could be that friendly with his ex, but I discovered later that Phil and Charli have atypical sleeping arrangements, to say the least!
A few minutes with a good county map confirmed that there were still no roads that passed anywhere near Catfish John’s house. The only road and bridge over the river was two miles further inland north and west, close to where the old wartime Army Air Field was, now Lovett County Airport. To walk, as I had done as a boy from the west of Lovett, would take me at least half an hour (why did it seem so much shorter as a boy?) over the marshy grassland. With recent heavy rains, this direct route wasn’t entirely recommended. The best approach today seemed to be to drive over to the Marsh-King’s place near where the small and quite muddy Lovett River slowly sloshed into the bay, park there and then have him or his daughter show me the tiny path that ran up along the eastern side of the bay until it reached the riverbank ... unless I felt like wading through a mile or two of swampy marshland.
The Marsh King was there and delighted that an old acquaintance had returned to the area. The scruffy old bearded gent had more than a little passing resemblance to Papa Hemmingway, and he seemed to remember me from when I was a kid fishing on the dock nearly every weekend, but honestly I could only just barely recall him at all. Of course in those days he had been in the prime condition of youth just out of high school (naturally sans beard) and would soon to embark upon three tours of duty with the Navy in a strange and remote foreign country I’d never heard of called Vietnam. We resolved to meet and talk again later, and he set me upon a barely discernable old pathway that did bring me, after slightly less than an hour’s walk, directly to Josh’s shack. The old man, sitting out in front on a rocker smoking his pipe and watching the sun set over the river, didn’t even blink an eye at me when I at last came up to his side to greet him.
“Took you long enough.” He gruffly muttered with faux annoyance that was betrayed by the sparkle of joy in his old eyes. Then he stood up and embraced me and we hugged for a good long while.
I pulled up a chair to set beside him and we reminisced together for hours into the growing gloom of night, talking of everything and nothing. Josh offered me his spare pipe and I initially declined, saying I didn’t smoke tobacco.
“Neither do I.” Josh said with a wink and offered it to me anyway. Having spent thirteen years of my life at the second most liberal school in America, University of Wisconsin – Madison, which is perhaps an even bigger party school than Cal Berkley, I was no stranger in those days to smoking several things other than tobacco, and so I accepted.
It made for a very interesting night. Josh grew his own garden herbs, including this particular potent ditch weed, and he was largely immune to its overpowering pharmacological effects, which didn’t affect him noticeably at all. On the other hand, I did become rather merry, especially after a jug was produced and a few glasses of Josh’s finest home-brew soothed our parched throats after several pipes of smoke. I woke up on Josh’s bed early the next morning, at the very crack of dawn, still dressed having passed out while he spent the night fishing. My head felt several sizes too large and my mouth seemed like it was full of cotton. I decided that I wasn’t in my early twenties anymore and I’d need to cut down on the liquid and smoked refreshments in the future.
We had a pair of nice, freshly caught, plump corn meal battered catfish, pan fried for breakfast and I joined Josh as we took his small boat down to the Marsh- King’s place where Josh sold off a nice stringer of fish that would end up in the local food market later this morning. Josh put in a shopping order for a few items to be picked up for him – Josh apparently only rarely went into town himself, and we said goodbye for the day.
We then headed back on his home, Josh to do a little gardening and then to sleep for the late morning and afternoon. Alone, at Josh’s hut, I rocked for a bit outside on his chair and did a little cultivating of my own, namely some serious thinking about my future.
Recalling our conversations of the prior night, it seemed apparent that my reappearance after over thirty years wasn’t entirely unanticipated; in fact, he oddly seemed to have been expecting me. This was rather disconcerting. Further, the insinuation was rather clear that my return was likely to become very permanent.
“I was back home now.” Josh said several times during the night, and also that I would be needed. “I’m almost ninety now,” he said, “and very soon there is one thing that is going to need doin’ that only I can ... but I can’t ... without your help!”
How, what or why, he wouldn’t say. But in my heart, I knew what he said was true. Lovett was my home now – and I was back home to stay. Call it destiny, but I too could feel that I needed to be here, and now.
As I walked back again to the Marsh-King’s, where I’d parked my car, I had decided that indeed Lovett was now unquestionably my home. Furthermore, with just a brief investigation, I discovered that my old family house out on the west side of town was vacant and available for rent or sale. It hadn’t changed a bit since I was a boy, nor had the neighborhood. It was just like me, I decided – a bit older, scruffier and needing a trim and a coat of paint.
So I bought it – and dropped down my anchor to stay!