Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It's Bob: The Rules of the Road

REPOST from March 26, 2009 This recounts the "Bill"-episode to which my friend Kathleen refers in the next post.

On a recent road trip, Fred took the wheel and appointed La Belle Bianca Castafiore, swathed in a pink feather boa and topped with a demure chiffon petal hat with netting (in ivory), to ride Shotgun.

It would be tacky of me to point out that she wore a *stunning* brick red sheath dress.

According to, that well-known authority on haute couture, the sheath dress "features a figure-hugging silhouette with a defined waist (no belt or waistband). This short (mid-calf or shorter) dress works well in sleeveless styles on well-toned bodies."

I will give you a moment.

As you can imagine, I was fairly put out -- offended in both my fashion sense and my profound sense of decorum -- because I am of the Old School. To ride Shotgun, a person must call Shotgun and wear only fine natural fibers, textiles that obey the dictates of a discrete palette. It is a privilege to be earned, that one merits, not a given right to exercise -- sort of like healthcare. But I won't quibble over words of hierarchy, over Terms of Snoot; I will simply posit the well established Official Shotgun Rules, according to which:

* Shotgun must be called, and the calling witnessed.
* Shotgun may only be called within the timeframe established within the traditions of one's merry company. In our case, this would be within 5 minutes of departure, and when every potential rider and driver is in the presence of the dragster, the very lovely Ruby, Honda CR-V.
* You must have shoes on. No one cares if you sport shoes in the car or upon arrival, but you must be shod, chaussé, in order to call Shotgun.
* If Shotgun is not called by the time a hand grips the shotgun door handle, appointment shall be made by the driver. (Here at Marlinspike Hall, Tête de Hergé, we deviate from the International Rules, whereby: Shotgun can no longer be called once someone's hand is holding the shotgun door handle. This officially stakes their claim to Shotgun and calling it at this time is just redundant. This is one scenario where a person does not actually have to say Shotgun to get the seat. This rule's importance is that no one has to be around for you to stake your claim to Shotgun, whereas usually one other would-be occupant must be present for you to call it.)
* Rock, Paper, Scissors resolves all disputes -- from map-reading and how best to evade rush hour traffic to who shall pay for gas and, more important than fuel, sundries. (Why more blogosphere time is not devoted to the discussion of sundries -- from bar snacks to oddments -- I don't know, for ours is a sundry-driven culture.)
* And the rules go on and on, open to careful revision due to the plastic, evolving nature of Shotgun. You get the idea. This is not a wild, ungoverned affair -- we are civilized, we do things a certain way. Tradition *matters*.

Back to my anecdote. Here is the rule that, when broken, finally chapped my delicate hide that day: If someone is driving an automobile other than its owner and the owner becomes a passenger, then the owner automatically gets Shotgun. When applied, this rule shows respect to the owner of the car.

Ruby, the Honda CR-V, is mine. She is equipped with Bruno, the wheelchair lift. Bruno is also mine. My point? I am the owner; I rule. I get Shotgun, de jure, de facto.

That La Belle Bianca Castafiore decided to sing out and "call" Shotgun for the first time in her morbidly obese life was just... quaint; That Fred delighted in this aberration? Well, *that* was... dégoûtant!

And so it was that we set out, framed in a modern Decameron, novellas waiting to spring from our lips -- we, the happy travelers, escaping the smog, oppression, and pestilence of our city.

Castafiore up front, me in the back. Fred, all pleased with himself, at the wheel. Truly the makings of a literary event, a salon on wheels.

First, we told tales of hitchhikers and of hitchhiking. I am not a good story or joke teller -- in fact, people around me are prone to disappear, if disappearance is at all possible, when it is my turn to jest or narrate. But in this instance, I had a captive audience.

Still, it was difficult to think of tales that were not already known to Fred. This had me delving, unfortunately, into my supply of Squirrelly Stories. The Good Fredster and I have been together for 18 years -- certainly a relationship that I treasure, and his opinion one that matters much. I was not, however, feeling particularly, um, close to him at that moment, and so it was that I risked his disdain and introduced my audience to Bob.

I dropped out of college at the end of my freshman year. There is no fascinating subtext. It was a perfectly ordinary case of rebellion and confusion. So I moved to a neat-o city, took a short nurse's assistant training, and got a job at a large charity hospital, where I worked in the Post-Intensive Neuro Unit. I am sure these units are now called something that sounds much more chic.

Having been in a whirlwind romantic relationship the previous year, part of the reason for my disaffection with academics, I wanted only to make enough money to keep body and soul together, audit some courses at the nearby university after work, and maybe meet some interesting folk who could show me more of life. To say that I was lacking in savoir faire was an understatement.

Enter Bob.

We met at work. Bob was an LPN -- his job was to dole out the meds. He was 15 years my senior, kind of scruffy, spoke with the distinct regional twang, and seemed truly compassionate to the odd mix of patients we had. On one end of the floor, there were mostly post-op back patients, laminectomies, fusions, diskectomies, and the like, with an occasional brain tumor thrown in for good measure. On the other end? Gorks.

I was there for about two years before I resumed my academic career, finally majoring in what made the most sense: Romance Languages and Literature, with a minor in Anthropology.

Toward the end of my stay, Bob asked me out. I was once again in another relationship at the time, but it was one with no future -- a much older married man who owned a health food store, sold drugs, and raised pythons on the side. Phil's marriage was "open," and I was actually on good terms with his wife, getting to know her rather well over coffee in the mornings. (She was sleeping with my roommate. Indeed, our kitchen was an interesting place to start the day, for in addition to her fondness for Phil's wife, my roomie Debra had an affinity for musicians of all genders and orientations, and she regularly brought them home. It was a toe-tappin' place.)

I had the Castafiore woman and Fred wrapped around my little finger at this point. Fred seemed to be overheating, in fact. His gaping mouth was quite like that of a fish out of water. His face clearly read: Where has my demure and straightlaced Retired Educator gone? How can the trollop of this tale be the same person as my Beloved Smarty-Pants?

Hmm. Earlier I said there was no subtext. There is always a subtext, Dear Reader! Usually, several. But it kills a story to spell them out, much as starting with the punchline kills most of my jokes. I so wanted to tell Fred how great it had been to learn, as part of the lesson of those years, that I was a good and decent person.

Anyway, Bob and I had dinner, then went for a drive in the country.

He cranked up the radio, reached over and took a big plastic bag from the glove compartment of his truck, plopped it down between us, and said, "You first!"

In that bag was a rainbow of pills, tablets, and capsules. Probably over a thousand of them.

Smirking at my sudden paralysis, Bob reached in, scooped half-a-handful, popped them in his mouth, and swallowed them down with his beer. I was cold, and shivering, so scared. By then we had driven well into the mountains, and nature, too, was cold.

Something told me to make myself small. I retreated into my seat and said not a word as Bob returned to the bag of goodies several more times and started on another beer. I had not a clue where we were.

About an hour into the drive, Bob began muttering strange things and shooting scary looks at me. I had assumed monstrous proportions in his mind; I had become some sort of threat.

He did the only logical and gentlemanly thing -- he suddenly pulled the truck over and pushed me out, then drove away at high speed.

For the first time in my 20 years, late, late on a cold night, alone out in the boondocks, I flexed my thumb.

Three cars sped by with no intention of stopping to pick me up. In my heart, I was relieved, for I knew they were all ax murderers.

By the time the burly, hirsute dude in the 18-wheeler Mack truck gently pulled over onto the gravel, I was in tears and hugging myself out in the icy air, feeling strangely insubstantial.

He had a thermos of black coffee, and the heater in the cab was humming. We didn't talk much. I told him where I lived, not thinking that a real hitchhiker would hardly expect to be taken straight to one's front door -- not thinking, also, that Debra might not appreciate me showing an unknown trucker where we lived.

He probably risked some hefty traffic fines by taking that truck onto residential streets, but he did indeed deposit me at my front door -- with not a threatening word or glance, not a moment of rebuke. All I told him was that my boyfriend must have developed car trouble -- leaving him to figure why I would be waiting for my boyfriend up on a deserted ridge in the middle of the night, sporting a coat that was a winter joke.

Fred shook his head. "You were lucky. And you were stupid! And..."

Without a hitch, I began my second "Bob" tale.

Fast forward. I had resumed the life that was expected of me, but at a furious pace. I was completing three years of coursework in two, working full time -- and I was doing it with panache, success.

I am in control. I am cruising.

One night, as I was getting ready for bed when the phone rang.

"Hey, Future Educator! How are you doing, girl?" called out a friendly male voice that was *very* familiar.

"Fine. Really well. Thanks for asking! Who is this?" I asked.

"It's Bob!"

One of my brothers is named Bob. I had a classmate name o' Bob. This Bob was clearly not, however, either of them.

It hit me like a bolt of lightening! "Bob B? Is that you? I didn't think we would ever talk to each other again, after that stint you pulled out on the parkway. You never did apologize, you know..."

Bob and I talked for over two hours -- telling war stories of what it had been like to work with the Laminated and the Gorked, hashing out what happened between us -- he had been under so much work-related and personal stress of which I had been *totally* unaware.

The next night, another marathon phone session. This time, though, he said he'd be heading my way the following day, for a nursing conference taking place at my university. Would it be all right if he stopped by?

"Stop by? Why not stay here and save the motel/hotel money?"

I gave him directions to my apartment. He was to arrive around 7 pm.

After classes, I rushed home to straighten up the place, then back out to do some shopping (flowers, coffee, tea -- and dairy). Back by 6, I smoked a couple of cigarettes, thumbed through some books. By 8, I was discouraged, and hungry enough that I went ahead and cooked the dinner I had planned. A cheese soufflé, my show-off standard.

The phone rang around 10.

"I can't do this to you. I have to tell you the truth. First, don't worry. I am not in your town, and I won't ever show up. I do this for kicks."

"Do what for kicks? What are you talking about. Look... I am over what happened that night. It was a life lesson..."

"Call people up at random, long distance. Tell them my name is Bob. Talk for hours. Learn all there is to know about them... You see, everybody knows a Bob."

And so it was that I won the storytelling competition, winning by an incredible margin over the tired "night I wrecked my motorcycle," and the old "pendant ma jeunesse..." soliloquy.

Best of all, when we pulled into a gas station to refuel, use the restrooms, and acquire sundries, I successfully trumped the Castafiore and Fred, both, by calling Shotgun and regaining my rightful place in the world.

Do I know how lucky I am?

You betcha!

[Download The Decameron, as ebook, for free at the Gutenberg Project.]

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