by David Bottoms
The stirrings of early morning life shook Tracy from sleep, but he tucked his head again into the folds of his army jacket, made soft with the liner zipped inside, and tried for a few more winks. He re-entered his dream of only a moment previous, in which he sat in a car, lotus-
fashion, and waited to begin a trip northward into a frozen expanse of solitude and awe, with warmth beneath the icy armor of its ground. The dream was tinted by turns until it vanished. He blinked his eyes open, felt into his trouser pocket for his cigarettes, and watched an acquaintance, Lud, pull on a pair of scuffed brown workboots.
“Where you heading?” asked Tracy though a yawn, scanning the assortment of tables in the room for matches.
“To the pickup area near Philmont. Supposed to be some cement work out near Bakersfield.” Lud found a box of matches and tossed it toward Tracy.
“You feel like it today?” asked Tracy. “Working?”
“Yeah, why not. These people are okay. I might be able to get on with ‘em,” Lud said. “Although I got to show up more’n I have been.” He pulled his belt on and asked “How about you?”
Tracy sat up slowly, looking around again, and found an ashtray under the bed adjacent his own.
“Well,” he said, “I heard something from a fella yesterday about a place where you can go—“ and here he paused, unsure of how to continue. “Where you can sell your body, so that when you die it can be used for research, things like that.” Lud thought this over, and rising to leave gave Tracy a smile. “Why not?” he returned. “I mean, it ain’t gonna do you any good anymore, is it?”
“No,” Tracy said, shaking his head. “Well, take care out there.”
“You too,” said Lud, and headed downstairs toward the street.
As soon as Tracy passed the radiators in the shelter’s foyer the cold hit him. He buttoned his coat to the top of his neck, covered his ears with a stocking cap and emerged onto the street,
hands tucked deeply into the coat's side pockets.
The offices were uptown, according to the piece of paper in his pocket. He climbed aboard a bus, sat down, and relaxed his tensed neck and shoulders in the warmth. He stared through the dirty window, swaying in his seat as the bus plied the narrow street and he thought.
Shouldn’t there be some feeling inside of him, any feeling? Something more than a strange detachment in the face of what he was preparing to do? Tracy tried to summon discomfort, guilt or unease: tried to produce outrage that he should have to do this—that he couldn’t be properly interred or even cremated. Yet those things cost money, something which Tracy only saw intermittently any more, and in modest amounts. Besides, he thought as the bus entered the uptown area’s determined bustle, what did it really matter? Lud was right.
He pulled the cord for Jessup, from which he could walk over the mouth of Ruiz. No need to give the thing too much thought. It wouldn't be that big a deal. He walked up Jessup, neck again tensed in the cold, in the lanky stride of his father who'd had the same black hair, blue eyes and underlying steady nature, even after facing a murderous wall of Japanese resistance on Peleliu.
His father. Tracy came along shortly after his dad’s return to the states, followed by a sister a year later. His father's leaving must have nudged something inside his mother, as she too departed within months. The two children were left with an aunt, with nothing for amusement except the thin attractions of the nearest town, itself 20 miles away. At least Tracy came by his wanderlust honestly, and he was gone by sixteen.
The building was a functional grey and red oblong box, and on its front doors were the words California State Office for Resource Development. The woman at the reception desk was cordial,
and directed Tracy to an office midway down the building's central hallway. He entered and prepared to sit but was waved into the office of a pleasantly smiling man with silver bifocals and an extremely well-worn houndstooth jacket.
“Good morning,” said the man, indicating a chair opposite his own. “I'm Terence Polk.”
“Tracy Bridwell,” Tracy replied.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Bridwell. Coffee?” Polk rose to the coffeemaker on his credenza and began its preparation.
“Please, thank you. Black.”
“How can we help you today, Tracy?” Terence asked, sitting down again.
“I was told that your department pays for a person's body, to use after they die,” said Tracy. “Is that the case?”
“Yes, Tracy,” said Terence. “This enables city and county hospitals to make use of organs that are healthy, yet not donated outright, and of course medical schools find the body of use as well. Truth be told, it’s a very beneficial thing for the recipients involved.” As if sensing Tracy’s reservations, he added “There is a certain…nobility in the act of giving one's own body. Yes, it is financially compensated but still…there is the fact that earthly remains offer a tangible good, a good that can help others.”
Tracy hadn't thought of that aspect of it. Terence turned to pour the coffee, and Tracy decided to go with the idea. He accepted the coffee, took a sip from the thin styrofoam cup and asked after the fee.
“We have a fee of $45, payable on the day of the decision,” said Terence. “Would you like to
The physical was pretty straightforward. An hour later he found a check-cashing window and was heavier by the weight of three crisp, folded bills.
There was a place around the area with great steaks. Tracy doubted it still existed, but took the bus back downtown anyway and got off in older, vestigial vein of the financial district. He wasn’t disappointed. The little place still stood, and (a fresh, glaring coat of paint aside) would hopefully yield up a good steak.
He pushed the door open, adjusting his eyes to the dimness, and seated himself. He was apparently the first lunch customer.
“Yessir?” said a girl who appeared at the table with a water pitcher. She poured Tracy a glass. He drank, crunching a small ice cube for a moment.
“Can I have a ribeye, medium?” He thought, looking into his glass. “Boiled potatoes. Green beans. You have any cake?”
“We sure do. Chocolate or carrot cake?”
“Chocolate, please, when I'm done, and lemme get some tea.”
‘Yessir.” The girl vanished again into the kitchen. Tracy lit a cigarette. It was shaping up into a decent day, better than many. Later he’d shower. He felt clean, or reasonably so. No smell from jeans gone too many days without washing, no acrid tang from the underarms. Maybe just a slight flicker from the oil under two days’ beard growth. All in all his earthly shell (the bargaining chip that was flying apart at the cellular level with every second) was standing him in
good stead at the moment.
His coat off, he ran a hand over his belly, feeling out the curves of his abdomen. In younger days it had softened and firmed in time with the degrees of his eating and drinking, and the physical demands of his job of the moment. It was taut, now, however. Food sufficient for gluttony was seldom forthcoming.
His arms were likewise lean, and perennially reddened regardless of the season. He flexed first his forearms, then biceps, and watched the knotty sinew roll back and forth. His hands were wrinkled atop, stubbornly creviced by dirt below, and the skin stretched across the knuckles. Had they lost their vitality, and if so, when?
The steak arrived, and Tracy enjoyed it so much that he tipped the waitress two dollars from his change. Outside, the sun had cracked the tops of the skyline and brought the temperature up. He unfastened his coat halfway, yet kept the hat cocked back on his head against gusts.
The food sat inside him perfectly, not heavy, not leaving him wanting more, but in a wonderful balance. How much did the average person eat in a lifetime? Food taken in, churned, swallowed, excreted, endlessly—for a lifetime. Food the catalyst for the body's actions, reactions, healing, movement forward…
Tracy visited The Lucky Spot not just because it was a well-stocked thrift store, but because he always found at least one item of genuine interest. On various visits he’d found a lighter that had once belonged to a Las Vegas firefighter, a pocketknife with intricately carved Asian figures, a pair of blue Vuarnet ski glasses, and so forth.
Spring was approaching and he wanted some lighter shirts. The store fixed him up nicely, and he emerged from the depths of its aisles with an armload of shirts. From a glass case in the front
he added a deck of playing cards. The nicest find, he reflected, was on the top of his pile. It was a black t-shirt, in decent shape, which depicted a gleaming motorcycle and bore the legend:
RIDE TO LIVE LIVE TO RIDE
How alive he’d been, a teen-ager when the term was newly coined, an upright young man with a sort of quietness that was belied by an easy enthusiasm and an astonishing store of energy. Nothing was lying in wait, certainly nothing so pregnant as “the possibilities of youth,” so when he conspired with Stevie for the trip upstate the whole thing had an air of simplicity, of the obvious.
Tracy had found for himself a ‘58 Norton, while Stevie tracked down an old German Zundapp, complete with sidecar. That the two had never made such a trip didn’t stand in the way. There had to be a first time for everything. It was a moment that would never be possible again, not the grandeur of early autumn, the sun lighting their way until late evening, the cleanness of the air, the feeling of the whole enterprise. How else could the trip go?
Tracy’s nature enabled him, even at that heightened and thrilled age, to exist perfectly in the moment, perfectly on the edge of a passing second, so as to almost freeze it in his focus. The two had bought a sack of doughnuts and two quarts of milk, sat in the shade of a Sacramento filling
station, and eaten with studied deliberation.
“How far to the state line?” asked Stevie.
“I'm not sure. About 250 miles, maybe more,” answered Tracy, chewing sugar out from under
a fingernail. “Probably hit it in time for the weekend.” Stevie slowed his chewing, nearly sated and a little sleepy.
“Is Oregon pretty?” he asked.
“It can be beautiful. It's just been a while,” said Tracy. “I need to see it again myself. And I've heard that Portland's got some great little places.” Stevie nodded and sat down on the ground next to the wall. “Let's get a nap,” he said, and soon the two were dozing.
They awoke at nightfall, struck out again, and their ears soon rang with the roar of the engines. The world lay ahead in the darkness, and thankfully was taking its time about unfolding.
Seven shirts and a deck of cards for ten bucks. Not a bad haul.
Tracy could only stomach street musicians with talent. Fortunately, most of them had been given some. A guitarist in a doorway caught his attention, and he stopped for a minute. He didn’t recognize the man but then hey, this wasn't really his area. The player was good, very good as a matter of fact, and so Tracy burrowed into his pockets. The right one held the twenty, the left a dollar and change. This small sum he placed in the man’s guitar case, but closer inspection revealed no man, but rather a boy about 19.
“Thanks, brother!” said the young man.
You look like I feel, thought Tracy.
He opened the door of the liquor store with expectation. Tracy didn’t drink much anymore, and when he did he tried to hold out for a decent choice. This evening would be no different. He
headed for the bourbons, arranged neatly in a caramel-colored rank and file.
Twenty bucks. He looked over the cheaper end of the offerings, then examined the stuff marketed specifically to the upscale crowd, before settling on a bottle from a little Kentucky outfit he’d heard about.
Twenty bucks and three cents? The clerk said he’d spot Tracy the change. How was business? Not bad. Had the conventions that summer helped? Sure. Business okay? Yeah, why not, but too much small talk stands out in a liquor store.
Get your bottle. And then don’t camp out.
Tracy had sneaked Stevie a little bottle of schnapps into the hospital once. Only a
half-pint. He saw no harm in the act, because Stevie was dying. He marked the passage of time based on when he and Stevie got together. Sometimes it would be months, sometimes years, but wherever the two went, to whichever distant and disparate points, they managed to reunite ever so often to catch up. Stevie began his working career as a laborer yet obtained grants to attend college and was soon an engineer. Tracy seemed to stay at the initial level of anything he dipped into, because a roughneck (or tugboat crewman, or bricklayer) saw things, and moved around and had little constraint. In so doing he also had little security, but then life wasn’t always about
things being secure.
Stevie looked tired in the bed. Not small, not withered, just tired. He was glad for the company, and his family accepted Tracy’s presence for the comfort it offered their father, brother and uncle. He felt at ease when he realized Tracy, who was between jobs, could stay with him. There was a degree of comfort and familiarity as a result, and the two passed the days watching
television, rehashing memories and working crossword puzzles.
“Stevie, are you mad about this?” Tracy asked one day. It wasn’t out of line. Tracy wanted to know. His friend wouldn't see the tail end of middle age, and it was as if a mistake had been made somewhere.
He answered, almost immediately, “No. It seems like I should be, but no." He took a sip of orange juice. “There's no way to really explain this, but I’ve come to realize that I got a lot from life. A lot. So am I mad? No. Mad for my family, for their sake? Well, yes.”
The answer satisfied Tracy, who kept it in his mind as he watched Stevie, under his sobbing wife, slip away. Just like that. Tracy closed his eyes and locked away the image of his friend’s hands: gesturing in explanation, opening and closing in excitement, pointing, clenched, knuckles barked from the unexpected give of a wrench, and glistening at the fingertips from a surfeit of donut glaze.
The night was bitterly cold, and Tracy was angered at having walked several blocks in an ever-tightening circle before finally finding the squat and banging on the door. After several
moments Kate appeared and threw back the deadbolt, pulling him in by his chilled, damp jacket.
“Trace—“ she said. “Did you find it okay?”
“Yeah, not bad,” he shivered, “but God is it cold.”
She led him into a cavernous living room where a handful of people reclined on pillow-strewn mattresses. He recognized a few faces and nodded in welcome.
The group’s impromptu lodgings sat at the end of a cul-de-sac in an abandoned condominium development. For all the group knew (or cared) the gaudy buildings were empty, would never be
occupied, and thus were fair game. The units had absurdly high vaulted ceilings overlooking their cavernous mute spaces and shoddy staircases, which needed only to be coated with dull, lifeless carpet to be complete. None of this mattered, however, as it was all trumped by the warming glow of the fireplace. Tracy sat down on the edge of a mattress next to Kate. Poker-faced, he removed his coat and revealed the paper bag, source of his mysterious crackling.
“A little dutch courage?” he asked, breaking the bottle’s seal.
He began pouring the liquid into plastic cups and passing it around, then noticed someone coming into the kitchen door, shoulders curled into a tight concave that bumped the door closed again.
“Lud!” said Tracy. “Good to see you, man! Like a drink?”
“Thanks. Just tryin’ to do a little business. I don’t suggest taking out anything out there that you don't want to lose!”
The group laughed, and felt the dark liquid brush their throats and loosen their brows.
“By the way,” said Tracy, still chuckling, “I meant to ask you—where does ‘Lud’ come from?”
Lud cocked his head and sucked his teeth for a moment. “Short for ‘Ludovic.’ I don't know why it got shortened.” Tracy's eyes followed Lud as the latter hunkered down near the fire.
“’Ludovic’—that’s a fantastic name. Why don't you go by that?”
“Dunno,” said the man. “It is a nice name, though. I dunno.”
“You get over to Bakersfield?” asked Tracy.
“Oh, yeah. It wasn't too bad, not bad at all. His company’s doing good…he fed us dinner.”
“Good man,” said one of the party, a fellow with beautifully kept, ginger-red mutton chops.
“Look,” said Tracy. “I got a new pack of cards,” at which the red-haired man's girlfriend
perked up, roused the couple lolling next to her and began to assemble a game of rummy. Kate drew Tracy into a bedroom down the hall from the others, where she had a candle, sleeping bag and rucksack. The sleeping bag moved in the dim light, causing Tracy to jump backward and bang an elbow against the wall. She laughed, then he laughed, as a large cat sulked away to find a more suitable bed. They fell upon the bed, whereupon she scooped him up into her arms for a proper hug.
“How have you been, Trace? Have you been alright?” He relaxed into her arms, slowly taking in her embrace and voice, and answered that he wasn't doing too bad.
“I haven't seen you in a while, and I’ve wondered,” she said. “I'm glad you made it over.”
“So am I, Katie,” he answered, feeling the beginnings of a stirring that she always produced in him.
Kate felt it as well, but to act on the stirring would be to break the embrace, to clamber out of their clothing, to amplify the chill of the room. Better to hold the moment, then slowly open the
heart to release it again. It was decided.
“Hey, you know what?” he asked her slyly.
“What, Mr. Tracy?”
“Today’s my birthday.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Happy birthday!”
“Got myself some nice shirts,” he told her. “And had steak for lunch.” She hugged him closer, happily.
“And then you tracked me down. Tracy, that's a present for me.”
“Thank you, Katie,” he said, taking a swig from his cup. “Should we rejoin the get-together?”
he asked after a moment.
“That'd be great, Trace,” she said. They walked back toward the candles and laughter.
By midnight, the bottle was empty.