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Shadows draped across the sparse room as Fabian Cornish blended a tonic
of bin Laden on a lustrous sheet of aluminum foil. He reclined on the
cadaver of a recliner chair that was pure Archie Bunker and sipped a cup
of Mexican cocoa. The mug he utilized each afternoon to sip his hot
chocolate was stolen from a Waffle House on a drunken road trip across
the South when he was younger.
Kitsch was an aesthetic that Cornish wore as a badge of honor. Neighbors commended him for the ceramic stag in his weed-studded yard. His Elvis tapestry was the centerpiece of the living room. The Waffle House mug was not kitsch, however, because it held symbolic value for him. It was the grail cup that he used to dispense water to a deer. It had hit going around a blind curve east of Athens. The mortally wounded buck snorted steam out of this distended nostrils and he comforted it as the warmth waned from its wounded body.
He dotted off for a moment and the narcotizing toxins motivated his mind to explore the texture of this popcorn ceiling and his face absently turned up to view the Diego Rivera print that was a morose depiction of a wedding party with a skull-topped bride. Death permeated every aspect of Cornish’s life.
As an obituary writer for The Daily Tolstoy, he summarized the lives of plumbers and secretaries from the town who passed to the other side and left grieving or grateful family to note the end of a journey. He knew that his own death would someday be marked by a four column-inch piece in the paper, likely written by the managing editor who hated his guts and his passing neither grieved nor welcomed by his adopted town.
That did not bother Cornish. He wanted to experience life’s pleasures to their fullest and was not particularly concerned with leaving behind a beautiful corpse or a pack of weeping mourners. He had severed all ties to his past and loneliness was an acceptable byproduct of his current life.
While he generally threw caution to the wind, Cornish had learned the hard way that following your passions could sometimes prove painful. His face pressed into the cotton throw pillow he had draped over his shoulders and he recalled a time many years earlier when he had discovered that it was not advisable to sleep with one’s editor as a way to get the good assignments at a middling town’s daily newspaper city desk. That incident was ten years earlier but it felt like yesterday.
It was particularly awkward when the Executive Editor entered the City Desk Editor’s office to find her sprawled out on her desk with the hairy butt of a cub reporter bouncing away with abandon as she was about to orgasm. The cocaine compacted onto her exposed breast in symmetrical lines did not help assuage the old man’s annoyance. Like any gentleman, Cornish had attempted to remove the offending evidence from his boss’ body by snorting the cocaine off her breast.
After that incident, he washed up near Tolstoy on Artillery Beach like a bloated fishing float. He drove his car into town and surveyed the miserable demeanor of the residents. There were people as desolate as he was. My God, he thought, this place was full of people who could use a sense of humor. There was a counter-culture feel that was a direct descendant of The Summer of Love. The residents of Artillery Beach were embittered by hopes shot down in a hail of bullets, drug busts and minds frayed by THC. Instead of fighting a rear guard action to protect their beliefs or committing suicide in an act of existential resistance, these folks drove their Volkswagen vans and Volvo sedans down the centerline of Highway 101 to the detached escapism of the artist community and waited like post-spawning salmon to die.
The tie-died shirts and organic Swiss chard salads were a daily reminder of their lost utopia. Behind blood-shot eyes and diminished serotonin levels, they self-medicated themselves into fleeting manic states with cocaine and serial sexual encounters that ensured that any communicable disease on the pubes of a resident became a community-wide health issue. His arrival did not go unnoticed. He was a new piece of mutton. A bevy of bohemian women in peasant dresses and beret wearing beat poets with hard-ons circled like sharks in chum. It did not imply that he was unique in any way. He was simply a new diversion.
Their delusional nod to progressivism by inference to earth tone clothes and organic food gave them a feeling of righteous superiority over the suburban summer crowd. The accoutrements were just as plainly a jester’s outfit as Cornish’s mask of humorous relief.
He needed to find a place to live without a traceable address. He still was not sure whether some bloodhound lawyer had process servers on his trail after that workplace incident. The Morganthau’s home in the lush Tolovana woods was perfect. They were spending a few months in Thailand and needed a responsible person to house sit. They had a fine collection of jazz albums and books. This was just what you needed for a cozy winter away from the hassle of button-down executive editors and deadlines.
Cornish was destitute and it was necessary to find some short-term employment. Print journalists were not generally known for having large paychecks and unemployed journalists are really one-step above released convicts. He was eager to find a job that required a minimum of hassle so he could really get to know the locals and immerse himself in the cultural life of the town. Maybe there was a feature story just waiting to be discovered.
As luck would have it, he landed a job stocking shelves at a local grocery store. He worked the produce section with his pal Bertrand from college. While coring iceberg heads and spritzing the spinach, they narrowed down the topics of discussion to a shared penchant for women, Bush-bashing and American movies. When the manager was out of the store, they snuck next door to chat with the attractive young women at the candy shop.
Bertrand was better with the women than Cornish. Just the previous evening, they were getting drunk while watching some French movies when Bertrand noticed that the virginal checkout clerk kept circling the block every five minutes in a peculiar attempt to attract his attention. He finally motioned for her to pull into the driveway. He watched a couple of sad-eyed French lovers smoke cigarettes on the screen while the lovebirds made out on the sofa.
Cornish preferred to keep his liaisons a bit more private. After the movies ended, he snuck over to Mrs. Feist’s house. Her husband was out of town on business. She said there was an understanding between the two of them. Who was he to argue with such logic? He returned to the house in Tolovana around 2 a.m. with a lone squad car following him most of the way to ensure he did not run over someone’s mailbox.
He spent the next morning stocking shelves by reviving the produce and discussing gossip and politics with the regulars. Mason stopped by to talk about the concert tickets he had purchased for a show at The Severed Ear in Portland. They discussed his time in Afghanistan as a kid when his father was in the Foreign Service.
Melissa stopped by to discuss her surfer boyfriend’s interest in her ass. “Why does he always want to stick his dick in my ass?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” he responded. “I think guys just like butts because it’s forbidden.”
“I don’t mind him sticking his finger up my ass but it seems he’s not even interested in my vagina anymore,” she lamented.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” he offered.
“Anytime,” she smiled as she shuffled off to the bakery.
The weather was blustery and cold and he was not looking forward to the two-mile walk back to the cabin. He planned to rack up a couple of jazz albums from the Morganthau’s collection and spend the evening getting drunk followed by an attempt to practice some yoga asanas. He was not a purist.
After a lunch of prosciutto and provolone, he smoked a Lucky Strike in the backroom while discussing the absurdity of America’s foreign policy in Latin America with Bertrand. Sharon interrupted their discussion. The assistant manager, who flailed her free arm and barked into the phone cupped on her shoulder. Her glamour rock hair appeared to move as a single piece in disagreement with her facial twitches as she urgently pleaded into the receiver.
At first, he thought she was having an argument with her boyfriend about his prodigious use of cocaine, which had single-handedly created a shortage in the spot market. He deliberated the possibility that she was actually a cross-dressing enforcer for the Corsican mob when she looked over at their giggling and gave them a look that cleared the smiles from their faces. Mitigating against your cocaine theory was the incompatibility of her reference to earthquakes, tsunamis and body bags. With lover’s spats, such words are rarely used to discuss tarnished nasal passages and drug-induced diarrhea.
My God, he thought, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation must have blown its load. He visualized radioactive salmon spawning pink roe goblins and speed-freak motorcycle gangs shooting it out with New Age commandos for control of the last cans of French-cut green beans and blocks of surplus government cheese.
He was ready to run for cover when he heard that an earthquake of colossal scale had rocked the southern part of Alaska, setting into motion a tidal wave down the Pacific coast that was headed right for the unprotected beaches of Oregon.
He knew that, in 1964, an earthquake in Southeast Alaska had birthed a tidal wave that walloped down on the sleepy beach town like a tornado or a hurricane or something. It demolished the only bridge into town and left the town under several feet of water for days. In the ensuing months, the highway was routed away from the town and local businesses were forced to kick in for a massive public relations campaign to save the local economy. According to Sharon, this one threatened to be even more massive and destructive.
In the next hour, tense customers made a run on canned goods, batteries and soft-core porn magazines. Each new customer added to the story. By the time he closed up shop, he was led to believe an island off the coast of southern Alaska had burst apart in such cataclysmic intensity as to make Krakatoa look like a day at the fun fair.
Bertrand recommended that they regroup next door to spend their last hours in furtive groping with the women at the candy store. He suggested that the four of them find a way to cover the event for the embryonic local newspaper he had conjured up during backroom discussions. He enthusiastically agreed. Laura and Margaret were game. Comprehensive coverage of the town’s destruction would make a brilliant step forward in their effort to revitalize the town.
He purchased several rolls of film and a few six-packs of beer. Local police and firefighters had started evacuation procedures and most residents seemed to be leaving in a barely contained panic. At the same time, there was a festive undertone, as if the circus was in town or some Joe had just been arrested for taking a hacksaw to his neighbors. Watching an uninhabited town disappear in a wall of churning brown water did not invoke the same distaste to his palate.
Shopkeepers were packing their wares in to car trunks and up into rafters. People with beachfront houses were boarding up windows with whatever they could find at the last minute, including plywood and floral vinyl tablecloths. It was difficult for him to imagine the force of a couple billion gallons of raging seawater turned back because a floral tabletop covering was stapled to a window, but he guessed people wanted to feel like they were doing something productive.
He would have been right there with them but had the more culturally important task of documenting a historical event. A large Coast Guard helicopter hovered over the city for a few minutes and then headed north as he headed to the Chum Tavern for a pint to steady his nerves.
He flashed photos of sullen knick-knack purveyors, who were hoofing their way to the mountains overlooking the town. There, he assumed they would enjoy an alfresco dinner and chilled Chardonnay as their livelihoods washed into the city’s sewage. At the Chum, the tone was less somber.
Outside, a white Buick van with a logo for the Portland network affiliate pulled up. A waif of a reporter ordered the obese and walrus-mustached camera operator to get a wide shot of the downtown area while she prepared herself to interview the evacuees. She had a tough-as-nails attitude and a gaunt look that came from ephedrine cocktails and bulimia barfing rites that were ordered up by the station management.
While Bertrand, Margaret and Laura remained in the background pounding cans of Blitz-Weinhard Beer, Cornish moved in for a closer look. Caught off guard, the walrus pointed the camera at him and began to roll. He looked the part of a sympathetic tourist, albeit a speed-freak one, with a Hawaiian shirt, glazed look in his eyes and a reflexive habit of snapping photos at anything that moved.
My god, he thought, the town is about to disappear off the face of the earth and the amateurs cannot find anything more interesting to shoot than a rambling, drunken local with a camera. He made a mental note to draft a polite letter to the reporter, asking her to reassess her choice of careers.
“Hello there,” the cameraman shouted, even though he stood only two feet from Cornish’s face, with the camera threatening to enter one of his body cavities.
“How do you feel about this evacuation?” the reporter piped in.
“The authorities seem to be acting in an appropriate manner. I haven’t seen this kind of discipline since I was embedded with a Syrian death squad on patrol.”
“You’re a journalist?”
“All very hush, hush. After my incarceration in Lompoc, I’ve received fewer assignments from the mainstream press. Unfortunately, our rigid, rule-based society chose to view some of my habits as distasteful and illegal. At least the judge felt that way. But in my heyday, you’d find me in all of the world’s trouble spots.”
“You’re familiar with Beirut?”
“Yes, I’ve heard of Beirut.”
“Well, when our boy got kidnapped by one of the militias and carted off to Tehran for interrogation, I was the only pony in town. I had CIA and special ops people calling on me for months. I suspect that one issue was the fact that I was the only Westerner crazy enough to stay in the city after the shit hit the…”
“Thank you, sir. What’s your name by the way?”
“Nathaniel Hawthorne. Not the original one, of course. Haha. Actually, it is Cornish. Fabian Cornish. As I was saying, the Lebanese never bothered me. I simply walked around as if I owned the place and they left a wide berth. When things got dicey, I would just put on my Afghan pakol and start chanting songs, pornographic ones, in the Chitrali dialect. You’d be surprised how few militiamen will challenge you when you’re caressing yourself on a public street.”
“I think we need to get going,” the reporter eyed her camera operator. “How old are you anyway?”
“Twenty-three. God, I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes. By the way, I don’t think I have to add that this is all background. Nothing for attribution, of course. But I can tell you are professionals. Never can tell about the new kids on the block, as it were.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hawthorne, I mean Cornish. We’d really do need to get going,” she said as they shut down the camera and ran for the main road, where a fire truck was blaring the evacuation orders.
“Bye. It is so nice to chat with my brothers and sisters in the news business.”
For a few moments, he chased after his reporter friends, shooting his camera as Bertrand and the girls followed in disarray. He huffed after them for a block or so, but the surprisingly fast walrus and skeleton girl outpaced him and prevented him from getting the right shot. As they continued onto the main road, an idea was coalescing in his mind for a photo documentary of journalists in the pursuit of journalism. Finally, however, they outran him. He would have to seek out other angle. It was around this time that he realized that his friends had drunkenly failed to keep pace. He continued without them.
A group of city police officers and state troopers gathered by the gas station and appeared to be coordinating how to undertake the evacuations. He walked up to one of the officers and attempted to strike up a conversation. He smiled and indicated that the authorities still were not sure whether a wave was approaching or not. Then, he asked him whether he was with the Associated Press or the Oregonian. He did not have the time to explain to the cop the nuances of serious journalism and doubted that he would be amenable to Cornish’s startup idea. He worked the sports angle instead.
Cornish told him that he was the special correspondent for Surfer magazine and was reporting on a gaggle of Albanian surfers who were allegedly planning to ride the big wave past City Hall. He explained that he hoped some kind of counter-espionage campaign be undertaken to prevent the communistic surfer dudes from stealing government secrets from City Hall while the officers were out saving lives. He offered to infiltrate the group. His Albanian language skills were a bit rusty but he felt that you could befriend the Illyrian interlopers and drop some LSD into their beers before they attempted to get any important information from the city vaults. The officer declined his offer.
He got less than two blocks before the local fire truck pulled up behind him and gave a thunderous blast from its air horn. A firefighter ordered him to leave town immediately because the tidal wave was on its way. A couple of blocks further, the truck returned, and the firefighter screamed.
“Get the hell out now,” she said. “I’m talking to you buddy. This is your last warning.”
He gave his best Hessian salute and headed towards Tolovana at a moderate cadence. He slipped into the south end of town and past the Sea Urchin, which was on high ground. From the information he had gathered, the south end would be able to make it through just about anything except the extreme Irwin Allen phantasmagoric disaster. He scrambled through the residential district to reach the well-maintained beachfront houses. A high concrete embankment stood between him and the surf. He pulled out a six-pack and drank the beers as he waited for all hell to break loose.
As he pondered his next move, Bertrand and Laura walked up and sat quietly next to him on the boardwalk.
“Margaret got tired and decided to go home and sleep,” Bertrand said.
“My God, what is she going to do when the wave hits town?”
“Dude, the cops said they are going to call off the evacuation. I guess they determined that the wave is not going to hit town.”
“Don’t worry,” Laura said and sat down clumsily beside him. “I’m proud of you for getting us all organized. Besides, you don’t need a tidal wave to start a newspaper.”
“Well, I guess you’re right.”
She leaned over and started kissing him. After sitting in silence for several minutes, they walked down the steps to the beach. As they strolled along the darkened beach, he thought that he detected that the waves were slightly rougher than normal. He saw the lights on at the Sea Urchin and walked in for a drink. Some of the local boys were playing Dylan renditions with their guitars, banjos and drums. They sat down and talked with the drunk and happy patrons who never left the bar.