Hope Idiotic | Part IV
Hope Idiotic is a serialized novel. Catch each new part every week on Monday and Thursday.
YEARS OF OVEREATING AND NOT EXERCISING had finally taken their toll on Chuck’s mom. She collapsed from a heart attack in her Indiana home — the same small, rundown place where Chuck was raised. She was recovering at the nearest hospital a few towns away. It was a massive attack requiring surgery to add stents and to repair the lining of her heart’s wall. She also had a deadly case of type-2 diabetes. Her body was crumbling. She was in a fragile state, and death seemed imminent.
“That’s not something I’m ready for,” Chuck said to Lou at Bella’s the night before Lou left town. “I’m flying out there in a few days, which means Lexi has to pretty much move in to your place all by herself. I can’t even help pay for a mover because every cent is going to go to Mom’s medical bills.”
Chuck’s family never had much money. His father Cal flew bombing missions in Vietnam. When he retired from the service, he used his military skills to become a terrible businessman. His mother Barbara never worked a day in her life but watched a lot of daytime television. His other brother Darryl was the town simpleton. The reason — although no one knew it or even considered it to be the reason for his social and learning disabilities — was that he was autistic and had Asperger’s, both of which went untreated for 26 years. Healthcare wasn’t of any importance in the Keller home. So it required no second thought when Chuck’s parents sold off their health and life insurance when Chuck was 14 to pay the bills and take the only vacation the family ever took together. To Disneyworld of all places. The lack of insurance was a recent discovery for Chuck. And it finally explained why his family could suddenly afford the trip back then.
“Why can’t we just have socialized medicine?” Chuck said.
“That’s not very libertarian of you,” replied Lou. “Don’t put that in the magazine.”
“I just don’t know what to do.”
“How much stuff are you guys moving? Because I have everything you need. You’re getting a furnished home. Throw your crap in storage. Keep things simple.”
Lou was leaving Las Vegas, not unlike how the Hebrew slaves left Egypt; with little preparation, a terrible sense of direction and absolutely no idea what the Promised Land would really be like. He’d packed his Volkswagen Golf with clothes, books, his collection of clippings and a box of photographs. The first-place trophy he was awarded by the university’s film department for the short film he made back in college also made the cut.
She had money; they could get an incredible place just on her salary alone. At least, that was one plan Lou considered. He’d pitch in as soon as he landed a gig.
He left everything else perfectly in place — a collection of a decade — clothes he didn’t wear anymore, his complete DVD and VHS collection, his two TVs, his large office desk, the foosball table, his pots, pans, skillets, flatware, bowls, cups, mugs, plates, towels, bed sheets, beds, bed frames, tools and the vacuum.
He saw no reason to pack up the entire house. He had no place to put it all. There was no Chicago apartment waiting for him to bring his leather couches or his desk and certainly not the foosball table. Just as well. Lou was downsizing his entire life. He was going from a house with an office and a guestroom with its own bathroom to, well, nothing. He didn’t even plan to bring his beloved wooden hangers.
No. All of those things could stay. He’d be back for them soon enough. Just as soon as the house sold. Certainly he’d have a job and a nice apartment by then — one with plenty of room for wooden hangers. Maybe he’d get a place with Michelle. She had money; they could get an incredible place just on her salary alone. At least, that was one plan Lou considered. He’d pitch in as soon as he landed a gig.
“I think you have nice stuff, but Lexi and I want to actually live there, not just house-sit or squat until your real estate agent kicks us out,” Chuck said.
“What the hell should I do with everything?”
“Why don’t you get a storage unit?”
“A storage unit? Chuck, I’m moving to Chicago in twelve hours. How am I going to pack up my house and store everything in less than twelve hours?”
“You can keep the furniture there. We’ll use it. We don’t have much in the way of furniture.”
“And the rest of it?”
“Why didn’t you think about this before? Why do I have to think of everything for everyone?”
Chuck was right. If Lou had been thinking of anything other than fleeing as swiftly as possible, he’d have done the right thing and boxed up the last ten years of his life and put it under lock and key in some climate-controlled storage facility off the freeway. Of course, he couldn’t bring it all with him. He was taking a two-week road trip through the Pacific Northwest before pointing the car toward Chicago. And one can’t navigate last-minute route changes with a U-Haul van or trailer full of wooden hangers and World Market end tables.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Lou said. “You’ve just had a world of shit land on your head, and the last thing you need is to figure out my problems. Do you mind if I keep the stuff in the garage?”
“That would take up half of the space, wouldn’t it?”
“Most likely, yeah.”
“Come on, man. What am I paying you the market rate in rent for your place if I can’t make use of the two-car garage? And through the summer, no less when a car needs its shade.”
“Meet me in the middle. Please.”
“I’m fucking with you. That’s fine.”
“All right, thank you. I should go. Need to finish packing up the house before I leave tomorrow.”
“Quit pouting. I’ll help.”
BY THE TIME THEY FINISHED MOVING all of Lou’s remaining worldly possessions, sans beds, couches, tables, desk and foosball table, into the garage, the sun was peeking over the Black Mountain Range. It was Lou’s favorite time of day. The early sun made the variegated sediment of the mountains glimmer in delicate shades of pink, purple and brown. And though he loved a beautiful sunset, a beautiful sunrise offered the hope of a great day with adventure and possibility. The day was new, nothing yet happened to spin things terribly out of control. And this particular sunrise provided copious amounts of hope for Lou, more than any other before. It also provided an equal amount of gut-wrenching fear.
Besides not having a place to live, he didn’t have a single job lead in Chicago. He’d certainly been looking and even dropped off his résumé to a few magazines and newspapers while visiting Michelle over the winter, but still, nothing was on the horizon but pretty colors. And pretty colors don’t pay. And while things were great in his personal life, that, too, was at risk. Since he left home, his parents had divorced and his younger brother became a drug-addled alcoholic with a phobia of success. And what of Michelle? What if they learned they were better as a couple seventeen-hundred miles apart? Instead of leaving Vegas as a legend and being welcomed to Chicago a hero like he’d always imagined, Lou was aborting a great life he loved. He well knew that in exchange for a fair amount of certainty there existed the terrible knowledge that troubled waters could lay ahead.
“I don’t want you to go,” Chuck said as the garage door opened up in preparation for take off. “But I understand why you have to.” The day’s first light snuck in on the hill of cardboard boxes that now contained Lou Bergman’s life, which the two friends spent all evening fitting into as tight a space as possible — like Tetris with memories. “You have to go after what you want: your career, your family, your girl. I envy what you’re able to do right now, and I want you to have it all, but I still don’t like to see you go.”
“I’m not so sure this is the right thing for me to do right now,” admitted Lou. Chuck put his arms around him and hugged him. Lou hugged back. They stood there like that with tears filling their eyes for several minutes before Chuck let go.
“Your first stop will be Carlsbad,” Chuck said. “Don’t look back until you get there. And even then, don’t look back.”
“Take care of your mom. Give your family all my best, and let me know if you need anything. If you need me I can drive down there and help out.”
“Will do. I love you, man. Drive fast, drive safe and avoid arrest.”
“I know the rules. I love you, too. Don’t fuck up my house, and don’t fuck things up with Lexi. Just don’t fuck anything up.”
AS LOU CROSSED THE CALIFORNIA STATE LINE, he thought about what Chuck was doing at that moment. “If he’s anything like me, which he is, he’s swimming naked in my pool.”
At the house, Chuck was floating on his back stark naked. I see why this was his favorite thing to do, Chuck thought. He closed his eyes and smiled, letting the already hot Las Vegas sun drench his body.
Before any road trip, the vehicle had to be gassed up and the tires inflated to maximum speeding pressure. All cargo had to be securely stored with careful consideration given to placing items within easy reach that the driver needed while in motion. These items included bottles of water, a thermos of coffee, cans of Red Bull, packages of beef jerky, Twizzlers, and CD booklets. Once everything was in order, takeoff could commence.
And at that specific spot where the on-ramp ends and the freeway begins is when the driver can set the trip odometer to zero, stomp the gas pedal into the floor and crank the car stereo as loud as it will go, blasting America’s “Ventura Highway.”
Those were the rules. The grocery supply is interchangeable, based on tastes and dietary restrictions, but “Ventura Highway” must be the first song played because it is the perfect song to begin any road trip. Make no mistake: it is not a song about the Ventura Freeway — that stretch of southern California road between Ventura and Pasadena — it is a song about a stretch of road that can be — and is — everywhere you’re driving, riding and hitchhiking. It is a song that is past, present and future. And it is a song with an insanely catchy guitar hook.
On Lou’s family road trips, there was an endless supply of candy and jerky. His father Benjamin was a neurotic about tracking the mileage, even using it to quiz his sons on math problems: “If we’re driving seventy-five miles per hour, and we have one-hundred-thirty-six miles to go, how long will it be until we get there?” Bergman family road trips were not quiet affairs. Freeway games like Padiddle and State Plates, where the first one to spot all fifty state license plates won, were highly competitive. The winner of the determined game would decide when and where the family ate, when it stopped for bathroom breaks or be given full car-stereo control.
While the battle over the radio could be any other family’s undoing, the Bergmans never disagreed on what to listen to. Most often, it was an oldies channel. This inspired other games like Name That Tune and Who Sings It. As Lou and Aaron got older, they grew tired of their parents beating them at the music games, so they studied the music of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. And eventually, the kids became formidable opponents, not only knowing the song title and artist, but also who wrote the song or what month and year it peaked on the charts. This music knowledge served Lou well when he went on to work as a disk jockey.
When games weren’t played, the Bergmans were singing. And they sang loudly. And they sang in tune. And they sang in harmony. Singing only stopped at night. If someone — usually one of the kids — nodded off during daylight hours, the singing was never sacrificed. “Sleep through it,” Benjamin told his sons. “You should be able to sleep through any noise so you can always catch a good rest.” Benjamin loved proving this point every time Lou’s mom, Sarah, would zonk out. He’d poke her in the cheek and flick her legs and arms with red licorice vines until she woke up. When he did this, Sarah always woke up grumpy.
There was a moment, when Lou was twelve years old, that he would never forget. The family was on a spring-break road trip to Washington, D.C., with a stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The family roadster at the time was the first of several white Plymouth minivans. On road trips, Benjamin removed the middle seat, which gave everyone more room and allowed the boys to lie on the floor of the van and doze off in sleeping bags rather than risk spine misalignment from sleeping with a head against a window.
It was very late — maybe very early. Lou woke up somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania. There was a bright, full moon shooting white light through the windshield and splashing it on his face. The radio was playing Barbara Mason’s “Yes, I’m Ready.” Lou hadn’t heard that song before, but he liked the way Mason’s voice was filled with such weighted anticipation to learn to love and be loved, to touch and be touched. It moved him. The moonlight made silhouettes of his parents’ faces as they so gently turned toward each other and sang the words to one another. Then, they turned their eyes back to the road and, like it was choreographed, his mom and dad reached out and held hands. With the minivan’s tires and shafts churning underneath him and his parents in the spotlight of love, Lou fell back to sleep. When he woke up later in the morning sunlight, his parents were clapping along and belting out the lyrics to “Cecelia.”
BENJAMIN AND SARAH WERE NOT AN INCREDIBLY AFFECTIONATE COUPLE IN PUBLIC. There were plenty of niceties, however. They kissed hello and goodbye, they obviously had had sex at least four times — once for each kid, once for the time Lou walked in on it and once for the time they were so loud, Lou and Aaron had to sleep in the basement with pillows over their heads just to muffle the sounds — and Benjamin sometimes came home from work with flowers. They hired babysitters and went on dates, but romance was not a top priority in the young Bergman home.
Benjamin and Sarah never yelled at each other or fought publicly or bad-mouthed the other to the kids, so Lou was never sure of the exact reason his mom moved out. Or why they finalized the divorce four years later, just two months before Lou moved back. Maybe they weren’t sure about getting divorced. After all, it’s so, well, final. Just like marriage. Lou liked the idea of an everlasting love — a relationship that triumphed over the evils of the world — but these relationships were so hard to come by. But they were there. He saw it with his grandparents Abe and Adina, and he saw it with Michelle’s parents Lynn and Barry. Lou told me he saw it with me and my wife Natalie. I hoped he was right. And he was hoping he would see it with him and Michelle. I hoped he would, too.
Good relationships have never been just about love. Love won’t hold water — much less hold two people together — if the relationship doesn’t function. Lou was certain his parents loved each other, but something in the marriage just didn’t function. Whatever that illusive aspect was, it was none of his business. That’s how he saw it. He had heard the adage that divorce was not the fault of the children. And by the time Benjamin and Sarah opted to split, Lou was old enough to know that he and Aaron had nothing to do with it. Their marriage, and whatever was wrong with it, was between the two people in it. So he never bothered to ask that ever-pressing question: What went wrong?
Since his parents split, visits felt strange to Lou without the other person there. When he went home, he had to book two dinners, two lunches, etc., so he could see both his mom and his dad in equal-quality time. He hoped living with divorce in close proximity would make it easier and that he’d just get used to the split.
LOU FELT A LITTLE LIKE THE BARBARA MASON SONG AS HE BEGAN HIS TRIP to Chicago and his new life. He was as ready as he would ever be — or so he kept telling himself and anyone else who asked. But was now the best time to move? Why didn’t he wait to land a job before moving? What was the rush? He knew it was Michelle. Since making the ultimate decision to leave the desert behind and be with her, she had been hitting him with every reason why he needed to be there sooner. She loved him, wanted to begin her life with him, and she was excited to see where his career would take them. An earlier arrival would mean a better job sooner, and so on. She made an incredible case for him to hurry because as a lawyer, making cases was her forte.
But because moving to Chicago meant kicking the next stage of his adult life into gear, he didn’t want to hurry home too fast. With no job waiting, he had no pending responsibility, so there was no reason in the world he couldn’t make his shift into real adulthood after a two-week adventure on the road. Being a seasoned road tripper, Lou was embarrassed to admit that he’d never properly done a tear through the northwestern states. He didn’t know when he’d have the freedom to go discovery driving out west again. Therefore, he had no trouble convincing himself that it was now or never.
So, he mapped out a loose plan. From Las Vegas, he’d head down to Carlsbad to spend a night with an old friend from Brushwood — the south suburban town where Lou grew up. Then it was up to Los Angeles for a day or two with his college roommate and fraternity brother, Eric. After L.A, he’d be on his own. No couches to sleep on, no longtime friends to catch up with. Just Lou, the Bergman family traditions and a game he made up called, Christian or Pop.
This was where the stereo scanned stations, and when a good song came up, he’d stop it. Then he’d have to guess whether it was Christian pop or not Christian pop. Out there in America, there’s a lot of Christian radio. And the music sounds a lot like secular radio. Most of it isn’t any worse than Nickelback, and there’s even some of it that’s quite good, so getting stuck with a song about Christ in your head isn’t the worst thing.
He’d move along the coastal Highway 1 to San Francisco, into Oregon and to Portland, over to Boise, Idaho, and on to Crater Lake; then take the state highways into Ketchum and pay homage to Earnest Hemingway’s final stop before blowing his brains out. Then he’d roll on through Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Madison and Milwaukee; Wisconsin and park the Volkswagen in Home Sweet Chicago.
THE TRIP STARTED OUT JUST FINE. “Ventura Highway” with the windows down — and it was only four hours before he was laughing heartily with his friend and his wife in Carlsbad. He met their new baby, and he drank a shot glass full of breast milk — it tasted like person, he decided. So far, so good.
But L.A. was different. Eric and Lou were inseparable best friends throughout college and for a few years afterward. But Eric married a money-hungry, label-obsessed, E! Network-addicted real estate agent named Johnna, who convinced him to move to L.A. because as she put it, “The Las Vegas housing market is as yesterday as Paris Hilton.”
It had broken Lou’s heart when Eric stopped coming around and eventually left town a little more than a year before Lou’s move, but what could he do? He had made every effort he keep the friendship alive. When it died, Lou quietly blamed its demise on Johnna. But the truth was that it was just as much Eric’s fault as it was hers. Lou was never one to take friendships lightly, thus taking their ends hard.
In spite of the still hurt feelings, it was nice to spend a couple of days hanging out again. The visit worked out perfectly because Johnna was away for a conference. The two old pals didn’t go sightseeing or run through the L.A. streets drunk and belligerent. Rather, they laid low and caught each other up with their lives. Eric seemed to be happy for Lou, even slightly jealous of the two weeks he had ahead of him. On the other hand, Lou felt sorry for Eric. He was a shell of the man he used to be. Johnna had whittled out the best of Eric’s personality, leaving behind a bored, domesticated husk. As nice as the visit was, Lou was happy to drive away from it.
In an effort to save money and time, Lou never stayed in hotels when driving on his own. When he grew tired, he’d pull into a rest stop or populated parking lot and throw his seat back or nap under a tree. Rest stop bathrooms were perfectly suitable for brushing his teeth and rinsing out his contact lenses. And not that he was looking for it, but he never once saw any homosexual trucker activity occur, as was so often assumed by those who likely never took to the road themselves.
Lou preferred to do his driving during the day. He hated missing scenery or the chance to swing into a town at any moment for a bite to eat and a taste of the locals at a Greasy Spoon. So he’d push himself and his car until as close to midnight as possible and pull off to sleep under the light in a hotel parking lot. This was a trick his father taught him. Rest stops were fine during the day, but rest stops don’t often have big lot lights. Sleeping under a light was an exercise in safety. Most vandals would avoid breaking into a car under light with a half-bearded, mostly unwashed person sleeping in the driver’s seat.
Michelle didn’t like this idea. She wasn’t a fan of the two-week road trip at all. She kept saying to him, “Just come home. You need to find a job. You don’t have enough money to drive all over the country.” Despite all of her pressuring and the little fights, disagreements and explanations, it was clear to her that Lou was bent on making the trip and that there was nothing she could do to change his mind. To compromise, she ordered him a book of America’s hostels so he’d have somewhere better to sleep than in his car. He thought it was sweet and promised her he’d use it.
The two weeks of solitude on the road was not just about visiting states and streets he hadn’t seen, but also about the preparation for what was to come. Similar to the way deep-sea divers or astronauts have to go through pressurization before beginning their mission to the beyond, Lou had to do the same. And as he drove along the edge of America on that coastal highway, with the ocean air whipping through the car, his Best of Hall & Oates CD dancing through the speakers, San Luis Obispo the next potential stop, he began to sense the amount of pressurization he’d need.
A drink was necessary, and as soon as the 101 hooked inland past Pismo Beach, billboards for San Luis Obispo wineries sprung up. He pulled over at the first one. He didn’t have the time or the need for a proper tour; he just wanted the alcohol’s effects. The place was quiet, and the kid behind the counter seemed happy to have someone finally walk through the door.
“It’s not usually this dead,” the kid said. He wasn’t any older than nineteen or twenty. His family owned the place. “But we don’t see a lot of business on a weekday. Hopefully we’ll see more people like you come through.”
“People like me?”
“People just stopping in for a quick drink. Most of them are on their way to San Francisco. Where are you headed?”
“Chicago. Well, eventually Chicago. Yeah, San Francisco. Then up into the northern states. Depending on time, I might even sneak into Canada.”
“What’s in Canada?”
“So why go to Canada?”
“Because I don’t know. How about a glass of… that one.”
The usual cost for a flight of wine was twelve dollars, but the kid didn’t charge Lou and even filled the glasses completely instead of the customary tasting sip. After three full glasses of mediocre wine, Lou bid the kid farewell and jumped back in the Volkswagen. He was riding the perfect buzz — warm, energetic and hopeful. And he had gone less than one-hundred miles before he was pulled over by a California state trooper for bounding along the winding coast at ninety-six miles per hour.
“Of course I didn’t know how fast I was going; otherwise I would have slowed down,” Lou said dryly, trying to elicit a laugh from the trooper. It didn’t fly. He produced his driver’s license and insurance card and waited while the cop ran his information. If he’d not still been on the wine high, he’d have been in a fit of panic. He had alcohol in his system and was driving thirty-one miles over the limit — reckless beyond a doubt.
The trooper asked Lou where he was headed. “You have a long trip ahead of you,” the trooper said. “And I’m in a good mood today, so I’m just going to cite you for going ten over. That way you don’t have to come back for a court date. Just mail in the fine, or pay it online. And slow down, for Pete’s sake. I don’t want to have to clean you off the side of one of these mountains.” He handed Lou the documents, tipped his trooper hat and got back in his cruiser. As he pulled back onto the road and passed Lou, he waved, then slammed on the gas and took off. Lou took the trooper’s kind nature as a sign. Things were going to be all right.