Hope Idiotic | Part V
Hope Idiotic is a serialized novel. Catch each new part every week on Monday and Thursday.
LOU HIT THE SAN FRANCISCO CITY LIMITS JUST AS NIGHT WAS COMING DOWN. He used the hostel book as promised to find a well-rated spot with a good view of the city. He’d never stayed in hostels before and was curious. He’d hoped to meet a few strangers he could make friends with for the night and explore the city with, but the place was pretty empty. It was too early in the summer for college students or Europeans to be backpacking their way through the country.
Lou was sent to a room with four bunk beds. Two bunks — top and bottom — were occupied with sleeping bags, clothes and shredded bags of potato chips. Lou claimed the top bunk closest to the door. He tossed his stuff onto the mattress and quickly returned to the front desk.
“Where’s the best place to go for a few drinks?” he asked the grimy grunge-brat wearing flannel and a Sonic Youth T-shirt. “Maybe a place with good live music.” He was directed to a place called, Shattered Glass. He was able to walk there from the hostel, which sat at the top of a hill and owned a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Like every other place he had encountered in California so far, this bar was mostly empty. On the small stage at the back end of the joint, a weathered man, who looked like he may have been part of the West Coast punk movement in the 1970s, played a banged-up acoustic guitar and sang cover songs of everything from Iggy Pop to Lisa Loeb. Miller Lites were six bucks a bottle, but hell, that was San Francisco.
Lou tried to engage the bartender in some friendly conversation about the town, where to go, what to do and where the hell everyone was that night. But the bartender, a bored, sad-looking man of about thirty-five, wanted nothing to do with it. And after six bottles of beer and an hour of the aged, never-was rockstar, Lou paid his thirty-six-dollar tab and took off.
He wandered the streets searching for a little action, but found nothing worth getting into. So, he headed back up the hill to the hostel, where he figured he’d tuck himself in and wake up early. Get a head start on the day. Grab breakfast. Visit the bridge then continue north into Oregon.
When he left the hostel, he remembered leaving his room’s door open just as he’d found it. When he returned, it was closed. He put his ear to the door to inspect any potential sounds. When he didn’t hear anything, he slowly turned the handle and opened the door. It was pitch black in the windowless room. He pulled out his cell phone as he closed the door behind him. He flipped the phone open to light the few steps to his bunk. He climbed up and carefully took his shoes and socks off, then slid into his sleeping bag. Lou had a near-perfect internal clock and rarely used an alarm. As he closed his eyes, he said in a whisper, “Wake up at seven a.m. Wake up in seven hours.”
Just as he began to fall asleep, he was startled by noises coming from within the room. He hadn’t scanned the place with the light of his phone before going to bed; he had just assumed he was alone. The noises were coming from one of the bunks that earlier he’d seen loaded with someone’s belongings. His cell phone was resting on his chest, and for a moment, he considered flipping it open and seeing who or what was in the room with him.
Now he was going to bear witness to alien robot sex and perhaps become a post-coitus sacrifice. Fuck Michelle. Fuck hostels. Fuck robots. Fuck San Francisco.
There were rustling sounds and what he thought were voices being muffled by blankets and pillows. He heard music being played. Not songs: more like ring tones from a cell phone or video game soundtracks from a handheld game system. The bunk squeaked in rhythm as it tapped the cement wall. He looked over and saw blue and green and red lights glowing, flickering intermittently from under blankets. It was like robots having sex.
Lou was scared. This sort of thing would never happen under the parking lot light of a hotel. Why did he make that promise to Michelle to stay in hostels? Why did he keep that promise? He had a perfectly workable system when on the road, and she fucked it all up with her law school arguments and girlfriend charm. Now he was going to bear witness to alien robot sex and perhaps become a post-coitus sacrifice. Fuck Michelle. Fuck hostels. Fuck robots. Fuck San Francisco.
He debated making an escape, but figured he couldn’t collect his stuff fast enough in the dark without disturbing the alien robots that would probably kill him. So he slouched down farther into his sleeping bag, pulled his pillow tightly over his head and the opening of the bag around the pillow so he was entirely encased and protected, like a caterpillar in a cocoon. He forced himself to think about anything else: Chicago; Michelle; his career in twenty years; Chuck; his house in Las Vegas; the family dog Max greeting him at his dad’s house; Crater Lake; the price of gas; his pending empty bank account; his résumé; where he would live… More and more, he was less afraid of the increasingly loud and strange sounds coming from the adjacent bunk, and starting to fear what was waiting for him outside of that dark hostel room.
Panic finally put him to sleep. And when his eyes popped open at 7 a.m., he was still stuffed down in his sleeping bag and drenched in sweat. Slowly, he peeked his head out of the bag, but couldn’t see a thing because even during the morning, the room allowed no light to come in. He didn’t hear anything, so he flipped his phone open and aimed it across the room. It didn’t illuminate much, but from what he could see, the coast was clear. He swung his legs over the edge of the bunk and hopped down. He reached the light switch and turned it on, ready for the alien robots to spring to life and attack him. But he was alone. No one, nothing, was in the room with him. The things he had seen on the bunks when he checked in were gone. Other than his own stuff and the beds, the room was bare.
He wondered if he had imagined the noises and lights. Was the anxiety of the move playing tricks with his brain? Was he going crazy, or were there really alien robots having sex a few feet from him last night? It didn’t matter. It was over. The day was anew.
He put on some fresh clothes, brushed his teeth in the communal bathroom, paid his bill and took off toward the Golden Gate Bridge. It was early and traffic was light. It was just Lou and a European couple on the pedestrian part of the bridge. He could tell they were European by the formfitting brightly colored jeans and vinyl windbreakers that looked like they were stolen off the set of a 1980s Wham! video. The air was cool and salty. There wasn’t much fog like expected, so he was able to grab a few good photos of the bridge and some grainy, but mostly decent, shots of the Alcatraz rock. The majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge was one thing. But what really grabbed his attention were the emergency telephone boxes secured to the bridge every couple of yards. They had signs above them that read:
THERE IS HOPE
MAKE THE CALL
THE CONSEQUENCES OF JUMPING OFF THIS BRIDGE ARE FATAL AND TRAGIC.
He looked over the railing into the San Francisco Bay. He knew how it worked. A sad, troubled life. A moment of uncertainty — then certainty. A little leap. This was America’s hot spot for suicide aficionados. It was either the impact with the water or the greedy undertow of the bay that would kill a person. Lou wondered for a second what part would kill him. If it wasn’t the fall, could he survive? He was a strong swimmer. It was a rhetorical question; actually killing himself was not on his mind.
Still, he wondered about those emergency phones and about the operators on the other end of them. How many lives were saved by the telephone? How many operators heard last words? He considered picking one up and telling the operator that he would kill himself unless someone in Chicago would have a job waiting for him when he arrived in two weeks. But then he figured that probably wouldn’t work. No one would want to hire a demanding suicidal maniac.
He used his cell phone to call Michelle from the bridge. He hated the idea of bothering her at work, but she assured him that a phone call from him was never a bother but a blessing.
“Michelle Kaminski’s office,” her secretary said.
“May I please speak with Ms. Kaminski,” Lou asked.
“Ms. Kaminski is in a meeting at the moment. May I take a message for her?”
“Thank you. Please tell her that Lou Bergman called. She has my number.”
“Will she know what this is in reference to?”
“I’ll have her return your call at her earliest convenience, Mr. Bergman. Have a wonderful day.”
He meandered along the bridge for a few more minutes until Michelle called back. “You called?” She did not sound happy.
“Hi, baby. That was a quick meeting.”
“It was three hours long — just finished.”
“Brutal. Guess where I am?”
“I don’t know… Moon Lake or wherever.”
“Moon Lake? You mean, Crater Lake. No. I’m standing on the Golden Gate Bridge. God, Michelle, you should see it. It’s beautiful.”
“I’d love to be there with you. But I have a job to do. I’d love to be able to take two weeks off to do whatever I wanted and go wherever I wanted, but I have responsibilities. People depend on me. I have billable hour quotas I need to hit. But you go ahead and enjoy the view from the bridge, Lou.”
“Whoa. I’m sorry that upset you. You sound busy. I’ll let you go.”
“I am busy, Lou. I’m always busy. This is my job. I think you need to hurry home.”
“I know, baby. I’m on my way to you. Just 12 more days. It’s nothing.”
“I mean it. This road trip, I get it. I know you like driving all over with no direction, like its your last hurrah or something, but you need to consider me, Lou.”
“I have direction. I know exactly where I’m going.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about me slipping away. You’re losing me.”
“I know you’re moving here to finally start your life, but mine has been happening, and you can’t expect me to just wait around for you to show up whenever you please. It’s not fair to me. I love you, Lou. And I want to spend the rest of my life with you. But I can’t promise you I’ll be here when you finally show up. I hope I’ll still be waiting for you, but I don’t know. I have to go. I’ll talk to you later.”
What the hell just happened? She’s raving like a madwoman, he thought. He’d been through this with her before, however. In moments of personal stress, Michelle had a tendency to overreact and lash out at anyone within striking distance. There was one week during her freshman year in high school when her best friend Jen was too busy to hang out with her. As retaliation, during a soccer practice warm-up exercise, Michelle kicked a ball has hard as she possibly could at Jen, hitting her square in the gut, knocking her on her feet and forcing the air right out of her lungs. Jen had a soccer-ball–sized bruise for several days and was benched for that weekend’s game because of the injury.
When Michelle told this story in her maid-of-honor speech at Jen’s wedding, she didn’t understand why no one laughed at it. “Because it’s just mean,” Lou told her. But Michelle disagreed and stood by her case that Jen had it coming and that it was a funny story. Besides, they were still friends after all, she argued.
Maybe Michelle was freaking out on him because she’d just emerged from a painful three-hour meeting. She was just stressed at work and jealous that he was out having fun. Envy. That’s what it was. He wasn’t losing her. She was just kicking the soccer ball in his gut.
HE DROVE INTO TOWN AND FOUND A PLACE TO GRAB A BAGEL AND COFFEE, and read one of the scummy alternative papers in the wire basket by the door. As he was biting into the bagel, he received a text from Michelle:
I’m sorry I barked at u. But hurry. I won’t wait forevr. Stop wasting ur life.
“I really don’t have time for this right now, Lou,” Michelle said when he again called her. He couldn’t let a text like that go without further explanation. Clearly, she was not just lashing out. She was giving him an ultimatum: Stop having fun or she was leaving.
“You’re not being fair,” he told her.
“No. You’re not being fair to me or your career. You know what the right thing to do is. So do it.”
He drove a little farther north but pulled into a gas station just before leaving the San Francisco limits. While the car fueled up, he called Chuck.
“She’s right. What am I doing out here? I’m wasting all of this money that I don’t really have, when I could be in Chicago looking for a job. And now what? Now she’s going to break up with me when I get there? All broke and unemployed but with some photos of the town where Hemingway shot himself? What the fuck am I doing?”
Chuck was at the hospital in Indiana where his mother was recovering from her second heart surgery. “First of all, calm down. Just breathe,” he told Lou. “She’s not going to break up with you. You’ll find a job. Just relax.”
“I can’t! I’m telling you, I’ve got a bad feeling about all of this. I’m freaking out. I swear there were robots fucking in my room last night. I gotta get to Chicago. I gotta get my life going. I know! I’ll call a shipping company, have them pick up my car from this gas station. I’ll call Southwest and get a plane ticket, and I can be home by tonight.”
“You’re fucking crazy,” Chuck said. “Now, shut up and listen to me. You’ll end up spending more money on shipping and flying than you will driving. If it’ll keep you from going insane, cancel the adventure. You can try it again another time. I’ll do it with you. So calm down, drive back into the city and find I-80. It starts there. Just take that straight across into Chicago. You’ll be there in three days.”
WHEN LOU PULLED UP TO MICHELLE’S HIGH-RISE on Lake Shore Drive, he was covered in a layer of highway dust, beef jerky crumbs and sweat. His breath reeked of Red Bull, dehydrated meat and a tired piece of chewing gum. His hair was oily, but he thought it looked pretty good for having spent the last seven days windblown in the driver’s seat of his Volkswagen. If only it could look that good after a shower.
As he looked at himself in the rearview mirror, he closed his eyes and sighed. He told himself out loud, “All right, asshole. Don’t fuck anything up.”
When Michelle answered the door of her pricey northside one-bedroom apartment and saw Lou standing there, her face exploded into a smile. She grabbed his hand and pulled him inside, where she kissed him long and perfectly. Then she drew all the blinds down on the large windows that presented a picturesque Chicago — the peaks of downtown buildings, Belmont Harbor and Lake Michigan’s expanse out east, and the garden rooftops of Wrigleyville to the west. Again, their mouths met, and they fell into a rabidly intense lovemaking session.
“Welcome home,” Michelle said once she caught her breath, both of their naked bodies sweaty and shaking with pleasure.
“I can get used to this,” he said.