Peter Shelton

Fear the Duck

Posted in How the West was Lost, Life in Central Oregon by pshelton on October 7, 2015

How small the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous.

Ellen and I went to the Oregon coast for a quick overnight on her birthday. We stayed at an idiosyncratic old hotel on Nye Beach with a strong literary theme. The Sylvia Beach Hotel is named, not for the wide, sandy beach at the foot of the bluff, but for the 1920s American expat who founded Shakespeare & Company bookstore, in Paris, and published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” when no other English-language publisher would touch it.

We were at the top of the stairs in the Herman Melville Room. It had views of the surf and the mist that alternately hid and then revealed the Yaquina Head Lighthouse. Just outside our door the Reading Room looked directly west at the lines of incoming swells, with comfy couches and overstuffed chairs and, natch, bookshelves galore. There was no TV, no wi-fi. Ellen said, “Wouldn’t this be grand in a storm! With the wind and rain and a fire in the fireplace!” Just before the dinner bell we watched a tangerine sun slide down from behind the obscuring cloudbank directly into the drink. It was over just that fast – a perfect safety-orange disk transiting a seam on the horizon exactly one solar diameter wide.

Dinner was served family style. This night, that meant just one table of nine. The salmon came from a local Newport boat. As good as the food was, the evening’s highlight turned out to be a game of “two truths and a lie.” We were worried it would be hokey, but instead it allowed a potentially awkward table of strangers to open up in surprisingly intimate ways.

A nurse and former cop (her lie was that both she and her husband were cops), who had emigrated from Iran in 1984, revealed that she was going blind. A couple of retired elementary-school teachers from Milwaukie, Oregon, told the unlikely truth that they had been sleeping in a tipi all summer. A young naturopath lied (none of us guessed right on this one) when she said she had carried hot water from a neighbor’s house for her sister’s water-birth delivery after their own water heater had conked out. In fact, it was she who was giving birth that day and her sister who had fetched the water.

Ellen told the group, straight-faced, that she had taught high school French and English; that she had spent a weekend with Peter O’Toole; and that she was a “hooker” – she’d hooked a rug for Ralph Lauren, at that time (in the early 1980s) a new neighbor in Ridgway, Colorado.

“I forgot to lie!” Ellen said when it was over. Though she had fibbed that Ralph Lauren paid her “lots of money” for the southwest-themed wool rug, which wasn’t really the case. Most of the questions she got were about Peter O’Toole, the famously rakish “Lawrence of Arabia.” She had indeed spent a Telluride Film Festival weekend, as a volunteer host, shepherding him from one event to the next.

The next morning, enveloped in moisturizing fog, we drove south down the coast, past Cape Perpetua and the Sea Lion Caves, to Florence, and then inland toward Eugene and our eventual route over the Cascades back to Bend. On the way up the Siuslaw River the sun came out. It was nice to see, but it also revealed the clear-cutting in the Coast Range – blocks of tall, second-growth spruce starkly edged against raw red ground or towering over swaths of monoculture babies. The steep hillsides were like a strangely vulnerable skull: one part buzz cut, one part shaved head, one part growing back but slated, again, for the razor.

We decided to turn the radio on and instantly regretted it. We’d been blissfully out of touch for 24 hours. In that time the shooter at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, had worked his horror and taken over the airwaves, just as his sick ego had hoped. We stuttered in disbelief. Then came recognition, not to say resignation – how tragedy loses meaning when it’s enabled by a pig-headed refusal to change.

“Why are they [NPR] giving this man what he wanted?!” Ellen wailed. At least, she said, the local sheriff was refusing to utter the shooter’s name. “No photos!” she cried. “I don’t want to see his face! I can’t stand – I can’t unsee – that miserable fuck Tsarnaev. And the Aurora theater shooter! Why doesn’t The New York Times, for one, take a stand and say, on the front page, that they will NOT show these people’s faces?”

We were about an hour north of Roseburg. We needed gas. And we needed some food in our stomachs for the trip over the mountains, which, thankfully, didn’t take us that way. We decided to stop in Eugene. I hadn’t been there in decades, not since a trip out of high school to visit an uncle who was working on an architecture degree from the University of Oregon. All I remembered was rain. Ellen had never been. It’s a big town, 150,000 people spread out on the flat where the Willamette River drops out of the hills on its way north to Portland.

The UO mascot is the Ducks. In Oregon you’re either a fan of the green-and-yellow Ducks or of the orange-and-black Oregon State Beavers. The Ducks have been ranked near the top of the Division I football polls for the last several years. Some people we know say this coincides with a change in culture there. The morning we left for the coast a man walked out of the vacation rental next door to us in Bend with a green-and-yellow t-shirt that read “FEAR THE DUCK.”

We tried, somewhat desultorily, to find an interesting café near campus but pulled in instead at a Subway across the street from the gleaming basketball arena. We just wanted a sandwich and to get home.

We parked beneath a sign that read: Parking ONLY for patrons of Hirons Drug, Market of Choice, Subway, and Café Seoul. After two hours in the car we decided to stretch our legs. Arm-in-arm (it was still Ellen’s birthday, after all) we strolled for half a block beneath some early-turning maples. Then we pivoted and returned to Subway, which was, in fact, slightly subterranean.

After eating, we climbed the steps, turned into the lot and discovered our car was gone. “Our car’s been stolen!” I think I was the one who jumped to that conclusion. Ellen was speechless. “What? How? What . . ?” She started for the street, turned back, wheeled again and marched down the sidewalk as if she might catch a glimpse of our Honda disappearing.

The kids in Subway were next to useless. Both our phones were in the car, so we needed communications help. One peach-fuzzed sandwich maker did try to call the police for me on their landline but said he kept getting “a busy signal.” “May I try?” I asked from in front of the counter. The answer was no; it wasn’t allowed.

Across the parking lot at a nearly deserted brewpub the bargirl let Ellen use her phone. She said it was possible our car had been towed; it happens. The building’s owners hire a security company to make sure drivers are indeed patronizing their businesses. There was a number for the tow company. Ellen called it but got an answering machine.

She was frantic. She started walking up and down the sidewalk again. I asked the bargirl if she’d seen a tow truck come and take our car away. She equivocated. Couldn’t really recall if she’d seen anything. I asked to borrow her phone, dialed the Eugene police and got right through. A proper voice asked if I knew my license plate number. I couldn’t for the life of me pull it up in my mind’s eye. He said he might still be able to help, but he was also charged with answering 911 calls, so he might have to cut me off.

In whose name was the vehicle registered? I told him, but he couldn’t find it in the state database. Might it be registered under some other name? Ellen’s name didn’t work. My name with my middle initial didn’t work. I was baffled. How about your address? After an agonizing wait the voice came back: “It’s been towed.”

Meanwhile, Ellen had flagged down a cop cruising by in his black-and-white. He pulled in to the parking lot and had already called in a possible vehicle theft when I came out with the news that it had been towed.

WTF?! We were eating at frickin Subway! I called the tow company number again and this time a man picked up. 2005 Honda CRV. What color? Roof racks. “Yeah, we got it. If you get down here before 6 p.m., with $240 cash, we can release the car to you. No, we wouldn’t know anything about that. We just take the call from the security firm. Yeah, cash.”

Two hundred forty dollars?! I had a 20-dollar bill in my wallet. The bartender, sympathetic now, volunteered that Hirons Drug were the building’s owners. Maybe if we talked to the manager there we could get the fee waived. Seeing as we had only left the premises for a few minutes.

Left the premises? “Yeah, security might have caught you turning the corner and walking down the sidewalk. . . Don’t tell anybody I told you,” she said a bit sheepishly.

Was there a camera? Or a private dick skulking around somewhere? I was still quaking mad, and the poor sales girl I confronted inside Hirons didn’t really help matters when she asked if we’d “left the premises. You must have been observed leaving the premises.” Nevertheless she went into the back promising to relay my request to the manager.

But the manager didn’t come out. And didn’t come out. It was probably a strategy, I thought. Let me cool my jets for a while. I went back to the brewpub. Ellen was talking with a man at the bar who might have been a little drunk, or a little crazy. He said he could give us a ride to the impound lot when his “daughter got off work.”

We still didn’t have the cash. I went back to Hirons Drug. A second sales girl said she’d check on the manager for me. Finally a third girl emerged (not the manager) and told me the manager had called AE Towing and the charge had been dropped. I used the bartender’s phone one more time and called a taxi. (The drunk had disappeared.) On the long ride across town we spilled our tale to the cabbie, a world-weary fellow from New York, who declared our predicament “a scam.” He was genuinely mortified, suggested we contact the Better Business Bureau, “or whoever. There’s gotta be somebody. Man, that’s not right.”

I tried to think logically about it from the Hirons point of view. They had their precious parking spaces. They were right across from the sports arena. Maybe on game days, or nights, people tried to park there? Or? Something to do with the streams of people flowing every which way, the unsimple pressure of population? Whatever, the solution seemed brutal, almost incomprehensively so. “Welcome to Eugene,” the bar girl had said, with a wan smile, when I thanked her for the use of her phone.

What country bumpkins we were! On the drive up into the mountains, two and a half hours after finishing lunch, Ellen said she understood now what black people in this country go through when they get caught in the system. Get crosswise with the law somehow, don’t have the money to pay . . .

Steering up the McKenzie River, old-growth hemlocks striped the road with their long shadows. Up ahead the Three Sisters displayed their west-side glaciers. A bit like dirty tattoos, yes, but glaciers nonetheless.

At home, finally, in the last light, Ellen poured a glass of wine and put her feet up on the couch. “OK,” she said. “I’m slowing down now.”

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One Response

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  1. talkinggourds said, on October 9, 2015 at 2:52 am

    my co-parent Betzi Hitz (mother of Iris Willow) just moved into co-housing in Eugene. i sent her this immediately. luckily many of your fans, Peter, have the Roberts Report to thank for alerting us to your keen eye and contemplative prose. how you can take us from pleasurable drive to damnable pissoffedness in one essay is, as always, impressive.


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