Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Chain of Fools

Chain of Fools
By Juliet Johnson

We woke up Saturday. I wanted to go to the snow.
We get on the road to the mountain by 10:30. We only have an hour before it’s time to get ready for nap. The sky is looking crazy for Los Angeles, dark leaden clouds, a pirate ship of doom in the sky. Actual hail is coming down through palm trees. Our car climbs the mountain. There’s snow on the side of the road. The kids are excited. Cars passing us going down are covered in snow. The kids shriek. There’s a cop up ahead that seems to be stopping cars. Uh oh. Are we smuggling anything? Fruit, or Mexicans? Does anyone care if you smuggle Mexicans anymore? I start to get a bad feeling. Not about Mexicans. I roll down the window. The cop says something about needing chains for the tires. The kids look stricken. He’s making the sign with his finger, to turn around. I don’t want to turn around. Barry’s turning the car around. We’re pelted from the backseat. “Aren’t we going to the snow? Can’t we go sledding?”
Barry points out the sad chainless families playing in the bald patches of snow on the side of the road. Throwing snow balls that look like dandruff. “No,” I say. “Let’s get chains.”
Barry looks at the clock. He hasn’t eaten yet today. “Let’s go get a Mexican lunch and then take a nap. Then you can go to that funeral,” he says, hopefully. I try to picture my day, all dressed in ski pants with packed food, going back down the mountain, eating one more in a chain of bad burritos, taking screaming kids back home for a nap, then running off for a funeral. My gramma had died a few weeks ago. And now a distant friend had died. Then our fish died last night. I couldn’t do death without snow. Snow first, even if it meant putting off and possibly missing death. “We’re getting chains.”
The kids yelp in happiness. Barry looks at me, still hungry, but gunning the motor.

Everyone is looking for chains. At the foot of the mountain, hoards of people stuff into Sports Chalet in a disorganized mass. There’s a run on chains. A helpless man at the counter tells Barry he’ll have to wait at the end of the line and there’s no telling if he has the size chains we need.
It’s 11:15. Emma and I have eaten half of our packed food waiting outside of gas stations and tire stores as Barry and Nathan run inside to look for chains. His hands are always empty when he comes out. I’d just finished reading “Moby Dick.” I knew the folly of chasing something you weren’t meant to have. I get on the cell phone. The auto parts gods guide me to one possible store, in the heart of seedy North Hollywood, where the computer says there is the one set of chains left on Earth that will fit our car. Barry’s stomach is eating itself. His eyes are waving a white flag. “If we drive there, even if they have it, we’ll have to go all the way back across town, up the mountain –“ “We’re getting chains.” The kids start hitting each other with My Little Ponies, holding the tails and flinging the hard plastic parts at open eyeballs. It’s 12:15. I would really like to go to that funeral. The guy was a nice guy. I have to make it. But first there must be snow.

We get to the last auto store. We all go in, even though it’s hailing, we’re in ski clothes and Emma has bare feet. I scrutinize everyone, assuming they’re all here for chains. When it’s our turn, the lady goes in the back to look. She comes out with a black bag. I think she’s gotten her lunch. She’s ready to check us out. Oh, SHE HAS THE CHAINS. This is already ending better then “Moby Dick.” Barry makes sure they’re the right size. Why not take more time, sure. Then she rings us up. SIXTY DOLLARS. Barry looks at me, ill. I tell him “Pay up, daddy . We’re going to the snow.”
We jam back into the car. Nathan’s thrilled with a new bag, and one with actual CHAINS in it. There’s a Jack-in-the-Box on the corner. I tell Barry we’ll get some food to go, and head directly to snow. In the drive-through, I see Barry lose the will to live. He doesn’t want this food. He wants to be lying in a corner somewhere, watching golf. We get possibly the worst lunch of our life, and in protest, Barry pulls over to eat the food slowly by the side of the road. Nathan eats a hamburger over the chain bag, dripping ketchup inside. The kids have now read every book in the car, played with all their toys, eaten everything I brought, even the cookies. They’ve been in the car for three hours. They’re looking to break some skulls. We go up the mountain again. There’s a longer line of cars to the cop this time, but we’ve got the BAG. We get to the cop. We flash him the bag like it’s counterfeit money. We get the nod and the smile. He tells us to put them on if it seems too slippery. We drive gleefully, past all the jammed up cars that are playing in the white parking lot dandruff. Now there’s lots of snow, but we need a hill, preferably one that doesn’t empty out into the street, that we can sled on. We’re on a MOUNTAIN. There aren’t any flat parts. We drive farther and farther. No one has chains so there aren’t any cars up here. We’re alone on the mountain. We finally see the perfect hill. We screech over. This is it.

The kids scramble out of the car. I wrap up their extremities with more material. Nathan left his waterproof gloves at home so of course he has to wear red gardening gloves. We start walking up the hill, I put the blue circle disc on the ground, pack Emma on it with me, and we go sliding down, tipping over and falling on our heads halfway down. Nathan goes down, up, down, up, down on his back, down on his face, down with snow shooting up his pants. We make a snowman. Emma finds nuts that look like eyes and we stick them on. She finds a piece of snow that actually looks like a head. We stick that on. We eat snow. We take pictures. Barry stands at the bottom of the hill looking cold. He looks like he needs something to do. I send him to the car for cameras and gloves periodically. Finally a nasty looking dark silver cloud is moving in. A freezing wind starts, blowing ice. “Time to go!” says Barry. We force him to go on one ride on the sled.We drag him up the hill. He gets on the disc with Nathan, I pile on with Emma. They go first, and then we go after, and we are going so fast, and they are stopped at the bottom of the hill, Barry laying on the snow, and Nathan on his knees, and Nathan looks as we speed toward him - and SLAM into him, and he flies into the sky and lands like a rocketed cat. He LOVES it. We’re all laughing so hard, flat on our backs, real laughter, from the same desperate place that had us scrounging for auto parts, sweeping all that out and coating the place with flowers.

The ice and snow are whipping our faces now, so we hurry to the car, the kids climbing in, I get them cups of snow, and grape juice from the car, mixing it together to make icees. “Why’s it night outside?” Nathan asks as the dark cloud moves in. Barry snaps into survivor mode. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
In moments, the road is covered, there’s white everywhere, the windshield is so fogged up that we have to turn the air conditioning on, and even then, Barry and I are slunk way down in our seats to see out the front. Like we could even see the road, which has disappeared anyway. Barry shrieks. “It’s been three minutes! What happened!?”

We go about two miles an hour. Our goal now is to NOT HAVE TO USE THE CHAINS. We want to return the chains. We don’t want the chains. (Well, Nathan wants the chains. He’d rather have MORE chains.) We drive slowly, so Barry can relive the paralyzing Chicago winters of his youth where a long trip was digging your way to the mailbox.

We get back to the cop, and the road peeks out of the snow. We didn’t need our chains. We head past him, ready for civilization. The kids are deep into nap time, and not napping. They’ve abandoned their grape icees and have delved into tearing up a styrofoam cup and spitting it at each other. Then they practice seeing how hard they can hit each other. We are stopped in traffic for a moment. It seems we can’t get down the hill. People are getting out of their cars. OH NO. There’s no other way out. I’m still looking at the clock.. If we can get past this traffic, I can even make it to the funeral on time. The kids are through with the snow. They’re tearing up paper towels and rolling it into little balls and sticking them in their noses. They practice howling. The cars are not moving. A policeman walks by us at the speed of walking. He disappears around the corner. Forty five minutes go by. I start having the funeral service in my car. The funeral has begun allright. It’s for me. I don’t feel like playing I Spy to entertain the kids. I’ve been entertaining in the car for four hours. I’m all used up. They’re four and five, and short on sleep and out of ideas too. The only things they can think up at this point involve bursts of screaming and inflicting pain. I start to feel really bad that I’m missing the real funeral. What was I thinking, the snow? I should be there for my friend. He was a good guy.

The traffic finally breaks up. We head down the mountain, the kids are tumbling down their slope into behavior hell. I tell Barry to drop me off at the cemetery. He tells me I shouldn’t go in ski pants. I tell him the guy isn’t going to BE there, I don’t think he’d mind. Besdies, he was a make up artist for movies. A real hippie. I decide to listen to Barry on this, because in the end I’m usually glad I did. We’re on the freeway and close to home. Barry starts yelling at the kids that they’re going to be in big trouble when we get home. They never hear him angry, so they laugh cause it sounds funny. This infuriates him. We tell the kids their punishment is they have to clean out the car when we get home.

We get home, and Nathan is thrilled with cleaning out the car, he gets two huge bags, one for trash, the other for toys and starts on his job. He even wants a vacuum. He’s never had a better time. I get dressed up and run to the after-funeral party to try and pay some sort of respects to my friend. I get to the house, everyone is dressed like pirates, I don’t know anyone (all my friends went to the service, not the party), I write my name in a book, I feel inadequate, I leave. I call my friend Dirk on the way back home and he tells me about the service, and we talk about being left alive, and being taken in the middle of your life, just when things were going well. And how we’re not achieving at all what this friend of ours was achieving, and doing so by being kind, and himself, and using his talents. “He’s probably putting make up on God now,” I say to him. He says “No, he’s up there, going ‘Uhhhh…you don’t wanna go with that. Let me fix you up, whole new look.” Dirk says “Hey, where were you?” “A blizzard,” I say.

Back home, kids in bed, Barry puts the chains on my desk to return. I managed to do everything, even though I missed some key parts. I just couldn’t face death like that, I’d had so much death recently. I’d rather go on the search for chains, risk the four hours of traffic on the mountain, just for that one sled ride where Nathan went flying and we were all laughing, strewn together. Chain of fools. My friend Richard would have been lying on the snow, laughing with us. I’m sure he was in the sky, looking down while holding the make-up sponge to God’s glistening cheek, really studying our good time. Shrugging, dabbing his sponge, and saying “It was worth it.”