One day while I was over at Max's he showed me his ways of making spray-paint stencils. Although I still didn't really know what I was doing, I did manage to make what I have below. Beth thought that her resemblance to Cleopatra was a bit unsettling, and I think that's why I like it best.
My trip to Portland began with the purpose of a job interview and gradually evolved into making Halloween decorations with my brother-in-law John. One thing I know about the guy is that he's a very accomplished conversationalist and is capable of speaking on an expansive range of topics covering anything between the film "Dude Where's My Car?", the social life of lumberjacks, and even the sordid history of a local restaurant-turned-porno-shop.
"You know why it's called the One-Eyed Cobra, right??" He said laughing, as he drove me from the train station, along with his mother in the front seat next to him.
After a 17 hour train ride and a case of overwhelming allergies, I wondered if anything I was experiencing was real. When I found myself stuffing a clown suit with plastic bags, I accepted the random nature of this strange new universe.
John has always makes a personal goal to top whatever seasonal decorations he had on his front lawn the previous year, much in the same way he monthly tops his voicemail message with a new theme. When I first approached the house it was guarded by a group of ominous black shrouded creatures creatively fashioned out of trash bags and wire. There were at least two disembodied hands and feet within eye-sight at all times, either laying on a grave or hanging in a tree.
"The goal is to literally scare the piss out all the little kids in the neighborhood," he told me.
The clown suit I was stuffing was a costume John had purchased on sale but realized was one size too small. Being resourceful, John makes use of whatever materials he has around. Even christmas lights came in handy for turning his shrub into a giant jack-o-lantern. His plan for the clown was to have it hanging from a noose over his driveway.
I traced an old pair of John's boots on a large piece of foam he had refused to recycle for this specific purpose. Surprisingly I didn't need to exaggerate much, and he cut them out and spray-painted them green for the clown's feet. Then we got to work on the head, which was a repurposed plastic skull we covered in painted duct-tape to imitate flesh.
While we did this he told me stories of "Uncle Sam," a Special Forces Marine who lived before there was such a thing as a "Special Forces Marine." His accomplishments included diving into a frozen lake to retrieve a dead body, locking a drunken wife-beater in the trunk of his car, and again locking a bartender in his own freezer so that his underage boys could have a drink. Such a legacy.
My job interview hadn't gone great, mostly because it wasn't much of an interview. Despite my attempts to arrange a meeting in advance there was no one for me to really meet with and I was told they wouldn't be hiring a new batch of employees until the next month, or possibly next year. I did, on the other hand, get a few free cups of coffee, which was a nice consolation prize.
Feeling the need to accomplish something on the trip, I applied to a Good Will store for a shift supervisor position, which I didn't expect to do but found myself feeling good about.
Before my trip back I spent the morning watching John tie a rope to a bottle and repeatedly attempt to throw it over a tree branch without damaging any of the cars in the driveway, which proved to be quite a challenge. He lovingly named the clown "Herpes" and hoisted it up into the air, it's decrepit face grinning to all who pass it, or look out their second floor window.
Whether he's telling you about his old foul-mouthed co-workers by the docks, biker gangs in Montana, or Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, John always seems to have a topic to wear the hours the away. I felt as though I was quiet for most of the trip, but with John around not much needs to be said. Uncle Sam has his own stories, but it's a guy like John who people want to talk about. Now I have some stories of my own.
If there's one thing I've learned from taking the train it's that I never need to talk to anyone ever again. If I'm there, people will talk to me. Take for instance my seat companion Tumbleweed, a very nice self-identified hippie from California who hopes she'll be reincarnated as a house cat someday.
"You know what raccoons really like to eat," She said, "corn. They love the munchies."
This, for once, was a conversation I was actually very much interested in.
Tumbleweed was traveling from Eugene and Portland after visiting friends and family. I'm not really sure who was friends and who was family because everyone was referred to as brothers and sisters. Knowing that this in turn made me a brother was kind of cool. I once tried calling people this for a week in college after watching a bunch of LOST episodes with that Australian guy, but sadly could never pull it off.
"I just got back from my sister's place." Tumbleweed told me, speaking very quickly. "Man, I couldn't get out of there faster, you know she ditched me at the bar last night? Yeah, just hopped in a car with a bunch of guys. Her fiance's gonna be pissed. I was pissed too, some girl bought a nugget from me last night for 20 dollars and this morning I realized it was a one dollar bill."
As the conversation turned to this I began to realize that people are really very complicated. Or at least their lives are complicated. They themselves are just happy if you listen about how complicated their lives are. Take for instance the sweet elderly man who told me about his extended family.
"My son, I just don't know what his problem is. He has all sorts of issues." He told me. "And he's a psychologist so you'd figure he'd be able to fix it himself."
Then other things are just downright scary. I was exiting the train in Sacramento and watched a young black girl run screaming out the doors. She and her apparent boyfriend were running in circles, and I wasn't sure it was some sort of weird game until he outright punched her onto the curb. Once the security guards swarmed I was told by another passenger that it was an argument over a cellphone. I spent the rest of the time waiting for the next train in the brightest lit area possible. Had I still had my car keys they would've been poised and ready in case I needed to defend myself. Somewhere deep within me I hoped I had absorbed some knowledge from the self-defense segments on Nate Berkus.
For the most part though people just want to get along. I was sitting in the lounge car when a woman started praising the Bloody Mary's Amtrack serves in the cafe.
"The forest is so pretty!' She said, "It's a real shame those people out there are spoiling it with their above-ground pools."
In a way, I had to agree.
"I'm not a hippie," She sang, "I'm just trying to adjust."
I'm not really sure what that one meant, but it sounded interesting.
"I can't wait to get off this train and self-medicate." She continued.
I smiled, nodded, and put on my headphones although my ipod had run out of battery long ago.
Once she had enough she retired to her seat, but meanwhile, outside the window, rolling fog revealed trees, rivers, mountains, through tunnels and over bridges, against cliff walls and under boulders, and just kept moving until someone else took my place. I'm sure whoever it was had something else to say as well.
The first airport security guard to stop us was a friendly older gentleman who wanted to make sure we weren't trying to take too many carry-on bags with us to the gate. I pointed out that our extra bag was actually carrying my cat.
"Oh my!" He said happily, "and what's it's name?"
"This is Furball."
"Herb-all! Well it's a pleasure to meet you Herball!"
He bent down to look Furball in the eyes but she was too busy quickly whipping her head from side to side to see the crowd of people walking through massive x-ray machines and putting bags onto small conveyor belts.
"Now I do notice that Herball here isn't asleep." He said.
"Yeah, she's pretty old so we weren't sure if it would be a good idea to drug her up." Furball has been my cat since the 3rd or 4th grade. I'm 24 now and am unfortunately too lazy to figure out how old that actually makes her, but her papers say 13. How exactly veterinarians figure out cat ages is a mystery to me, but my wife thinks it probably has something to do with rings around the tail.
"Well good luck Herball!" The old man said.
We continued through the line until we got to the next security checkpoint, at which the man checking our tickets immediately started to sneeze.
"We have a cat with us," I said. "How exactly does this work?"
The man continued sneezing and said, "Well that explains it." Blowing his nose he continued, "You'll have to take her out of the carrier and walk through."
This terrified me.
Furball has become notorious throughout my family as the cat that likes to scratch everything, especially faces, mostly children's faces actually. How exactly this ancient cat would react to a strange world of loud noises, x-ray machines, and massive flying machines was something I wasn't eager to discover.
We walked up to the next line. I was stopped by another security guard and I leveled with him.
"So the Turkey hasn't really kicked in yet," I said, "And honestly, this cat has really sharp claws. Can I just send her through the x-ray machine anyways?" Secretly I just really wanted to see the image of a deranged cat skeleton show up on the tv screen.
"You could, but I'm not sure if it would come out the other side." The man replied. "That said, I ain't chasing after no cat."
I sighed, shook my head, and after taking off my shoes and belt, I started to unzip the cat carrier.
She definitely didn't want to come out, and immediately upon being released she dug all of her claws deep into my shirt.
"Yeeeesh!" The security guard said, suddenly backing away.
Furball has over the years lost small patches of hair leaving her at times looking like a wild animal. I imagine walking through security in bare feet, sagging pants, wearing a ragged shirt, while carrying a very scared animal, that I looked somewhat like a refugee. How nobody threw spare change at me is a mystery.
Luckily, despite a few minor scratches, we made it through, and Furball was more than happy to hop back into the carrier once again.
The entire flight went without any major incidents, mostly because the sounds of a baby crying and a scared cat are oddly similar. The Indian man next to me didn't even realize he was sitting next to an animal until we were about to land.
Now Furball is officially a California cat, and no matter what, has lived to see both coasts of America (which I consider to be a major achievement for a feline). Who knows where her adventures will take her next, especially considering she has already ventured underneath a pile of firewood in the backyard where I had to struggle to get her out. It's nice having her around, and I wonder what she must think of grown-up Zachary and his strange world of airplanes and dogs and other cats, but I think she likes it. She definitely likes it better than being called Herball.