Ju-Jitsu Monkey

by Jim Stedman

...the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old....
--Jack Kerouac
I fell asleep against the gas station wall, a sign reading "West" on my lap. Time that seemed snap-your-fingers quick zoomed by, and I was being shaken awake. I woke out of whatever world I'd drifted into, and felt I was re-entering that world where folks aren't supposed to sleep against gas station walls. As I hit atmosphere, I was already collecting together my bags, my guitar, and my sign, figuring without being told that it was once again "move along" time. I started getting to my feet, and then focused on who it was that had given me the shake.

"Hey, Pal, these guys are wondering if you want a ride?"

The man who'd woke me was sort of leaning over me, and his voice and eyes were matched with a child's laughing quality. This was no child, though.

His hair was grey and thin, and he had a stomach that only decades of alcohol can produce. He had on an old flannel plaid shirt, and worn-out khaki pants, unlaced hiking boots, and no socks. Standing over me, he was as big as a cloud, but, like a Russki circus bear, no threat. This mountain was not about to charge into the gallery and maul the wide-eyed children, but was getting ready for the act where he wears the enormous ruffly collar and rides around the ring on a unicycle.

In his childeyes, there was a softness that told the world that all's fine. He was standing over me, with his elbows resting on his knees, laughing.

"These guys are riding all the way to Calgary! They're wondering if you want a ride!"

There was a red Ford pick-up pulled up at the curb, with two young kids in the cab, waving to me.

"If you're riding, come on!" they yelled.

"I've been riding with these guys since Montreal," continued my escort, "and you aren't gonna find a sweeter passage."

I tossed my gear into the truck. We jumped into the back, and I heard my traveling partner laugh as he saw my expression.

"These guys are hauling forty sleeping bags to Calgary. All they want us to do is keep 'em weighted down!"

He pointed to a cooler, and I pulled out a couple of beers. I tossed one to his side of the box, which he caught with a little celebration's flourish. The truck pulled back out onto TransCanada 1, and, yee-hah!, we were on our way west.

"Without a doubt, Pal-- this is the sweetest passage ever existed!" screamed the bear. Everything he said he screamed, and everything he screamed was joyous and innocent. Words flew out with exclamation marks tied on like kite tails.

I silently sang a hymn to our barreling along, following the sun. I'd been spending too many months and years strapped to the east, and now saw north and south travel as wasted time. Greed-in-motion had taken over the entire seaboard, and varied only in temperature along the coast. Take your Hamptons and your Lauderdales, Bloomingdales, Kitty Hawks, and gawk at the gimme-gimme-gimme as they line each town's Fifth Av, rubbing big overcoated shoulders at the newsstand and saying "Bill-- I didn't see you at church last Sunday" and other such nosebody nonsense. Anyway, I'd finally managed to cut the ropes with one more trip north, for to have missed Toronto and its Elizabeth Campbell in the summer would have been the wrong mistake. With that city put to rest, and Liz put on hold ("Of course I'll be writing!" I tell her as I walk down the lonely morning driveway -- having for some reason refused a ride to the interstate), I was ready to pull away from the east. Fare thee well to the Hudson and the Chesapeake, fare thee well, Tarrytown and Northport and St. Albans and the countless other burgs where I'd been stuck alongside the shoulder, under the overpasses waiting for the rain to piss and pass, behind huge signs with their inscriptions (Been here too damn long, Bob From Annapolis, June, 1968) and other such nonsense written down to relieve the frustration of the time weary hitch hiker and also enough to make the next bum along the way read the words and wail in desperation's misery, for the only way to hitch hike is to plan it slow-mo, and the only way to hitch hike is to party solo.

And now we were loose from it all, breaking out to where there was enough air and space to look around and breathe it all in. Heading west, and there's nothing like the feeling in the whole world, nothing that's ever made me feel as free and wheee! as lying back in that red truck's bed on my own bed of delivery duckdown sleeping bags, taking a good, cool slug of the bear's beer and watching the sun pass over my head and forward, calling me out to the plains and Mississippi valley and lakes and rivers that I've only known as lines on maps. It was hello to a new world, and new people, and rodeo my rodeo.

Finally heading west. I wanted to scatter the ashes of whatever the hell it was that I was finally able to shake alongside TransCanada 1, where it could drift and blow in the jetstreams of balling diesels, deciding west or east of its own. As for me, I'd cashed-in. I looked over to the bear, who sat, looking back to where we'd been, with a cheesburg grin. He must have read my mind, holding up his beer can and shouting, "Fuck you, East Coast!" and laughing loud enough to get the rest of the world that cared to join along with him on the refrain.

"Fuck You, East Coast!" I screamed with the bear, and we were joined on the third repeat by the kids in the cab, all of us laughing as we balled our way to the horizon, the edge of the world, and the waiting sun.

The bear, despite this salute and his joy, was a silent traveler. He sat in the day's passing sun, reading tattered paperbacks, scribbling pencil notes in the margins, and smiling to himself. All the while I watched him, though, I thought to myself why in the name of god does a man his age find himself traveling alone. I also had a million other questions developing along the lines of where ya going, who you gonna see, and other such... but all the time not realizing that the reason he was here, rolling west, was the same reason I was doing the same. Rolling west in need of getting from as much as getting to, we were on identical missions. The afternoon was upon us, and we were pulling into Kirkland Lake. The two brothers in the cab were weary with their traveling, having pushed straight through from Montreal without a good sleep, and so we found a lake and a campspot.

After I helped Tim and Jim set up their tent, the bear and I moved to the far side of the clearing, so as not to disturb the boys. I took my guitar out of the case, and the bear pulled a bottle of whiskey out of his suitcase. I'd been entertaining myself with the guitar for twenty years, and so had learned a lot of different styles and types of songs. The bear seemed to enjoy all of it, though, and had enough of a musical sense to beat out rhythms in the twigs and branches -- anticipating an ending 'tag' line or finishing roll with each song.

At one point I started goofing with a sophomoric twelve-bar blues pattern, and the bear stood up on his traveler's whiskey legs, and started dancing under a canopy of low pine branches. The branches hung so close to the ground, that he had to stoop and bend his knees in order to continue his jungle jitterbug. I finished the pattern off, and the bear whooped and performed a satorical backwards flip out from the trees and back into our edge of the clearing. I rattled my head, trying to make sure I'd taken the whole scene in. The bear was in one look an ancient bum of a man, a drunken fellahin, down down down on his luck. In flashes, though, he became tender, vigorous, and exciting.

He flipped his way back to the spot where we'd set up our "camp." I stared at him.

"What was all that about?" I asked.

"Welll my boyyyy," he said, mimicking W.C. Fields, "That was called the ancient dance of the ju-jitsuu monkeyyyy. It was taught to me by an artful dowager from Escondido.... she had a glass eye...."

The bear took up his bottle and glugged a slug. We looked at each other and howled at the setting sun.

I built a small fire, and the bear and I sat staring at the tiny flames, poking and prodding the twigs and sticks in hopes of disturbing some unspoken vision. I'd told him about my years in Africa, and he prodded the pondered flames.

"I tried Africa," he said, no longer in his vaudeville voice.

"Went to Morocco and Algiers, freighted-over to see the same damned gang that I'd been following around over here. It was like "Hey man! We are wailing in Tangiers!", and alackadaddy, I was on my way on some Yugoslavian rust bucket. Mysterious women, daggers in the teeth..."

"Dawn donkeys pulling rolls of newsprint," I added.

The bear looked over to me.

"Yeah, there was that and I remember the solo voices calling out great Ramadan prayers -- you could feel the dust settle as every living thing stopped in silence."

"And then," I added, "Like a big slap in world's face, the moment is passed -- the solar eclipse shadow pulls away..."

"And the world's turned upside down."

"And the world's turned upside down," I echoed.

I slammed off to sleep, and had dreams of the great unrolling roads I'd done. TransCanada 1, the Nairobi-Mombasa Highway, the Nairobi-Addis Ababa scratch in the desert earth, the New Jersey Pennsylvania Ohio Indiana Illinois Wisconsin Minnesota patrolled tollways, the lonesome Sahara stretch that busses sad loads of dusty men and goats from El Eskandria west to Alamein, Matruh, Rahman, and on to unknown Libya, and the corkscrew down spiral roadway to the bottom of the volcano world of the Rift Valley floor. Down each road and dream, the bear is walking at my side.

In the dawn, I stretched and shook off the dew and any desire to sleep further. The boys were up, and sat around their own fire with the bear, cooking fish. I walked out from under the pine branches to where they sat in the smoke.

"You were having a good laugh and hoot last night," said one of the kids.

"Hey yes," I said, "I hope it didn't disturb you guys too much."

"Nah-- we slept like death," responded Tim.

"What were up to?" asked Jim.

I looked at the bear.

"An ancient ritual," I said.

"Ah, yesss..." said W.C. Fields, "the dance of the woebegone ju-jitsuu monkeyyyy..."

I stood up and tried to copy his funny pine needle soft-shoe, but had to give it up. If I were a dancer, I might been able to stay with Elizabeth Campbell.

"Hey, bear," I called over to him, "why not show these guys that crazy dance?"

I looked over to wear he'd been sitting, but the bear was gone.

The two Calgary kids were staring at me, slowly chewing their fish.

There had been no one.

The boys said nothing, looking down at their farm boots like children being given instructions. They were stuck with a me -- a harmless lunatic.

We loaded the gear back into the truck, and took off from Kirkland Lake. We blasted through Timmons and Iroquois Falls and Cochrane. We had days and days to go before getting to Calgary -- in fact, when I looked at a map I ached on seeing that our real direction had been pretty much north since I'd loaded into the truck.

"Damn," I said softly, "I gotta get west!"

Copyright 1995
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