"You're banned from going back there, do you understand me?" said a thick, British-accented voice into my telephone--a voice belonging to my long-suffering friend and colleague Harry, an accounting teacher at the college where I myself teach economics. It was the middle summer of last year.
"Yes," I said.
"--No, you don't," said Harry. "I mean it: You're banned. You'll never go back there again."
"Yes," I repeated.
"--You've consistently abused this privilege, and now you've done it for the last time. You're banned. From now on. Forever."
"I understand," I said.
"NO, DAVID, YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND," said Harry. "You *act* like you understand; you're *saying* that you understand; but you're only saying you understand because that's what a person says when someone he's just *royally* pissed off, possibly for good, tells him something, in the imperative tense, and then says 'Do you understand'!"
He took a breath.
"I'm telling you you're banned from going to my place in North Carolina, FOREVER. Do, you, understand?"
I paused. I clasped the edge of the table gently and shut my eyes. "Yes," I said.
There was hardly any point in standing up for myself with one of my closest friends this agitated and calling through a gravely I/P line all the way from Panama. I wasn't happy about being banned from visiting his place in North Carolina -- a mountainside pond with a lazy gravel loop-road and a pair of engagingly different-feeling structures cut into the hill above it, one a big comfortable house, the other a rustic little cabin -- but at that moment my chief concern was the possibility that, if I couldn't calm him down somehow, my friend might actually have a heart attack. Anyone who knows me even a little will tell you that, if ever there were a human being capable of transcending the generally euphemistic expression, "You're going to give me a heart attack," it is I -- and for his part Harry's prideful lack of exercise and his lifelong predilection for beer had left him unusually primed for just such a reaction.
But still it seemed unfair that the two of us would've slid this far down the rabbit-hole of anger and helplessness over something as trivial as a little run-of-the-mill pornography.
For some years before, as Harry took his hard-won summers off from teaching to remove himself to an equally fetching place in Panama, the two of us had enjoyed an understanding by which I would be permitted unlimited access to the North Carolina place whenever it wasn't otherwise rented, in return for serving as the property's de facto superintendent. I would string-trim the steep hillsides and cut the fallen limbs across the loop-road and make sure the plumbing was working properly and clear the submerged opening of the clever little PVC spillway he'd constructed for the dam, and in return I could stay there whenever and for however long I wished, provided nobody with money was in line ahead of me.
To this point it had all worked very well. I've often told my students that the best way to own a boat is to know someone else who owns a boat, and this improvised little saw only gets truer when the boat in question is four acres of taxed-out-of-sight clay and rocks with bad perk and a fractious, spring-fed water supply. In the fistful of years since we'd been granted the entire summer's reprieve from teaching, I'd been to the place perhaps a dozen times, to his two. I'd installed a new water hydrant when the old one had cracked from freezing, and I'd cut and removed a small tree that had fallen across the road. I'd written several bad chapters of a bad book, and almost gotten myself killed in a sudden thunderstorm on a high ridge-line between Deep Creek Campground and Clingman's Dome. I'd cooked some scandalously good steaks over a simple campfire, and downed an immodest quantity of beer. I'd slept inside with the windows all thrown wide open, outside on the deck, and down the hill in a tent. I'd even taken to referring to the place, with a certain class of non-mutual friends of ours, as "My place in North Carolina."
...This last bit surely was my big mistake.
Last summer, at the height of the mountaintop vacation season, I brought some friends up to share the experience with me. This much was harmless enough -- provided, that is, that the friends in question could be persuaded to dispense with the Eternal Struggle For Chopping Dave Down To Size long enough to heed my impassioned pleas that we must leave the entire place "hotel-room clean" when we left. Harry had already explained to me over his skype-phone that a veritable rabble of paying customers were arriving immediately after our departure to stay in the main house, where my friends were.
I relayed the significance of this news in several different grave and leaden language-choices to my friends, both before we left home and after we got there. And the friends in question reacted in that very particular festival of ways that have become a permanent feature of all my friendships: aggrieved ascent, followed by grinning, not-quite-sarcastic eye-roll at my charming insistence on taking myself too seriously, followed by a series of join-ins to help me finish the sentence in unison ("--HOTEL-ROOM CLEAN, DAVE"), followed by all other persons involved conspicuously making it a point of not actually doing whatever it is that I've said so grimly is so important to me so many times, just to prove once again who's really in charge, here.
At eleven-thirty AM on the day of our adjournment to an eight-hour drive back to Gainesville, Florida, there had been a grand-total of zero effort undertaken to leave the main house, where my friends had been staying, hotel-room clean. A dishwashing cycle was absently started at 11:45. The first of two unavoidable loads of laundry were distractedly initiated at 11:50. Floors were still to be swept. The fold-out bed was still folded-out. The television was on.
For a long interval of silence I was too apoplectic to think through exactly how big and complicated the dilemma was, here. I had asked these friends of mine to please, please, just this once, take me seriously, and do this thing, this one thing, this only thing, the one and only thing I'd made it a point to specify over dinner last night and in the car the day before and at lunch the day before, that I need you to do for me, please. And they hadn't done it. As, per, fucking, usual. ...That was all I had for it, at that moment.
And then, gradually, a specific and tricky little wrinkle began leaking into my consciousness, and the farther inward it leaked, the more difficult a problem to solve, it seemed: Having stalled on the hotel-room-clean bit for so long, my friends had implicitly guaranteed that, after cleaning the house together, we would also be together at the trunk of the car when the time came to do the packing. I had anticipated that I'd quietly load my own belongings from the cabin while the cleaning rituals were transpiring inside the house -- thus permitting me to surreptitiously bury at the front of the trunk a moderately sized ziploc storage bag of pornography, much of it visible and instantly identifiable through the translucent-blue sidewalls of the bag, as though watching a dirty movie through one side of a pair of 3-D glasses.
Since I couldn't now pack in the absence of my friends' attentions, I couldn't now pack the porn at all. I'd have to hide it. Correction: I'd have to hide it well enough that the incoming customers of the place would have no chance of finding it. Fortunately this would be a straightforward proposition of re-stowing it someplace inside the cabin -- since the incoming party wasn't going to be using the cabin.
Thus it was, in mild but increasingly simmering consternation at the whole stolen-power-chops-Dave-down-to-size business -- as, per, fucking, usual -- that I pulled out one of the drawers in the cabin's bookcase bed, placed the ziploc bag in the bottom of the drawer, covered the bag with my own dirty laundry until the drawer was level to the top with obviously unwashed clothes, and then carefully rearranged the accent furniture in the bedroom, in such a way that this particular drawer couldn't even be opened without moving a moderately heavy end-table and the moderately heavy vase of flowers set on top of it. Then I went to the main house and did all the things I'd said a dozen times it was so important for us all to do. Then we left.
About eleven-thirty that evening when we got home, my message-light was blinking. It was Harry, asking me to call him back on his skype line, so I did. "Just want to let you know, David," he said calmly, almost absently, "that my friends will be staying in the house and cabin a little longer than they'd previously arranged, so you'll have to stay away from the place up there for an extra weekend."
Wait. What? The house and the cabin? The friends were staying in the house, and the cabin? I took a long, steadying breath. "Your friends are staying in the house, and the cabin?" I said, finally.
"Oh yes," said Harry. "Far too many of them for just the house. But it's okay if you didn't get the cabin all the way to hotel-room clean when you were up there just now, because they're going to use the cabin for housing all the kids."
My heart did a little soft-shoe on my small intestines. And if you're thinking that it doesn't belong anywhere near my small intestines, well, you're right: It doesn't. "When are they all due to get there?" I finally managed, barely above a whisper.
"Tuesday evening," said Harry. Two days' time. Forty-some hours.
"I'm going to have to call you back," I said.
"Everything okay up there?" said Harry.
"Yes," I lied, "I just have to call you back. Tomorrow morning okay?"
We agreed that I would call him back in the morning. Frantically I tried to think, but it was in that rootless, bugs-beneath-an-upturned-log kind of way that never actually gets a person anywhere. I could drive all the way up there, in the middle of the night, and all the way back the next morning -- risking an accident or a major breakdown. And anyway there was a key that I was supposed to hand-deliver to a go-between, and I couldn't very well do that if I were on the highway someplace north of Atlanta.
I could ask the daughter of a friend-of-a-friend to go over to the cabin from her place in nearby Bryson City and... well, wait a minute, that's not going to work on any number of levels, now, is it.
Or I could risk it: I could hope against hope that I'd done a good-enough job of hiding the porn, that even a cabin full of fractious young boys wouldn't root around in the drawers beneath that bed, and find it. Which seemed awfully unlikely, at that moment.
The only thing left for it was to come clean. I would tell Harry exactly what had happened, and then I'd ask him if he wanted me to go up there and get the porn, or if he wanted instead to warn the family that their impressionable young children might be about to stumble upon the mother-lode of bad influences. Stealing myself, I called him back, reaching only his skype voice-mail. "Harry," I said in my message. "I'm going to need to keep the key, and hide it up there someplace. Please call me back," I said. "It's important."
I put the phone down. I panted. I thought. Someone would have to feed my cats. It'd be a very long, very ugly drive up there, and an even longer and uglier drive back. What else could I do?
At once it hit me: Another set of friends, Randy and Kana -- a husband-and-wife team of traveling artists with whom I'd shared many embarrassed and apologetic favors over the years -- were at that moment driving back to Gainesville from Pittsburgh. If I could reach them from the road, give them intelligible directions over the phone, and if they could find their way into the cabin using the backup key that was tricky to find and even trickier to use, I could offer them the chance to overnight up there in return for doing me this biggest of embarrassed and apologetic favors.
I called. My friend Randy answered. I explained to him the whole thing. "Let me get this straight," said Randy, not yet openly cackling. "You hid the porn beneath a drawer full of dirty laundry?"
"Yes," I said.
"--And then you moved the end-table and the flower vase so that the drawer can't be opened?"
"Yes," I repeated.
"--And now you want someone to break into the place and take it out, because you still think someone's going to find it?"
"Yes," I said a third time.
There was a moment's pause while the amusement of the situation washed over my friend like an unexpected shaft of sunlight on a grey day at the beach. "You are totally, certifiably insane," he said, finally.
"No, Randy, don't tell him that," said Kana in the background. "Tell him we'll go, and then when we get there we can leave out a bunch more porn on the coffee tables and the countertops where everyone can find it!"
"Wish I'd thought of that," said Randy. "Look," he continued, "just calm down, David. You always do this. You decide certain things are going to happen, then you get yourself all carried away with these huge, long chains of consequences that are all going on inside your head."
"I guess you're right," I said.
"--And you're always way better-off just not taking any action at all," he continued. "Just stay put and everything will be fine." He paused. I heard the highway noise beneath the van. I allowed myself a small exhale. "I mean, for God's sake, David, you've hidden that porn where an FBI SWAT-team couldn't find it."
"Okay," I said and, thanking him sincerely, hung up. It was a wonderful thing, really: For that brief moment I was awash in the same shaft of unexpected sunlight he was. I'd messed up. I'd shown exceedingly poor judgment. But now everything was going to be fine, anyway. I allowed another exhale, this one somewhat less modest. Everything was going to be fine. So it was kind of too bad, really, that at that precise moment Harry returned my previous phone-call.
"What have you done," he said, coolly.
"Well," I said, stammering just a bit with this second sudden reversal. "Okay. I'm going to be completely honest with you about this," I said, "but I've spoken to someone else about it, and he thinks it's going to be okay."
"What have you done," said Harry.
"It's not a huge deal," I said. At once I realized that I didn't quite know how to continue. Verbal articulacy is a two-edged sword for me and always has been: I can say things on the spur of the moment that would come across as too leaden and too stentorian for a PBS documentary, but I can't always actually make myself understood very well, especially on-the-fly. It is for this reason, I suppose, that I've gravitated toward professional teaching. Works kind of the same way that all navymen in the world don't know how to swim. Or at least that's what I tell myself.
"It's just that," I continued, haltingly, "I didn't think your patrons were going to use the cabin, as well as the house, and so I left something in the cabin that could cause both you and I some considerable trouble if it were found."
And with that, my dear and cherished friend of a dozen years, went off in my ear like a small atomic bomb. "ARE YOU INSANE?" he bellowed. "HAVE YOU ANY COMMON SENSE AT ALL?" he screamed. I shut my eyes, wincing a little with each staccato syllable of invective. He was loud. He was profane. He was completely unhinged. It was then that I received my ban.
"Harry, I'm truly sorry," I said. And I was. "I'll make it up to you. I'll drive up there and get it."
"You're damn right you will," said Harry. He collected himself, slightly. "I swear, David, you truly are a galling little twit," he said, his British accent now thick with satisfaction and resolve. "You would have me risk losing that entire property to seizure, just so your friends don't have to watch you load your nasty habits in your car?"
"Lose your entire property?" I said. "Harry, did you think I meant to say that I left drugs up there?"
"Well, I dunno, David: Isn't that what you JUST, BLOODY, TOLD ME?" said Harry.
"No," I said. "Or at least it's not what I meant," I said. There was a silence between us on the phone. Harry sounded quiet, pensive, ready for anything but calmer, now. "Harry," I began again, tentatively, "when I said I'd left something up there, and it could get us both in trouble, I meant with your patrons--not with the law."
"Oh, Jesus, David, are you talking about pornography?" said Harry.
I allowed that I was.
"Good God, David, why ever didn't you say so in the first place? I think everyone should see more pornography. What else has been going on up there; do we know if we're getting a raise this year? When's convocation?"
We spoke for another ten or fifteen minutes, completely amicably. He never formally retracted his ban, and I never formally asked him to. When the time came for me to retrieve the cabin-key, I drove to the appointed spot and it was there. We've never spoken about this whole thing again, since. I'm sure where he's concerned it would be completely un-necessary. Randy had been right, in the end, as he nearly always is (except when it comes to calculating the jet-lag between here and Tokyo, but that's another column). On this day, he'd been as right as I could ever have wanted him not to be, about anything including how to calculate the jet-lag between here and Tokyo. I'd undertaken a series of radiantly bad decisions, amplified at each turn by a self-perpetuating cycle of ginned-up anxiety until even the most obvious aspects of the thing were as invisible to me as a Klingon warship. I'd acted stupidly, childishly, rashly, and then stupidly again -- and in the end, I'd needlessly jeopardized the sanctity of one of the dearest and most important friendships I have. And all of it for no particularly good reason.
As, per, fucking, usual.
***TO BE CONTINUED***
("The Key Grip")
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