Writings From Another Time: "Multnomah County Line"

Editor’s note: I wrote this in the fall of 1987, all in one burst while listening to “Tunnel of Love” over and over and over again on a Saturday afternoon in November, I think. It was published in February, 1988 in The Oregonian’s Sunday magazine, Northwest (RIP). I was 24 years old and nearly clueless, and there’s a lot of awkward stuff here I can’t vouch for. but I still remember that Saturday afternoon as one of the purest, most satisfying days of writing ever.

Multnomah County Line – A Short Story by Peter Ames Carlin (1987)

I kept bumping into Bruce.

The first time was the most surprising, I suppose. I’d read in the paper that he was going to marry a woman from Lake Oswego, but I never connected that gossip-column item with the idea that he would end up actually visiting Portland, let alone walking the streets or eating ice cream like you or me.

It was a spring night in 1985, and I’d just had a fight with Marcy. I stomped out of the house and slammed the Honda’s door, driving aimlessly for a while, radio off, listening to the sounds of the engine. Shifting into first, giving it gas, gaining momentum. Clutch in, second gear, clutch out. More gas. Third, fourth. Soon the Honda was doing 45, damp wind sifting in through the crack I’d opened on the driver’s side, and I relaxed.

I got on Terwilliger and ended up in Lake Oswego. On the left, in the shopping center just off State Street, a white-and-pink Baskin-Robbins sign. I realized I was hungry — Marcy won’t eat ice cream, and she won’t let me keep any in the freezer. She says the corporations mistreat the dairy animals.

The high school girl at the counter scooped up Jamoca Almond Fudge and Fudge Brownie. She made change with a flourish, and I sat down in one of the little pink-and-brown school desks lined up by the window. Ice cream consumption is a right-brain treat; so I had brought something for the more sophisticated left hemisphere: “The Collected Stories of John Cheever.” I was re-reading “The Swimmer,” when a shadow darkened the page. I looked up, frightened that Marcy somehow had followed me. It wasn’t Marcy.

“What do you make of that?” He was holding a dog-eared paperback in one hand, the same Cheever collection I was currently dripping Fudge Brownie on. In the other hand, he hoisted three big scoops.

“Pardon me?”

“The Swimmer.” He gestured toward the book with his ice cream cone. “I read it yesterday. I’m still trying to decide if it’s supposed to be allegorical or not.”

In the fluorescent light of Baskin-Robbins, life took on a surreal quality. Here was Bruce Springsteen standing in Baskin-Robbins, just like anyone would, asking my opinion about John Cheever. Geez. I must be dreaming, I thought. But there he was, lapping up chocolate, butter pecan and something I couldn’t identify.

(follow the jump for more…)

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s confusing. But don’t look at it as a linear piece. The passage of the sun through the sky during the story relates more to the passing of years or a lifetime — not the passing of one afternoon.”

Bruce nodded his head and took a thoughtful swipe at his ice cream cone. He had chocolate on his nose.
“That’s why his house was boarded up when he made it home,” he said. “I get it now.’

The girl from behind the counter walked up to us and said it was 10, closing time. I stood up, and Bruce walked through the door, holding it open for me. We went outside, into the reflected light of the parking lot. Bruce sat on the hood of a muddy Corvette. I checked the plates. New Jersey.

“I just drove across the country,” he said. “Got in this afternoon. My girl’s family lives out here.”
I nodded, knowing all that from the newspapers. I started feeling intimidated, paralytic. What do you say to Bruce? I checked the files for something appropriate, then said nothing.

“You got a girl?” he asked.

“We had a fight tonight.” I said, barely believing my presumption.  But he nodded thoughtfully.

“That’s tough.” Bruce  lapped up another scoop of ice cream. His hair was longer than I had seen it in the newspaper, and he carried about four days’ growth on his cheeks. He stuck his book in the pocket of his leather jacket and swept a few curls out of his eyes.

“Sure is beautiful out here,” he said. “Why don’t you go home and take that girl of yours out for a walk? You guys are gonna fight, but if you’re in it for the long run, you gotta rise above. You gotta forgive.”

Bruce was making impressive headway with his ice cream. Down to the last scoop now. “Hold on to your girl, man. I gotta catch up with mine right now.” He ate the rest of his cone, balled up the napkin and tossed it into the plastic garbage can.

“Good luck.” Bruce extended a hand and held mine in a firm shake. “Take it easy.”

I  walked over to my car and sat behind the wheel, mind reeling just a bit.  Then there was a tap on my window. I unrolled it, and there he was again, bouncing up and down on the heels of his motorcycle boots, chilled by his ice cream.

“Hey, man, do you know any good bookstores around here?”

I gave him the address of Powell’s, and he shook my hand again, hopped into the Corvette and laid a patch right in front of Baskin-Robbins.

Marcy lives in a theoretical world, an existence filled with heavy books and abstract art. Dreary black-and-white films, disturbing atonal music and poetry composed by dour-looking alcoholics, all of whom are either Irish or dead, or some  combination. Marcy’s political beliefs are nebulous, but she tends to buy into most conspiracy theories, especially if they involve large corporations and certain political assassinations.  She doesn’t get out of bed in the morning unless she’s certain it’s a politically correct strategy.

Marcy blames her entropy on geography. “Nothing happens in Oregon,” she complains. “There’s no rage here. People shamble through life huddled under their Gore-Tex shields. As long as they get their herbal tea, they’re completely satisfied. Where’s the rage? Portland is a dead city.”

We lived in an apartment in Southeast. We got along well for a while, but soon the tension began to build. Marcy started buying books and records by artists I’d never heard of. The music was more cacophonous than Phillip Glass’ worst hangover, and the books all spoke of New York, drugs and razorlike hipness that slashed at itself, drew no blood and then moved on.

I had thought of Bruce a few times after our meeting, almost a year before. I went out and bought some of his albums, much to Marcy’s chagrin, and listened to them quite a bit during the summer and fall. The world he sang of seemed like another planet compared to where I lived — no less complex or frustrating, but at least a tad less theoretical. Hazy Davey and Wild Billy actually went to Greasy Lake, for instance, even if the spirits in the night were fleeting. When Joe or Steve are in a town full of losers, at least they can jump into their American-made cars (no one in Bruce’s world takes off in blue Honda Civics), pull out and look for something better. Never mind if it’s attainable or not.

I went running late one winter afternoon in February, 1986. On the Tryon Creek path, dead leaves scattered in my wake, and the winter wind rustled the empty branches. They knocked together in the murky sky, making a hollow sound. I was about a mile into the park when I heard footsteps coming from behind. A figure pulled up next to me, nodded a greeting, then a look of recognition passed between us.

“It’s the Cheever man.”

was Bruce.

“Hey.  I heard you got married.”

“Yep,” he smiled. “Got a place out in Lake Oswego, a few miles from her folks. Like to spend some time out here.”

We ran up the hill. At the top, he looked over at me. “How’s that girl of yours?”

“Oh, OK. We’re doing a lot better,” I lied.

Bruce smiled and slapped me on the back, mid-stride. “Glad to hear it.”

We ran silently for a half mile or so. He was wearing a heavy gray sweatshirt that said DUCKS on the front, and on his feet he had those flashy red-and-white Nikes with the windows in the soles. He ran quickly — he must get a heck of a workout on stage every night, I reasoned — a lot faster than my usual pace.

We ran down toward Lake Oswego, past my usual turnoff on Iron Mountain. Heading down the hill, Bruce picked up the pace a bit, and I struggled to keep up.

We ran into Lake Oswego, and Bruce led us up a side street, stopping next to a blue Jeep Cherokee. It had Oregon plates.

“Well, that does it for me,” he said. I stopped alongside and tried to catch my breath. Bruce hoisted himself up and sat on the hood of his car.

I gasped. “You know, Marcy — my girlfriend — she thinks that Oregon sucks. She keeps talking about moving away, but then never gets around to it.” My chest was heaving. Bruce, on the hood of his Jeep, wasn’t even breathing hard.

“Some folks are never happy anywhere,” he said. “They go through life thinkin’ that where they aren’t is always better than where they are. And if they keep talkin’ like that, with that kind of attitude, they’re probably right.” I nodded. “If your girl’s got something draggin’ her down, she’s gonna have to find a way to cut it loose, or you’ll find she’s gonna take you down with her.” He pulled some keys out of a pocket in his sweatpants and jumped down to the ground. “You live around here?”

“Actually, I live over in Southeast.” My wind had returned, but I was getting cold.

“You’re a long way from home,” he said. “Need a ride anywhere?”

“Oh, that’s OK. My car’s up at Lewis and Clark. I can just run back up there. It’s not very far.”

“Nah, I’ll drive you.” He unlocked the passenger door and then walked over to the other side. “It’s all uphill, and you look pretty beat.”

Inside Bruce’s car. Two pairs of boots on the floor, one clean, the other caked with mud. A toolbox on the back seat. Last August’s Atlantic folded over to an essay by Dave Marsh about Elvis’ role as a cultural icon. A dozen cassettes in unmarked boxes, and on the dashboard “Lonesome Dove” and a novel called “Stark Raving Elvis.” Our own sweat mingled with the smell of the car — boot leather, rich black dirt and rough cotton work shirts.

“You read this?’ ” I picked up “Lonesome Dove.” “It’s a great book.”
“Not yet.” Bruce started the engine and pulled into the street. He shifted with his right hand and spun the wheel with the palm of his left. The Jeep was magic in his hands, and he weaved in and out of traffic, feeling and anticipating the flow as easily as the pulse in his arteries. “We’re going through Europe and Asia next month, and I was saving it for then.”

Up Terwilliger, right on Palater, into the parking lot by Griswold stadium. We talked on the way. Bruce asked me if I thought McMurtry’s books had been adapted well for the screen. Juli liked “Terms of Endearment,” he said, but Bruce thought it was a bit too heavy-handed. He said he’d talked to Cybill Shepard at a party, and she told him about making “The Last Picture Show,” back in the early ’70s. He wanted to see it, and wondered if it was out on video.

We pulled in behind my car, and I opened the door. “Thanks for the lift.” I jumped down. The wind kicked up, and I wrapped my arms across my chest, shivering.

“No problem. Thanks for runnin’ with me. Now go inside and get warm.” I shut the door, and he waved, cruising out of the parking lot. Then the Jeep floated down Palater, its taillights glowing red until they faded in the darkness at the bottom of the hill.

Winter loosened its steely grip, and the evenings grew warmer and lighter. Summer arrived, and the city opened its doors and windows, smelling cut grass and flowers, sap rising in the evergreens, sun-baked fir needles layered in the dust. Across the river, the KOIN Tower shimmered against a soft blue sky.

Marcy felt cowed by the advent of spring, so she stayed in most of the time, moving through our rooms like a hermit crab, vulnerable and dangerous. Sitting across from each other at the dinner table we spoke the words we had become accustomed to hearing, but the pitch and the rhythm were off.

I considered leaving, but details piled up like boulders in a wall. There would be arguments, tears, stacks of displaced belongings. The sound of voices and breaking glass would merge and echo for months.

I fell asleep early one hot summer’s night, and woke up after midnight, sweating, dreaming of hospital beds and dark green hospital floors. All the windows in the apartment were closed, and the air felt stagnant, like the oxygen molecules had bonded with the tension in the room. I pulled on some shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, picked up my Nike Lava Domes and tiptoed outside. Out front, each descending step offered a new possibility. The bottom stair pointed to the Honda, gassed and oiled earlier that evening. It started on the second try, and soon I was heading east through empty streets, out of Portland.

Spatial relationships change at night. Your eyes can’t see past the beam of your headlights, but vision goes on, through the trees, over the next hill. The rear-view mirrors look into the past, the windshield into next summer and beyond. Smith Rocks rises out of the flat terrain like a jagged monolith.  In the late 20th century, climbers have made Smith Rock their own, a playground designed by the million-year-old whims of nature. Climbers scuttle up and down, connected to webs of rope like spiders on a garden rock. They scale the stone’s faces, inching up the cracks and faults, then rappel down again.

Some paths to the summit of Smith Rock can be managed without pitons and rope, and I abandoned the Honda in the parking lot, crossed the bridge and then slowly made my way up. An hour and a half later, I sat on the top, watching the eastern sky blush with the sunrise. I sat across from Monkey Face, a towering corner of Smith Rock. Monkey Face looks like an afterthought, connected to one end of that abrupt little mountain by a collapsing ridge that has melted away almost completely.

By 9 a.m., the sun was already casting some simian features across the face of the rock. I heard climbing sounds beneath my corner of the rock and pulled my legs back so they didn’t hang down. Curly brown hair, tied beneath a hankerchief, appeared first. Then the familiar sweaty face, broad shoulders in a white “For Oregon: Neil” T-shirt and torn Levi’s. His hands were white with climbing chalk. He hoisted himself up to the top and took a breath.

It was him. `

`Hi, Bruce.”

“Oh, hey there, man.” He stretched his legs out in front of him and examined a scrape on one knee. “What are you doin’ up here, man?”

“I don’t know.” I tried to come up with a rational answer. “Thinking things over, I guess.”

Silence. He pulled off his hiking boots and socks and wiggled his toes.

“So what are you doing up here?” The third time around, I felt more comfortable. “I didn’t know they had rock climbing in New Jersey.”

He smiled. “Didn’t I tell ya that we were settlin’ out here? A man has to adapt to his environment.”

He reached into his backpack and took out two bottles of Henry’s Ale. It was a little early, but I took the one he offered. The rock lifestyle, I figured. They all live on the edge. He unscrewed his beer and placed the cap carefully in his pocket. “But I always h
ave to have a cold one after a climb like that.”

We talked for a half-hour or so, mostly about his tour of Asia and some of the poets from the early dynasties in China. He put his boots back on, and we walked down the path together. I told him about Marcy, and how I was trying to find the gut to move out and find a new life somewhere. He said that he’d been in bad relationships, too, and somehow ending them was always the hardest part. The trick, Bruce said, was the first step out the door. From there, you never can let yourself look back. In the parking lot, Bruce walked up to a dusty Chevy Blazer station wagon and opened the door. “Come on over here,” he said. “The hike down deserves another beer.”

I got in the pasenger door, and he handed me another Henry’s out of a Styrofoam cooler in the back seat. He slipped one of the unlabeled cassettes into the tape deck and turned it on. Acoustic guitar strummed dark, minor chords for a few bars; then Bruce’s voice came through the speakers, as strong as his records. I can’t recall most of the words — we were talking a bit — but I remember the chorus, where the melody climbed into a major progression.

`Now when I’m feelin like I’m sinking/for the very last time/and the water rushes cold and dark/When I feel like I’m runnin’/but I’m all out of time/I just go for a walk on the Multnomah County Line/C’mon baby, let’s go where the rain washes down over your face/Where the wind out of the Gorge blows your hair outta place . . .’`

`What do ya think of that?” he asked. I told him I liked it. “Yeah, well, it might be on a record someday,” Bruce said.

We sat together on the hood of his car for an hour or so, letting our muscles loosen in the sun. Rock climbers walked past us, equipment clanking, but only a few bothered to look up and say hello, and I don’t think they even knew.

I haven’t seen Bruce since that day. I’ve thought about him a lot, especially when I moved into my place in Hillsdale. I bought his new album when it came out, but “Multnomah County Line” wasn’t on it.

Speak Your Mind