The van swam with tireless windshield wiper through vertical white-water to get to Dream Haven and deliver "the insult"-that took precedence over the small matter of reading, as bodily imperatives will. (Even presidents vomit; even the queen may leave an ineradicable stain.) Was Dream Haven a dream haven? Only a puny audience had braved the storm, almost entirely made up of Kelly's friends. I read Fat. Kelly read part of her cat story. Statues of monsters regarded us unsympathetically from the tops of nearby bookshelves. The fluorescent lights beat down. I forgot how my song went halfway through, then left out a whole verse. Afterwards I stood in the rain making sad calls on my cell phone to friends who weren't home, and felt very sorry for myself. The sexy waitress in the bowling alley/bar/restaurant where we ate had a Pippi Longstocking tattoo on her right shoulder, but when I complimented it her smile was bored, bored, bored.
A woman said after my reading, "That was the most beautiful writing about something completely disgusting I have ever heard." I was surprised. I am always surprised when I am reminded that my stories are disgusting, though obscurely pleased. I have misplaced my own sense of disgust writing this book. Or, I have come to see disgust as a reservoir of sensation I can use to power my stories, like a battery.
We drove back through the black night to Neil Gaiman's house talking about people who fall in love with other people who don't notice and then turn against them, which they also don't notice, and people who give themselves heroic roles in their own stories, and people who try to ingratiate themselves while being unaccountably rude, and the student who went mad with religion and paranoia and critiqued another student's work by tearing it up in tiny pieces and posting it to her in an envelope, and our prompt and emphatic lack of interest in most perfectly good and even award-winning fiction. By the time we got to Neil's house, we were laughing like hyenas about nothing.
The house looked familiar, and I remembered I had once had a dream about a house like it; I was flying up one side of it, over the roof, and then down the other side head first, looking in the windows. (When I mentioned this the next day, Lorraine said, "Oh, that WAS you!") Neil made a mysteriously delicious tea with bits of ginger floating in it to soothe our sore throats and put on a tape of Tony Ferino: My Phenomenon, an English comedy show by Steve Coogan which Kelly had never seen. I sang along to Papa Bendi. A calico cat the size of a large pumpkin lowered itself onto my chest and sank its claws into me.
The carpet of my room under the eaves was full of dead ladybugs and the shards of ladybugs, nestled into the nap. At night, amorous cats came and gave me succor.
As I write this, we are crossing the Mississippi.
In the morning Neil made another potion, this one a red, frothy vegetable juice that looked vaguely anatomical in origin, and we went for a walk in the woods around the house. We were followed at some distance by a complaining cat whose white fur was blowing capriciously in the wind. Down by the creek we came upon a leg of a deer . The rest of the deer was not in evidence. When we got back to the house we found another grisly token neatly heaped on the welcome mat on the front porch, like tribute: a small brown pile of intestines, a damp widget of fur, and a fleshy, curved yellowish thing that Neil proclaimed to be a liver. For me? I am being feted with body parts.
Today turned out to be the day everything went wrong:
1. A UPS delivery truck ran into the back of the van this morning and bent the bumper so that the back door won't open;
2. The right speaker, which had already fallen out of the door, stopped working altogether, emitting nothing but a faint crackle;
3. A lapel pin (Sons of Norway) I got in a thrift store in Seattle dropped out of my sweater and got stuck upside down in the sole of my shoe;
4. I discovered I had left my phone charger in Chicago;
5. Somewhere near Des Moines, where the van was tacking down the highway in a heavy wind that made the trucks yaw threateningly in our direction as we undertook to pass them, the side mirror glass came unstuck and began to flap, and when I stuck my hand out to press it back against its gluey supports, it broke and shards of mirror flew behind me, reflecting broken fields and, briefly, our dun-colored, indefatigable van disappearing into the future. I drove some twenty miles to the next gas station with my hand out the window, holding together what remained of the mirror.
6. Nebraska smells funny.
Today, we wonder whether we will get hate mail if we insult Nebraska. "New York writer claims Nebraska smells," I say, reflecting that I am now, have already been dubbed in print, a New York writer, though I moved there less than a year ago, and that it seems to mean something to people, something that might well make Nebraska bristle. "Nebraska issues fatwa against New York writer," I say.
"Nebratwa," says Kelly.
But our hearts change toward Nebraska, because we see a sign for ESPRESSO in a field by the highway and turn off I 80 at Exit 112 (make a note of it) to find a shingled shack with hanging plants blown out sideways in the dusty wind and a heartwarming graphic of a foaming cappuccino. And then we see the Sod House Museum, free admission, and a rendering of American Gothic on plywood with cutaway faces, and an almost life-sized buffalo made entirely of barbed wire! The buffalo has a soulful face and a disintegrating bird's nest inside its hunch. We love it. We take our pictures with it, and with the Native American on horseback also made of barbed wire, and then I take a picture of Kelly with her face in what she calls the "person hole" of the American Gothic wife so that it appears as if she is married to a hollow man or the personification of the barn whose red wall shows through the face hole and then she takes my picture with my face in the person hole of the husband as if I were married to a hollow woman and then an excellent energetic woman with soft lavender hair comes out of the Sod House Barn and takes our picture with our faces in the person holes as if we were married to each other. (In all cases I, naturally, am the husband.)
"Can I take your picture?" I ask.
"Oh, you don't want a picture of me," she says, taking off her glasses, and sticks her face through the hole.
"What's your name?" I ask.
She spells it. "M, A, R, J, P, L, A, N, K.. Marj Plank. Just a piece of wood."
The buffalo, she tells us, is made of four and a half miles of barbed wire. The horse and Indian, a little more than three. I buy five postcards of the buffalo. She stamps them with a Pony Express stamp for free, and asks, "How did you get your hair that color?"I tell her.
I almost buy some Jackson Hole Smoked Jerky, then do not.
At the espresso stand, which I can recommend, a woman with maroon hair asks, "How did you get your hair that color?" I tell her.
Number of times I have answered this question so far on this trip: five.
This morning a man came into the hotel lobby carrying a potted geranium and said, "What team?"
"What?" I say.
"Orange and black. Whose colors are those?"
"Mine," I say. "They're my favorite colors."
"Oh, they're just your colors. Well that's fine. It's OK to express yourself!"
Sometimes I feel like I am made entirely of barbed wire.
"We've loosened our slots," claims a billboard near Salt Lake City.
We are driving under a blue sky between twin stripes of blue-sky-reflecting sheets of water toward a blue-sky-reflecting mirage melting the road ahead of us. Power poles are balancing on upside down power poles, like acrobats. We are passing the Morton Salt factory, and I tell Kelly, "The Morton Salt girl was one of my first loves." I used to stare at her at the table, admiring her stride, and the salt falling heedlessly behind her, and her short skirt blowing up, and the rain falling down.
The salt piles are white as sun blindness; they look like our failure to see them. There are tractors delving in them. Trucks are driving around in something we put on our food, I think. We discuss whether the workers ever wickedly pee on the salt. Then whether they masturbate into it ("So that's why the salt sometimes gets stuck in the shaker," I say). Kelly says she has a masturbating friend who experimented with all sorts of lubricants including toothpaste. I say I had a masturbating friend who as a boy tried some sort of detergent and all the skin came off his penis. Kelly says she has a friend who went windsurfing and took a tumble and when he took off his wetsuit his testicle fell out of the ball sac and dangled on a string. I recount these things because when Publishers' Weekly calls me "solemnly scatological" I am not sure they understand it could be much, much worse.
For example, in the uncensored version of this tour diary, I could relate numerous conversations about poo ("My poo smells like Nebraska," one of us may have said, coming out of a rest room); rocketing down the rainy curves of the road into Salt Lake City I observe of the other drivers: "They think the van is slow, because it's brown, but they are mistaken -- it's the Brown Flash."
"The Brown Smear," offers Kelly.
"It is the greased and fast-moving poo of morning," I say.
This and much more is what you might read, in the uncensored version.
We love the King's English in Salt Lake City! What was once a house is now stuffed full of well-chosen books. The people who work there are unbelievably nice and bought us lattes and falafel and made a BANNER for us and a flier with an appealingly crude rendition of my painting of the girl detective on Kelly's book cover. We read at noon outside under a canopy to an unusually hip audience who endured the cold and the rain to hear us, and afterwards rock duo Chubby Bunny played some songs. Yay! We like loud girls, and girl drummers, and girls in pink skirts and red socks, and Chubby Bunny has all of these things. To put the show together, King's English enlisted the support of UGGLIES (Underground Girls Getting Loud, Independent and Electric in Salt Lake City). UGGLIES says: "START BANDS! Don't be scaredy-cats. Do puppet shows. Be funny."
After the reading, a long-faced boy in a woolly cap told me, "You are a great author." But since he sat through the whole of Kelly's reading with his Walkman on, I am not sure of his judgment.
We stop at the Comfort Inn in Battle Mountain, Nevada. In the elevator a barefoot man in a cowboy hat says, "Is that a gee-tar or a shotgun you got in there?" At the pizza place outside, a sign says, COME IN TO GET YOUR CHEESE STIX CARD. AFTER 10 THE 11th IS FREE.
On the hills facing the town are the giant letters BM.