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June 24, 2024

Victory Highway (Part XIV)

By John Trindle

Mark is remembering Laura, his wife who was recently killed in an auto accident, as he makes his cross-country drive from Atlantic City to San Francisco on US 40.

Denial was the main mode of their existence. It made things easier, it seemed, to just ignore them. Of course, that's how she became an alcoholic, and that's how he became a digestively-challenged doormat. "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt." he would quote in a fake hillbilly accent. It became a challenge to balance the need for companionship, the need to enjoy the good things they did have together, with the desire to improve, to reach perfection.

Perfection wasn't an achievable goal, of course, but should have acted as a target to shoot for. Unfortunately, when he saw the vast distance between reality and perfection, any achievements they did make seemed small and unimportant. He took no lasting joy in progress, but did take lasting sorrow in defeats. It wasn't an atmosphere that was encouraging to either one of them.

Perfectionism killed his musical interests. At one point, he played the guitar and clarinet and saxophone and recorder and banjo and mandolin, and piddled about on keyboard. He wrote songs, and even the score for a friend's musical. He wanted to really learn the piano, and play like Jerry Lee Lewis, but couldn't abide anyone to hear him practice. He had a pleasant voice, on the rare occasions he could stay on key, but he couldn't stand to know anyone was listening to him sing. He wanted to play the violin, but couldn't imagine lasting through the years of tortured-cat noises he'd have to generate to be able to carry a fiddle tune.

Perfectionism killed his writing interests. When he first fell in love with Laura, he wrote her poetry. Years later, when he re-read his efforts, he laughed ruefully and destroyed them, thinking that his poems were tripe and drivel. Every now and then he'd write a short entry in his journal. Once he wrote a fable in a series of installments, a fable which mirrored his frustrations with not being able to reach Laura in her defensive prison of self-abuse. When he realized, only a few weeks into the story, that there seemed to be no way of ending the story in his lifetime, he dropped it. It was astonishing to him, but some other folks on the journal web site were very upset with him, since he had left them hanging in the middle of a compelling story.

Perfectionism killed his cartooning, and it killed his photography. He never considered himself a visual artist, but every now and then he hit upon something. The vast volume of crap in between the triumphs discouraged him, and so he destroyed his cartoons, and threw out most of his pictures.

Perfectionism killed his wood carving, and his model building. "What use is trying, after all, if you are not striving for excellence?" he would say, and put away his tools. Of course, Excellence is not Perfection.

Perfectionism killed his autocross racing hobby, and his interest in restoration of old cars. He always lost, or made the problem worse, or the car uglier.

Perfectionism even killed the electronics / amateur radio hobby that he had inherited from his wise grandfather. He got quite frustrated at his attempts to build a kit or repair an old radio, and beat himself up over every slip of the tongue or key while transmitting. Soon he suffered microphone fright, forgot the Morse code, and put the kits on the shelf. No chance of failure if you don't try!

A big problem with Perfectionism is that it concentrates on the end product, instead of the process taken to get there. If that were extended to life itself, there would be no reason to keep living after the first mistake! He didn't consider what he had learned during these hobbies, a huge body of helpful, practical information and problem-solving techniques.

Perfectionism nearly killed his pool, too, but he had enough accidental flashes of brilliance that he was encouraged to continue. There was almost guaranteed drinking during pool games, and that helped too, at least so it seemed.

He stopped for lunch in Indianapolis, Indiana, heartland of formula one American racing, a sport so wholesome they drank milk at the finish line. That was, of course, until NASCAR and the good old boys took over the public's mind share. NASCAR, of course, came from a different tradition, namely the moonshine runners of the Southern Appalachians. Mark and Laura's shrink used to natter on about NASCAR, as a great sport he would share with his children (though, oddly, not his wife). He did admit from time to time that NASCAR drivers were supremely unhealthy, living on the edge of death. He implied, though didn't admit directly, that NASCAR *fans* were also unhealthy. The vast majority drank to excess and smoked cigarettes, and even more of them over ate.

Mark stopped for gas in Terre Haute. He could see a glass booth near the pumps, and at first thought it was the usual photomatic punk-in-a-box cashier system. However, when he approached the glass, the occupant was instead none other than Stiffy Green the Bulldog. He chuckled as he read the plaque explaining this concrete canine: Evidently he had been part of John Heinhl's mausoleum, after he died sometime in the 1920s. The cemetery was also used as a Lover's Lane, and the teenagers would shine their flashlights through the door of the crypt, to see the reflection from Stiffy's green glass eyes. They developed a legend, saying it was the actual stuffed remains of the loyal dog who had laid on his master's grave until he too succumbed. Such was the hot nightlife in Terre Haute, Indiana. The sign continued to explain that the statue of Stiffy was being stored here temporarily while the Vigo County Museum was being renovated, and prompted the reader to make a cash donation in honor of the Stiffy Tradition. Also hanging around the walls of the glass booth were T-Shirts that could be purchased from the attendant. They had witty sayings such as "Everybody Loves Stiffy", "Stiffy Is as Stiffy Does", and "It's Hard to Keep a Good Stiffy Down", with pictures of the bulldog underneath. Mark decided he really didn't want to think about it, and climbed back into the Fiat.

He stopped for the night at a Super 8 motel in Collinsville, Illinois, home of the giant ketchup bottle. It had been almost 500 miles since he got up that morning. He thought to himself, "I might even be getting somewhere, you never know." He walked across the street to the convenience store, and bought a microwave sandwich, a bag of barbeque chips, paid, and went out the door. Suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks, and sighed. He turned around, went back into the convenience store, and bought a very large bottle of very cheap "screw-top" wine. Feeling the weight of his years and his experiences, of his dashed hopes and dreams, dragging on every bone, he trudged back to his room, and opened the bottle.

The wine splashed into the plastic cup, the acrid odor burning his nostrils. He took the first sip, a shiver of disgust running through his body. The first sip of cheap wine was always the worst. He took another, swishing it around in his mouth, and gargling, to kill off any nerves that might convey the chemicals laughingly called "flavor" in this context.

He was afraid to turn on the TV, afraid that Nick and Jack would be there, again, mocking him. After a few refills of the disposable plastic cup, he did begin to think about Natasha. Those legs, those lips. He could almost taste her again. God, she was something. What a damned fool he was, not responding that night at the pool hall. A fool, certainly, not a man.

So what if she was a demoness? It couldn't be worse than those years with Rhiannon, could it? At least 'Tasha wasn't frigid. Far from it, she was as hot as they came. Tears welled up in his eyes, as he downed another cup of wine. He cried out, "Why, why, why, why?" and slammed his forehead repeatedly into his palm. His elbow was resting on the built-in counter that was hanging off the wall, and the force of impact was transmitted through his arm, through the table, and into the wall as a series of thumps, where they resonated loudly. He heard a return set of thumps, and an angry voice shouting, "Because. You. Are. An. Asshole. Now. Shut. The. F***. Up!"

Embarrassed, Mark slumped back on the bed, tossed aside the cup, and poured the rest of the bottle of wine down his throat. The room spun, faster, and faster, until blackness descended. He had no dreams that night.

Article © John Trindle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-08-25
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