An only child struggles with fulfilling his deceased father’s plan for exacting revenge…

“And on it goes as on we go” -Steven Mumford

Five years after my grandfather’s passing, I walked by my father’s room to steal a glance of him, hoping he would be peacefully sleeping, perhaps to recapture some better memories.  Lying alone eyes open toward the doorway, he gently jetted his chin and beckoned me in. His hands quivered above the blankets as I approached his bedside.   Taking my hand, he managed to look into my eyes……..

“I have reconciled my life and I’m now prepared to go, except for one thing, which I’m leaving with you to resolve.  I know, until then, “we” will both be forever locked in this merciless purgatory.”

With that, he beckoned me to take his personal satchel, saying it would soon all become clearer. Voice shaking now almost whispering into my ear, “promise me you’ll finish the assignment”.  Although I had no idea what that meant (as in the past two months many things he said were random thoughts at best), I could not refuse him and with my acknowledgment, I painfully watched his eyes slowly drift back into the grip of his death bed.

The next two days ushered in the inevitable carnival of loss and tears. There was no formal service.  Mom, some neighbors and I struggled through the awkward silence in our modest back yard. What food that was offered remained untouched as random napkins blew across the crab grass lawn into the untrimmed hedge.  Mom and I later alone scattered his ashes over the rose garden at the side of our mountain bungalow.  I tried to focus on the brighter moments when he seemed happy and how he was always there to provide counsel when needed.  I am not proud to admit that I had temporarily forgotten the promise made to him and void was any attempt by me to understand or even investigate the contents of his satchel.

“My Father’s Only Scorn”

In my teens I often daydreamed of driving my dad’s VW bus east on route 66 until ending up in Chicago to make a run at being a blues musician ……….but now that the bus was indeed mine, it instead would be rolling me north to The University of Oregon, where like my father had, I would study the discipline of writing screenplays with Professor Mark Clifton.

Mark Clifton, now in his thirty-second year at the UofO, was a renowned scholar and screenwriter.   He was detested by my father, who never forgave the Professor for “cashing in” on my father’s idea while being under the professor’s tutelage.

When into his cups, my father often ranted on that the professor’s biggest commercial success ever, “The Water’s Edge”, was my father’s original (yet lost) work titled “Osmosis”  “Stolen by that Sponge, who never had an original thought in his life”.  Professor Clifton, through my upbringing, was often cited as being solely responsible for every shortcoming and misfortune ever to fall upon my family.

“This Particular Journey of Now and Forever”

In a tearful farewell, my Mother handed me my father’s satchel (again forgotten), reminding me, that although he was considered an extremely talented writer, to always remember that I was uniquely my own person. Backing out onto the gravel and dirt, I gave a final wave goodbye, lasting only a hundred yards down the mountain road until having to pull over and sob in the moment, like the child I was.  The warmth of the sun still hitting my arm through the open window of the bus, gifted me the baked in scent of the surrounding eucalyptus trees.  I knew I didn’t want to leave the comfort and serenity of the San Gabriels, but simultaneously knew it was time.  My mothers grief only seemed lessened by knowing I was on to something else, escaping the entrapments of a life that for her had come up short.

I would have turned back right then except for the relentless encouragement/expectations of my parents over the years to make this particular journey, which now and seemingly forever had been much more for them than me.  This had nothing to do with my grandfather’s guitar in the back of the bus…..but was more for what they had saved and sacrificed for.  I resolved that at a minimum, I owed them an earnest attempt to fulfill “their” vision for me.

With that, I spread out the AAA road map and hi-lighted my route with an old yellow felt tip.  Laying the map on top of my fathers satchel in the passenger seat, I gave a quick turn to the ignition,  slipped into first gear and started out in the opposite direction of “my” dream until finding the exit north up the 101.  Ahead now laid a thousand miles of concrete carpeting my approach to the green and wet Willamette Valley, Deady Hall and  the “Sponge” himself, Professor Mark Clifton……….

“Day One, on the 101”

Heat reigned under the inversion of the greater L.A. basin’s bowl of dingy smog.  After two hours on the road, the repeating cartoon-like background of car dealerships, fast-food restaurants and billboards finally began to space out until, at last, I pierced the vast horizontal city’s sphere of influence.  Successful escape from the grip of everything left behind, emboldened me and for a brief moment, I felt capable of anything, perhaps even turning east towards Chicago……. but the familiarity of the Pacific to the west and the lazy rolling golden hills of Southern California on my right, silently weaved into a hold on my commitment,  squeezing me further north towards (unbeknownst to me) a series of events which had been meticulously orchestrated by my dying father in his final year.

“King of Eugene”

From his third floor office window at Deady Hall, Professor Clifton had an elevated view of the students walking the puddled streets under Eugenes’s wet evening skies. Late September’s heavy mist spewed over and through the dim yellow light draping off the street lamps, splashing out until framing the red alder and maple trees lining East 11th. The aging professor raised his beveled crystal glass of vintage scotch to warm his cold bones while catching a glimpse of his reflection in the age old window pane by his desk. He proposed a silent toast to himself and his hopeful return to the tremendous successes of his earlier years.

Secure in tenure, yet desperate for new and dynamic profit, the professor imagined “his” incoming students having the potential to feed “his” empty inventory of fresh ideas for screenplays.  He had lived lavishly over the past several years and now was desperate for something large, different and new to help maintain the lifestyle he had grown so accustomed to.

“On the Road Again”

With a simple punch of “L14”, the swirling coil slowly and methodically delivered a small bag of corn nuts and to my delight, the large vending machine just next door rendered a Dr. Pepper to complete the perfect snack.  Now, officially good to go, I made an easy access back onto the highway and felt confident I would make Salinas by nightfall.

Fast food chains gave way to fruit stands, vacant billboards and old boarded up motels. Slow trucks passed the even slower trucks, leaving behind them the stench of livestock in transit towards their future as breakfast sandwiches. Other travelers out pacing me seemed to be using questionable ingenuity, stacking anything salvageable onto their trucks or rooftops in transporting their random possessions north.

Occasionally, broken yellow lines on the hills would offer up death defying passing lanes for those insane enough to try.  I imagined which would be worse, death via avalanche of everything falling off of the vehicle in front of me or having a head on collision with a Mac truck suddenly coming around the bend towards me in the opposite direction.

Even though having missed two rest areas and a gas stop to make up time, my optimism about getting to Salinas before dark was diminishing. Thick fog had now entered the equation grinding me down to a crawl.  I kept fixed on the taillights of the large trailer truck just ahead as my only reference to the concrete below.  Finally I gave into the dismal prospect of running out of gas or crashing…. downshifting to second gear, the balding tires of the three times rebuilt VW bus gave into the dirt and gravel at the side of the road as I slowed to a full stop. With no idea of where I was, the reverberations of the road still playing in my head, I awkwardly climbed into the back of the bus and blindly pushed all my gear to one side until making space for my surrender to the darkness.

“Dawn’s Surprise”

Voices of  laborers working outside merged with the rising temperature inside the bus to awaken me.  Everyone seemed to be laughing, as they stole peeks of me opening the sliding door,  letting in morning’s brightness.  Narrowly maneuvering through the area between the open door and fence bordering a tomato field, I nimbly sidestepped over the pebbled dirt with eyes half closed around to the front of the bus, revealing why everyone was having fun at my expense…..twenty yards ahead was an open 24 hrs gas station and convenience store hosting a huge lighted parking lot, which eight hours earlier, was simply a part of the great opaque unknown.

Negotiating the spillage of an overflowing trash can at the entrance to the market,  I spotted a giant map of California on the wall inside exhibiting an extraordinary large red dot which amazingly said Salinas, with just under it…..”YOU ARE HERE”. To the right was a sketch showing a farmer on his tractor driving east along a small straight line of artichokes until forming a right angle to I- 5 which efficiently lead north up to the Oregon border.  The cities and towns above Salinas had the names and claims of the gold rush days, depicting mostly pictures of miners, lumberjacks and fishermen in waders, all displaying “milk commercial” plastic smiles staring out into space.  Clutching my freshly acquired bag of corn nuts and chilled Doctor Pepper, I half smiled…. “next stop, Weed”.

 “Into the Clutches of Darkness…….”

No longer on the horizon, the large cloud banks above released thick bands of rain over me as I slowly climbed through the swaths of evergreen.  The windshield wipers, rotted by years of sunshine, smeared the splattered bugs across the pitted glass, blurring my vision.  Sturdier and longer bridges were increasingly necessary to span the wild, wider rivers flowing westward to the Pacific.  Gone were the lazy golden oak and cow dotted hills of Southern California and her conveniently placed rest stops between the feed lots and farm fields.

The long, slow (potentially overheating) climb in third gear up I-5 peaked just beyond the border amongst the giant Douglas-fir, before finding the “trucks use low gear” freedom fall into the great northern state of Oregon. I Followed the powerful runoff along the road down the steep hill until again finding the darkened thick fog waiting in the valley below.  The scents of lumber mills at work seeped through the wet rolled up windows of the mud caked bus, leaving a new and ever present fragrance unique only to the Pacific Northwest.

Except for being so tired and low on gas, I would have pushed on through the night, but the fear of what might not be beyond the darkened forests and dim city lights of Medford, reigned me in and spurred my search for a place to park and call it a night.  Eugene could wait a little longer, until I could make my approach on hopefully clearer, dryer roads in the light of day.

“Welcome to the Emerald City”

Sharp blue sky contrasted the cold and wet shaded walkways of Eugene.  Fast moving clouds filtered almost crystal-like reflections off of the abundant autumn trees thriving along the roadways leading to campus.  Warmly clad students were everywhere making preparations for the Fall quarter at the University of Oregon.  The cleanliness and clarity of the air was truly overwhelming.  I felt I was entering a lumber scented alternate universe, fascinated by a brilliance I’d seldom sensed since the times shared with my Grandfather on our secret San Gabriel plateau.

Amazed at the ease with which I found a parking space next to the Co-op bookstore became less so when I noticed the parking meter in front of my space.  Having spent my last vestige of change on a vending machine in Weed, I looked around for help.  A VERY attractive girl hosting inquisitive eyes and cheshire smile was coming my way.  I asked if she might have change for a dollar bill.  After examining her purse, she exclaimed all she had was fifty cents.  As that was all I needed, I offered to make the trade to which she obliged.  Thanking her, I went to insert the quarters and looking back again our smiles met with the shared turn of our heads.

Only having an hour, I quickly went to the bookstore and amongst other items, purchased a map of the campus to help find my way around.  When getting back into the bus, just about to close the door, I heard a voice calling out coming towards me.  It was the girl with the cheshire smile holding two quarters out in her hand.  I awkwardly said that it wasn’t necessary, but she insisted after which I took them and thanked her before saying goodbye. Sitting in the drivers seat, opening up the map that would lead me to my dorm, I wondered, why didn’t I use that moment to pursue more conversation with such an accommodating and attractive girl?

Later that night I sat dumbfounded in my single sparse dorm room.  While trying unsuccessfully to see through an excuse for a window to the outdoors I took in the bare dimly lit walls surrounding me and considered grabbing my flannel and venturing outside into the evening mist on chance of bumping again into the girl with the cheshire smile.  Going toward the door, out of habit, I grabbed my guitar, initially intending to relocate it to a safer resting spot, but instead found a quick seat and allowed for the reunion of fingers and string until finding again the melody of my Grandfather.  I slept that night fully clothed, never having gone out, on a bare mattress, shoes still on, without reservation or consequence.

“Just the Three of Us”

It felt odd, being excited about attending a reception at the invitation of the family nemesis, but since my arrival the day before, any break in the solitude of my room at the DeBusk Bean Common was welcome.  The evening walk across campus felt like a scene out of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.  Dense fog floated over the old buildings and trees.  Moonlight merged with the light off the street lamps and windows into my hood covered eyes.  I had tried without success to avoid the puddles along the sidewalk and now had one shoe audibly sloshing up the steps of Deady Hall. Entering the reception area of the old victorian building, I welcomed the heated room hosting the event.

Just to the right of the entrance, standing next to a darkly stained antique table, was who I presumed to be Professor Clifton, shaking hands with a small line of new comers.  I chose to bypass, for now, our inevitable meeting and with one shoe squeaking, ventured deeper into the room until finding a seat along at the back of the miniature indoor amphitheater.

The Professor, although older in his years had retained a younger look.  His face framed by longer gray hair and steel rimmed glasses worked with the his style of dress.  A sport coat complimented an untucked shirt giving him the air of confidence that, for his age and station in life, likely would have sufficed for most occasions.

After a few moments of pleasantries, Professor Clifton politely, but firmly, asked everyone to find a seat. He walked over to a door at the side of the room and slightly opened it up, putting his head through to briefly speak to someone on the other side.  Returning to the front of the room, the Professor introduced himself and got right into the structure and detail of what he promised to be an exciting quarter exploring successful screenplay writing.

The side door slowly opened and a girl in heels carrying a stack of booklets up to her forehead emerged and amazingly with balance and grace began handing them out to to the first people in each font row for passing back.  As the stack diminished, the girl with the cheshire smile incredibly came into view.  Not seeing me, she walked back towards the professor.  Lightly putting her hand on his arm, their eyes met briefly before she turned towards the class and with the same signature engaging smile our surprised eyes “seemed” to meet confirming my sense of first impression…..

“This is my assistant, Alina Wright.  You’ll be seeing a lot of her, as I’m sure we will all be working very closely together this quarter”.  I began to wonder if my imagination was again afoot. Was she indeed smiling at me alone as the Professor ran on at the mouth, or was I was just part of a signature gaze into a blur of new arrivals filling the seats of the historical classroom?

The class was instructed to review the syllabus/booklet before Monday’s first meeting and we were told to secure a recurring appointment through Alina for a weekly one on one with Professor Clifton.  After a few more minor details we were dismissed.  Several students got out of their seats and surrounded the Professor and Alina, while I choose to quickly duck out, strangely feeling jealous over the Professors’s knowing my first encounter in the Emerald City before me.

“The Assignment”

Billows of white clouds passed through the darkness, providing intermittent windows to the glittering stars overseeing my slosh back to the dorm. I was again mesmerized by the wavy reflections bouncing yellow figures off the puddles along East 11th avenue. Nearing my dorm, light gusts of wind delivered showers of fragile autumn leaves, falling on me and covering the sidewalk leading back to the dormitory complex.

Without acknowledgement from any of my peers, wet and humbled, I unlocked the door to my room.  Feeling around in the dark along the wall I finally managed to turn the light on. A single low watt bulb fixture revealed the disarray of what little gear I had spewed about the barren room.

I took off my only pair of wet shoes and momentarily in earnest considered canning college altogether.  Before, in times like this, when I felt like giving up, my father would be there to help me find my way.  Without his presence, all I had was this satchel and his dying request to “finish the assignment”.  Needing comfort, I picked up his customized briefcase,  thinking it silly to believe his wisdom and remedy would be contained inside….. I pulled the content out and immediately noted the title page with large bold red letters…. “THE SPONGE”  – a tale of revenge from beyond the grave – by Simon Birdsong.

Why would he give me credit for something I hadn’t done?  An introductory paragraph was followed by a chapter outline for a screenplay which was essentially about the demise of Professor Clifton.

The scenes were crafted with such morbid detail that I was, at first, embarrassed by the depth of wrath my father must have felt for the man he called “The Sponge”….. but the structure of the work met exactly the requirements of the class as discussed earlier at the reception.  Indeed the assignment, except for the final chapter, had been completed.  My only contribution to the assignment would be to find a way to finish the final chapter of the screenplay.

“The Girl with the Cheshire Smile”

Alina Wright only knew rural Tennessee until the day she left with her “first and only” to attend the University of Oregon. Together they were going to forge their shared dream of getting “real jobs” and saving enough money to afford a house on the magnificent Oregon coast. Life would be perfect and plentiful. True love would abound and endure any storm for ever and ever.

Early college years led to deep and emotional changes for her first sweetheart, until he ultimately veered away to another who would support his new less material pursuits in life as a starving artist.

Now alone, an attractive girl of twenty-two, Alina stayed the course to what was now her vision alone.  She was locked in and vigilantly determined to fulfill her definition for success.  Alina Wright would have that “cabin on the coast” magazine cover lifestyle…. surrounded by two golden retrievers and at least as many adoring children, strolling along the sand, collecting seashells, never late in preparing six o’clock dinner for her perfect family.

Always surveying the campus for potential candidates to compliment her quest, Alina had methodically, over time, tried out different players for the part.  She had become quite well versed in the art of capturing and retaining a man’s attention and currently, Professor Upton was her prime target.

“Bank Visit”

“My hands are tied Mark.  I simply cannot justify upping the construction loan on the beach house. I know you are in the middle of the project, but your changes and embellishments have taken you way over budget. Without selling your residence or raising some capital elsewhere, you simply do not qualify for the increase you desire.  I understand it’s too late to scale down, but it’s just the way things are today. Possibly you might find another partner?  It just can’t be us.  I’m so sorry.”

Professor Clifton walked toward his three year old Audi, eyes fixed on the Fall leaves submerged amongst the mini lakes in the parking lot.  What would he tell Alina who was waiting in the car purveying the artists renderings of the 3800 square foot beachfront “craftsman” at Cannon Beach.  The foundation almost complete, her nesting instincts and plans for “interior design meets family” were exponentially kicking in.  She thought of everything she had endured to get to this point and was becoming increasingly solidified in her belief that Professor Clifton would be the one to deliver the happy ending to her life’s plan.

“And then there were Four”

In happier times my father once eluded to the beauty of the Oregon coast and shared that he might someday like to live in Manzanita, spending his twilight watching storms approach the driftwood and sand from the front porch of his beach house.  I had always been curious if our sense of the village would match up, so with two days left until classes, not having much else to do, I grabbed my guitar, my Dad’s satchel and headed out on a solo trek to the Pacific.

Feeling pretty good about bypassing the entrapments of Portland, I pushed west past the bridge city towards the coast until the familiar gnawing of “snack deprivation” set in.  I accepted that finding corn nuts and a Dr. Pepper along the westbound wooded highway would be more daunting than when in SoCal., but after some time on the road, a Mom&Pop store shaded in an alcove of Douglass-fir looked inviting enough.  Coming to a stop amongst a blanketed collage of trees, I was greeted in the parking area by a brown eyed Irish setter sitting alone at the base of the wooden stairway leading up to the store.  After sliding open the side door of the bus to grab my flannel, I paused to reciprocate with the greeter.  With a quick pet we shared immediately, without words, our commonality of being alone and out in the cold.

A wood burning stove was being stoked by a pleasant older bearded man next to the counter.  While successfully locating my snack, I commented, “nice dog out front”.  He responded, “he got left behind by some travelers a couple of days ago and I’ve been watching over him, but he just sits and sleeps out there like he’s waiting for them to come back…it’s kind of sad really.”

When returning to my car, the dog, looking straight ahead, was sitting in the front passenger seat of my bus. Without having to give it a second thought, I closed the sliding door, got in the drivers seat and looked over taking in the profile of my new companion.  He didn’t waiver and continued scanning the horizon through the front window.  Going in and out of a pant he nervously awaited my decision.  When I turned on the ignition, he looked over and our eyes again met with a bond like before, but now both feeling a little bit warmer.

Backing up, I waived goodbye to the approving smile of the old store owner watching from the porch and again looked over to the passenger seat.   Sensing no remorse, we hit the road.  In between shifting gears, I opened up the corn nuts with my teeth and offered up some kernels to my newly acquired four legged friend.  We crunched together in silent contentment as we glided westward along the picturesque forested road towards the source of my fathers rarely shared dream.  I knew at that moment my newest companion’s name would be Martin.

“The Girl in the Curl”

Just beyond the tall grass bordering our path to the pacific, I could hear the sounds of seagulls over water.  The scents of the Oregon coast grew stronger joining the audible crashing of the blown out waves against the hard sand and granite. White foam loudly rushed up the banks of the empty beach, reaching out to retrieve the small clusters of driftwood and crabs laying about the softer sand, seaweed and rocks.

As we hit the beach, Martin took off across the enormous field of white sand towards another dog, to join in greeting a wet suited surfer coming out of the water.  Approaching the two at lightning speed, Martin downshifted as the surfer’s hand extended towards him in accepting fashion, the other dog, beyond tail wagging, excitedly joined in on the friendly meet.  After some jump ups, licks and more helicopter turning of the tails, the two dogs launched north sprinting through the thin receding water towards a giant rock peninsula jetting out into the sea.

By the time I got to the surfer (intending to apologize for Martin) the dogs had disappeared into a distant low wasp of fog combing the ground.  With a peeling of the hood off the wet suit, shoulder length locks of hair feel to the shoulders of the laughing/smiling twenty-something surfer girl.  Before I could manage to say something, we heard the sound of paws pounding the hard wet sand, approaching at full throttle…..we braced, laughing together, as the two passed by, just missing us.

Untypical of me, within our first ten minutes together, I shared my name and an abbreviated summary of where I earnestly was in the moment.  I let out the passing of my father, the circumstance of me and Martin and my soon to begin “lost pursuit” as a writer at the University of Oregon.  Sara reciprocated in kind, explaining her life and love for Oregon’s coastline since birth and after losing her parents in an accident when she was eighteen, not being able to imagine life outside surfing and the tranquility of living with her dogs and friends in Manzanita.  It simultaneously seemed natural, extraordinary and peculiar to exchange so much so fast in a first meet.

Our conversation was again interrupted by the slow return of the two soaked and sandy canines, tongues to the ground looking for attention…..Sara suggested we all go to her cabin for some warmth and water.  I separated from the three wet ones to bring the bus up the beach road to the house.  When I arrived, everyone had sprayed off the sand at an outdoor shower rigged by the side entrance to the small beach cottage.  Sara playfully towel dried Martin, while his friend shook off the last remnants of water before entering the cabin through an already open door.

As the fog thickened I almost grabbed my Grandfather’s Indian blanket and guitar out of the back of the bus, but hesitated thinking it too presumptuous.  Instead I grabbed my only (now wrinkled) hooded flannel before joining everyone inside.

The wood shingles on the exterior of the cabin were extremely weathered. The white trim around the water beaded windows was in need of caulking and paint which contrasted the finished warmth and comfort revealed once entering.  An abundance of natural light shinned in through a line of floor to ceiling paned windows at the front of the house providing a small source of heat as well as an expansive view across the front porch to the beach and surf.

Sara set bowls of water down for the dogs and began attending another older lab lying on a blanket by the fireplace.  She asked if I could grab some fresh wood from the sheltered stack outside the kitchen door and help restore the fire.  Looking back I saw the two younger dogs walk up to pay respect to the elder left inside during their fun romp outside.  I admired how they found spots next to her around the fireplace.

An incredible sunset complimented the meal and mood provided by Sara, reminding me of the ease of being in the company of my Grandfather.  I wanted to share my reasons for feeling such contentment, perhaps some guitar and stories of our adventures together, but was so overwhelmed by the the moment and felt taking any initiative might interrupt the perfect flow of the evening.

When darkness came I remarked through speaking to Martin that it was likely time for us to go.  Sara suggested that because of how hard it was now raining that maybe we should consider staying over.  While I tried not to appear too excited by the prospect, Sara continued her thought….”you could  stay in your bus and keep it parked here in the driveway.”  Still happy for the prospects of another day with her company and adventure, I accepted the invitation and prepared for a solo night in the bus under the Indian blanket.

Before closing the front door in exit, I motioned to Martin “time to go buddy”.  He slightly lifted his head and barely perked his ears before retuning to the “I’m fine right here” position by the warm hearth.  Sara said “really no worries, he’ll be fine” and with that I shut the door on an otherwise perfect night.

“Next Day at Manzanita”

It took a long time to find sleep that night.  I couldn’t get over the quick churning of events.  Being at my father’s dream beach, the journey to the northwest, my first friend in Eugene being connected to my family’s arch rival, Martin and now Sara…..all circled around in my head.

Well into the wet evening, I remained sleepless and cold in the back of the bus.   I struggled to stay warm under my grandfather’s blanket.  I thought of layering on more clothing, turning on the light to go over my father’s convenient yet disturbing screenplay/remedy to my first assignment at college.  The “why in my name” and his last plea for me to promise to “finish the assignment” kept working its way back into my relentless circle of thoughts…..I concluded it was too late and cold to weave his hypnotic cynical darkness into my current hopeful state of mind.

Sleep finally did come and stayed with me well into mid morning.  I awoke to a bright sun conquering the old torn curtains draped sloppily across the side windows of the bus all contributing to the crescendo of intolerable heat inside.  I could hear the dogs excitedly barking with the seagulls at whatever was in front of them…..  Feeling hot and left out, I got up.

Anxious to find everyone, but wanting to be comfortable, I took the liberty to go through the open door into the house to use the bathroom and immediately noticed a pile of dry mens clothing next to a wallet on the kitchen table.  After answering “nature’s call”, I ventured out into a pleasant breeze crossing the warm sand towards what now was a crowd of four dogs surrounding Sara and another surfer by their boards.  Getting closer, I could hear an animated male voice imploring Martin to fetch a stick of driftwood with Sara joining in laughing as she pet the elder lab laying at her side.

Martin tore by my outstretched hands without even noticing me, half crazed in pursuit of the stick in flight as I came upon Sara and her friend.  A male surfer, who I presumed to be associated with the clothing in the house was a fit thirty-something with steel eyes and conservatively cropped hair hosting a smile much like the people on the wall map in Salinas.  Upon being introduced to Jonathan, a friend and veterinarian from outside Portland, he was quick to complement Martin as being a very smart dog, noting in his best “professional voice” how congenial he was for his breed and surroundings.

Sara seemed as equally at ease with the circumstances of my meeting Jonathan as she was with our first encounter.  She showed no signs of sensing any discomfort I may of had, which I must admit, I did and was trying very hard to disguise.  Although I knew well that I had no claims on anyone or anything, I could not deny my sense of letdown and as is typical of me, I abruptly made an excuse for having to get on the road back to Eugene.

I looked to Martin and again asked him to join me.  This time he came by my side, shadowing my stride back across the sand toward the bus until suddenly stoping and sitting down.  His eyes met mine which propagated an instant understanding much like our first encounter.  Martin had found home and seemed to be asking me to let him stay.  I kneeled down and with both hands scratched his ears saying without words that it was ok, not letting on that it wasn’t for me.  I turned back long enough to see his tail in helicopter mode running back towards his new family of friends.  Sara’s goodbye waving hand, even at fifty yards, seemed to convey, (no worries, he’ll be fine).  Driving back towards Eugene I felt invisible, alone and stupid, with only the hasty promise made to my dying father left to give me any direction.

“Jonathan Trembly”

Jonathan Trembly was named after his father, a world renowned heart surgeon.  Seven years Sara’s senior, he had spent every summer for as long as he could remember watching her grow up at the beach while vacationing at his parents “cabin” on the shore at Manzanita.  Somewhere between little league baseball, cotillion and high school graduation, Jonathan’s perception of Sara evolved with the progressing seasons each year.  Even as an only child at twenty-six he remembered looking forward to times at the coast, knowing Sara would be there.

Although Jonathan’s parents in recent years had started to invite the Stantons and their daughter Martha over for long weekends, it was the younger Sara who continued to capture his imagination.  It seemed all of Jonathan’s formal training/upbringing had failed to convince him that happiness would be best attained while being amongst “his own”.  Martha’s dad was in the Young Presidents’ Organization and mom a volunteer at the hospital with the other ladies from PEO….in short, Jonathan’s parents felt Martha was the perfect fit for him and their circles.

The Stantons lived in the hills of Southwest Portland, five streets over from the Jonathan’s parents, sharing an equally spectacular view of Mt. Hood and the city below.  Jonathan had recollections of attending Martha’s twelfth birthday party and going over to her house on Christmas Eves, singing carols with the Tidwell’s, Langley’s and other old neighborhood families…. everyone dressing in their best blazers, wingtips and button downs.  He would recognize some of the mom’s from his mother’s Thursday bridge club, all drinking wine in the living room while the men consumed bourbon fireside in the study, jousting over who knew more about the stock market and football.

Jonathan’s first beer (along with a lot of other “firsts”) was at the Stantons whenever either or both parents were away for the weekend.  He had always felt secure amongst his tribe of extraordinary achievers and never once envisioned his life as being anything other than an abundance of fun and success, partying while building and enjoying his assets into the twilight years.

Jonathan survived the masses of biology majors at U.C. Davis to gain entrance to Veterinary School and until recently opening his practice in Portland, had stayed true to his pilgrimages to Manzanita each summer.  The selection of available candidates for spouse thinned or thickened depending on the parameters in Jonathan’s mind on any given day.  This particular summer though, he had finally narrowed it down to one and would wrestle into late September on how to pursue his quest in the matter of matrimony.  Sara was to be his “cherrie on top”. He had worked a great deal of his young adult life preparing for this moment and never imagined her saying no.

Not caring what his parents would think about bringing the younger “beach girl” into the family, Jonathan planned to invite Sara to go with him to a conference he would be attending in a few weeks at the University of Oregon .  His plan was to propose on their drive back to Manzanita, where he had picked the perfect spot to stop along the river at sunset to ask her hand in marriage.

Sara obliged his invitation (never entertaining his intent) thinking it had been awhile since she had been to Eugene and that it might be fun to share some lite moments with her “adopted older brother”, Jonathan.

 “Lunch on Campus”

Alina gently placed her hand on Mark’s shoulder and asked how it went inside the bank.  He paused and decided to lie….. “everything was on track, the house should be ready by next summer’s end”.  Subtly, she repositioned her hand on the back of his neck while asking if she might meet the project foreman regarding some interior design ideas.  The professor suggested that maybe for now they should concentrate on preparing for the incoming students and the one on one meetings, as he wanted things to “run smoothly” and with that they agreed to have a working lunch at Deady Hall on campus.

Inside the office, while sharing a salad, Professor Upton got into the specifics of how he wanted the one on one meetings to go.  He was adamant that Alina’s first task would be to make copies of what each student turned in and input everything received into the office computer.  It was tantamount that the Professor had the ability to “edit” the students’ works so he could make “suggestions” as to any alterations that could be made to make the screenplay “more effective”.

Alina immediately understood her directive and assured the Professor not to worry,  knowing the time was not right at the moment to shape further the pursuits of her dream and their future life together.

“Back to School”

Sunlight danced with the shadows playing in and out of the tree limbs along the highway.  Occasionally, long bands of light would spot the dust particles kicking up off the road.  Pick up trucks, driven by local fly fisherman, occupied the choice turnouts near the contours of the stream flowing westward along the side of the road.

I reached into the glove compartment and randomly pulled out one of my fathers old tapes…..

“Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…….”

My mind wandered with the melody until finding my Father. He came to me in such an unfamiliar way……Without advise or direction, he seemed to be simply laying out the consequences of his life.  Now seeing some of his dream first hand, I began to comprehend his biting cynicism and intolerance for Professor Clifton.  Who knew what my fathers/my life may have become had it been the success of “Osmosis” rather than  “The Waters Edge”.  What if it had been my father who gained notoriety at the beginning of his career rather than Mark Clifton?

I uncomfortably began to feel his reasoning for the murder of Professor Clifton in “The Sponge” and why he felt the Professor deserved to die.  It all was becoming hauntingly persuasive to me.  I had only known the professor through my father as the symbol of material gluttony, whose only ambition in life was to be self serving, regardless of cost, with total disregard for others around him.

I began to look forward to our first encounter where I could see the professors eyes as the plot for his demise unfolded in front of him, drawing him further in each week….. seeing himself portrayed for what he was and why he should be murdered…….At a darker level I imagined him fearing that the screenplay could be more than fiction and I took delight in him knowing that I was “onto his formula for success”, carrying on my father’s despise and acute desire for absolute revenge…..When I arrived at the dormitory parking lot, I was greeted only by darkness and given my mood, I now wholeheartedly embraced it all.  It now seemed entirely appropriate that tomorrow we would be meeting for the first time to launch the reconciliation of my father’s and Professor’s affairs.

“First One on One”

Sitting alone in the DeBusk Bean dorm cafeteria, I kept my head down keeping focus, rechecking the parameters of the syllabus confirming the exactness with which my Father had fulfilled the requirements of Professor Upton’ class.  Incredibly, the format hadn’t changed for years and was entirely predictable.  All I would have to do was basically turn in the work and discuss.  I had gotten over “taking credit” for my father’s morbidly dark detail in the storyline and was anxious to meet with the Professor and get the whole process started.

Satchel over my shoulder, I cleared my cup and plate and began the slog across campus towards Deady Hall. While in route, the soupy fog continued its long term occupation of the Willamette Valley quickly erasing my footprints leading to the hall.  Water was slowly dripping from my matted wet hair onto the hard wood floor as I entered the over heated building.

Professor Upton’s office door was open where I could see him inside talking to Alina.  While waiting, I looked around the reception area, spotting a shrine to an old framed movie poster of “The Waters Edge” bordered by two Oscars and several pictures of the professor with celebrities over the past years, accepting awards, celebrating, flaunting the bounties of his varied sweet successes.

Alina came out into the heated reception area and immediately recognized me as the guy needing quarters by the bookstore.  Laughing and as engaging as ever, she asked me if I needed more change.  When I told her that I was there for a scheduled meeting with Professor Upton, she seemed surprised by the lack of congeniality in my demeanor and remarked, ….”Oh, so YOU’RE Simon Birdsong, the professor was just saying that you might be related to one of his former students?”

Her shine amongst all my darkness momentarily drew me in, but I regrouped to respond matter of factly, that I was Martin Birdsong’s son, indeed a former pupil of the Mr. Clifton.  Her mood quickly downgraded to “Professor’s assistant” and in a lower more formal tone asked me if I had the required material so she could make copies and let the Professor know I’d arrived.

“Send him in”

With a firm handshake (similar to my father’s) Professor Mark Clifton looked me directly in the eye.  My first thought was that he felt genuine and happy to meet me (which in itself was perplexing).  Dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and open (dry) flannel shirt he emoted a relaxed unassuming confidence that I suppose goes with success and security.  I tried hard not to like him.  While still remaining firm in my predisposition, he easily transitioned the conversation into the topic of my father, where I cut him short, informing the Professor of his recent passing.  (What I didn’t say was that my father died of an illness that possibly could have been prevented with the kind of early detection that is only available to those affording proper insurance.)

Alina entered the room, glancing at me briefly with alarmed inquisitive eyes as she placed my copy of the first assignment in front of me on my side of the Professor’s desk. With a much longer look, she, without words, meet the Professor’s eyes with what appeared to be alarm and concern for him as she handed him a copy of my/ (my Father’s) work for “review”.

Professor Clifton, without looking at the paper, asked if I understood the format of the meetings to be that we were going to review the assignments each week together.  Then at the beginning of each subsequent meeting, the Professor’s comments and proposed changes “for the purpose of making the screenplay better” would be inserted. With my acknowledgment of understanding, we got on with it.  Now both our attentions turned to the papers before us. Alina was looking/listening in while typing outside the office. The Professor prompted me to address the short treatment that was to be the first in eight assignments.  I began to read aloud….

ASSIGNMENT 1     Develop a brief treatment for the screenplay in two paragraphs or less. 

                                              “THE SPONGE” – Simon Birdsong

My name is Simon Birdsong.  I am here to avenge the wrong that was done to my father twenty-three years ago by Professor Mark Clifton.  This is a screenplay which will detail the justification and plot to end the Professor’s life as a plagiarist. With each scene, as the play unfolds, Professor Clifton will come to realize that the screenplay is in fact depicting a very real plan for his murder.

Never having had an original thought in his life, our sponge/antagonist, Mark Clifton, will likely follow the details of his demise until he can successfully make the play his own, or suffer the consequence of what could, in his mind, become a work of nonfiction.

After a brief period of silence and unease, The professor broke into uncontrolled laughter, stating that in all his years, he’d never really seen anything quite like this and how “potentially brilliant” it might be, adding I truly must have a lot of my father’s genes.  My head still down on the paper slowly picked up until our eyes locked.  His laughter diminished to silence and at that moment I was certain he understood exactly my intentions and from where they were derived……..

With that, I slowly stood up, turned and walked out of the office, saying just loud enough for him and Alina to hear, “see you next week”.  At the bottom of the steps outside Deady Hall, I could hear the sound of footsteps and Alina’s voice rapidly approaching from behind, this time without quarters……… “What was that all about?”  My response, “How long do you have?”

“How Long We Had”

“How long do yo have?”, evolved from coffee that day to a sharing of mattress and meals for the next week.  As we became intimately involved, we not only shared our dreams and desires, but also (short of telling her who actually wrote it) the details of “The Sponge”.  Now Alina had her own private “preview” (except for the unwritten conclusion) of the story line.

When asked by her what my father was like, my response was basically that he was at times a very sad and jealous man, who felt short changed yet unapologetic for his short comings.  Although earnest in his love for me and my mother, it seemed easier for him to place blame on others, rather than to take the more conventional road to what many might call “success”.  I never really thought he imagined “success” as Professor Clifton may have, but felt his sadness was rooted in that his path did not provide for us as well as other fathers may have.  He chose to excel at what he loved, regardless of monetary gain.

Alina could be as sweet and salty as Dr. Pepper and corn nuts.  Although she had the capacity to embrace from where it was I came, she, without my knowledge, until our final day together had her “eye only on the prize”.

It was typically cold and misting on that morning in Eugene.  The wood burning pot belly stove in Alina’s rented room was in need of fuel, so I left what warmth there was in our thin layer of blankets to search for some wood on the screen porch.  While gathering what wood chips I could muster up, I came upon a crumpled up list/ledger of five names on paper which had been thrown into the wood box for burning.  On that list I found my name positioned at number #2.  Next to my name was a list of attributes, some to the left of a line some to the right.  On the right were “handsome, funny, smart, very “compatible”.  On the left was uncertain future.

After briefly scanning the other “candidates” on the list my eyes found Professor Mark Clifton at the top of the list, with only the attributes “established wealth, easily managed, doable” being noted.

I suppose, then I knew, it was at that moment, on that day, the cheshire smile faded into the salted reality that my father often suspected was the way of the material world.  I could hear his voice letting me know it was time to leave this one.

With that, I gathered my clothes and while getting dressed, Alina asked where I was going.  My response was curt as I handed her the ledger/paper “Anywhere but here”.  As I neared the bus I heard her pathetically cry out, “That was from last week, you’re my new #1….”  I turned the ignition and made my way back to my dorm room at DeBusk Bean, never intending to look back……at least until I couldn’t remember where I had last left my father’s satchel containing the manuscript for “The Sponge”.

“Assignment Two”

When I entered the reception area to the Professor’s office, the movie poster for “The Water’s Edge” had been defaced with the title “Osmosis” spray painted across the glass covered frame and one of the two Oscars was missing.  Alina looked over towards the poster, then towards me and let out a strange chuckle.  I asked if she had seen “my” satchel and was ignored.  Completely disoriented, I nervously entered Professor Clifton’s office to find papers laid out in front of my chair.

Abruptly, without any greeting, the professor stated that he was satisfied with last weeks treatment and was so anxious about “our” next phase, that he had taken the liberty to write a brief introduction.  With that said, he asked me to “try it on for size”…. I began to read…..

ASSIGNMENT 2    What does your central character do to bring about his goal and who or what opposes him?

Wanting to create fear in the reality of my intent, I entered the Professor’s office in the early am before our second meeting and spray painted the title of my Father’s original work “Osmosis” across the poster paying homage to his stolen work.  I then took immense pleasure in lifting “The Sponge’s” Oscar for best screenplay and stuffing it into my father’s satchel where “Oscar” would find a home with his rightful owner.  I wanted there to be absolutely no doubt left in the Professor’s mind that I now had invaded his world, with revenge being my sole intent…..I was even entertaining torching his house with him in it in the dead of night as being one of the several ways I had entertained disposing of him.

Looking up from the paper, I could see confident defiance in his stare. His predictable effort to make “The Sponge” his own wasn’t going to get a rise out of me. He then continued to read my Father’s prose (which now only Alina could have provided him).

At a very early age I realized a need to venture out of the house.  The prevailing despair and darkness in my father’s mood was all encompassing, often sucking me into feeling like, other than my mother, I was his only friend.  I suppose this was the fuel that nurtured such a special relationship for me with my Grandfather, Martin.  We both enjoyed escaping to the outdoors, hiking and taking in the sunshine amongst the San Gabriel Mountains.  If it hadn’t been for our relationship and the goodness in my Grandfather’s tales, I suppose I may have slipped permanently into my Father’s sad dark and all encompassing world.

Only recently, I had figured out that the root of my father’s anxiety emanated from a feeling of being “robbed” of his deserved recognition as a writer and the bounty that went along with it.  The depth of his depression was relentless and possessed him to the bitter end.  In his last effort as a writer,(indeed, one of his few bright spots), he made me the conduit for justifying his existence to the world denied him.   When imagining all of those years, slowly boiling in his reservoir of rage, unable to escape, it seemed to me that the “The Water’s Edge” cruel plagiarism was made without regard for him.  Only a parasite without compassion for anything other than himself could be capable of maneuvering such an act.  My only goal now is to finish the assignment and free my father’s spirit from a life spent unjustly imprisoned by the wretched, undeserving leach, Professor Mark Clifton.

After a pause, collecting his thoughts, Professor Clifton asked if I had any thoughts about  the details of the actual plan for revenge.  My response, “You tell me”……..

On my trek back to the dorm, I felt an understanding of the rage my father felt towards Mark Clifton.  The only tool I had left to quell what was now “my” inner boil/darkness existed in the memories of my grandfather.  The reconciliation of how I got from those moments of love and clarity to my current mindset was overwhelming.  When I reached my room at the dorm, I had finality in my own vision for the ending to “The Sponge”.

“Final Day on Campus”

With the following week came the finality of my decision to leave Eugene behind.  I had now, in my heart, “finished the assignment”.

When I got to Deady Hall, two students temporarily blocked my view to a note posted on the door…..  I could hear them remarking that the police were involved and that they currently weren’t commenting on if the Professor had died in the fire.  With their exit I read the notice.

“Due to the fire at Professor Clifton’s house and the circumstances surrounding it, classes with Professor Clifton have been suspended until further notice.  For further information please contact the Office of the Registrar.”

After finding the door to the Professor’s office locked, I hastily ran back to my dorm room, to contemplate my next move.

The darkness in the small sparse room began to pull me back into my Father’s dark web.  All of my actions to finish my Father’s “final assignment”, were causing me incredible remorse, wondering how I had to come this far into the dark, completely reunited with my father, unquestionably placing blame squarely on the Professor and his vile pursuit of anything fulfilling his materialistic self indulgence.  I had felt absorbed in exposing him until realizing he and my father were not all that different in their envy of others’ possessions…..I had inadvertently fallen into their trap with only one real way out,

Packing up what little I had, I grabbed my guitar and quickly headed out across the court yard to load up the bus.  Occasionally some faces I saw looked slightly familiar yet detached from any common experience other than sharing a residence and cafeteria while navigating the lost seas of academia.

As I walked across campus towards the Registrars office to make my exit official, the sun had miraculously appeared.  Students had come “out of the woodwork” with their blankets and dogs occupying the large swaths of grass between the magnificent ivy bricked buildings on campus.  The four legged played joyously in a brilliant green backdrop worthy of Ireland as everyone conversed under the rare Fall gift of the Pacific Northwest.

As I turned up the walkway towards the Registrars, I heard a voice call out “Simon!”  Looking over I saw Sara, waving enthusiastically coming towards me.  Moving toward her in kind, our embrace was interrupted by an equally excited Martin, galloping into a kingsize jump up with all the trimmings.  The spaces between the beats of my heart filled until overflowing, again reuniting with my canine companion and the potential of basking in the familiar shine of the brown eyed girl.

Sara approached and seeing my tears asked “are you ok?”  Again in the moment, unexplainably, I blurted out my story in a fashion unique only to our relationship, ending where I was now headed to make my exit from college life official.  I asked where Jonathan was, she responded “he’s attending a conference on campus and had asked her to join him”.  She asked if Martin and she could join me on my walk to the Registrars, to which I happily and emotionally agreed.  We slowly strolled along the pathway through the wondrous groupings of trees, comfortably taking in the gift of the sun as I took pleasure in fishing for the sparkle and laughter in her eyes.

After leaving the Registrar’s Office we walked the campus into the late afternoon until ending up at the side of my bus.  Not wanting our time to end, I asked if they could use a lift back.

Martin sat in the back falling on and off the seat as I shifted gears while Sara directed me to her parking spot near the meters by the co-op bookstore.  When she got out, Martin Jumped into the front passenger seat and accepted Sara’s pets to his ears.  Martin licked some salt off of Sara’s checks, and wagging his tail looked over to see me looking straight ahead mustering up the courage to turn the ignition.  Sara said in her tone of familiar confidence, “you two be safe and keep in touch” …..With that our eyes met as I turned on the ignition, both realizing we were leaving an opening for future “fishing excursions” together.  In that moment, I again took in the shine in her deep brown eyes, out sparkling anything I’d ever known.  The rearview mirror framed her standing in the middle of the street at fifty yards, waving as if to say “Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine.

“A Conversation with Mom”

The phone rang five times before the answering machine kicked in….Hi this is Emily, I’m away and will be back “in a couple”.  Not knowing what that meant, as she had eluded to taking an extended leave to “somewhere different” in our prior conversations.   I let her know that I was well, but that I had dropped out of school and was now headed to Chicago.  Conveying my love, I promised to keep her updated.

“Epiloge along Route 66”

Nearing twilight, in need of some energy and an excuse to stretch out, Martin and I found an easy exit near a Circle K somewhere along route 66.  Behind and above the counter a news story was playing out on the television showing an interview with Professor Clifton (Alina at his side) explaining his missing (in what had become a story of nationwide intrigue) being attributed to a brief bout w/amnesia after being hit on the head during a house fire, and that he had been aimlessly walking about in the near by woods for two days before coming to his senses.

When asked about current projects, the Professor eluded to his newest collaboration with a famous producer/director well known in the movie industry as having expertise in the genre of mysteries.  He assured the reporter that this was going to be his finest work ever. “Don’t forget your purchase”……. I almost left our corn nuts on the counter.

As we pulled out of the parking lot onto the highway.  Martin’s stuck his head out the window and barked at a sole pigeon sitting on top of an industrial bin near the exit. I turned on the radio and Cat Steven’s/Josef’s “Follow True Love” played.  We turned left eastbound onto route 66 passing a sign showing Chicago being 164 miles away.  The song continues to play “I go where true love goes, I go where true love goes”.  Checking my review mirror, I toke in a lone pigeon taking flight.  The sound of the wheels on the road sync to the key of the radio’s song….”my” Chicago dream now only lays ahead with the only certainty I have left….

That I will always be yours in earnest,

Simon Birdsong