No gf, no car, his job stacking produce in question, twenty-year-old Ocean Gebthart watches his good works project—Oregon Donors League—blow up. He must leave town. And does with a wise, older woman. By turns sacred and secular, Ocean journeys to discover his calling in life, riding his wire donkey across a Rose City known for beer, bikes, and books.
WHEN I FIRST MAKE MY WAY to Jen's new apartment, and soon after, her funky futon--fingers of her right hand spread behind my shaved head she'll pull closer to breathe in my ear, "C'mon, proud Ocean, let's fight"--I'll feel a happiness of the sort that maybe, at last, I'd finally crossed the personal Gobi desert my twentieth year had become, little more than a bleached skull or two and fossils lost for eons marking the sand-swept zigging and zagging I had to walk. Yes, I'll have lived for the rescue of that oasis, figuratively speaking, where cool water's gotta slake my thirst. Later, Jen and I will sip some puckery green tea, me ready to tell her yet another story of times before we met.
As I say, this will happen on Jen's futon--threadbare, orange-and-white Hawaiian hibiscus print--in her second-floor downtown studio apartment, just off Pershing Avenue, where all the other apartment houses seem to be banks of brick flophouses held together by the ironwork of building-high fire escapes, in Davenport, Iowa, which--despite the grime, the street gutter smells in sore need of the wash of a springtime thunderstorm, and the overall dreariness of Jen's cut-to-the-bone budget digs--is, after all, where the all-time power rockers, 'Possum, got going and that jazzman with the horn, Bix, did too, so we will clinch and finally join on seriously hallowed ground, so to speak.
After we make love, bathrobed Jen will stand by her stove waiting for water to boil. Her hair darker than squid ink in deep ocean trenches will be all the more unruly, bed-head fashion, styled that way on purpose so she doesn't look, she's said, like the generic Asian chick with smooth, ebony locks.
She'll cut her hooded eyes from the tea kettle to me, sitting on the futon, arms locked around my knees, as if a supplicant for the pinhead gunpowder green tea Jen will brew for us, a few ounces of which I scored in a Chinese place in St. Louis before coming up here. Then, in the mystery of her gaze, those eyes in which I, with joy, found acceptance, I'll take a guess on the future, but knowing my Tao, I won't grasp: Jen's not the one I'd willingly lose.
For there I'll be, all of twenty-one years old and despite the squalor outside, beyond the feeble, curtained afternoon sunlight that leaks in the apartment, things could not be much better for me personally. I'll hope to make it that way for Jen too.
After AmeriCorps, the idea for her will be to finish up college, go to DC for law school at Georgetown, graduate, do public-interest law. Me, I hate lawyers and Oregon-boy me hates big East Coast cities. But as you might guess, I'll do anything for this woman.
I'll revere sex with this woman and will never feel more responsible to another human in my life about our lives together. Jen will bring out my yearning to father.
Just sitting there on the floor, drinking tea, the two of us sipping from what is Jen's pair of Japanese yunomi cups, I'll realize in the side light about us heaven will be here, in one small place, in Davenport, Iowa.
But all that will be, as one surfer girl I knew might've said, getting too far ahead of the wave's peeling curl.
It's a year earlier. Scene, Planet Foods, Portland, Oregon. Action. Mon, I'm your action. Who am I? Oh, call me Ocean in the future, call me Ocean in the past, but present tense? For eight months, maybe ten, I was calling myself Austin, this nominal, windmill tilt of a gesture to distance myself from my disintegrating family, to erase my birth name, to get away from that time warp of growing up with parents who had pretty staunch hippie values and produced this bean sprout of a kid who wanted more substance than a name like Ocean.
So what's my game? Here you go, a few clues: Bok choy. Carrots, tops, no tops. Radicchio. Lettuces. Hey, lettuces I got. Crispy iceberg. Chewy romaine. Spunky Bibb. Something more continental? What do you say to an insalata mista of tossed greens: endive, dandelion, escarole, arugula? Okay, time's up for you, Sherlock.
You probably walked around me, my cart full of cabbage heads. That is, if you shop here at Planet Foods, so now's good as time as any for introductions. Austin, call me Austin. I'm your basic twenty-year-old American male, originally from Eugene, now resident up here in Portland because a produce driver I know through my dad thought Planet Foods was hiring.
Last summer, after a year of casual labor, Dad's farm included, I decided no college for me. Thought about AmeriCorps briefly. Very briefly, like, okay, I was reaching for something. I kinda felt I had to make changes in my life. Get away from Eugene and Dad's tiresome dirt farming--eight acres in corn, a back-to-the-land leftover from the Eighties Dad can't let go of, even though he lives in the city now.
Anywho, this working day shift in produce fit my plan to, one day, get the scoop on what all my life could be. First thing I did, though, I get to Portland, was change my name.
Got tired of being called Ocean, my birth name. That is so Seventies--years before I was born. It's like disco-dead and buried. So I told them here, "Make the checks out to Austin Gebthart." Great name, Austin, sounds enough like Ocean, it's only this partial identity change, see?
"Excuse me," this thin woman, fortyish and attractive, says. Her black hair's one of those Yuppie cuts probably costs more than I make in a week.
She dislodges one of the romaines in the bin that's half-empty, asks if I'll check in back for some that's fresher. You know, a customer like this thinks for her business we'll do cartwheels. I'm about to unstack, then restack six, ten heavy boxes? Please, don't get me started.
"Hmmm. New delivery's in an hour," I lie. "You check back then, I'll have out the new romaine."
The woman thanks me. Makes me feel like such a loser, this misleading her. I mean, what delivery? The romaine I'll put out later is when I get to what we got in back.
Other than my small deception, this foxy woman must have it made. She's angling her cart to the apples, oranges. Husband, I bet, has a good job. She doesn't work, cruises in and out of here, shops at her leisure. What she gotta do? Keep that figure, get in an aerobics class few times a week, stay in shape. Then cross her fingers the old man doesn't go with any wayward urges. All the time, seems to happen.
Like I was saying, I change my name to Austin, my dad he comes around, accepts it. Jokes about it at first, natch. But my mom, forget it. She'll never stop calling me Ocean, says that's one change she can't handle. It's not me if I'm not Ocean, she says. Oh, sure, like me and Dad few years back had to accept she'd met the "love of her life" when she decides to move out, live with this lounge lizard across the river in Springfield. I tell you, more those wayward urges.
Whoa, it's already 10:30. Break time. I live for morning breaks.
"So what's new with you, your girlfriend in Eugene?" Brianna from deli asks. She's joined me on break.
"Calls, says she's just back from Phoenix, gonna start community college there."
"Yeah. At first I thought that Phoenix down by Medford."
"Why'd she go out of state?"
"Probably same reason I'm here: Gotta try living away from home. And she says the weather."
"And what about, the two of you?"
"She didn't say."
Where was I? Hmmm. These icebergs. Gotta rotate. See, pull what's here in the bin. Check 'em out. Whip off those leaves going bad.
Okay, now the rebuild. New heads in back. Listen up, friend, this is your produce tip for the day: Go back, go down, that's the good stuff. Don't be afraid to dig it out if you gotta. There, now the old stuff goes on top.
So anyway I'm talking to Dad about Kezia, her Phoenix surprise. He goes to recycling his idea at me I should be in community college too. Which I understand. He teaches at Lane Community. You might say it's his real job to support that corn acreage.
But it's the same-old-same-old talk. Like last summer, I told him the last thing I wanted to do was go off to college undecided. Undecided is a fat waste, time and money.
At least I'm here. I could see, if it wasn't college, Dad snaring me into some endless hours of farm chores--let me be honest, disked dirt doesn't make my heart thump. Which is why I thought it best to get out of Eugene, get a job, and buy some time and space to think.
So now Kezia's done given me the slip. Fine. Neither one of us is gonna be around Eugene much anyhow.
There those are up. Let me show you the backroom.
Here's Operations Central: We pull deliveries, organize boxes, get it all ready to take out and stock. See that chunker over there on the dock? He's Dennison. Bossman. He looks this way.
"Get together with Shane before you take off 'bout bailing cardboard. I'm tired seeing it lying around in the morning."
"Sure, it's gotta be bail early, bail often."
"Another thing, he's telling me more than once you've left all the boxes for him to do--I don't know who of you's flaking--so you two work it out, okay?"
"Whatever it takes."
That Dennison's prime, isn't he? Likes to play Shane and me off against each other. Basic move from his jerkmeister manual.
Sometimes I just gotta put the distance between us. Which is why I grabbed these boxes of eggplant, threw 'em on the cart, and removed my person from that backroom.
I tell you, I feel at times like that whole salmon on ice over there in the deli case. Poor fish ever get what he was born for? Not in this go-round.
The Northwest used to be great salmon country. Salmon had the run of the rivers. Made for one of nature's beautiful cycles. Now it's all completely corrupted. Originally, you know, salmon came down the Columbia River and were in the Pacific Ocean in one week. Now, thanks to the dams, how about six weeks? Okay, they're endangered. Guess what that means? The politicians, in deep dough-dough, play badminton, until none are left.
I tell you what needs doing. I organize a Salmon Liberation Front, we commandeer a Cessna east of here, we fly up the Columbia Gorge, we enter the airspace right over Bonneville and then, doors open, shove, push, out goes your basic A-bomb to the target below and hope to hell that Cessna would hold together once the Mother of All 'Shrooms comes up to greet us.
Haven't got the personal survival part down, but I'm working on it. Maybe it's woolgathering to pass the time while I get these eggplants replaced. Doesn't hurt, though. I figure out how to save the salmon, we all might make it on this planet. What goes 'round, comes 'round. I gotta believe that.
"Say, you throwing that eggplant out? I wanted to buy some." It’s one of our regular customers, always in torn Levi’s.
"Not to worry, mon," I say, unsure if he'll loosen his attitude. "I'm just culling what hasn't sold."
"Wow, that's a waste. One soft spot and--" Like an umpire, his thumb's past the stringy blond hair and he flashes me a needling grin. "Ever think about marking this down, putting it on sale?"
Why, of course. I'm thinking heaps of bananas gone black, buzzing fruit flies--all this at Planet Foods?! "Hmmm. Store image would be hurtin' we do that, the owners want fresh, fresh, fresh," I say, reluctant about getting into it with him.
"So that eggplant--" He points at what I've got. "You're saying I can't buy it full price and gotta wait, get it for free in the garbage?"
These culls are soft, no taut purply skins like what's below, unopened, in the boxes this guy hasn't noticed. I see the guy's buttons--figure of speech--get his act right away. He probably shops here because so much of our stuff's organic. On food matters, he's gotta be one elitist in torn Levi's. I mean, pesticides terrify him. Like he hit a patch of financial embarrassment, he'd settle for pulling our organic oranges, our organic cabbages out of the Dumpster. He'd tell himself by eating garbage he was extending the world food supply, letting starving people eat. Just gotta save that world. Could be he's a bit like me, my Cessna fixing to free the salmon. I just nod and grin, and ask him, "You eat produce a lot?"
"I'm a vegetarian."
"I see. Here tell you what, let's get a boxboy-size sack. I'll give you all the bruised and dented stuff you want, nickel a pound, what do you say?"
"You can do that?"
I take my handy-dandy grease pencil from my apron pocket and for checkout write on the sack, Surplus @ 5¢/lb SKU 9999, and initial it. Dennison has a mind to crucify me, selling what we throw out, I'll let everyone know. Razzing him would put my interest in this job at high tide for weeks.
"Say, dude, you should run this place."
"Not just yet," I say. I know when to move on's gotta come in its own sweet time.