Well, with Emilie and her world at rest, at least for the moment, I once again sat down to explore a story idea that had rolled around in my head for almost a year.
As soon as my fingers touched the keys, the typed the following sentence:
I always wanted a totem pole.
Where did that come from? That had absolutely nothing to do with my story idea, nothing. It’s a true statement, but I don’t think that I’ve ever admitted it publicly. I also always wanted a monkey, but you don’t see me typing that!
Speaking of typing, what was I to do but continue and see what happened next?
. – . – .
“I always wanted a totem pole.”
I waited for the man with the rough hands to look up, to respond, but he didn’t. One of his hands maintained a firm grip on a piece of wood about a foot long and slightly curved. His other hand stroked blade against wood, adding to the pile shavings at his feet. The slices of wood were so thin that they were almost transparent.
The man sat in a most uncomfortable position, almost in a squat, balancing on the edge of an upturned cinder block. His cowboy boots dug into the red-brown dust that served as dirt here in the American southwest. His jeans were covered in the residue of his craft.
He wore a chocolate-colored leather vest, unbuttoned. Under that was a red flannel shirt. His cowboy hat shaded everything except his two hands, the knife and the wood. He appeared to be in his sixties, but his hands looked to be twice that. They looked like they had experienced years of close combat.
“But I wanted a big totem pole, like one of those behind you.”
The man continued his hypnotic task without looking up. There were six totem poles behind the carver. The tallest must have been ten or twelve feet tall.
“How tall are they,” I asked.
“Tall,” he said. He made seven or eight more strokes with the knife. “Tallest is fourteen feet, six and a half inches.”
“That’s about what I thought,” I said. “How tall is the short one?”
“Less than fourteen feet, six and a half inches.”
“How much do they cost?”
“Free? Which one?”
“All of them.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Free means no charge. Just tell me you want one.”
“I want one. If they’re free, I’ll take the big one.”
“These are spoken for. Ordered last spring. Get yours in six to eight months. Maybe ten. A year if we have a bad winter.”
“How will I know when it’s ready? Will you call or text?”
“Do you send email updates?”
“Will you post progress on your website or something? You do have a website right?”
“You don’t tweet?”
He stopped carving and looked at me. If I didn’t know better, I‘d say he tilted his knife blade until it reflected the sun into my eyes on purpose.
“You could make big money with these if you moved closer to a city,” I said. I spent the next two minutes trying to blink away the afterimage of the Death Valley sun from my seared cornea.
“Too much money in the city,” he said.
“Well, it is the root of all evil,” I said, trying to find common ground, a place to fit in the conversation. I wanted to sound ruralified. Rurally. From a rural region.
“Bible doesn’t say that,” he corrected.
“Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil. Bible says that love of money is the root of all evil. Not money, the love of money. Greed. The city is stained with it. Money is just a thing, a synthetic symbol representing something else, like faces on a totem.”
“Unless you meant that cities are the root of all evil,” he added. “In which case I will not dispute that, even if it’s not in the bible.”
“Well, I think I really want a totem pole. So… I mean, do I just show up one day around this time, in six or eight or ten or twelve months?”
“You think you want one?”
“I mean yes I do really want one. I know I do. Want one. A totem.”
“Consider your order placed. See you then.”
“Do I get to choose the faces and objects and symbols,” I asked. “What are the options? I really like owls. Can you carve a scary owl at the top?”
The carver kept working. He didn’t look up again. I was in shorts and a t-shirt that clung to me from sweat. It finally hit me that this man was completely covered in heavy clothing and there was not a drop of moisture on him.
“How will I know what the things on my totem represent? What will everything mean?“
“See you in six or eight or ten or twelve months, give or take,” the carver said.
“Sounds like a plan,” I said.
He continued carving on what now resembled a potato in his grip.
I got in my Fiat and started it up. A simple decision of left or right dictated my journey. I headed in the general direction of east, feeling like an early American explorer, except that I was going in the opposite direction as them. I was discovering America in reverse, from west to east, like only an intrepid nonconformist explorer would do.
Unfortunately, after only a few miles, having had about all the imprecision and unfettered exploration I could stand, I turned on the car’s navigation system and selected the destination of “home”.
Within seconds, a pleasant mechanical female voice announced my next turn to within a tenth of a mile. “Much obliged ma’am,” I replied, with a gentlemanly tip of my baseball cap.
At the next rest stop, I recorded a voice memo to remind myself that, when I got back, I needed to set up a calendar alarm for six, eight, ten and twelve months from today.
I pictured my hand-carved totem pole, and I wondered how I was ever going to get that thing home. My life would be less complicated if I didn’t live in a city. I had three days of driving ahead. That was plenty of time to figure it all out.
– . – . –