Russ Ringsak

Better Than Kidney Stones

August 23, 2010

They are all different and all pretty much the same, these annual road trips out west. And I suppose that's why we do them. This one was different in that I had sold my Harley Road King and was traveling inside a fast modern US made automobile. Air conditioning. Music. Sitting in shade, looking out the sunroof. No windburn, no hard-crusted bugs on the nose, no blistering heat, no leathers, no heavy boots, no fingerless gloves, no deep hearty roar, no bandanas. I naturally missed all that but saw more of the countryside. Gone was the locked-on focus to the road and the other riders, so that the country became remarkably even larger and more grand than before.

The bike wasn't sold because there was anything wrong with it. It was in fact a most nearly perfect machine, like a Kenworth semi tractor or a Dakota rifle. I sold it because I felt no longer young enough to trust myself on one and, more than that, the numbers. After more than fifty years on motorcycles without losing a dime's worth of skin my little upstairs voice asked: what in the hell is wrong with quitting while you're ahead? Why not pick up your winnings and move on? So I did. (That little upstairs voice is more given to gratuitous cussing than I am; I'm just quoting here.)

But what was most different this year had nothing to do with the machine or the road. The big changes came after the return to the old farmsite, starting with a busted internet connection and two trees down in the back yard, a tall poplar and big boxelder that had taken down with it a goodlooking teenage white pine. Those troubles and more, including the complete absence of hot water, oddly coincidental with a super-stubborn sulfuric-acid-proof loo dam-up; a blockage so total it was as if someone had passed a porcelain doorknob. The good part was that one rescue guy could deal with both.

These madding malfunctions were overlaid with a relentless harassment by a computer at the Large Unnamed Cellphone Company about a bill I had electronically paid four days earlier, coupled with my long series of futile attempts to contact a human person about it. ("For Bill Already Paid, Press Nine" wasn't one of the options.)

And on top of that came the indignity of realizing I had left the phone's charger back at the hotel in Montana. So while impatiently dressing to go buy a charger, an upper snap on a favorite western shirt stayed locked and tore right through the fabric, by itself a lesser irritant but seeming to fit right in with the day.

I stopped for gas and slipped the credit card in, chose the pump, hit the no receipt choice, lifted the nozzle and raised the lever; brought the chosen octane up in the window, set the spout in the car tube and squeezed the grip. And nothing happened. Nada. No pump humming. By then I thought well this is fine this also fits right in with the day and I'm sure not gonna go inside and make a beef about it I'm just gonna quietly cruise away before it gets worse. I had the sense to put the nozzle back in the pump holster before I left and was thankful I didn't mess that part up and start a big gas station fire.

They don't sell the chargers for this phone at Radio Shack and I had to go to the actual strip mall company store itself: thirty-two bucks, it was, for a gadget made in a Chinese factory for probably 89 cents. I told the guy about my inability to contact a real person to get them to quit calling me and he said it was easy just dial star six one one and hit O, no problem. I should have handed him the phone and had him prove it but I wasn't thinking clearly after the sudden lightness in the wallet. Just as I left the place their business office computer rang me up again, telling me for the nineteenth time that the status of my account had changed. As if they had been watching and found it amusing to call people when they are right at the edge of berserk. I'd name the company but I'm pretty sure that's not my job here.

At home I did the star 611 and hit O and the lady computer again asked me to enter some unfathomable number, like my payment code. I decided then that if they chose to disconnect that would be marvelous and I'd kiss the 32 bucks for the new charger goodbye and find another carrier. One just as irritating, no doubt, but perhaps irritating in some new way.

My bank website showed the bill as paid. So I hung up whenever the big no-name machine called and she quit calling two days later. It was all just another little tempest in another teeny teapot, especially when compared to what my Brother Who Lives In Butte and my pal Jake Not His Real Name had been through a week or two before this whole trip started. They had both passed kidney stones and both had pretty much the same observation of it: it was like death. They both had thought they were going to die. They were also close to hoping that they would go right ahead and die and put an end to it.

I learned their trip details on my return. Jake Not His Real Name had gone west with his wife by way of the gigantic Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. They had tickets to see Bob Real Name Robert Allen Zimmerman on Tuesday night at the Buffalo Chip Campgrounds. They made their way to within thirty feet of the stage and somewhere in the third tune Jake Not His Real Name unexpectedly went asleep, falling backwards into the immediate bikers and then down onto the crowded South Dakota landscape. An ambulance ultimately took him to certified professionals, who were able to bring him around in a few hours.

The next day they (not the ambulance, just Jake and wife) followed Bob to Billings, where he performed at a baseball field. And they both saw and heard the whole thing. Had a good time. Other friends who were at the previous show said word had passed through the crowd that a guy had died and had been hauled off on a stretcher by six other guys. The guy was dead. Dead as a doorknob. A porcelain one. Those other friends of course didn't know the stiff was actually our guy Jake Not His Real Name but were sympathetic nonetheless.

I sympathized with the wife. There she was at the front of that vast throng and right up there before her was her musical idol and right down there on the ground at her feet was her husband and she had to choose if her presence at the emergency room was really all that necessary or if she had actually signed a contract to follow him through sickness and health 'til death do they part. She chose the right and honorable thing and, knowing her, probably never gave it a second thought. It was only in my warped mind that this dilemma appeared. I'm pretty sure about that.

And of course I also sympathized with Jake, thinking how much misery he might have avoided if only he could have waited and passed that kidney stone while he was out cold.

* * * *

I got back on line finally just by unplugging everything and letting it sit for a while and then replugging. It reminded me of the old joke about the car full of Asian programmers who had a flat tire. When the car stopped they all got out and waited fifteen seconds and then got back in.

It took more time than it should have to clean and reset the saw with a fresh blade but it started right up. Well, not exactly right up. I put chain oil in the fuel mixture tank and realized the mistake when I set the can down. I drained it off into a big old plastic measuring cup and rinsed the tank a couple of times and then got it right. And then it started right up.

After all the cutting and hauling I set a retired brush pile on fire. The old plastic measuring cup held mostly oil, or so I thought, and I nonchalantly tossed that in there and pulled the torch trigger. WHOMP it blew my straw hat off. The most fun I'd had since getting back.

Now the old bonfire is out, the poplar is sliced and hauled and neatly stacked and the large boxelder will be similarly reorganized tomorrow. I'm wishing it was as easy to clean and file this room as it is to cut and stack firewood.

The water heater was toast, a soggy metaphor there, and a tough new tankless version clings to the basement chimney like a koala bear. And the loo is looing like a good loo should loo. All thanks to Prima Donna Plumbing Not Their Real Name.

But for a time there on Sunday and Monday it had seemed as if the apocalyptic miseries in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" were beginning to manifest themselves. One could see the waning of civilized expectations: our very marker of enlightenment - hot water - suddenly gone; trees down, no internet, no toilet, no gas at the pump, cellphone threatening to quit. And three days later all is back in place. For now.

But I'm thinking none of this would have happened if I hadn't bragged about making thirty bucks one night at a low-ante no limit hold'em poker table out there. If I had just kept the mouth shut this all might not have happened. I shouldn't even talk about it now. Heck, I'm just grateful to not have kidney stones. For now.

© Russ Ringsak 2010

(email: russring at visi dot com)

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