I was traveling through Scotland in the dead of winter. Most of my life was spent holed up in a guest house in Inverness, sitting by the fireplace and reading Ulysses. I was content, mostly, but every day I forced myself to get out and do at least one thing.
Typically this meant I made it all the way to the pub down the street, where I drank a pint of heavy and sat by the fireplace and read Ulysses.
After about a week of this, the owner of the guest house gave me a coupon for a bus tour around Loch Ness. The Monster Tour. A stop at the Monster Museum. Kitschy, of course, but free, thanks to the coupon. And scenic. And sort of interesting, maybe.
I knew I didn’t like monsters. But I liked deception, especially self-deception, and I loved a good myth in an anthropological sort of way. There was something childlike about belief in the Loch Ness Monster that appealed to me. Something historic. Something connected to the land.
I walked down the hill to the bus depot under a cloudy sky and presented my ticket. The tour was as bad as all guided tours everywhere: bad jokes told by a guide who mixed information with spooky sound effects that even he had a hard time putting any gusto behind. As usual I sat there thinking, He says this ten times a day, every single day. Is he insane? Will he be soon?
Naturally I was the only one under the age of sixty. Most of my fellow passengers were enjoying the tour, groaning at the puns and snapping pictures for their grandchildren.
I was sitting up front, by myself. The guide seemed to recognize my likely cynicism. “Don’t worry,” he said to me, off-mike, as the wheels started turning. “We get some really good views. And I’ll point out the Led Zeppelin house. They were into the occult.”
I nodded. Two hours. Two hours to burn. Then the pub, and the pint of heavy, and back into Ulysses. It was good to be out; I liked looking at the fog and rain and green. Someone said we’ll be going high enough to feel the cold. Not a problem: I was wearing the coat I had worn in Tibet. I would survive.
And then, as we’re pulling out of the lot onto the highway that circumnavigates the Loch, the bus suddenly jerks to a halt. The guide stops his patter in mid-sentence and whirls around. Grumbling, the driver points out his windshield.
On the road, a man stands in front of the bus, holding up both arms to force the bus to stop. The man wants to join the tour.
“What does he think this is?” the driver mutters as the guide opens the door. “Tiananmen Square?”
The man—my age if not even younger, I’m pleased to see—jumps on board, thanking the driver several times and apologizing to all the passengers for “keeping you all from Nessie!” He takes the empty seat next to me—I am the only one not there with someone else—and as we ascend the hills around the Loch he starts telling me about his trip.
He’s from Mexico, he says, and he LOVES the UK. London is his favorite city number one but Edinburgh is absolutely the coolest city and St. Andrews is even better than that and he’s headed to the Isle of Skye and OH MY GOD IS THAT SNOW!
Sensing an opportunity for some group bonding, or maybe just bored out of his mind, the guide forces the driver to pull over and everyone watches out the window as our Mexican friend jumps out of the bus and flings himself onto a towel-sized patch of snow at the bottom of a ditch next to the road. He lifts his hands above his head, squeezing fistfuls of the white stuff like a miser letting gold coins trickle through his fingertips. “It’s cold!” he shouts at the bus. “It’s really cold!”
I consider saying something sarcastic but don’t. A more gentle white-haired lady sitting behind me gives him a thumbs up and a hearty smile. “Yes,” she says, her voice rising but nowhere near loud enough to pass through the glass. “Snow is cold!”
The man from Mexico rolls around as best he can. Now we’re all smiling. How can we not? He’s like a man-child. Maybe we all would be, if we hadn’t seen snow a million times, although in my case I doubt it. Act like you’ve been there before – that’s my motto, initiated by temperament and affirmed by experience.
Not the man from Mexico. At the museum his exuberance continues, as he runs from one lighted display to another, crying out in wonder at every drawing and newspaper article and pseudoscientific report. The other adults and I just shake our heads, embarrassed for him as you might be for someone who’s wearing headphones and doesn’t realize they’re talking too loudly. Doesn’t he know the proper response to these exhibits is a cynical smile, a knowing chuckle, maybe now and then a groan or an eye-roll?
But no. He’s flabbergasted by every single thing. “There she is!” he shouts, pointing at a grainy photograph of a shadow the size and shape of a pencil. “There’s Nessie!”
I’m flabbergasted by nothing—well, strictly speaking that’s not true. I’m flabbergasted by him, my fellow twenty-three-year-old. How did he get so young? And when did I get so old? I wouldn’t have acted like that when I was ten.
As he flits from one exhibit to the next, floored by every single thing he sees, I keep to myself, trying to stay open to new ideas, just to feel what it’s like. It doesn’t work. There’s simply no way I can believe in a Loch Ness Monster, any more than I could believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.
Come on, man, I think. If there were such a thing as the Monster, people would have harpooned the thing and dragged it to the shore years ago, because that’s what people do.
I do kind of like the idea of a curse. As if all the doubt and fear has somehow been deposited in this lake. I like the idea that the lake has absorbed so much negative energy that strange things can happen here. I don’t really believe in that either, but I like thinking about it.
But of course I don’t say this aloud, because what’s the point? Instead I find myself regretting coming on the tour. My mind wanders back to the pub and the pint of heavy and Leopold Bloom making his way home, then my own walk through the twilight to the fireplace and the rocking chair of the guest house. This is my world. I’m not a tourist and not trying to be. I’m just soaking things in. I’m just trying to live in a place that is not really my home, because I don’t know where my home is anymore.
Back on the bus, the young man joins me again. He’s a tourist extraordinaire, breathing hard, still excited by the museum. He’s carrying a giant bag crammed with things he purchased from the gift shop.
He glances at me sideways. Then, without saying a word, he opens a corner of his bag and slides out the label of one item. He has purchased a rubber version of the monster that will be ten feet long once he inflates it.
He arches an eyebrow—what a haul, eh?—and tucks it back in the bag. I nod and smile, trying my best not to laugh. As I said, we’re the same age, and we’re from the same continent, and here we are doing roughly the same thing in traveling through Europe. And yet I cannot think of a single item I would have been less likely to buy. This is his prize.
He tucks the bag under his seat for safekeeping. “Amazing, no?” he says, his eyes lit up with excitement. “What did you think?”
“The museum? Oh, mmm, I thought it was interesting.”
“And the monster!? What do you think about that!?”
I smile and nod slowly. “Interesting…”
What else can I say? How do you inform a kid that you don’t believe in Santa Claus? How do you destroy that belief? And what if it’s the belief of a grown man?
He shakes his head. “I do not think it is a dinosaur or a big fish,” he says.
I exhale; my shoulders relax. Finally! Proof that I’ve overestimated his naivete. I’m surprised by how much relief I feel just for knowing that the mystery of his childlike wonder does not require an explanation. It was just my mistake. He’s as reality-bound as anyone else.
“Oh, I know,” I say. “But it’s fun. And it’s good for the local economy. And even if there is no—”
“I think it is a space alien,” he says.
I look into his eyes. They are wide and deep and full of wonder. He is perfectly serious.
I don’t know what to say. Trying not to laugh, I turn and look out the window at the lake we’re circling. He looks over my shoulder. It occurs to me that we’re both looking at exactly the same landscape and seeing completely different things.
After the bus lets us off in the parking lot I extend the usual traveler’s courtesies by telling him about the guest house and offering to show him the way. I even invite him to join me at the pub, and he smiles hugely but tells me he’s on his way to the next town.
I nod, more disappointed than I expected—I’ve known the guy for less than two hours; I don’t even know his name—and offer my hand. He pulls me into a big bear hug.
“Good bye, Jacke,” he says, squeezing me. “This is the greatest day of my life.”
The bag with the giant Nessie bangs against the back of my legs. He has no other luggage.
“I’m glad,” I say, because although I am tempted, there’s no way in the world I can bring myself to say “mine too” or anything as phony as that.
He takes four steps to the side of the road and sticks out his thumb. A car pulls over immediately. He jumps inside and is gone.
Alone again, I walk up the hill in a freezing mist. The wind picks up, stinging my face with sleet.
At the pub, I take a table in the corner and drink my pint of heavy alone by the fire. I’m not reading now. I’m thinking about the man.
I find myself hoping I never see him again. I don’t want to guess what his life was like before I met him. I don’t want to know what will happen to him now. I don’t want to think about him existing at all other than those two hours, which in a funny way feel as if they belong to me, as if he were a character in a book that only I have read.
And for the rest—his past, his future, everyone else he’s met, all the other joys and heartaches he’s felt and will feel—all those, I can just let go. They’re not real.
That’s how I want it. Better to let him slip back into the depths from which he emerged, uncaught, unseen, living his joyous and carefree life unaffected by encounters with reality.
Living like a monster that is not mine to capture. Living like a myth that is not mine to ruin.
Oh, readers, I really enjoyed that one. My old friend, rolling in two inches of snow. And Inverness! What a great place, even in the darkness of winter. Maybe especially then.
Some new reviews of my books have come out! My thanks to the good folks at My Little Book Blog, Small Press Reviews, and Radical Science Fiction for their amazing work. As an indie author, I feel very fortunate to have received such enthusiastic and thoughtful reviews of The Race. And more to come soon! Onward and upward!
In the meantime you can run through the entire set of Objects by visiting the 100 Objects page or by following one of these links:
- Objects Special Interlude – the music teacher and the artist
- #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere – talent and ambition cross paths in Bologna
- #11 – The Bench – a day in the furnace provides an object lesson
- #10 – The Spitwad – a high school teacher confronts a bully, with a little help from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits turns a child’s dreams to nightmares
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season
Are you a reviewer? Review copies of my short novels The Race and The Promotion are available. Just leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll pop one in the mail. Or zap one to you through cyberspace, if you are an e-book person. Just let me know!
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons