harry hits the road


Chapter 2: What Means Ja?

Classical Muse

  I bolt upright in my seat at the sound of imported high heels clicking. A blast of hot summer breeze smothers the Smart Car. I glance at the left side-view mirror. Muse is marching up from the sidewalk wearing a World War II vintage blue and white polka dot silk cocktail dress, staring warily down at the potholed driveway beneath her black Christian Louboutin shoes with the red soles and four-inch heels.

It’s like a deja vu of the first time she’d come at me from the opposite direction on that exact same slab of crumbling asphalt wearing that exact same outfit. I’d fancied her, as it turned out, the exact same way she fancies herself: an eccentric, Austrian-born artist out of a bygone era, a streaky blonde haired cross between Marlene Dietrich and Lucille Ball.

Her flashing, slightly slanted eyes are the color of sapphire, which she cheekily calls “Chase Bank blue.” She’s almost six feet tall barefooted; in heels, her doe-like legs look longer than California with calves that curve like parenthesis above surprisingly petite feet with arches high as questions marks. Her breasts peak above the cleavage of her dress like snow capped Alps. And she’s disarmingly matter of fact about her anatomical assets.

“I have no hips, but I have the best legs and boobs in the business,” she’d confided early on, getting no argument whatsoever from my end.

I scramble out of the Smart Car to greet her. Muse stops short, her eyes burning holes in my blazer.

“What means ja?” she demands.

“Beg your pardon, baby?”

“You want to see me before you go or you don’t?”

“I texted ja.”

“That’s all I get -- ja?”

Muse bends her head forward like a penitent, and strides past me with another furious clicking of heels, crossing the box-like brick courtyard behind Halsey House and then mounting the wooden stairs to the loft I lease from her. I shake my head from side to side, groaning, and follow her mach schnell!


We reunite in the front room, a kitchen-dining area with a pine plank floor. Muse’s charcoal portrait of a Parisian chanteuse occupies an entire wall. My dop kit, my book bag, several boxes of Pure Sport, and a blue and white speckled metal turkey basting pan are laid out on the rectangular oak table in the middle of the room. The turkey basting pan contains my contraband traveling companions from Chinatown: a pair of red-eared floating turtles, each approximately the size of a silver dollar.

“You take them,” Muse says, peering down at the turtles, “and me you leave behind.”

“Aw now, darlin’,” I say, sighing.

I step forward to embrace her, but Muse breaks away, pouting.

“I don’t fall for your Texan charm school,” she says.

“There’s not even enough room for a dog, much less another person,” I say. “That’s why I’m only taking the turtles.”

I remind her that the storage space behind the seats of my Smart Car measures less than eight cubic feet. I’ve already stuffed it with a printer, a laptop computer, two duffels bags of clothes, a sleeping bag, a tent, and an outdoor stove, blocking the view through the rear window. I plan to put my book bag and driving directions on the passenger’s seat, and stick the turtles’ pan on the floorboard so the water won’t spill.

Muse refuses to appreciate the logistics.

“You go off on a silly stunt to pick up chicks,” she declares.

“Okay, it’s kind of a stunt but....”

“You don’t know where you are going, you don’t know what you are doing.”

“Actually, my ultimate goal is to get a job at a government sanctioned medical marijuana farm in northern California.”

“Ugh! You are just like my husband.”

“Why? Cuz I’m searching for that pot of gold at the end of the great American rainbow?

“Rainbow-schmainbow! You don’t even open me Champagne.”

“Hey, there...”

I yank a bottle of Louis Roderer from the fridge, and pop the cork. Muse snatches her glass away before the foam settles, and gulps.

“Maybe I stay drunk the whole time,” she says. “I am so afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Never mind,” Muses says, turning on her red soled shoes, tromping off, and then calling over her shoulder, “Bring here the Champagne.”

I hurry into the adjoining room. It’s been converted from Muse’s art studio to my office, the World of Hurt’s global headquarters. One wall is a panel of gray sheetrock perforated with thumbtacks; another wall harbors an unusable fireplace. The shabby chic decor features a battered mahogany bureau, a TV set, a couch covered in wrinkled dun fabric, some built-in shelves, a pair of director’s chairs, and my writing desk, which consists of a pair of hollow-cored doors set across a foursome of sawhorses.

Muse perches on the left side of the desk, her hose-encased legs dangling like sculpted licorice strips. I enter holding a Champagne bottle like the experienced waiter I am, a dish towel draped over my arm as if it were a fine linen napkin.

“Madam,” I say, “you wish for Champagne?”

“Bitte, can’t you just be sweet?” Muse says.

I refill her glass, and give her a peck on the forehead.

“Ja,” I say. “That means yes.”

Muse looks aside, muttering, “So American.”

Champagne, Wine and Cigar

She’s a European women, so I let that slide without taking too much offense. At least she doesn’t pretend to be a Barbie doll. I whip out my Flip camera, and start shooting.

“Put that horrible thing away!” Muse hollers.

“Can’t you just be sweet?” I reply.

“Wish me good luck on camera?”

“Nein! I hate technology!”

I move in for a close up, egged on by Muse’s ever increasing nervousness. If she  prides in her figure, she’s non-plussed by her face. She has a tiny, sharply sloping nose, which in combination with her slightly slanted sapphire eyes, prompted her schoolmates to call her “the Chinese bun.” They’d also called her “Dumbo the Elephant” because she had big floppy ears.  At age 12, her mother, Elisabeth, offered to send her on a trip to Italy’s art capitals or pay for plastic surgery. She chose to have her ears pinned back. They’re still pretty big, but they don’t flop out the sides of her head anymore.

“More bubbly, bitte,” Muse says, sliding off the desk.

She walks in front of a mirror above the unusable fireplace, sucking in her cheeks as she strikes a pose. It’s a face slimming trick used by fashion models. I burst out laughing.

“You crack me up!”

“I do? Why?”

I keep my mouth shut for once, not taking the bait. Just as Shakespeare celebrated the superficial shortcomings of the “Dark Lady” in his sonnets, I actually admire Muse’s minor physical flaws. The tiniest hint of a double chin, for example. Red dot frost bite blemishes on her otherwise flawless, cream white cheeks. A brown mole on her neck. Another on her thigh.

All that just turns me on instead of off. It makes her more approachable, more accessible, more real. But more than anything, it calls my otherwise male chauvinistic,  objectifying attention to her uniquely cultured curiosity and her tortured, forbearing soul.

Here’s a woman who speaks French and Italian almost as fluently as her native German. If her English is sometimes less than idiomatic, she’s more conversant in American pop culture than most nightclub deejays and TV talk show hosts. She’s read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mailer, and McInerney, along with de Beauvoir, Bushnell, and Friedan, whom she loathes.

She has difficulty sending simple attachments on her computer, but she has an encyclopedic knowledge of European avant garde filmography, Bau Haus architecture, post-impressionist art, modern art, post-modern art, and the life and times of Marie Antoinette. She can recite more facts and figures about World War II, by far her favorite subject, than many academic historians.

She reveals her heart in her deep seated ambivalence over her Austrian heritage. One evening, I’d caught her at the kitchen table in Halsey House, crying over a portfolio of black and white photographs. I discovered that the photographs were taken without authorization by her late father, Franz, who was drafted as a teenager into the German army, where he became a military surveyor. They documented the rise and fall of the Nazi war machine from Franz’s foot soldier point of view, starting with the invasion of the Sudetenland and ending with the defeat on the Russian front.

“My father told me we can never ever live this down,” she’d said, sobbing.

I’d taken Muse in my arms, trying to console her. She wasn’t even born until fifteen years after the war was over, I’d reminded. There was no reason why she had to take the blame for the sins of Adolph Hitler. My words were no use.

“It is inescapable,” she’d insisted, crying even harder. “The guilt follows us always from generation to generation.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Muse’s dearest charitable cause is saving worn out old horses from the slaughterhouse, a mission for which she volunteers countless hours mucking stalls at a local barn. She often declares that she vastly prefers four-legged dumb beasts over two-legged brutes with half a brain, but her misanthropy is mostly defensive. At Christmas and Thanksgiving, her regular guests represent virtually every race, creed, and sexual orientation, or as she puts it, “whiners and diners of all nations.”

What I and numerous outside observers often wonder is why Muse bothers to hang around me. Besides paying the rent three months in advance, shoveling the occasional snow pile off the back steps, and servicing the land lady whenever possible, what’s the attraction? I asked her once, and she replied, “You are humorous and not boring. Boring I can’t stand. Also, you have broad shoulders and nice calves.”

Even so, she refuses to say, “I love you.” She acts like she does love me, incredible as it seems. But when I broach the subject, she says she’s simply too verklemmt to utter such words. Translated from German, verklemmt can mean shy, modest, introverted, or just completely uptight.

On this evening, Muse is obsessed with other more time-sensitive issues.

“Why the turtles are so important they get a ride free?” she asks, holding out her Champagne glass again.

“Steinbeck,” I say, pouring. “The turtles are an homage.”

I inform her that John Steinbeck embarked from his home in Sag Harbor on a roughly similar coast to coast road trip when he was age 58, just a few months older than me. He drove a camper-truck considerably larger than my Smart Car in the company of his pet poodle, and chronicled his journey in Travels With Charley, a non-fiction book published in 1962.

That same year, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He earned the award largely on the strength of his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, the saga of a poor white family migrating from the Oklahoma dust bowl to what they thought would be a promised land in California. In iconic passages interspersed through the book, Steinbeck described a lowly land turtle’s struggle to cross a road as a metaphor for the human condition.

“So the first time the land turtle crawls onto the road, a pick-up truck deliberately swerves out of its way, and knocks the turtle into a ditch,” I say. ”The little sucker is lying on his back down there in the ditch, flailing his little legs for hours. But finally he rights himself, and starts crawling across the road again. Cool, huh?”

“Oh, yes,” Muse replies, pouring herself more Champagne. “Very cool.”


By now the erectile dysfunction fairy dust is kicking in pretty good, but the bubbly has already beaten it to the punch, and I’m starting to feel woozy. I click off the Flip, hang my blazer on the back of a director’s chair, and flop down on the dun colored couch, a frayed and wrinkled milestone in the history of a rather unconventional relationship now approaching what some scientific researchers believe to be the bio-chemical time limit of sustainable lust.

“You know we’re coming up on three years?” I say.

“Since First Mercy?” Muse returns, nodding and drinking some more. “Unbelievable.”

First Mercy is code for the first time Muse provided me with orally administered alleviation on the couch. I’d been pursuing her for several weeks. She’d adamantly resisted, in part because I was still in the throes of a dying marriage.

She carried more than a bit of baggage, as well. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, she’d left her husband, Beau, a tragically handsome scion of an old Virginia horse country family, to have what developed into a six year long affair with a German intellectual.

In the interim, she had moved from New York City to Sag Harbor to put her son, Otto, in a small, academically acclaimed public school. Her intended good deed as a parent did not go unpunished. In the spring of Otto’s eighth grade year, a gang of five of his townie classmates cornered him at recess and stuffed him into a garbage can, pummeling him with their fists and shouting, “Hotsie totsie, you’re a dirty little Nazi.” The school authorities’ response was to suspend Otto’s tormentors for three days.

The following fall, Muse sent Otto to an expensive boarding school in Connecticut. She paid his tuition and all the household bills with sales of her artwork and interior design guides, and shrewdly invested some of her mother’s savings in Halsey House and a home on Glover Street. Her estranged husband had relocated to a beach hut in Florida to smoke pot and design custom surfboards, but in part for fear of jeopardizing her immigration status, they’d never gotten legally divorced.

Anyway, the more Muse had played hard to get, the harder I’d gotten. My unbearable tumescence in her presence became (how else to say it?) the elephant in the living room until, in a kind of perverse outpouring of Catholic guilt, she deigned to take mercy on me, or rather it.

Thus commenced what Muse calls unseres geschlampertes Verhaltniss. Translated from German, that literally means “our sloppy affair.” It could be an apt description of many people’s entire lives, certainly mine.


Muse yanks my attention back to the present with a warning in no uncertain terms: “You sleep with some chick on your trip, we are kaput.”

“Nein! I told you, I’m not doing this to pick up chicks.”

I can’t pretend that’s never crossed my mind, but it really isn’t a high priority. The prospect of scoring some strange, traditionally a source of thrilling excitation, simply pales in comparison to the recent memory of sex with Muse. The last time we’d made it, which was the day before yesterday, was as magnificent as the first time, which had come six frustratingly long weeks after First Mercy.

Halsey House Lamp

Muse told me to go get undressed and wait for her in the round bed on the second floor of the loft. Presently, she appeared in a white satin burlesque corset with black lace trim made in Germany by a lingerie firm with the auspicious name of Revanche de la Femme. She complimented the corset with black lace panties, seamed silk stockings with Cuban heels, and five-inch stilettos.

“I’m a little bit kinky,” Muse said in an apologetic whisper. “My last boyfriend told me, ‘You don’t always have to try so hard.’”

“Must be a total loser!” I blurted. “Try harder!”     

And she did. Slowly, obligingly, posing in front of the bedroom mirror with much sucking in of cheeks and caressing of bosoms, she unlaced and removed her corset, but kept on her panties, stockings, and stilettos. I sat up, grasping for her. She shoved me back down on the pillows.

“Not yet.”

She planted a stiletto on the top sheet, lowering her head and making big eyes   like a Marlene Dietrich. I watched her slide a hand into her panties. I squirmed closer, stroking her ankle. She toe-kicked me in the ribs.

“Not yet.”

Enter Lucille Ball stage left. Trying perhaps too hard to pull her panties over her stilettos, she hopped up and she hopped down. She pawed at the elastic. She took hold, lost hold, teetered, tripped, and caught herself on the brick wall beside the mirror. She gasped for breath, blushing, and kicked off stilettos and panties both. Then, just as she seemed stable, she tripped again, and tumbled down on top of me.

We came together right on our noses. The clincher had nothing to do with kinky lingerie or intellectual bullshit. It was all about scent, smell, what Muse calls “schtink.” Her Tyrolean pheromones just matched up right with my Texan pheromones. We proceeded to perform a series of erotic inquiries inspired by European tragedy, American comedy, and universal longing.


Muse interrupts my reverie with another declaration.

“You don’t think I get your road trip, but I do. It is the same thing as chasing around after a big white fish or a holy cup. Tell me -- it is, no?”

I shake my head from side to side, grinning, and give her a kiss on the forehead.

“You make me love you in so many ways,” I tell her.

“I do? Why?”

“You’re the only girl I know who’d refer to Moby-Dick and the quest for the Holy Grail that way and make it mean something fresh and new to me.”

“The whole idea is ridiculous. Completely self-indulgent and reckless.”

“Look, I can stay here and wallow in self-pity. Or I can make a change.”

Muse pauses for a sec and another sip of Champagne. Then she declares in the linguistic hybrids she calls “Germ-English” that I’m having a late middle life crisis.

“I understand what your change is all about,” she says. “You are going through man-o-pause.”

I burst out laughing again. “What the hell is man-o-pause?”

“The same as menopause in women but for men.”

“Oh, come on. That’s just horse shit psycho babble. Most doctors say there’s no such thing as male menopause.”

“Most doctors do not know you.”

Yearning to make peace and snag some pre-departure nooky, I make a gesture equivalent to giving away the damn farm. I offer Muse a reserved seat in the Smart Car. I tell her she’s welcome to join me at various junctures on my road trip as long as I’m staying in one place rather than in the midst of driving long stretches of highway.

“You have an open invitation,” I say, popping another bottle of Champagne.

“What is that? Open invitation?”

“You come whenever you want. You have carte blanche.”

“Ah, carte blanche. I know carte blanche.”

Legs and Smart Car

“Except this first week. I need to figure out my itinerary a little more, see what’s what with the Smart Car.”

“And if I tell you I want to come join you somewhere?”

“I say ja.”



“What means ja?”

It goes on like that until 3 a.m., Muse and I guzzling Champagne and arguing about the meaning of the word ja. Finally, we pass out on the couch without even trying to make by-bye baby love.


Photograph Captions and Credits: 1. Classical Muse (stock) 2. Champagne, wine, cigar (HH3) 3. Halsey House lamp (HH3) 4. Legs and Smart Car (HH3)