That he was dead as a high school English and social studies teacher in a nondescript suburb of Portland was known to him. He was pretty much dead at the age of 25 when he started his career. But he’d hung on, like so many other of his similarly dead colleagues, held on for eight years
It was Mother’s Day, and Jones called his mother, a former award-winning elementary teacher who had never missed a day in 34 years of teaching to say he couldn’t attend a brunch because of the “flu.” He bailed on this family gathering, like so many others. The one time he didn’t bail, his mother’s retirement celebration, was attended by some 300 former colleagues, administrators, students, and parents of students. Jones lurked in the back of the auditorium, greeting people here and there, sipping mediocre white wine, and wondered how anyone could have taught so well for so long. Of course he knew the answer—his mother was born to teach. As was his father.
Jones spent most of morning dry heaving and rationalizing what he already knew was true about him: he was stuck and had no idea how to get unstuck.
He was so debilitated by the Mother’s Day hangover and malaise that he couldn’t peruse a magazine and pretend he could write better movie reviews than the ones that appeared in the publication. He just splayed on the couch in his rented loft in the Pearl District, stared out the windows to the rain falling on the Interstate Highway. There was nothing to do except wait until the alcohol metabolized so he could start planning innovative lessons about teaching writing when he never wrote himself. Occasionally he drifted off to sleep but always opened his eyes again when he heard shopping carts clinking below as homeless men rolled their rusted carriages over the last cobblestoned street in Portland.
How he would rise in the morning and drive to work he didn’t know although he did care about what happened in the classroom. It began to rain harder and the clinking noise sounded almost melodic. He stood up from the couch, walked to the window, and stared at the brick rag factory across the street. There must have been a million rags crammed inside there. At least they came in different colors, unlike the typical Portland sky, which Jones had watched turn gray and darken the streets within a matter of seconds.
Right there, he decided to escape Portland and clean up his act. There was no future here although everyone moving to the Rose City from all over the country surely felt otherwise. It was the progressive city of their creative and livability dreams.
What had died for Jones were his aspirations to become an Oregonian of merit. He didn’t even know what an Oregonian of merit was, but he knew it wasn’t him and never would be if he remained teaching without a larger purpose, drinking a lot, and believing that attending independent rock shows mattered.
Jones didn’t declaim anything aloud. It was that simple. He had to decamp, reinvent himself. Epic hangovers had been known to compel this in young men with aspirations. He would resign his teaching job at the suburban high school when the school year concluded and find a new one in the Oregon hinterlands, near the ocean, where he wanted something to happen, anything. Why the ocean? He had no idea. He only visited the Oregon Coast once a year and the trip always had the same itinerary: drive to Seaside with a woman, get drunk in bars, lose at video poker, end up in a cheap motel room, maybe have sex, never see the ocean, let alone walk on the beach, go home, write a few hazy lines in the journal about the episode for no one’s posterity.
Don’t many distressed people move to the ocean to find themselves? It was a cliche in Oregon, especially when it involved confused young adults driving west in desperation from a crisis somewhere in the Willamette Valley to gaze upon the ocean for an hour before driving right back to the problem. What about the people who relocated to blow glass, paint watercolors, raise goats, drink or teach something—massage therapy perhaps? Hadn’t Jones read in a newspaper that Clatsop County had the highest percentage of single mothers of any county in the Pacific Northwest and that most of them emigrated from urban areas? In the article, there was quote after quote from beleaguered women: “We just wanted to live near the ocean and start over again.”
Jones was going for a full year. He was going to live the complete Oregon cliche and see what transpired. He could always return to Portland if it didn’t work out. This wasn’t really a risk.
He wandered over to a bookcase and found the Jim Harrison novel he’d just finished reading. Harrison wrote about all sorts of eccentric and semi-damaged characters who had abandoned urban life for something different in rural America, in Harrison’s case, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Jones had always wanted to meet these people because they sounded much more interesting than the colleagues he worked with or the 20-somethings he met in Portland’s bars. For one thing, Harrison’s characters all Jonesd the study of history and knew the special history of their locales. This knowledge set them apart, gave them some kind of advantage.
Harrison had written a line that Jones underlined three times long before he’d made the decision to go to sea: “I sat on numerous beaches and stared at the ocean until it was an ocean inside my head. The experience was a world away from the American idea of God as someone who drove around in a dump truck full of figurative candy to toss to deserving people if you beckoned him properly. The ocean was a god unknown, galactic…”