It’s nearly an hour since the bewhiskered brute with the big axe and his blue ox Babe passed the reviewing stand. The Shriners have passed, the tassels of their purple fezzes whipping back and forth as they turn impossibly tight circles in midget funnycars. Marijuana plants have marched past, a float of crooning matrons in corsets, hawkers of sushi and gooey cookies, trombonists, Annie Oakleys on matching geldings and a makeshift mobile jail. The smoke from blanks shot off by deputies of the mobile Kangaroo Kort hangs in the air, along with exhaust from a flatbed hauling creampuff entries to the demolition derby. And drum majorettes with preternaturally pink knees, smiling politicos in pastel convertibles, a giant salmon headed upstream under a canopy of cardboard redwoods, these too have passed.
It’s one o’clock on a Labor Day in Fort Bragg. The annual Paul Bunyan Parade is nearly over, the last unicyclist and a few lost kiddies in their soapbox sedans pedaling mightily to catch up with the end of the procession. But if there really was a Paul Bunyan, and if he really happened to be here in person this afternoon, tomorrow morning would no doubt find a blue ox parked outside the unemployment office while the burly lumberjack himself awaited his turn in line inside.
The mill sawed its last log a few weeks ago. It hulks gray and lifeless at the edge of the sea. No feathery plume of steam rises from the stack of its powerhouse. Gone is the heroic whistle that shrilled the change of shifts at noon ever since most natives can remember. The green chain, the mile-long conveyor belt rattling out the rear of the battleship gray main building, has spit forth its last assortment of freshly sawed, fragrant lumber. The mill is a squat carcass, a corpse lazy assassins neglected to roll off the cliffs into an outgoing tide.
People are packing up folding chairs and picnic baskets and heading home. In the wake of the disappearing parade, a gaunt woman in a shapeless sweater wheels a shopping cart clanking with empty bottles and cans. She stops at a refuse container to pick through the debris, seeking glass with redemption value and aluminum for the recycling center. Magnolia is how people know her. She chose the name herself, as she once explained to me, took it from a hippie palace on Haight Street in San Francisco, a place called Magnolia Thunderpussy. She hung out at the cafe quite a bit during her first foray away from her dull hometown on the windswept prairies of the Palouse in eastern Washington.
“Kenko was right,” says Arnie, twisting the paper bag tightly around a quart bottle of beer.
The Japanese scribbler, a master of idleness, is his new idol. Arnie used to repair cars with a kind of internal combustion homeopathy. From there he moved on to faith healing for Fords on the fritz. Now he does nothing but devise koans for carburetors and “get Zen” with misfiring distributors, meditating them out of their malfunctions.
Beginnings and endings are
particularly poignant, he tells me, in love affairs as well as parades.
Cherry blossoms about to bloom or about to fall tug at the heart so much
more than full-bodied flowers viewed by the light of the full moon.
Magnolia was at the Greyhound terminal, waiting for the bus back to Spokane, when she saw him. This was no ordinary bus station masher. He wore striped lemon and lime pantaloons, shoes with pom-poms, a black cape lined with red silk. He bowed deferentially to each woman he approached, doffing his crushed velvet fedora and stroking his handlebar mustache with elegant fingers that could probably undress a snowflake. Magnolia made a deal with herself. If the faux fop had no takers and he got to her before her bus was ready to leave, she would jangle his bones for him. It wasn’t that she was horny. She was simply frustrated. Two weeks in the city made famous by the Summer of Love and Magnolia hadn’t had a single night of it.
The bus-depot Casanova lived in a room above a fish restaurant a few blocks away, a cubicle crowded with shabby furniture. There was just a single window, open all the time to let out the aroma of deep-fried seafood seeping up from below. Traffic noise poured through the window, and the squealing notes of someone tormenting a saxophone. The chairs looked unsafe. Magnolia sat on the bed. Before long, on a creaky mattress heaped with satin pillows, she learned that she’d been right about the elegant fingers. They had that shamefully rare knack of making a woman feel utterly unique, just as each crystal falling in a blizzard is unique.
She missed her bus. In fact, her senses were so unraveled by the man with the artful digits, she boarded the first bus headed north without bothering to check for connections. Magnolia was about to become an End-of-the-Liner, a term Arnie devised back in the days when Fort Bragg still had Greyhound service. The town was the last stop on the coastal route and, according to him, this explained our unusually high population of bliss ninnies, cultists, nudists and raw foodists, our Whitman’s sampler of airheads and nougats. There was simply no place further out for the End-of-the-Liners to go. Besides, the next bus back to a normal civilization wouldn’t leave till the following afternoon. As the lyrics of the old popular song suggest, what a difference a day makes, twenty-four little hours.
“Redwood Summer,” muses Arnie. “When was that? A dozen years ago?”
He removes his baseball cap to mop his brow. The inside of the cap, lined with tinfoil to prevent Arnie’s brain from being scrambled by radio waves, makes a crinkled mirror for the sun. I know what he’s thinking. I’ve heard the tale several times before, and I know I’m about to hear it again.
The town was flooded with environmentalists that summer, the headquarters of a campaign to save the redwoods. Loggers and mill workers groused in the bars, threatening to use spotted owls to perform feats of proctology on the eco-freaks. Congregated around camping stoves outside their dilapidated Volkswagen vans, the freaks barbecued tofu, sipped organic Zinfandels and discussed strategies to end the clear-cutting and habitat destruction.
He’s recalling a particular fogless, unusually warm afternoon. Lured to one of the impromptu pow-wows by the promise of free firewater, Arnie hunched on the grass beside Magnolia, who was blissfully sunning herself in shorts and a skimpy tank top while Earth Firsters droned on about watersheds, spiking trees and snail darters, her cheeks ever so slightly flushed.
“You want to see the logging trucks grind to a halt?” she asked. “Follow me.”
Those may very well have been the first words she’d spoken that day, but there was a certainty in her voice and a passionate conviction. The environmentalists followed the barefoot Magnolia to Oak Street, almost to the very gates of the sawmill, trailing after her like the children of Hamlin after the Pied Piper. She waltzed into the street and stood in front of a rig loaded with bucked logs stopped at what was then the town’s only red light. When the signal turned green and Magnolia didn’t move, the disgruntled driver hooted his horn, then began to ease his truck around the lunatic. She cocked her hips and pulled her tank top over her head, shaking her shock of blonde hair free. The tank top landed on the rig’s bumper. The light turned red, then green again. The rig went nowhere. Magnolia was hoochie-koochie teasing the shorts down over her hips, her thighs, the tawny apples of her ripe breasts bobbing in the sun.
“It wasn’t so much a bump and grind striptease,” says Arnie. “More like one of those Balinese dances. A prayer with the body.”
Though the nuances of Magnolia’s performance probably escaped the driver, when her raised foot finally flicked away the last of her apparel, he leaned on his horn in approval. He was soon joined by a chorus of horns. The lumber company, wishing to demonstrate to the activists who was boss, had called for an unprecedented amount of cutting and hauling, and by the time Magnolia was in her birthday suit three city blocks were jammed with snorting, stymied diesel rigs. Their drivers, paid by the load and anxious to make the most of the bonanza, were in a hurry to weigh in at the mill and head back into the woods.
Arnie, an ardent student of all things Japanese, informs me that in one of the chapters of “The Tale of the Heike” a lone young warrior steps in front an advancing enemy army and recites a poem so lovely, the army turns around and marches back home. That’s what Magnolia was that afternoon, an invincible poem. At least until the cops arrived.
“Fifteen minutes of fame,” he says. “Think maybe she’d care for a toot?”
He calls out and thrusts the paper-bagged bottle of beer in her direction, but Magnolia ignores him. His eyes follow her shambling, shuffling gait as she pushes the rhythmically clanking shopping cart down Main Street towards the entrance of the mill, towards the red and white striped barriers at the gatehouse, permanently lowered.
Photo at top shows Magnolia Pub & Brewery on Haight Street, once the location of the Drugstore Cafe and Magnolia Thunderpussy. The Drugstore Cafe, which began operation in 1964, was forced to change its name to the Drogstore Cafe. Magnolia Thunderpussy made her erotically shaped deserts at the same location from 1967 to 1969. Magnolia Pub & Brewery maintains the tradition with magnificent ales & porters and rich eats to match.