An Excerpt from Muir Woods Or Bust

A bearded old man in a cowboy hat stood in the dim hall, picking at his teeth with a sheath knife. He was accompanied by a nursing-home aide, who glared down at her wristwatch. She sported a traditional, big-hair coiffure that Mama Moss referred to as a “Nazarene Hooker.”

The nursing aide extracted a knitting needle from the recesses of her hair and waved it at Gil. “We’ve been waiting for you,” she said.

“Good morning. I’m Gil Moss.”

A new client usually meant Gil could enjoy one or two sessions of clean-slate listening. Maybe not with this grizzled fellow, scheduled in last week by the social worker at the HappyGlen Home.

The guy slowly sheathed his knife. The nursing-aide said, “I go by Miss Gaul and this here is Doyle Wentworth.”

Gil unlocked the office door, flicked on the waiting room lights and the radio. He primed the coffee machine. “Pour yourself a cup when it’s brewed. I’ll just take a few minutes to open up shop.”

“I don’t drink coffee,” Doyle Wentworth said, “hardens your arteries.”

“There’s tea, if you’d prefer.”

“Tea is for sissies,” Doyle said, “and by the way, why does every waiting room in every therapist’s office have a Georgia O’Keeffe poster on the wall?”

Gil contemplated the colorful print of shells and mountains given to him by Melody as a tenth-anniversary present. He said, “It’s a conspiracy of the Goddess Worshippers.”

That silenced the old cowboy.

Gil stepped into the consulting room. Checked phone messages. Watered his plants. No major alarm bells yet. People often acted brusque and nervous before a first session. Gil reminded himself to start with the most basic of therapeutic skills: “Be a non-anxious presence,” his first supervisor, Sig Savage, advised.

 

As a graduate student in the heyday of psychodynamics, Gil often heard Sig predict that the universe would send him the clients he deserved. This would include his own special “client from hell,” who would activate all his buried vulnerabilities. Years went by without such an apparition. Gil imagined this creature would probably take the form of his long-absent father, Captain Roscoe Moss. AWOL from his family and his post at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. A wounded fucking warrior, if there ever was one. He disappeared when Gil was eight. Grown-up Gil occasionally fantasized Captain Roscoe showing up in his office to ask for help with his retroactively obvious PTSD from the Korean Conflict.

Frankly, after Melody’s death, his father’s abandonment felt less important. Or did, until Doyle Wentworth plopped down on the couch and said, “Don’t you recognize me?”

 

Gil’s body tensed in a way that is not supposed to happen to regular yoga practitioners. The musculature of the psyche cramped. Gil attempted to hide his anxiety using a secret method to maintain the appearance of calm in front of clients. Clenched toes. Inside his shoes, hidden from view, his toes locked tight.

Gil coughed and squinted at Doyle, trying to see underneath the beard to a time-lapse facial reconstruction of his father’s ruddy, imperious mug.

Doyle Wentworth turned in profile and squeezed his lips and scrunched his brow into a comically ghoulish frown. No, this wasn’t Gil’s father. This was worse. This was Sig Savage’s prediction come true.

“Sure, I recognize you,” Gil said, “the TV actor—”

“Eighty-ninth on the list of the Greatest Bad Guys of All Time,” Doyle boasted.

“You’re Number One on my list,” Gil blurted out. Ouch. A crack in the neutrality frame. Professionalism swamped by indignation.

“Well, thank you.” Doyle smiled, revealing a set of villainous teeth. “You were part of the faithful millions who watched Yosemite Yahoos.”