By: Galen Bultje
My favorite number is eleven. It has symmetry. Three vowels and three consonants equally interspersed. Eleven begins with a vowel and ends with a consonant. I find it elegant and pleasing to say. E-l-e-v-e-n. The word is a balancing act, a combination or coming together of two vowels and one consonant with two consonants and one vowel, a chemical bonding of elements if you will. Numerically it is simply stated and its individual digits add up to two. Two single and identical numerals representing an odd but balanced number, which is greater than the summation of parts, for it is not two, it is eleven.
You should have seen us. Ray, larger than life, made of stone and love and aggravation. A bully of love who would ceaselessly wear you down to make you do something you really didn’t want to do, but he knew it would be good for you in the end, or at least good for a laugh. He was big for a man and hairy even more so. He had long hair and a long beard, bad teeth and bad breath. He was a beast and yet he was loved by many not for the size of his frame, but by the size of his love. And then there was me who was shy, skinny, excitable, emotional and searching. Searching for something I did not know, something I had not experienced, something other than what I had been led to believe.
We were driving through the night on a Kansas highway. The car engine was the only sound to be heard from where we sat. Ray completely filled the front passenger seat (He completely filled almost any room he entered with his mere presence and personality) as I drove my Mercury Lynx with serious eyes affixed to the road ahead. They were no longer completely my own eyes, however, on account of the psychedelic mushroom caps we had consumed a few hours earlier. I couldn’t tell exactly how long because of the strange chemistry working me over internally. About the only sense I had of anything was the road before us gradually rising and falling in the beam of headlights and the muted green glow from the instrument panel of the Lynx.
At this time in the evening my main and only concern was to get us home safely. Home was still many miles away, and we would be fortunate to get there before daybreak. Since departing Topeka some hours past, the conversation between Ray and myself had abated and given way to our internal concerns and inner dialogue, however chaotic and scattered they might be in our present headspace. The radio had long been turned off, as whatever it spewed out at us was seemingly antithetical to our present situation. The constant hum of the engine had become our steady mantra, and I felt as if the car was driving us onward through the darkness rather than me having any specific control in the matter.
The car was locked in at 55 miles per hour, not from the cruise control, mind you, but from my own tensed and rigid body; I was locked in at 55 miles per hour. At this rate we ascended a small rise in the road and crested the hill before us. Our headlights revealed two deer standing in the middle of the highway as if they sought to graze upon that road. They looked up toward us as if surprised that they had not heard our mantra coming over the hill. Their gaze seemed to suggest that they had every right to be standing there on the highway, one in each lane of the road. I swerved the car slightly left and then back to the right narrowly passing in between the two deer. We continued our pace of consuming the road before us. The hum of the engine and the flickering centerline of the highway remained constant and then a minute later Ray slowly turned his head to me and said half joking, “That really happened didn’t it?”
Some years later Ray had moved to the beach in south Texas on the Gulf of Mexico and not long after so did I. In the late morning of a perfectly sunny day he came by my place (we lived next door to each other) with an appetizer plate of crackers and olives with meats and cheese. These ingredients were all stacked and arranged neatly with a toothpick holding each on together. I reached out to sample one, and he stopped me and insisted that I try one particular sample instead of the one I had initially hoped for. I tasted it, and it was good. I told him so and had a couple more before telling him thank you and that maybe I’d have some more later. In half an hour I began to feel as if I were coming down with a cold. I went to my room to take rest in the middle of the day. A few minutes later Ray came bursting into my room and demanded that we go to the beach for a swim. “I’m not feeling well,” I said. “Bullshit!” said Ray. “You’re coming surfing.” As if a bear could surf.
We were floating out in the Gulf of Mexico twenty minutes later. We just sat there on our boards not saying much. The waves were barely high enough to boogie board let alone surf. We bobbed up and down on the waves out near the third sandbar from shore. The mist of cresting waves with tiny rainbows flitting through the air above them was the most interesting thing we could pay attention to. I think we were about ready to give up on catching any waves for the day when we spotted a potential winner coming in at us. We waited and watched with anticipation as it lumbered in like a sumo’s belly in slow motion. I was about ready to turn toward the shore and begin paddling to catch the wave when I saw a fin come up out of the water moving directly for us. No sooner did I see the fin before the wave built up in front of us and blocked our view of it. I was frozen with fear anticipating what was about to happen to one of us. I should say now that I’m terrified of sharks and always have been. I remember as a young boy my family watching the movie Jaws in our living room. I sat in the kitchen next to the warmth of the dishwasher with a blanket over my head just listening to the film. It was too much for me to watch. But now my eyes were wide open and searching for any sign of the oncoming fin. As the wave crested and began to break before us, out of it came two dolphins white as light arcing out from the wave and diving back into the water to pass underneath us. Ray and I were too awestruck to utter anything more intelligible than relieved cackling laughter.
Ray confessed to me later that week that he had slipped a small dose of LSD into the specific appetizer he demanded I partake of. Initially I felt my freewill had been violated, that he had betrayed my trust, although no harm ever came of it. What had occurred, we determined, was somehow a shared spiritual experience. Together we had passed between deer in headlights on land in the night and been visited by porpoises midday at sea. I’d been wondering if another pair would meet us such as these, thinking all good things must happen in threes, but now I think it was us, Raymond and me. We were the third pair, greater than our sum. We were not two, but eleven.