by E. Minges
Book One of Riversitting: Topics in the Theory and Practice of Time Travel
Series Editor: Katherine Moulthrop
Copyright 2016 by E. Minges
Published by E. Minges at Shakespir
Shakespir Edition License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
We have many things to talk about.
First, this is a documentary. Some of the names have been changed.
Second, there is a point to all this.
But never trust a good story.
■ ■ ■
There are four other books completed in this series:
Riversitting 02: Little Lithodendron Wash
Riversitting 03: Piss Pot Island
Riversitting 04: Nester Creek
Riversitting 05: The Knee-Knee-Squaw
■ ■ ■
The guy asking the questions controls the converation.
-David Michael Robert Scott
Table of Contents
Her family had lived in the lighthouse for three years, and now they had to leave. They must, and there was no appeal.
Soon after her father had taken the job of keeper at the new lighthouse at the entrance to Yaquina Bay, the government decided that they really should have built it five miles up the coast, at Yaquina Head. That tall, slim tower was begun, done, commissioned and manned a year and a half ago, so her family had known their residency at Newport was coming to an end for half the time they’d been there.
The new lighthouse at Yaquina Head looked like a lighthouse, and that was fine. Their home in Newport was a lighthouse as well, but it was first and foremost a lovely two-story house, set high on a hill at the entrance to the harbor, that happened to have a short tower set in the roof with a huge light in it, that shone far out to sea every night.
With Yaquina Bay behind it, it looked over a wonderful beach stretching north and south, with the entire vast Pacific occupying almost a hundred eighty points on its compass. Their house certainly was a good and useful lighthouse, but it was also a home in which one would be proud to live in town.
What she understood of the matter was that when they left, the government would board up their home and eventually tear it down. That was what Zina thought was so manifestly unfair. What purpose could that possibly serve? Why couldn’t her family just stay on and live as ordinary residents of Newport? The government could take its absurd light out of their attic and drop it in the depths of the Pacific for all she cared, if they would only leave them the little tower in the center of the roof and the marvelous staircase that rose into it.
Because although she couldn’t say she’d grown up in that house, three years was almost a quarter of her life. She couldn’t imagine being happier anywhere else. It was a little lonely in Newport, with no more than a few dozen people living in the tiny seaport, but you could walk to whatever was there.
Winters were cold, but cold because of the damp and the wind. It was nothing like the winters of the East, where you watched the thermometer sink, and sink, and sink, and snow came in thick, immobilizing layers that might not leave for months; where, if you dared leave the house, you must layer yourself in woolens, don snowshoes, and dig your way with shovels. Here, you wore something to block the wind, snowshoes and shovels were unheard of, and on most winter days you could just go about your business, even stand on the hill and watch boats entering and leaving the Bay all the year ‘round.
In summer, bathing was most usually out of the question, for the ocean remained frigid by virtue of some current sent down from Alaska by Japan and Russia. That was such a shame, because the beach itself was long, and sloped gently into the sea. On the rare occasions when the ocean went flat and still, and the sun had the chance to warm the nearshore region, she and their dog Fearnought could walk out a bit into it, and she had found the bottom to be as gently sloped as the beach. The beach itself bore endless exploring, and Fearnought could frolic himself senseless, barking at waves, sticks, and the bulbs on kelp seaweed.
She did not want to leave, that was the simple fact of it. She must, of course, but, somehow, having known that she must, for so much of her stay in her home on the cliff, helped not at all. Nor did the knowledge that her father would stay behind to see to the decommissioning of the post over the next week, and would meet them in Portland, so that she and Mother and her brother must travel alone. It also stung that the two young women of her age in the town with whom she thought she’d struck up friendships stayed away from their departure.
Wednesday, September 25
Today, her father and a man from the docks were loading a wagon to meet the little steamboat that would take them north along the coast. She watched them at their task with little to say. Her mother tried to remain brisk and centered on the task at hand, but herself was growing quieter and sadder as the hour approached. Her brother played with a hoop, and kept as silent as Zina.
Around two, they four, absent the man from the dock who would walk back to the harbor, got in the wagon. They started down the hill. Zina realized she’d left her only lace handkerchief crumpled on the sill of the window in her room upstairs. She cried for them to halt, insisted that her father give her the key to the padlock on the front door, and ran back to fetch her little treasure.
Moments passed, and then an uncomfortable amount of time passed. Her father grew annoyed, then concerned, then angry. Then they all heard Zina’s piercing, hopeless scream.
Her father flew to the house, her mother holding her son back. At the bottom of the metal staircase that corkscrewed through the house and up to the tower was a still-spreading pool of blood, in the middle of which was the key and the padlock. Zina was lost, and never found.
After two years of instruction in the classics, Christian deportment, and Methodist do-gooderism at Southwestern College (the Athens on the Walnut), Hellen had left Winfield and transferred such courses as she could to the Kansas State Teachers College in Pittsburg. She felt she was spending an untoward amount of time at Southwestern in chiton and sandals, preparing and presenting edifying programs for the uplift of her fellow Moundbuilders. She wanted more; she lusted after rigor, logic, and full entrée into the bearded and steel-rimmed world of Science and Mathematics. Pittsburg offered the hope of instruction in reaching down to improve the lot of the lower orders directly, rather than prancing about on grassy hillsides in parlor drapery of questionable modesty, inviting redbug attacks.
For she was a woman with a future, with both a right and a duty to make the most of her potential. She wanted to stake her claim to a career outside the home. She might become a nurse or teacher were those the only options open to her, but her high goal, her bright vision of possibility, almost alone among her sex in the entire state that year, was to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Of science, nothing less.
Surprisingly, Hellen was also notably good with soup.
Her cultural background, two hundred years of English-American, should have limited her in the kitchen to boiling meats and vegetables and baking things. Salt should have been her favored seasoning, add a bit of nutmeg during the holidays, and leave well enough alone.
But something turned her down a different road, perhaps an inspirational Methodist tale of a brave mother keeping her brood alive by crafting a nourishing hot soup from melted snow and trimmings from the kitchen vegetables of a rich man’s household. She saw genuine achievement in the kitchen as not only creating something from near nothing, but then making it taste like something more than belly-fill. The Lord created the birds of the air and the beasts of the field, but He also gave us coriander and fenugreek; dare we reject His bounty?
She had become good at this. And she expanded her reach by walking fearlessly among the habitations of the miners who worked the coal pits that surrounded Pittsburg, Kansas. She looked about her as she went for good works to be done, and engaged the women of the camps in earnest conversation about the rights of the worker, of course. But she also not only taught about but took instruction in how to nourish a family economically, even while pushing back against the crushing heel of the oppressor. And she listened more than she spoke.
So in her japanned black recipe box with the crane on the lid, Hellen had a recipe for a solid barley, carrot and mushroom stew that, when invigorated by a chunk of stringy beef and teased with marjoram, enticed by thyme, would make the dead walk and the living dance the Texas Tommy. From the wives of the guineas who worked in the mines, she learned the magic of a bean, tomato, and macaroni concoction, with some incoherent name in their Romish brogue. When informed with wop spices as ancient as the Via Appia, for a penny or two the noodle stew would nourish a working man and his family for a day. A fat woman from a provincial market town in Russia gave her a shockingly simple prescription for a quick, bold and delicious soup, nothing else but coarsely-chopped kale and cut potato in a beef stock, to which recipe she added a big shot of now-forbidden red wine and a nice handful of chopped thyme. Transcendent!
And the magic of borscht! Lord in Heaven! The only hurdle she encountered here was how to fix on the best of the four, five, eleven, absolutely authentic recipes offered her by this Polack, that Roosian, the mustachioed Romanian over there and the Litvak waving a big wooden spoon, all insistent that the others’ prescriptions verged on the poisonous and hers, hers alone, was the real, the ideal.
She went further. Already, Hellen knew from her life and her studies that talk was cheap, theory not much more than organized talk, and that all true value lay in the execution of one’s grand plan. For her great project, Hellen needed a little help with the heavy lifting, that was all.
Now, Hellen’s beautifully-made face, her tiny, erect frame and her disproportionately proud bosom guaranteed to her the instant attention of the crew of gorillas, so self-described, who livened things up on the campus of the old Normal School, now the Teachers College at Pittsburg. At least they believed and asserted that they livened things up, and who would dare face down a squad of gorillas?
So should a lone gorilla separate himself from the troop to hover around Hellen, and treat her like the Queen of Sheba or the donee of the Taj Mahal or similar, she might let him come to imagine that, of all the louts and lost causes who surrounded her, he and he only was on track to be Singled Out, which he could take to mean what he chose. She would give him a special look, a knowing glance, some sign of favor that made him feel some whit less foolish for all his pawing and snorting. And this singling out would typically derive from his aiding, with his big, strong, manly frame, with her ongoing conscription of a former janitor’s closet, a gas ring, a huge stockpot, and the makings for her week’s project, with the object in view to stir up a huge simmering vat of one of her Big Messes, as the gorillas named them.
For from Hellen, at least, you would get something no other girl on the campus could provide. You would get a thick bowl of thunderous-good, rib-coating, man-feed that would send you back to your lonely bed at least full enough to put you fast asleep, at least diverted for an evening from the eternal hopeless chase of inter-gender ecstasy. Hellen was die Kaiserin der Eintopf of the Kansas State Teachers College, and so say all of us. She would bring her virtue intact to the altar, by God, but until then she would send a man home with a full bread-basket.
As a gorilla might put it, Lordy, could that gal whomp up a stew.
And what her domesticated gorilla du jour didn’t consume would go to the local Methodist church for distribution to the wretched.
Her soups and broths and stews were giving Reverend Mickels at Holy Christ Methodist a big leg up on the priests at the Roman Catholic church, who had a natural “in” with the heavily Catholic coal miners in town. Hellen’s kettles and a couple dozen loaves of donated bread a day were giving the Reverend a welcome lead in the race for souls among the hungry in Crawford County. He had gone so far as to mention her work to his bishop, who promised to have a friendly chat with this remarkable young woman on his next pastoral visit.
Edward Dinkins, Hellen’s widowed father, loved her entirely, and as naturally as he drew breath. His daughter came out of her cradle self-possessed and self-directed, and would no more lower herself to willfulness than she would stomp through a mud puddle in hard shoes. So since her girlhood he had been able to trust her not to whine for candy at the general store, as he thought of it.
Edward himself hardly needed to get her married off to give him some breathing room in his household budget. He had worked hard and made his farm flourish in the heady days of agrarian prosperity during and immediately after the Great War, and could thus full-heartedly spend what it took to put her through college at Winfield. When, after two highly successful years as a Moundbuilder, she fixed on the idea of transferring to Pittsburg to be among the mines and the miners and a part of the socialist upwelling among them, he acceded almost without a murmur. He was sure that he could trust her to do something worthwhile with her education, become someone out in the world, and wed as she would from a position of self-sufficiency.
Hellen was more precious to him than pearls, and a living reminder of her sainted mother, but she was also incontestably a special gift from God given to the entire world, to improve the lot of His suffering children. Her mother, while alive, had surrounded her with love as had he, but Edward went further. He taught her from the start to trust her own instincts as to how to conduct herself and to value her own worth, and so when she went away to school he could believe that she would not flirt and socialize away her opportunity.
More, he believed that she was fully capable of deciding for herself what sort of learning was best for her. She took to Science? That was fine. And when she also became fascinated by the process whereby common, inexpensive ingredients could be made into powerful and welcome nutriment for the people, so be it. He knew her studies wouldn’t suffer because of it.
He reserved judgment on her socialist leanings, but was willing to tolerate them as long as she kept her grades up, her teeth presentably scrubbed, and her marriageability intact.
So while the storms of social justice rose in the coal pits surrounding Pittsburg, and Appeal to Reason out of the neighboring town of Girard became the widest-circulation socialist newspaper in American history, Hellen and four others of her sex at Pittsburg State were closing in on becoming the first female Bachelor of Science recipients in the state of Kansas. This, even as she became a recognized mistress of soup and stews, put in the service of a unique ministry whose reputation was even brought to the attention of the episcopate.
And, socially, the size and composition of her coterie of admiring, soup-seeking males was the envy and talk of the distaff set.
Hellen, as both the gorillas and Reverend Mickels would all agree, was a “pistol.”
On rising, after taking several deep, cleansing breaths, straightening her back, and shifting her weight to the balls of her feet, she would just clear five-one and a half. Granted, her departed mother had left behind a legacy of, as one of the bolder swells on campus told it, “Knockers to put your eye out, yowsah!” But while accepting fully the expectation, the duty, and the joy of motherhood as part of God’s revealed plan, she would take no man to her unless and until he swore explicit acknowledgment of her education, her wit, and her right and ability to contribute to the common weal of mankind, outside the home as well as within.
And he’d need to come up with a ring. A nice one. Paid for.
Tuesday, December 13
At five o’clock on a frigid December morning, Hellen was engaged in that other of her surprising behaviors: she sat quietly and listened intently, which she did well when it was called for.
The bosses were set on breaking the strike in the coal pits. The women would march against them. The question of security rose and went round the circle of grave, purpose-filled faces: how could they keep the bosses from finding out where they were marching, and either call the police or clear the open-pit coal mines of scabs in advance of their arrival?
A dozen women were at the meeting, and hundreds more knew that something was being planned, something to fight the scabs. Already, the bosses knew to go after the miners at what they believed was their weak point, their wives. Every woman in the room knew of the temptings. Agents, spies, false friends, those women who had already sold out, all kept wheedling, kept inveigling, tapping one wife and then another on the shoulder.
And for ten dollars cash money, or thirty, or forty pounds of flour, or new school shoes for every one of the five children, or a doctor for the baby, the bosses would make someone fall. The next day, a husband would go skulking to the mines in the earliest of the morning, and break the line, betray his kind.
So even here in the meeting hall, the women knew they must trust no one to the extent of giving anyone the power to derail the enterprise.
The question went around again. Hellen spoke, finally, into a moment of silence. “Give the flag to two of us tonight, and we shall smuggle it from the hall. We shall all gather back here at sunrise tomorrow. Those two of us with the flag will hold it out between us, and everyone else will simply follow the flag. Thus the two with the flag will know where the march is bound, and no one else.
“We are all aware we must catch the bosses at their perfidy. If the bosses have cleared the pit at the first mine at which we arrive, we must suspect that one of the two with the flag is a traitor. If the second mine is cleared, we will know for certain.” There was another, longer moment of silence. Hellen’s heartbeat was accelerated and her cheeks flushed, and she knew for the first time the narcotic thrill of being listened to by a large group of people who owed her nothing, and yet who were taking her words as a guide to their actions. Exhilarating, beyond description!
The plan was accepted by acclamation. She was not to be one of the two, as she’d feared, and to which she had already resigned herself. The kindest interpretation was that she was simply too short to hold up her end of the flag, and too tiny to hide its bulk in her garments when she left the hall; there would certainly be spies about outside. As well, she was an outsider with no real dog in this fight, an unmarried woman from the college, and she would remain an outsider unless she married a miner and moved into a two-room wooden shack in the coal patch.
Wednesday, December 14
The next morning, the two women entrusted with the flag stood outside the union hall. The circle of conspirators from the morning before had hoped for three or four hundred marchers to follow the flag, and would have marched with two dozen.
But there were not two, or five, or six hundred women in the grey December morning. There were three thousand. They stood about, shivering, still, and chin-set.
The two flag-bearers held the corners of the flag high above their heads and stepped forward, and Hellen and the half-legion of miners’ wives followed. Twenty foreign tongues and English pidgins flickered through the crowd. Hair pulled back, coarse skirts worn to heavy shoe-tops, roughened hands and set faces, the same woman out of three thousand different mothers. They carried many, many small paper bags and sacks, cupped in hands, tucked away, hidden in sashes or held out proudly: red pepper, black pepper, just in case. No knives, no sticks, no staves; nothing to excuse a normative arrest, only a little something for the pot, a little flavor for tonight’s soup, sir.
Hellen stood just behind the flag-bearer on the crowd’s right. And, at the call, behind and beneath the Stars and Stripes, to the mines, march! Ten minutes of quiet striding with wisps of fear-driven talk, no singing, with more wool-wrapped shapes joining as they passed.
In those ten minutes the grim, grey mass doubled in size.
They came to the first pit. The advance was met by Morgan, the boss. The two women at the fore particularly wanted to chat with Morgan.
The flag-bearers held the banner high and highest, and the voices of the now six thousand women behind them rose to chant, “Kiss the flag! Kiss the flag!” Morgan cocked his bowler forward; he pushed his coattails back to expose the butt of his gun; he placed hands on hips with thumbs hooked in his belt. He stepped forward, confident that the line of women, with no one behind them but more women, would break.
Hellen came out from the side and darted swiftly towards him. She thrust out one leg, head back, chin high, her eyes wide and unblinking, her strong white teeth bared, and hurled an open paper bag of red cayenne pepper, mouth forward, into Morgan’s eyes. He sneezed immediately, yet continued to advance, refusing to put up his hands, but then the pain came in earnest, and then it came hard, driving him to his knees. He covered his face and cried out, “Hell! Hell! Hell!”
A man hoping to sell a picture to a newspaper kodaked it all. And Hellen Hell-Fire was born. One grainy photo, her true face half hidden in a grimace. The picture was printed locally and quickly made its way across the country, even as far as the New York Times, but found only the briefest purchase in the national consciousness. The Amazon Army, as the press dubbed the six thousand miners’ wives, was dismissed almost at once by the press as the creation of cowardly Bolshevik rabble-rousers, pushing women to the fore to take the blows and depending on the decency of the guardians of capitalism to temper their counterattack. The legend of Hellen Hell-Fire dissipated quickly.
Thursday, December 15
Emanuel Julius read the account and saw the photographs in the Pittsburg Sun, and knew at once who Hellen Hell-Fire had to be. A tiny young woman with a large bosom had come from the nearby teacher’s college to the offices of Appeal to Reason in Girard, looking for work. She had no dependable means to get back and forth from Pittsburg, where she was a student, to his offices. She seemed to have some hopes that he would take her on to do the good work, and then a miracle would occur and fate would provide her with the carriage.
And there she was, photograph on page three, by God. Fiery little demon, it appeared. Good for her. And good job not to hire her. He lived every day with more trouble than was really best for a person.
Henry Distelfink saw the paper as well. A fellow student a the college, tall, reserved, and slender, he was not so bold as the gorillas, to approach her brazenly and thus be conscripted into helping make soup. So he longed for Hellen Dinkins’ attentions mostly from afar, and had even contrived to speak with her briefly on a few occasions.
As fall semester drew to a close, he hoped to be able to work up the courage to approach her directly when classes resumed in spring. To be sufficiently intimate with this angel of Heaven to tender her a card on Valentine’s Day! Just the thought would keep him alive over the winter.
One day, she came to him, where he sat with a textbook and scribbler on the steps of the library, and without preamble engaged him in an extended conversation about the shipment of grain by rail in the state of Kansas. He studied to be a teacher in the secondary school system, knew little about farming in general, less about grain in the specific, and nothing at all about railroads, and had no idea why she was asking these questions or what she intended to do with the information.
It was almost dismaying to have the opportunity to observe her close by, in strong sunlight, for a good bit of the afternoon, and to find out that even close by, she remained flawless in every respect. How was he to survive his longing for her?
Eventually she had smiled at him, risen, and excused herself. He had absolutely no idea what had just happened.
And on this day, as he gathered his things to leave for the Christmas holidays, there she was, on the third page of the Sun.
Horrified, he bicycled around Pittsburg till he found her at her “digs” the next evening. He assured her that U.S. Marshals had been summoned by the Governor, and that they were coming to take her and the two flag-bearers in for intensive questioning. She would certainly be jailed at a Federal prison somewhere in Idaho before the month of January, 1922 came to an end.
Henry needn’t have taken the pains he did to concoct such a story. Hellen was already entirely willing to put herself in Henry’s care and command. She had first seen him gazing dolefully at her long before the first frost in the fall, and after weeks of him staring at her, had exasperatedly primed the pump by bringing him to ground on the steps of the library.
Now she was confirmed in her judgment of him, thoroughly taken with Henry’s earnest and intense concern for her welfare. She liked him looming over her, a full foot taller, and liked that she felt, not threatened, but much, much safer with him standing before her. His ridiculous story about far-off Idaho and glowering Federal Marshals slapping their batons in their palms she found to be charming.
As well, the appeal of a life of uplift and revolution was fading quickly. At present, her feet still hurt from the march. Considerable walking about in unpaved rural Crawford County in her high-top kid boots had been involved. Certainly, the look on Morgan’s face, about half a minute after she’d thrown the pepper, had been priceless. And, certainly, the exhilaration of marching at the fore of her own full legion of grimly purposeful sisters was real; perhaps she was not exactly the leader of ‘her’ legion, but she was, by heaven, not one of the followers, that much was beyond dispute.
Every time the march would halt, however, a wave of air from the van would wash over the now-motionless lead contingent, and it smelled too much like a deep whiff from a bin of questionable potatoes.
Friday, December 16
So the night before the day the troops were to arrive, Hellen slipped away with Henry and trained it to Kingman County.
The Dissolution of the Distelfinks
Thursday, June 16
Henry Distelfink, Junior, stood in front of his mother in the mud room of the family farmhouse, west of Cheney. His pale green Ban-Lon Wash ‘n’ Wear short-sleeved shirt from the Navy Exchange in Seattle exposed half an inch of skivvy-shirt sleeve, Henry’s long, ropy, fish-belly-white arms, and his deeply tanned, square hands. On his left wrist, face inward, a gold Twist-O-Flex watchband held more BX bounty, a decent Bulova self-winding watch.
His jaw was clenched. His mother was livid. Neither would raise give the other the satisfaction of raising their voice, and the tone of the argument kept winding tighter and tighter.
Marky had asked Hellen a question about a woman in a picture on the hutch. Hellen, in her judgment, had answered her grandson truthfully and fairly. The woman, Rosa Luxemburg, was a great lady who worked hard to help people, she said.
Henry exploded and sent Marky outside. Henry told his mother he wouldn’t tolerate Hellen shoving her Red crapola at his son. Hellen told Henry to watch his goddamned mouth while he stood in her house and ate her food.
Henry told her that it was his dead father’s house, bought and paid for with something called hard work, which put Henry Senior in his grave and which Hellen never really quite got, because she thought everything was supposed to come from the government. Hellen told Henry that was pretty damned funny, since he’d lived on the sugartit his entire working life, unless you count the six weeks he worked at the cigar store in Wichita before he went into the Coast Guard, and that Henry wouldn’t know hard work if it bit him sharply on the ass.
The conversation then grew unpleasant. Within forty-five minutes of the last words exchanged, Henry, Marky, Burma and the dog were packed and out of the driveway.
Hellen Hell-Fire Buys a SAAB
Hellen badly needed to replace Henry Senior’s decomposing 1950 Pontiac Chieftain. Her first, foremost, and completely non-negotiable consideration in car-hunting was that she would absolutely not deal with anyone in Cheney. She had expressed the opinion clearly and often that no merchant in Cheney thought enough of the trade of the better sort of people in town to stock the finer goods which sensible people everywhere recognize to be better values than cheap, inferior goods. And if one were unfamiliar with the cheap and inferior sort of goods, one might see them on public display on any business day in the shop windows of Main Street, Cheney, Kansas.
From the first day he hung out his shingle, every shop owner in town, of necessity, either learned quickly that pigheaded, unreasonable customers were all you could ever count on in a town like Cheney and had come to terms with that, or he was soon looking for enough seasonal farm work to get him back to the city. Even so, they all, to a man, had had enough of Hellen Distelfink. They might refuse to make eye contact with her on her entry into their store, and treat her like a radio left always on. They would go about their business, leaving and entering the retail space as they needed, without regard as to whether she was damning, praising, questioning, or, as was most frequently the case, advising them on matters of which she knew absolutely nothing.
On bad days, they might just quickly close for lunch on being warned of her approach. Machts nichts, as Beobachter the grocer might say, because if any of their other customers shopping in town saw Henry’s old Pontiac parked out on the street, they would walk through a “CLOSED FOR LUNCH” sign knowing exactly why it was up, especially if the time was before eleven or after one.
Hellen was hardly stupid, and she recognized most of what was going on. In the case of replacing her fibrillating Pontiac, the hostility of the local merchants was largely irrelevant anyway. Neither the Fords, the Mercurys, Chevrolets, Pontiacs or GMC trucks offered in Cheney, nor the Dodges and Plymouths sold in Garden Plain, were at all representative of those finer goods that she held to be the only choice for the seeker after true value.
At a more abstract level, there were certain cultures in the industrialized world that showed promise of realizing the dreams of her youth to transform Industrial Man into Civilized Man. The Scandihoovians, for example, were certainly at the forefront of this new Army of the Golden Dawn, and among them, the Swedes for one made automobiles.
Purchase of a Swedish auto might well be seen, then, as a statement, a blow struck, a vote cast for social justice.
Saturday, May 24
So Hellen went to Wichita to shop for a Swedish car.
The Volvo automobile, at that time the hump-backed 444, concerned her, because the form of the body was disturbingly revanchist. The Volvo salesman kept her attention, however, by noting that the motor, a lovely yet sensible thing, was, in fact, a tractor engine, carefully modified for the higher-speed demands of highway use. Well, then.
The SAAB automobile, however, rang her bell and let itself in. It looked like a device for working the black, rocky soil of Sweden. It sounded like a device for working the soil.
In fact, even more so than it sounded like some agricultural implement, its tiny, two-stroke engine at idle sounded amusingly like an oil pumper engine, pop pop pop pop.
And though Hellen was a girl of the farm country and could bang around a long, willowy gearshift sticking out of an automobile floor with the best, in a SAAB one shifted through its three speeds from a sensible position up on the steering column.
So since it was also front-wheel drive, it thus had an astonishing amount of room in the footwell of the front passenger compartment, with no hump in the floor to speak of. That seemed important, although it wasn’t clear to Hellen how one could utilize that space except by having a passenger willing to sit on the floor.
The salesman explained that the unapologetically unique sound emitted by the SAAB was due to the advanced design of its motor, a Swedish invention (liar!) that permitted it to create power twice as often as the ordinary devices found in the common auto. This let the discerning SAAB owner go about in a machine propelled by a motor one half—one half!—the size of those powering the common Volkswagen! One eighth the size of those powering the largest of the dinosaurs with whom it was forced to share the road!
And he divulged the secret of its acronymous brand name: she was looking at a product of Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget. Agriculturally-based though it might seem, its bloodlines were those of brilliantly-designed and well-regarded high performance aircraft, used the world around. It was crafted in Tröllhattan, Sweden, a delightful Swedish country town famous, he told her, for its waterfalls. It held, he confided, the exclusive Royal Warrant, as appointed by the King of Sweden, to supply automobiles to the Court.
Hellen was a sucker for romance. She was knocked beside herself with the first shock of recognition she’d ever received from something as unrelentingly male in nature as an automobile. And it got better.
The salesman assured her that it was made of fine Swedish steel, a gauge heavier than that used in the ordinary, workaday auto; moreover, as noted previously, the engine drove the car through the front wheels, pulling you along as a team of powerful horses does a wagon. Who ever heard of hitching a team to the back of a wagon to push you around? They laughed politely together at the foolishness of Man, and then the salesman took a chance.
He asked her if, when she was a very, very young girl, back before the War, all the way back in the Thirties, she could remember the covers on the science fiction magazines of the day. Lurid, yes, and not worth serious consideration as literature, but did she remember the cars they said we would all be driving in the new age? Teardrop-shaped, barely disturbing the wind, formed by engineers fitting shape to science, not mere stylists catering to the popular taste—well, there! There! There it sits! And the particular specimen at which the salesman was waving his hands was the same eminently sensible grey as a Technocrat’s suit. He saw an opportunity approach over Hellen’s shoulder, out on the street: a gaudy 1956 Packard Caribbean with three-tone paint glided down Douglas Avenue. This, he asked? Or that?
Oh, there was no question remaining in Hellen’s mind. She signed sufficient paperwork to get her out the front door, scratched out a large down payment on the top check of a proffered pad of counter checks in the business office, and was shown to the waiting area in the Service Department while the grey Swedish lump was prepped for delivery.
She took her place on in the waiting area in the front of the shop, on the red vinyl truck seat that had been converted to use as a place for morose shop customers to nurse their simmering rage. Proud that, once again, she had demonstrated that she didn’t need any man to handle her business affairs, she hauled her current knitting project from her satchel.
She was halfway through the second of a pair of elaborate argyle socks, lovely peach affairs with scarlet and blue diamonds running up the ankles, bound, in her mind, for collection by the Red Cross for the warmth and comfort of our boys in the trenches. It being 1958, there were few, if any, of our boys in trenches at the moment, but Hellen was confident that at some point in the near future there would be, and she, by God, would be ready for the call.
Henry’s Pontiac sat out in the lot, parked in a puddle of rejection and disgrace. It was suddenly so old and debilitated, and perhaps even dangerous to operate, that she had to steel herself to so much as touch the door handle when it came time for her to sweep the interior for one last check of possible items of value under the seats, behind the cushions, in the dash, or hiding in the trunk. The salesman generously advised her that, certainly, the second jack handle and the length of greasy rope hidden behind the spare were hers to take, should she choose, as were the collection of Kansas and Oklahoma maps turning to mulch in the glovebox.
By four-thirty, she was pop-pop-popping and ring-ding-dinging west on Highway 54 towards Cheney. Objectively, there really was a definite, primal solidity to the little car that was authentic and attractive. Pointed into the eternal southwest wind that battered West 54, she felt that the SAAB looked over its shoulder at her and asked, “Is this all you’ve got?” It tracked straight and true in the wake of heavy trucks and Trailways buses thudding past her, as she SAAB’d it along at a sensible 45 mph.
Her time with the SAAB was rewarding but brief. Too soon, the cataracts building in both her eyes made it harder and harder for her to drive in the daylight. She drove now with one hand held as a visor, her head tilted far back to see under the glare on the cataracts. Finally, she gave it up except for minimal driving on back roads to the grocery in Murdock, and to town for gas.
The Twenty-Two-Footer Blows Up
Wednesday, April 18
The twenty-two-footer was an odd duck, a double-ended Bartender boat, built just up the coast in Delake. It mounted a big outboard motor in a well towards the center of the boat, a strange layout for which, it seemed, everybody had a different name. Whatever you called it, the little prick was not only rugged and seaworthy, but could get up on plane and push thirty miles an hour. Or crack twenty-five knots, for the salty.
Other than the giddy and vivacious thirteen-foot Boston Whaler, the twenty-two footer was the only gas-powered boat at the station. Chief Distelfink liked it, didn’t love it. In his estimation, a blooded Coast Guard craft needed to be capable of being beached and backed off, was self-righting, and was powered by kerosene, a nice, amiable fuel that you could use to put out a fire. Still, the twenty-two ran like a raped ape, and you could play a little in the surf with it if you didn’t get too gay.
A few minutes past midnight, when April 18 was just ticking over into April 19, Chief Distelfink and BM1 Gridley were out of the boathouse and headed for the Yaquina Bay bar on a rare clear night. A near-full moon hung low in the sky.
The twenty-two exploded and blew Chief Distelfink clear of the ensuing fire, landing him face down and unconscious in the water. A chunk of the outboard landed in the small of his back, damaging his spine. The boatswain mate’s foot was snagged in the burning frame, and he took a gout of fire to his face, which ignited. After a moment or two of screaming, he tore loose and landed in the water.
They were close enough to the boathouse that the duty crew got both men out of the water within minutes. The piece of the engine that landed on the chief had left enough damage to be visible to his rescuers, so they knew to handle him as a back injury. The boatswain mate’s face was destroyed, but landing in the water almost immediately at least kept his eyes alive.
The station’s big orange Dodge Town Wagon, with both casualties in the back, passed the city’s ambulance going the other way not ten minutes after the explosion. The twenty-two footer was reduced to a blackened wreck above the water, its hull beneath the surface surprisingly untouched.
Burma Distelfink heard the commotion and ran out on the cliff. She saw the flames on the water and the rescue taking place below, and finally had to be sedated by the ambulance crew. Marcus, eleven years old and without his mother functioning, eventually got passed on to one of the ladies at the church, who put him back to bed. She herself curled up on the couch, to keep guard till morning.
Marcus’s parents had had every intention of retiring in Newport when his dad got in twenty. On mustering out of the Guard, his father would buy a boat and do some crabbing, or set up some enterprise serving fishermen or tourists, or maybe be a cop on one local force or another. With Henry retired and Marcus gone off to college, his mom, thirty-four hours short of a degree in one of the helping professions, could work into something with one of the schools, the city, the county, or if all else failed, the library. She held a dream close to her heart of completing her degree.
His parents bought two adjacent lots in the big patch of sand behind the beach cliff. It was a neighborhood of old, cheap, wood-frame houses, where the mechanics at the Chevy dealership and the produce manager at the supermarket and the other permanent residents of Newport who didn’t work on the boats and didn’t make much money lived. There had been two little houses on the lots that the fog and salt had eaten alive and chewed on dead.
Henry and Marcus and a couple of Henry’s buddies pulled the houses down and put up an A-frame that looked almost embarrassed to be there, as if it would have been more comfortable five miles inland, backed up against a hill and surrounded by pines. He and his Dad painted it an unlikely blue, for no reason anyone could remember now. Marcus got half the peak for his room, the end of the house that faced the invisible ocean.
In the winter, when storms blew straight in from the sea, it was the best place in the world to sleep. His Dad built the house plain but solid, like the Coast Guard station itself or the thirty-six-footer lifeboat. When the cold, thick, wet winds came pounding in from the Pacific, beating on the flat triangular end wall like fat fists, high, low, and in the middle, trying hard to rattle his own personal six-pane window, Marcus, wrapped in a comforter and sunk into his soft old mattress laid on a sheet of ¾” plywood, could listen to the roar and roll and thud and batter warm, secure, and content.
Never once could the wind find a flaw in that wall, nor discommode the windowpanes. Sometimes, when he was younger, he got a little scared at the power of the blunt, water-weighted storms, only just the other side of a couple of layers of plywood and paint, but the older he got the prouder he was that the wind couldn’t find its way in. That guy on TV standing behind an invisible protective shield? He knew how that guy felt.
So things had started out well in the blue house behind the sand ridge against the beach.
Small as the house was, since Marcus stopped playing with his friends or watching TV in the living room and withdrew to his loft, the house seemed to be bigger. Maybe the people themselves had shrunk. Now his father moved only between bed, couch, and bathroom, and his mother mostly sat when she wasn’t attending Henry. Henry’s disability pay kept the lights on, but the diligent saving his parents had practiced since they’d married was over.
College for Marcus would now depend on scholarships or acceptance at a military academy. Marcus had no particular desire to be a Coast Guard officer; there were no officers at any lifeboat station on the Oregon Coast, none nearer than Portland, and they were regarded with suspicion and a sense of intrusion whenever one did show up out at the working units. Army, no, Air Force, no, Navy, not unless the only alternative was packing fish for a living.
Scholarships weren’t looking too good at the moment. Funding Marcus’ education at OSU or UO on scholarships and student jobs sounded like hitchhiking to the moon.
The nearest exchange was at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, too many miles away to be worth the trip. His mother bought food and their clothes on the local economy. Meals became one serving each of whatever, with an open bag of Wonder Bread and a saucer with a stick of room-temperature Safeway margarine put out on the table to fill the holes. Marcus’ clothes were jeans and t-shirts and a mother-worrying minimum of winter wear. Burma did what was possible with what she had.
When they bought a new, white 1960 Falcon station wagon from the Newport Ford garage, the Distelfinks got two extra doors for $43 over base, but no other options, not air, not power anything, not wheel covers, not a radio. They went in right after Henry’s friend Duke in the service department called him to say that the first truckload of ’61’s had just pulled around back, which meant that any remaining ’60’s needed to go quickly. Henry figured maybe he picked up an extra hundred, hundred and a half on the deal.
They’d intended that the Falcon run forever. In five years, four years after the twenty-five-footer exploded, rust started blushing under the white paint around the wheel cutouts. Henry could no longer do anything to stop it, and the Pacific exerted its eminent domain over the Coast and all that inhabited it. The wagon now sat under a carport, driven as little as possible, and rust was still trying to penetrate the sills.
Even so, Marcus wouldn’t get to drive the Falcon, with not even enough in the thin household budget to add him to the car insurance on the wagon. There were certainly no means for a car of his own. Corvallis, much less Portland, was pushed away to the other side of the world for him. The prospect of a Honda Trail 90 or Hodaka Ace was at least conceivable with months of saving from part-time work, which would be OK for running around Newport and maybe up and down 101 for a few miles, but that was about it. He could see the limits of his world: it would end at Depoe Bay, Waldport and Toledo until he left home.
Life wasn’t painful or grim. But ahead, the road narrowed, and then became a walking trail.
His father floated on morphine. He’d been out of it for most of the preceding six years. One day it came quietly to Marcus that hoping for better was pointless. There would be no remission, no recovery, no bright morning when Henry Junior would open his eyes wide, sit up, smile at Burma and Marcus, throw off the covers, clap his hands, and announce that they would all pile in the wagon and go down to Moby Dick’s for lunch that day. Henry Junior would drift quietly further and further from shore, and he was never coming back.
Henry’s eyes now focused slowly, if at all; responses came only after a painful pause. Once started, he might finish a sentence or thought, or not. Enough sentences to make a written paragraph came seldom, then rarely, then never. As a child Marcus had never seen, and could barely have imagined, his father drunk, or so angry or tired as to slur his words, break their ordered cadence, or blunt his judgment. Gone now, and Marcus understood it would be that way forever.
Henry Junior had always moved without extravagance, walked and stood with quick efficiency. Occasionally he’d involve himself in a softball game with friends, church people, Coasties. No power, but he hit junk all over the field, a few inches within the base paths, a few inches outside the reach of an infielder. On the field he was a born shortstop: quick, ferociously fast to jump on a grounder. Gone, all gone. Marcus had seen it take him three tries at his toothbrush to grasp the handle.
He asked his mother one quiet night if Henry would ever come back to them, and, since the accident, if she’d ever seen him in an unclouded moment. She told him simply enough that the morphine was probably permanent, that clarity could be had only with less morphine, and that taking less morphine would trade off being numb for pain.
When Marcus walked out of the blue A-frame that day, the sun had been replaced with an arc light. Reality was bright, unpleasant, sharp-edged and aggressive.
One of the Coasties told a story on himself of getting horribly drunk in high school on a fifth of straight vodka, chilled to near freezing, drunk alone. Quart of cold beer, less than a quart of cold vodka, how different could they be, man? If anything, the amazingly cold vodka went down easier than beer.
He got so drunk, he woke up late the next day in a field, at the end of a trail of diarrhea, not knowing who or where he was. After that, he bragged, he never could get hard liquor or wine past the back of his throat. The thought of drinking anything stronger closed his throat like a bull’s ass in fly-time, that was it, over, done, fee-nee-toh. “That’s all she wrote,” he would say.
Watching his father drift away in a morphine fog had done the same thing to Marcus, on a grander scale. It built to an unconsidered revulsion for anything that would change him the way morphine had changed his father, even for a short time. He consciously hated where his father had gone, and how he’d gotten there, like he’d never hated anything in his life. He couldn’t go back and undo anything, he couldn’t throw bricks through the window of the people responsible, but the thought of purposely altering his own consciousness made him queasy. Nothing that would throw him off his center would go down his throat, not alcohol, not caffeine, and sometimes he wasn’t that sure about sugar or red meat. He didn’t feel any moral tide pulling him away from the precipice of sin; he just couldn’t get anything he perceived as psychoactive past his mental glottis.
That left him in a strange land. He knew a couple of guys who said they didn’t smoke or drink because of their parents’ religion. Some kids’ parents were vegetarians, the Jews who owned the jewelry store in town supposedly wouldn’t eat ham.
But nobody he knew had ever cut out caffeine, and chocolate was on the hit list only when somebody’s mom was on a diet, or a guy didn’t want zits. So Marcus was somewhere new. Iced tea stuck in his throat. Coke stuck. He drank little but water, juice and milk, and stepped around Three Musketeers bars, which added to his mild rep around school as being OK, but a little strange.
For now, Marcus did whatever there was to do without a car in Newport, Oregon. Mostly, he went to school and wandered around Newport. OSHA had not yet closed down the fish-packing houses in Yaquina Bay, which dumped their offal directly in the water, which turned the floor of the Bay and its approaches into a crawling mass of fat, claw-heavy Dungeness crabs, the glory of the Oregon coast. Crab was cheap as hamburger, the chowder at Whale Cove legendary, the crab salad at Crab Heaven a mound of crab meat the size of a motorcycle helmet, sitting on two big pieces of lettuce with a wedge of tomato stuck in a blob of Miracle Whip on top.
He and his friend Syl walked everywhere around town, the steep grades in and out of Bay Boulevard making bicycles an annoyance. They ate crab bought with pocket change, threw whatever was handy at the shitbirds knowing that they would never hit one, and climbed around the cliffs, walked out on the jetty, along the beach, and up and down Highway 101. And ate more crab, till a burger seemed a luxury.
The crabbers came and went at their own pace, in their own time. There was no idyllic hailing of Marcus, as the son of the current, then former, CO at the lifeboat station, by the fishermen from the dock, no invitations to come pet the crabber’s dog, or Cokes proffered from an ice chest on summery afternoons. But Marcus walked along the docks recognized and respected. He was sensible enough to remember who he was and what he represented and to act accordingly.
He knew that the older single enlisted men at the station would go down to the dock bars in their dress blues on winter nights and get drunk on free beers from the crabbers. And several of the crabbers would routinely drop off crates of burbling, snapping crabs at the station on Friday afternoons for evening mess. The crabbers were all too aware that the Coasties would, almost without exception, at one time or another, pull their sorry asses out of the Pacific.
It was hardly necessary to bribe the Coasties to do so. Coasties lived to jump in a lifeboat. The younger men on duty elbowed each other out of the way as they flew down the three flights of stairs between the station and the dock, when the watch growled over the intercom, “Now, all hands lay to the boats! All hands lay to the boats!” But making sure the Coasties knew your name and face was like rubbing the belly of a house Buddha on your way out the door, an it-can’t-hurt gesture of obeisance to Fortune.
Local kids, Marcus and Syl included, didn’t spend much time on the beach itself. Newport was all about the confrontation of continent with Pacific, and, had the water run twenty degrees warmer, the low cliffs overlooking the beach would have been lined with the million-dollar walled compounds of the glittering famous.
But three years of four, the North Pacific Gyre kept the chill of the California Current pressed against that coast. You put your endothermy in play if you got so much as knee-deep in the surfline. Locals knew, and tourists learned soon enough, to stay out of the water, stay up the beach, and mostly in long sleeves. Jackets, hard shoes and caps at the beach drew no notice.
Another summer, relatives of Marcus’ father had come from somewhere inland to visit. They arrived in Hawaiian shirts, the adults in shorts disturbingly loose, the children in shorts upsettingly brief; a Colony Park wagon full of stainless steel coolers and stainless steel jugs of Hawaiian Punch; and sunglasses, sunglasses, sunglasses, pair after pair after pair. And with Labradors, walleyed with pleasure at the smell of the ocean, the company of man, and the presence of oxygen spun in the driveway.
They remained in Newport but part of one late morning. On entry, they struck a glancing blow at the Distelfinks’ tiny A-frame to urinate and rearrange their clothing before rocketing to the beach. Children and dogs together flew to the water, grownups followed, slowed only by the weight of sloshing thermal jugs.
His Dad had tried to open a dialogue with his cousin or whatever he was about the seaside up here being a bit different than what the visitors might be familiar with. The man of the family wasn’t listening. Henry’s voice rose a bit, and Marcus saw him get vehement enough to make his “listen, goddamit,” gesture, where he brought up his hands to the points of his shoulders, forefingers pointing backward, and snapped his hands open, palms up, towards the other.
It made no impression. The visitors were weathered and salty beachgoers, and were headed for sun, surf, sand, and an impromptu wienie roast over a campfire of gathered driftwood. The Distelfinks followed at a polite distance.
Within forty-five minutes, the visitors had repacked the big Ford station wagon parked in the lot by the old lighthouse, and Dad Visitor was pointing its glittery extruded-aluminum grill south along 101, with only the vaguest farewell to the Distelfinks. Burma, Marcus’ mom, upset at having laid in a week’s worth of provisions, and at having planned with some care the arrangement of half-dozen sleeping bags on the postage-stamp living room floor, sorted, purse-lipped, the now-supernumerary new inventory into what would keep and what had to be used before it went bad. Henry Junior stood fully dressed at the curb with hands in pockets. He seemed curiously unsurprised.
A few days later, the Distelfinks got in the mail an extra-wide, panoramic postcard, in aggressively vibrant, hard-gloss color: a beach in San Diego, a sweep of brilliant alabaster against a sweep of saturated Kodachrome cerulean. A comfortably-spaced dispersion of tiny, happy white people grinned at each other in ugly Kennedy-era bathing suits. The handwritten message conveyed neither thanks nor apologies, just a few terse words to the effect that what the Distelfinks held in their hands was a picture, for those unfamiliar with the concept, of a “beach.”
The Oregon coast wasn’t that kind of beach, that was all. Beautiful, stretching on endlessly, and supportive of everything one could do on broad, flat, hard sand sliding down to the water’s edge, except lie out on it with exposed skin. Overcast, typically, and with water so cold that even family dogs, confined for dog eternities in Plymouth Suburbans on narrow two-lane roads along cliffs and through forests, weren’t all that interested in wet cavorting.
In spring, the men’s store in town had a sale on the new permanently-pressed slacks (shamelessly, “A NEW WRINKLE! THERE’S NO WRINKLE!” on a big piece of posterboard in the shop window), three for twenty-five dollars, and their mothers had taken the gamble. Syl’s mother bought three, thinking that she could always take them back. Marcus’ mother argued with the clerk as to just where the split on price should be if she bought just one: the clerk wanted nine dollars for a single pair and his mother held out for $8.33, rounding down because the repeating decimal was less than five.
Ultimately, the novelty of not having to iron the kids’ wash pants drove them to daring excess, and the permanent press slacks went home, three pairs with one mother and one to the other.
The persistence of the legend of the Gazort at the station could reasonably be blamed on Dunfrund. Dunfrund was a big fat SN with greased black hair and blackheads all over the wings of his nose who asserted that he was from Louisiana and also that he was three-quarters Klamath, which was not impossible, but unlikely. One other Coastie at the station, Powell, claimed Indian heritage. He was a red-headed BM2 even larger than Dunfrund who was, in fact, from Oklahoma, and who said himself to be one-quarter Cherokee. Powell professed deep scorn for “fish-eatin’ Indians,” at least in Dunfrund’s presence. Powell was a family man living in town who drove a white two-year-old Barracuda. He said the Barracuda was powered by a hemi, but refused to let anyone look under the hood. Other than bugging Dunfrund, he never broached the subject of his Indian-ness around the station. Around Dunfrund, he never let up.
Dunfrund, on the other hand, made frequent references to “my people,” and what his people believed, would say, or would do in a given situation. In all, he was dumber than a bag of hammers. He would come in at noon with hands so dirty and greasy from the boats as to leave black fingerprints on the Wonder Bread set out on a plate in the middle of the table. One lunch BM1 Ellis finally exploded at table and told him to go wash his hands and to never pull that kid crap again on his mess deck. Dunfrund looked genuinely hurt. Marcus and Syl heard the story from Patton, and unlike many of Patton’s stories, it had the ring of truth.
Patton was a red-haired, weak-chinned, affably arrogant Texan in his mid-twenties who loved to place needles like a perverse acupuncturist in every node of weakness he could find in the unfortunates who shared his world, stone-faced the while. He was pretty funny. Dunfrund was easily spooked, as well as stupid, and thus the perfect target for Patton. So Dunfrund was designed by his very nature to exist almost entirely for Patton’s amusement.
Over time, Patton convinced Dunfrund that there was a creature called the Gazort, known to all the old-timers on the Coast, who lived in the pitch-black expanse of chest-high salal that surrounded the watch tower. Patton had no description of the Gazort to offer, since, so obvious, duh, anyone who’d been grabbed by the Gazort hadn’t survived to give an eyewitness account. How exactly the Gazort might ill-use a victim after grabbing him would remain unknown as well, until someone escaped to tell, or at least until such time as the Gazort left behind enough mangled flesh to be analyzed as evidence.
Intellectually, Dunfrund knew full well that there were no such things as scrub-dwelling, razor-taloned Gazorts. Emotionally, deep within his heart, he could never be entirely sure that even joking about such a monstrosity might not call it into being.
Thus, when all the other watch-standers left the base of the tower to head down the invisible path back towards the station, a few minutes after midnight or four in the morning, they faced seven or eight minutes of walking in total darkness on the narrow path through the dense, dark foliage, except on those rare, rare nights clear enough to show a moon. They could guide on the silhouette of the tower above them and the feel of the asphalt under their issue work boots, and, once memorized, guide through the few curves in the path without mistake. No one was unmanly enough to use a flashlight like some civilian, even Dunfrund.
Dunfrund, however, would wallow in four minutes, maybe less, of sheer, heart-pounding terror, as he ran through the clutching scrub through impenetrable dark, because that was the abode of the Gazort. Patton claimed he’d made a tape recording from the tower of Dunfrund running through the scrub one black, moonless morning, the sound of his pounding footsteps punctuated by despairing cries of, “Aaahh! Aaahh! Aaahh!” as Dunfrund oscillated between blind crashes off into the scrub and rebounding back to the path.
Patton also said he’d erased the tape by accident, which meant that he’d made the story up. Still, it was a good enough story to be called forth frequently.
Every watch-stander could testify that, when Dunfrund was relieving him on watch in the middle of the night, a couple of minutes before the hour, he’d heard Dunfrund hit the bottom of the ladder forty feet below at a dead run, shuddering the whole tower. Without a pause, he would pound frantically up two flights and stop only to catch his breath at the second platform. Or, if they were relieving him, they would hear him go down the four flights of metal stairs slowly and deliberately, as if to sure death, and then, when fate must be confronted, accelerate to a maniacal clopping of boots down the path.
If Dunfrund had told Patton to go suck a dick the next time he brought up the subject of the Gazort on the mess deck and then ignored him, the Gazort would have soon disappeared. He didn’t, and the Gazort lived on.
So it went at the lifeboat station. Powell rode Dunfrund about the failings of fish-eatin’ Indians and the Gazort, and Patton rode Dunfrund about the Gazort and whether he preferred the taste of thirty-weight or diesel fuel on his Wonder Bread, and Ellis would scowl every time Dunfrund would enter the common area. Dunfrund wasn’t really a pariah, but even though he was a fairly big guy and drank a lot in the company of the other EM’s, he was uncomfortably near the bottom of the pecking order at the station. That could have meant that he would make a special effort to try to be Marcus’, as the CO’s son, best buddy, which would have been annoying enough to Marcus, but Dunfrund was stupid, and inclined to go the other direction and pick on Marcus and any of his friends from town who came up to the station or the park around the tower, because they were little and weak.
Marcus and Syl knew to keep an eye out for Dunfrund at watch change, noonish and fourish, from the station to the tower. Although he would never dare to lay hands directly on either of them, he went beyond saying obnoxious and stupid things, and might throw something like a deposit pop bottle at them, saying in a phonily casual voice, “Oh, damn, slipped.” If he had two or three throwable items in his hands, he would throw each in the air in a high arc to land near the boys, saying with each launch, “Oh, damn, slipped. Oh, damn, slipped.” Dunfrund offered clear evidence to them that adult men could be total dicks, in just the same way as a classmate might be a total dick.
But the salal around the tower was also a great place for what they still called a “fort,” from long usage, and worth assuming the risk of encountering Dunfrund. Come to a place on the path that had a chunk of asphalt knocked out of the side and walk directly towards the tower five long paces through the pine, and find there a pounded-out place to sit under the low canopy of branches, with a hole dug at the circumference of the sandy circle, with a large Mason jar buried in it, covered over with sand, their safe.
Wednesday, June 15
In the middle of an otherwise incredibly boring week, the weather guy on KNPT promised Newport that the temperature was going to hit an unheard-of eighty degrees, with no wind. It looked promising; the temperature at the beach cracked seventy degrees by ten AM, and the ocean came up to the beach flat and oily. The concrete barge sunk just offshore beckoned invitingly, and the two boys decided to check out just how permanent the press on their new slacks really was.
By one-thirty PM, Syl’s mother was half in the bag, per her usual custom, and Burma Distelfink was trying to summon the energy to help Henry Junior make his twice-daily shift from the living room couch to the bed in the loft. Neither noticed her son slipping out after lunch in his new slacks instead of jeans.
They headed to the beach from their respective homes over the hill. Both wore t-shirts with flannel shirts thrown over their bony shoulders, and the wonder-of-the-age new slacks, Marcus’ navy and Syl’s loden green. Marcus was fascinated with the prospect of wearing dress pants in the ocean; was it really true that they would dry crisp and pleated, with no more than a rinse with a hose? Science required that he and Syl experiment.
And they wore Chucks with no socks. They had been in the water off the North Jetty a few times in their lives and knew that it was surprisingly smooth, but it sure as heck wasn’t barefoot country.
The watch tower and lighthouse loomed above them. To get to their fort, they plunged into the lair of the Gazort.
Today they dug up the Mason jar and emptied their pockets into it under the cover of the scrub. They rolled their shirts into tight, seaman-like, seabag-worthy tubes, and tucked them into the roots of the scrub. They rose bare-chested out of the Gazort-sheltering pine, and walked in their unsocked sneakers across the rocks and down to the beach.
Predictably, on a day this bizarrely warm and sunny, every tourist from every motel in Newport was out at the beach. Nobody was downtown absorbing the supposed fishing-village charm of the town, nor down by the docks absorbing the supposed fishing-village charm of the piers. Marcus and Syl wove their way through dogs, coolers, moms in gorpy bathing suits, dads in what looked like dress slacks with the legs cut off, and mutant-looking hordes of tourist kids, fat, white, and wearing lurid plastic sunglasses colored like jellybeans.
Some of the kids. Some of the girls were really kind of cute, and Marcus liked watching a bunch of girls his age running around in real bathing suits, for a change. Today he smiled at one, then another, and got some inexplicably strange looks in return; then he realized he was wearing dress slacks, no shirt, and sneakers, and probably looked incredibly foolish.
At the water line, they went in, splashed around, got a few more weird looks, found it was impossible to swim with wet slacks on, and gave up after an hour or so.
They hiked up to the base of the tower. Tourists swarmed the hilltop, trying to peer into the lighthouse windows, taking pictures of each other with the tower in the background. “Check it out, Marcus,” said Syl, and Marcus saw that the slacks were, in fact, still showing a sharp crease as they started to dry, albeit with big rings of salt up the legs.
There was a water tap without a handle sticking up from the sand near the base of the tower. They hung around for a couple of minutes till there was a lull in the flow of tourists, and Marcus went stealthily to the first landing of the stairway and spun the combination on the long-shanked bike lock securing the tap handle to the rail. He opened the tap so that he and Syl could rinse off, contorting themselves to get into the flow of water, trying to get as much salt out of the slacks as possible, bending over double to get fresh water in their hair and over their backs.
Marcus heard the trap open in the floor of the watch room forty feet above them, and then heard Patton yell down, “Stand clear of the tower, please. Stand. Clear. Of the tower. Please.” It had been a previous CO’s insight that tourists were more likely to comply with a shouted directive to clear the base of the tower if it were phrased in a more military fashion than, “Get completely the hell away!”
“Eat a root, Patton,” Marcus yelled up.
“Is that you, twerp?” In rough iambic pentameter, Patton yelled down, “Get the/Hell away/From my/ Damn tower/You creepy/Little suckfish/Rama lama ding dong.”
“Bite it, Patton.”
“Marcus? Stand out a ways from the tower and let me drop a bucket on your skull. Marcus? Here’s the piss bucket, Marcus,” said Patton, and something started dribbling off the edge of the second platform. It was probably Patton’s cold coffee, but Marcus and Syl were taking no chances and backed off.
“The Gazort’s gonna eat you, Patton,” yelled Marcus, as they retreated up the path. Patton stood at the back rail, giving them the finger with both hands, grinning. He pinwheeled a pencil through the air, watching it go up and arc down in their general direction.
Marcus and Syl shagged past a couple of clumps of tourists looking at them funny, through the scrub that led back to the waterfront. They reloaded their pockets and socks at the shaded hollow, otherwise, “fort.”
By the time they walked under the bridge, past the Coast Guard station, and downward into the cool, shadowed sag of the waterfront, they were almost dried out, and had slipped their sneakers and t-shirts back on. “Man!” crowed Marcus. “Man! Look, Syl!” The two boys looked at their pants. They were already almost dry, and they had dried with nice crisp creases in each leg and no wrinkles anywhere. There was only a little white rime of salt on one of Syl’s legs by the hem where he hadn’t rinsed well. “Man!” Their hair was stiff, their red and blue t-shirts were wrinkled as morels, but their wash pants were ready for church.
Their new slacks had thumbed their slacky noses at the mighty Pacific. Marcus had seen some cute gurlz among the tourists. They hadn’t seen Dunfrund. Syl flipped off a station wagon full of Californians for no good reason. Syl was kind of messed up, Marcus realized, but was usually harmless.
That had been a good day.
Durr’s alcoholic father was as thoughtful and conscientious, and as unapologetic, about his drinking as he was about the custom cabinets he built. He’d told Durr early on that a man who wakes up with a hangover, or, worse luck, still drunk, would have to be pretty goddamned stupid to either let nature take its course or make himself still sicker with a bunch of home remedies, or by having another drink. You drink water, out of a glass so you don’t have to bend over sideways to a tap, and you drink a lot of it. You piss and refill, over and over.
Puke if you need to puke, Dad said. And if you do need to puke, you’re going to puke no matter what other crap you put into your cake-hole. So get on with it, helps clear out the drunk. Then drink more water.
No stupidity about coffee, aspirin, clam juice, or raw eggs. You had your fun, and now you have to run your blood through your liver and kidneys as quick as you can and as many times as you can, that’s all, unless you’re some kind of moron who enjoys feeling like hell and wants to string it out so you can savor it.
Durr’s father was dead of cirrhosis, of course, died when Durr was seventeen, and Durr was twenty-one now. He always had to count the years forward from his Dad’s birth date to remember how old his father had been when he died, and if he did it right it was age fifty-four. His father’s skill at mitigating the effects of his drinking had probably given him five more solid years of getting hammered over what he would have been granted had he carried on like an amateur. Of course, his barbwire East Texas chromosomes would have likely carried him close to a hundred birthdays if he hadn’t been such a dumb-ass and checked out early by pickling himself.
Durr was grateful to his father for bringing him up in his trade and for setting him up so that he could work when he wanted, where he wanted, for the rest of his life. He was also perversely glad for the unintended lesson that, while it was gratifying to be able to tell the world to kiss your ass and make it stick, you’ve got to keep it under control. Among his father’s last words was his admission that he was checking out too damn early, and it was his own damn fault.
Durr wasn’t ready to take the pledge behind that simple observation, but it left him less inclined to push it. Nobody ever gave out prizes for who could get the most completely hammered over the weekend. And his father had been years without a woman around the house, which Durr didn’t doubt for a minute was a direct result of his drinking, and Durr had grown up horny as a goat, and Durr just didn’t want anything to do with anything that promoted celibacy.
Remarkably, his father hadn’t drunk it all away. Far from it; he left behind a big wad of cash from over thirty years of skilled work in and around Amarillo, Fayetteville, and Fort Smith, which all went to Durr. But Durr’s aunt, his father’s widowed, childless sister, was laid up in a nursing home in Harrison with desperately debilitating and completely self-inflicted emphysema. Her care, now laid on Durr, sucked his inheritance dry and then some. Durr was feeding his father’s money to the nursing home she was in like it was child support.
Since he could document that support, it at least kept him out of the draft. One spring night, his aunt finally died, gasping and bubbling. There was no other family left when she passed whom he needed to tell about it, which creeped him out. He had an older sister who’d turned to Jesus and stomped off when Durr was still in middle school, and who’d been absolutely uninterested in staying in touch, so, fuck her if she can’t take a joke.
After he wrapped things up when his aunt passed, Durr figured he’d best take one last big road trip before he signed up with the Air Force or the Navy, which he would certainly want to do before the Army grabbed his young ass and sent him to ‘Nam.
Thursday, June 22
He left home in Fort Smith in a chalk-painted 1954 Ford Mainline with no plan or program other than drive west and see about getting a little panochita. All April and May, he’d worked a renovation at some rich city boy’s hideaway up a dirt road south of the Springs. He now had enough fuck-you money put back in his stash to fund a couple months of arbitrary capriciousness.
After he’d been out on the road a couple of hours, he realized that he did have a plan. He would drive the dumb old businessman’s coupe and see if it blew something major. If it didn’t, he’d sign it over to the first guy who bought him a drink at the closest bar and ride the dog to boot camp. If it did, he’d leave it by the side of the road, hitch to the nearest used-car lot, and buy something flashy till he signed up. If the Army got him first, he’d buy something even flashier on payments when he got to living in the barracks. Screw it.
He picked up a Ponca Indian named Lane Coyote in Enid. Lane was a genuinely nice guy, thin, good-looking, with a huge shock of black hair, and skin the color of sun-faded cherry-wood furniture. In his mid-twenties, serious and quiet, he was hitching from his family’s home in east Texas where he’d just visited his wife and two kids. He was trying to get to his family’s home in New Mexico to visit his wife and three kids. Durr listened while Lane explained how it was that he ended up in Enid while hitching west from east Texas.
They drove through a beautiful morning, low seventies, bright after a week of light rain, green everything, clear air. Oklahoma always was that ugly girl who cleaned up nice on special occasions.
Durr chatted with him in English for a while, then they switched into Spanish, Lane’s Mom’s language at home, and became brothers, for a little while. Durr spoke excellent Texican, originally being from Amarillo himself and having worked construction for several summers for one of his Dad’s Army buddies in El Paso.
Lane knew a guy in Joseph City who had powers, and usually some peyote, so they headed for Joseph City.
They took 66 through Amarillo, and Durr took a quick side trip to show Lane his old house. Kid’s bikes were laid down all over the pounded-dirt yard and a screen was hanging off one window, but there were curtains up and the driveway was clear. Lane said it looked pretty nice. Durr told him that even when he was a little kid, they all called Amarillo the Devil’s Asshole, and Lane said that was a shame.
Rain kept trying to fall but never did. With some clouds around, this part of the country, whether you thought of it as desert, range, or the Devil’s Asshole, always looked a whole lot better to Durr than it did in full sunlight. Lane said he liked the sun more.
They got as far as Santa Rosa that evening. The day was heating up, but when they turned the car’s vent windows inwards at 45° and got a blast of air going on, it was OK. Both agreed that it was a lot nicer being out on the road than at most jobs they’d worked.
Friday, June 23
Lane had people in Gallup, of course, and in Holbrook. Durr had no problem with taking a day in each to let Lane catch up on the news. In Holbrook, one of Lane’s second dad’s cousins had a girl from Shiprock staying over at the house, some complexly-determined relative with an almost Hopi cast to her face. In the living room, the men were talking in English, as a courtesy to Durr, and she came by and gave him a nice smile.
A little later he went out to get a beer, and she glided into the tiny kitchen. She told him it was a shame he didn’t speak Navajo. The men liked him, she said, and he could have a really good talk with them. He asked if she could teach him a little.
“Oh, sure,” she said. “We call our language ‘Diné Bazaad’.” She made him repeat that after her.
“How long would we need for me to get good at it?” he asked.
She gave him a smile that blew out the elastic in his socks, and walked a couple of beers out to the gathering.
In Joseph City, Durr and Lane found that the guy Lane knew, Joe Bob Begay, did have peyote to share with good people, and of course he always liked company. He needed help with his electric bill, not a whole lot of money, but it got lonely without his little thirteen-inch Airline portable black-and-white TV to watch.
So they all went out for beer and sandwich makings. At the little store, run by a cousin, Durr gave Joe Bob two twenties to pay the bill and didn’t ask for the change.
They went back to Joe Bob’s trailer and had a fine evening. Joe Bob trusted Durr because he knew Lane real well, and the three of them could all talk together in Spanish, almost like human beings. He asked if Durr would help him out by taking some peyote, since he had too much to keep in his home. If word got out, you know how it is, there’s bad people out there who might be drawn to it. Durr obliged, they drank some beer, and everything worked out right, the way things do when you let them.
Saturday, June 24
In the cool, bright morning, Durr dropped Lane on the highway by the Jackrabbit Trading Post’s nightmare rabbit sign to hitch back east. He wished him best luck, and turned west and waved good-bye out the window. Lane was now three hundred miles past his New Mexico wife and family, but two hundred miles closer than he’d been in Oklahoma.
It had been a nice visit. Durr owned eight peyote buds, and he’d been talking and thinking in Spanish for a couple three days, which always cleared his head out a bit. The world was so beautiful it made your eyes hurt. So he found himself feeling lucky and headed for Las Vegas.
At the crest, all the way up in the air, heading into Flagstaff, the day was still so cool that his elbow, stuck out of the window, was getting numb. He left it out to store up the cold against the heat of the desert ahead. Existence was brilliant and without pain, and thick with promise, and he began screaming his lungs out in the car.
He started to feel stupid, then thought about how coyotes and dogs and wolves howl because they feel like it, and unashamedly put his head back and howled. He wanted sex, he wanted to get drunk, he wanted a pickup truck so he could hang a Continental kit on the back, just to piss people off. He wanted eternal life, he wanted a TV with a twenty-seven-inch screen. A color TV, kiss my ass.
He loved Flagstaff, been there a couple or three times. A good place to get drunk and not get into a fistfight. Lot of college kids, though. He howled at Flagstaff as he passed through.
Down the hill, full desert returned. He descended into heat, and he loved that too. In Kingman he dragged Beale Street to the intersection of 93 and swung north to Vegas. He no longer felt lucky, exactly, but he felt good about everything. Even the Army might be better than he thought, so why worry about what you can’t change? Right now, the plan was to go to Las Vegas, see what happened, and play the hand he was dealt.
For the first and last time in his life, Durr went to Vegas and had just a straight-up good time, no trips, stumbles, or falls. The city welcomed him, fed him well, poured him a few drinks, and put eight hundred bucks in his pocket.
He left the casino and went back to his room and watched the hell out of that twenty-seven-inch color TV, with the air conditioning on high. He felt like a high roller, so he blew ten bucks to have a bellhop bring a bottle of bubble bath and a cigar to the room. After he smoked the cigar in the bubble bath, he flipped the butt into the stool, showered off the remains of the bubbles, drank a couple big glasses of ice water, and spread out like a St. Andrew’s Cross spider in the middle of the big bed. Play your cards right, you can feel like a big winner and a big sinner and a paragon of virtue, all at the same time.
Open the window and fuck the world! Tomorrow he’d go to Reno.
Sunday, June 25
He woke up at dawn, full of piss and vinegar, and took off.
Highway 95 north of Las Vegas was an insanely bore-ass stretch of desert road, probably terrific if you liked rocks and sand, homicidally coma-inducing to normal people. Somehow Durr’s usual anodyne for such dull, thudding pain, alcohol in some concentration from three point two to forty percent, didn’t seem right this morning. It wasn’t all that hot out, and it was a long ride. Maybe, underneath the boredom, he just felt too good sober.
He did have a wad of peyote on hand, which hippies supposedly were fond of, so he could look to gaining entrée into a band of hippies someplace. Hippies didn’t get drunk, far as he knew, but if he got in with a bunch of hippies maybe he could teach them how to work alcohol into their mind-expanding pharmacopoeia. He knew from experience that mixing peyote and alcohol was a sure-fire trip into Flash-the-Hash County, but it was still kind of fun. He didn’t know about that other, the psycho-something pills and sugar cubes. Maybe he could get some trippy chick with no bra to walk him through it, heh heh.
He thought about the girl from Shiprock. Did Navajo girls make good wives for white boys? He didn’t have the first clue. Maybe he could move to Holbrook and set up shop, court her by the book, buy a shack and raise a pack. Did Navajos need any custom cabinetry or finish carpentry? Could find out. He could go visit Joe Bob Begay and talk about it awhile. How long would he have, to get back there and court Pam, which the girl swore was her real name, before she got carried off by another? Could you still stay out of the draft by getting married, or had they changed the rules again?
Navajo Pam. Sergeant, this is Navajo Pam, my new bride. See? Here’s the license. Give my regards to Gomer, won’tcha?
This kind of mental froghockey kept him awake and cheerful for seven hours as he crossed the desert at, what did they call that, “warp speed.” The dumb old businessman’s coupe ran like a Welshman.
He made Reno in record time, well before two in the afternoon. He lost eighty bucks at the slots right up front and, wisely, quit to go get a late breakfast.
It had warmed up outside but was still nice. He didn’t need to go hide in the AC anywhere so he strolled around a little. He went into a casino with a ninety-nine-cent, all-day, champagne-available breakfast buffet.
Durr befriended Ted and Teddy Morabito over the chafing dish of sausage patties, when they all laughingly recognized their common nature, people who liked a good, solid breakfast about two-thirty in the afternoon. They sat together and talked about safe and pleasant things for a while.
Nothing could stop Ted Morabito from showing his new best friend the crazy red-and-cream, two-toned, British country cottage on wheels he’d brought over from England on their last vacation, a 1965 Bedford CA Dormobile Romany, parked out in the casino lot. Durr was genuinely amazed at the Bedford, which looked to be a whole lot more fun than one of those Volkswagen things, and asked to see all the toys in the toy box, which ingratiated him with Ted no end. Teddy stood off to one side, holding her purse with both hands in front of her, her smile not reaching her eyes.
After a bit, Durr, Ted, and Teddy ended up in the Morabitos’ hotel room.
It was as dark as they could get it. Durr and Ted were stark naked, and Teddy wore only her sturdy, spotlessly white, and relentlessly supportive bra and girdle. All three were cross-legged, all stared at the peyote buds in Durr’s palm. All were drunk on tequila, which they had poured over a thick base of pancakes, link sausages, fried eggs, hash browns, and coffee, so it was a pleasant, slow-burning, long-lasting kind of drunk.
Durr had assured them that it was necessary to be naked to chew peyote, just to see if they’d buy it. And, hell, Teddy might be one of those surprising old broads who looked great out of her bondage. It hadn’t worked out that way this time, it usually didn’t, and if he could’ve gotten them all back in their clothes he would’ve done it in a New York minute.
Ted and Teddy didn’t come to the Golden West to be hippies, of course, but they did want to do something to not feel so “out of it,” as their nieces said back in Rochester. So when their newfound friend suggested getting high on a substance that they weren’t even sure their nieces had heard of, they complied briskly, trying to appear as if they peeled to the buff with perfect strangers in hotel rooms all the time, just never before in preparation for chewing peyote. If there was to be a new world built out here in the Pacific Time Zone, they at least wanted to pull up alongside the construction site and peer through the fence, to keep tabs on what those crazy kids were up to.
All three were still drinking. The TV was off. Housekeeping had been in and gone already and the Morabitos had the room till the following Monday. Durr felt an erection come and, thank Christ, go, his ever-more inebriated body still not persuaded that there was any reason to jump into a clusterfuck with two physically uninteresting people older than his parents. He tried to remember why he had thought his nonsense about nudity and peyote was funny, clever, or smart.
Mrs. Morabito unashamedly watched his groin, occasionally looking over at the television to see if it had come on by itself. Ted talked about things: the war, the kids, the cars, what passed for “music” these days. He seemed to be ready to accept anything that didn’t involve underage girls acting foolish in public. Mrs. Morabito, charmingly, didn’t give any indication of wanting to do anything besides look at Durr’s nakedness and correct her husband from time to time.
The peyote buds were now on the bedspread in the center of their little circle. Durr felt relaxed and cosmic, even as he longed for pants.
The bottle went around, and again. Somehow Mrs. Morabito was now naked as well, her clothes neatly folded and hung up in the open-doored closet, without Durr’s remembering her having left the bed. The bottle died and another appeared. The three drew closer to each other. Durr grew conscious of the fact that, even though it had come in the middle of the afternoon, breakfast was a long time ago.
Durr and the Morabitos somehow, against all fate, against the press of dramatic necessity and to all their eternal benefit, continued to get drunker and drunker without actually dipping into the peyote, which might well have ended with EMTs swirling around the room like feeding swallows. Mrs. Morabito fell back on the bed, humming to herself, She lay with her legs akimbo and crossed at the ankles, her round belly big enough to hold its shape even sticking up into the air. Her lush, caramel-colored bush concealed all her secrets, thank God.
Ted began to snore sitting up. Durr fell back on the bed, realizing too late that his leg now rested against Ted’s, which made him enormously uncomfortable, although he was too wiped to even consider sitting up and moving. His erection came again, and stayed. He could only think, in a minor, whiny key, that it would be so much cooler if Ted didn’t wake up for a while.
Mrs. Morabito rolled over on her side, propped her head up with one hand, and motioned Durr to lean towards her with the other. Which, striving mightily, he did, all with his abs, since he wanted so badly, so badly, to neither wake Ted or nor inflame Mrs. Morabito into doing something horrible as her husband slept. Her enormous freckled older-lady’s boobs were like loaves of fresh bread in a bakery window, resting on her arm. She smiled broadly at him. “You are one nice boy,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about this, and I want to give you something.”
She got up, swaying in several directions at one, and went into their luggage. She laid a piece of paper on the bed and carefully, without penetrating it, signed her name in ballpoint. It was the title to the Bedford. “I want you to have this. It’s in my name. I hate that limey piece of crap like I hate cancer. It’s officially yours, so be smart and get some insurance on it.”
Mrs. Morabito fell back on the bed. “The keys are in his pants. Go bring me the key ring, and do it slow, so I can get a good look at that braciole you got.”
Durr wasn’t functioning well enough to really leap off the bed and stride manfully at this point, so he slid off the bed onto the floor. He stood up by rolling over on his stomach and slowly pulling himself up the side of the bed till he was roughly vertical. Then he leaned forward till he could stumble to the chair where Ted had thrown his pants. With lots of breathing through his nose to oxygenate his brain, he was finally able to stand up straight with the pants, turn, and step back to the bed.
He realized several things at once. His mouth was so dry that when he tried to speak it sounded like someone had cut off the front half of his tongue. He had to pee as no man ever had to pee before in history. That was making his willie stick straight out, right at the dimple in Teddy Morabito’s chin. He excused himself from her presence as he handed her the keys, his eyes pleading with her not to invite disaster.
She glanced away from his works and up at his eyes. Her eyes, for just a moment, were full, knowing, beautiful, and content. “Buona fortuna,” she said, waving him away to the bathroom with an exquisitely graceful motion. He returned in only a minute or two, feeling so much better about life in so many ways. He stood before her again, and this time he felt a light flush of real affection for this crazy person.
She gave him the keys off the ring and the signed title. She told him to get dressed and walk around outside till he could drive, but be gone from the curb in an hour at the latest.
“You’re a good boy. You do what you’re told. This is the best time I’ve had since Ted got back from the war.
“Go. Clean anything that looks like luggage out of that pezzo di merda and have the bellboy bring it up to me. The rest of that crap is yours. He wanted me to cook on my vacation with those worthless little pots and sleep like a Brownie Scout in a tent,” she said, indignantly. “On my vacation!”
She returned his incredulous look by mockingly goggling her eyes at him. “It’s all my money, stallone. All of it. Don’t worry about Ted. He’s going to buy me one of those Thunderbirds for the ride home. Go!”
Durr got his drunken ass downstairs, and knew that in an hour he’d be even drunker than he was now. He went out the back of the hotel and waved over one of the kitchen staff, with several others gathering around. They got him a bellhop who was one of the cook’s cousins to take up the Morabitos’ bags, and Durr told him to make sure he got his tip from the lady, not her husband.
Durr looked for the biggest man in the group. He picked one of the cooks, who confirmed Durr’s assessment by shooing the others off without protest. Durr told him in Spanish what he wanted: to be driven a few blocks away to a safe place where he could sleep overnight. “Nothing illegal, my friend, just carrying out a lady’s wishes.” It was worth a twenty, if that would suit.
He stayed coherent in Spanish much longer than in English when he was drunk, and the cook had heard far stranger things in his many years in the hospitality industry, so, shortly, Durr was sleeping in the Bedford on the back side of a lot occupied by the cook’s wife’s brother’s auto repair shop. A couple of big ragged-assed dogs barked at him from behind a chain-link fence. He went to the back of the Bedford and crashed on the biggest bed.
If his former new best friend Ted ever woke up, became infuriated, and called the police, Durr never heard about it.
Monday, June 26
Durr bugged out early, before anyone came in for work at the shop, and checked into a little migrant worker’s motel on the edge of town. The desert night had dropped the temperature into the high forties and his teeth were chattering. Right now, he needed to get back to sleep, and, having no interest in chewing peyote by himself, he gave the motel clerk two buds for putting up with being roused out of bed, and sold him the rest for the room and a little cash.
Durr took his Daddy’s advice from so long ago and slept, drank water every time he woke up, pissed like a race horse, puked a couple times, and slept some more. He went out about one in the afternoon and got a couple of burgers, which stayed down, and went back to sleep. This was working out pretty well, to tell the truth. Every time he woke up, he thought about his new status as a Bedford Dormobile owner, and returned to the arms of Morpheus.
Clarissa and Mulberry Wing
Two skinny kids in simple cotton shifts, one with a shapeless glob of brown hair, the other with a shapeless glob of dirty dirty-blond hair, stood around in a dirt parking lot in the middle of nothing special, in sort of the off-center middle of somewhere around downtown Reno, what there was of it.
Mulberry Wing and Clarissa had been finding just how hostile Nevada was towards unaccompanied underage visitors. In Nevada, any teen who didn’t look eighteen or nineteen and couldn’t prove they were more than seventeen, with ID that would stand up to ultraviolet scrutiny, gave local businesspeople, especially those engaged in the hospitality industry, big itchy red hives, especially when accompanied only by another such. Nobody in the state wanted trouble, especially unremunerative trouble, with the cops. So two indisputably underage girls walking in the front door together, with bare feet, uncombed hair, cotton shifts, and little else, made people behind counters as nervous as seeing two cute little ambulatory open graves enter the premises.
Mulberry Wing, née Rebecca Lichtenstein, the one with the brown hair, late of Villanova, Pennsylvania, had quick access to as much dinero as she’d need to pay for any ten motel rooms. But nobody would rent her and Clarissa a room, sell them a sit-down meal, give them a cab ride, or tolerate any contact with them whatsoever, except maybe peddling them soft-serve ice-cream cones and burgers through a sliding window, quickly shut.
Clarissa, the other, didn’t have any ID, any money, or even a last name.
Monday, June 26
So Clarissa and Mulberry Wing were talking with some affable older kids from Oklahoma about how to get along in Reno, and where else they’d been that was more welcoming, and whether anybody had any food to share.
Mulberry Wing glanced up from the conversation as a kind of cartoony-looking van thing drove slowly by, and the driver, a tall man, with beautiful eyes filled with ancient pain, looked, startled, at her. She saw that his gaze was direct, bold, yet kindly, and that he was unmistakably taken by surprise by her poise and presence. She looked back at him as she’d never looked at a boy—a man—before, as directly as he at her, and let that gaze travel unflinchingly through his eyes and into his heart. Their souls flew to each other, and in a fraction of a heartbeat she knew that their spirits had joined and locked together forever.
“Wow, wow, wow…,” she said, quietly. Clarissa looked at her like she was cracked.
Amongst the Sooners, the two guys finally decided that neither Clarissa nor Mulberry Wing had any boobs worth checking out, nor was a good prospect to either squire to a party or help finance one. The girls accompanying them might not have minded talking some more under different circumstances to the two kids, but both were much more drawn to getting high with the guys before the sun got too much lower. That meant getting out of the sun-filled parking lot and into some secluded space, without any babies hanging around.
They left Clarissa and Mulberry Wing as they’d found them: gormless, barely pubescent, and seeking enlightenment and lodging.
Durr first saw Clarissa and Mulberry Wing when he left his room around four in the afternoon, going out for more solid food. The temperature was almost double what it had been at sunrise. He was glad he’d resisted the temptation to drink any coffee on the other couple of times he’d been up and had chugged water instead, which gave his liver a little time and space to process the last of last night’s tequila. Now he was sweating productively, and it was almost certain he’d survive.
He wouldn’t have remembered them at all if the one with the brown hair hadn’t looked straight at him as he drove by in the Bedford. Frankly, that particular pair of underage ginch-jockeys plus a three-legged rat terrier wouldn’t have a Chinaman’s chance at catching a ride from him or from anybody else, unless the driver really liked beat-up dogs.
He’d seen them talking to some hippies on his first pass around the block. On his second pass it was just the two of them, alone, looking confused. So just for the hell of it, Durr picked them up, because the ridiculous excuse for a radio in the Bedford couldn’t hold a station for sour apples and he wanted to drive on to the coast. He figured the two watery-eyed little chicks would at least keep him awake, even thought they were dead sure not to have money for gas or food.
Screw it. He’d won big in Vegas and gotten a free set of wheels in Reno, and felt like sharing. And he needed company, and a parakeet with a wet, hacking cough would have been plus business over the pathetic Motorola radio in the Bedford.
He wasn’t horribly worried about cops. He’d dealt the peyote to the desk clerk at the motel, and he was clean, had no weapons along, and no outstanding warrants. If the two midgets acted up, he’d put them out by the side of the road toot-de-soot-ie. The dark-haired one kept looking at him weird, though, like he’d used her Barbie to stir paint or some goddam thing.
The midgets, who introduced themselves as Mulberry Wing (brown hair, looked like sofa stuffing) and Clarissa (sort of blondish hair, looked like wet excelsior), were happy to be off the street and in a really fun van-or-hippie-bus kind of vehicle. They were already bouncing around from seat to seat, though surprisingly quietly, and he thought they talked kind of pleasant and halfway bright, at least the brown-haired one who looked at him weird. He decided he could put up with their company for a while, kind of like a couple of kid sisters. When he turned around one time and told them he was going to turn the car around if they didn’t settle down, he grinned when he said it and they flipped him off, shrieking and bouncing.
Mulberry Wing was still sure she had found her life-mate, but wasn’t quite sure what to do about it, now that she was within arm’s length of him. She was enraptured by his virile scent, a rich, almost wine-like tang, but up close his eyes looked like Christopher Lee’s in Horror of Dracula, and she didn’t know how to react to that. So she talked to Clarissa as the two girls explored the Bedford, but she kept her eyes on Him.
They were OK with driving to the coast, or anyplace else. Durr was OK with the fact that they really didn’t seem to need much right at the moment, not food nor drink nor attention. After he started working his way west through the streets of Reno, it came out that they did need food and drink, and a bag of burgers and a couple of Cokes took care of that.
The girls were having fun pulling out all the toys in the back of the Bedford. Durr thought that they were probably old enough and smart enough to go through everything without breaking anything or stabbing themselves. He asked them, nicely, to tell him what they were finding back there as they drove along, so he got a free read on what the Bedford was all about, on the fly.
And there was a lot going on back there. Teddy Morabito had barely touched anything in the kitchen, and all the knives and plates and frying pans were still inside cupboards and drawers, pristine. She’d made no bones about the fact that she thought the whole idea of a traveling motel room that smelled from gasoline was idiotic and barbaric, when the country was full of actual stationary motel rooms that smelled from Lysol and Palmolive Soap and Airwick, with TVs and free ballpoint pens and writing paper. So the whole back end of the Bedford looked as if the salesman were still chasing down his manager for final approval on the write-up. Nice.
Durr drove back to the motel and picked up the little stuff he was traveling with, ready to move on. Having just been gifted four grand worth of fancy little truck, he wasn’t going to bitch about nickels and dimes, so he left the Ford Mainline in the casino parking lot. It wasn’t worth trying to peddle it for the fifty bucks it was worth. He did go snatch the papers and tags from it just in case, and grabbed his tools out of the trunk, while the girls watched interestedly.
He saddled up, done with Reno. “Come on, ladies, let’s miss Mass and go kick ass!” he crowed over his shoulder. The girls whooped. “Sam-Fram-damn-cisco, you better watch your sister, mister, ‘cause Dandy Durr is comin’ to town!” he cried, which set off another round of shrieking and bouncing in the back.
He pointed west like that statue of Crazy Horse some Polack was making out of a mountain in South Dakota, and they rolled on down the Truckee Grade. Durr guided them over the hill with decorum and elegance; he could drive anything with pneumatic tires, in any condition, at least a few miles further than God intended, and the Dormobile was not only not the worst thing he’d ever piloted but not even in the bottom one hundred. Hell, it was practically new, and professionally maintained.
But it was also British.
The deepest lesson he’d learned in his time on earth, other than how to best handle a hangover, was that if you wanted to succeed with wheeled transport, you had to adjust your helmsmanship to whatever ride Fate had stuck you with. With the Dormobile, it being British and all, he knew before he ever put the key in the ignition that it was never intended by God nor man to go hurtling down a hundred miles of eight percent grade at high speed. It had brake drums like eight-millimeter film cans and hydraulics purposely designed in Luton to piss fluid all over your garage floor. So at the crest, he gently tipped the Red Bedford over the edge, nudged it a bit, and let it gather a little forward motion till it got to maybe forty-five miles per hour.
Then he spent the next three hours easing it down the Truckee grade, laying up behind the slowest-moving truckers he could find, never vexing the pathetic binders, using the engine gently to help brake if he absolutely had to, letting tourists in chuffing Buick Estate wagons shake their fists at him as they pulled around him and flew past to their doom, responding to curses hurled at him for his phlegmatic navigation through rolled-down windows with cheery responses in a faux-British accent: “Much obliged, guv’nor!” “You too are Number One!” and, “Huzzah for your Gene Vincent, Yank!”
Moreover, he had somebody’s brainless, titless daughters rattling around behind him with drawers full of crockery and flatware to poke their eyes out with, so he needed to cool it going over bumps. He’d made them his problem and his responsibility, so, man up, don’t whine about trouble you yourself started. At one point, he saw them playing sword-fight with two flat cake knives. He didn’t know little girls even played sword-fight.
When they broke towards the backside of Sacramento, and, now that the reality of the previous day was fading, fantasy started to take over and he wondered idly if he should have poked Teddy. She was ready for it, no question in his mind. She’d kept staring at his dipstick like she was Lloyd Bridges and Big Red was the air hose. Then he thought about Pam, the Navajo girl, and got embarrassed about stirring himself up with kids around.
When they got to Sacramento, he peeled off and drove through to Davis. There was supposed to be some kind of college there, so he found it and parked in a fringe parking lot for the athletic field for the night.
Tuesday, June 27
In the morning, Durr went back east to the turnoff south for Highway 99. 99 seemed like a good idea, because he’d gotten a glimpse of a California map tacked up on the wall of a gas station, and somehow formed the notion that, somewhere south of San Francisco, 99 hooked around to the Pacific. He figured he would bop over to the beach first, then swing north and approach the city from its soft underbelly.
By noon they were in Merced. It was abundantly clear that 99 had nothing to do with the Pacific Ocean, and never would. They’d been in the Central Valley for three hours, heating up rapidly, with the air like what hit you in the face when you lifted the hood on a Chrysler V-8 after a long run through the desert. Most of the way, the girls were considerably more fun to have along than he’d expected, providing white noise in the background without bugging him. But now they were getting bored and snarky and kind of whiny. It was nothing to make him toss them out alongside the road, but headed in that direction.
Durr drove west, sort of. They banged around 140 and 33 and 152 out in the fields, and eventually got up into the Pacheco Pass. Durr himself was getting bored and snarky and kind of whiny, because California was now looking far too much like Texas, complete with brown hills, straight, featureless roads running across flatlands, and truckloads of Mexicans.
Less than a day since first they met, Mulberry Wing had already given up on Durr. Last night, despite what had passed between them in the light of day, he had tragically, foolishly, and irrecoverably fumbled his opportunity to come to her in the accommodating dark, and whisper the secrets a man whispers to a woman when their souls have joined, as theirs so undeniably had in Reno. How poignantly sad life could be.
Clarissa looked out the window a lot when she wasn’t playing with Mulberry Wing.
The small crew of the Bedford found that Gilroy was pretty OK, although everything smelled like garlic.
Her hair was straight, and naturally almost white blond. Her eyes were dark brown, with robin’s-egg sclera, set wide over high Baltic cheekbones. They were always held in a hundred-yard gaze, constantly sorting what the world presented her into that which was useful to her, and that which perhaps might be more useful to someone else. That was usually the only distinction she needed in her world, because Beanblossom found very little in the world to be actively hostile to her interests; the concept of anyone or anything really wanting to hurt her, or even having the capability to hurt her, was outside her experience.
At Beanblossom’s core was that she sincerely found herself inherently fascinating and worthy of endless self-investigation. This, then, made her a pleasant companion for men as well as women. She saw discussing herself and her own hopes, dreams, plans and schemes with another party as pointless, because she already was conversant with her own greater strengths and her lesser strengths to a degree to which no one else could possibly aspire. So everyone with whom she had a new social encounter would have her complete attention, undivided by any need to talk about herself.
A personal conversation with Beanblossom was thus, inevitably, a conversation about the other party to that conversation. She made reference to herself or her own experience only to compare and contrast, if needed, to advance the dialogue. And in such comparisons, Beanblossom’s experience was inevitably inferior in some aspect to the other party’s.
She had no insecurities to paper over, because she had no insecurities.
Straight women couldn’t believe that this stunningly gorgeous girl, at once ethereal, self-possessed, and uncritically accepting of them, found them interesting enough to make them the sole topic of discussion. Many did eventually draw back when they discovered that there would never be anything like an exchange of confidences; some became uncomfortable when they realized that they had completely revealed themselves to another who proved to be inherently opaque.
Straight men were also initially fascinated by Beanblossom. Those keyed to a quick sexual conquest left the arena almost immediately, but the rest went on to continue to be fascinated by Beanblossom, and then, with only few dropouts, went even further on, to being ready to give their lives for Beanblossom.
Straight male after straight male believed that he and he alone had discovered this improbably hot chick, wandering about unclaimed by any other, who just couldn’t hear enough of what he had to say, somebody who really got who he was and how interesting were his thoughts. Until he encountered Beanblossom, a straight man might not even know that he had a secret inspiration, a carefully-crafted plan that he’d never dared tell anyone else, for fame, wealth, or the betterment of mankind. But they all did, when you got down to it, and they must tell her all about it.
Beanblossom had spent her young life listening to guys go on like this. First it was overly-serious senior male relatives. All tried so hard not to drown in the dark, lake-like eyes of an unnaturally self-possessed and serious child who seemed to understand not only everything they said to her, but from where each thought had derived, and whose attention to their words never faltered. Yet they found themselves speaking to her as if they’d never had the gift of speech before, endlessly, in long strings of narrative and explication, telling her how things were and how they should be. And then they could tell themselves afterwards that they had done a good thing, explaining to a bright little girl how the world really worked.
Then schoolmates descended on her, as they marched together form by form towards puberty; the girls, because one of their own could successfully act as buffer to the annoying and intrusive world of adults, yet never seemed to want to backbite, lever for position, or betray; the boys, because, hey, Moira (as she was known at birth), was different, so leave her alone, she’s cool, you can talk to her. And boy, was she pretty.
Now she was making the easy transition to complete strangers in public places. She liked listening to people ramble on sincerely about things they found terribly important, but had never found anyone willing to sit still and listen to in the past. She liked being able to pick out little bits she found interesting, rearrange them, then detach and think about what she wanted to think about. And, of course, she liked adults following her around like puppies. Extraordinarily well-mannered, eager-to-please puppies.
Beanblossom absolutely wanted to hear it all. She found it gloriously engaging to be able to compare and contrast this well-meaning idiot’s dream of a community inhabited only by motorcyclists, so that those awful acres of asphalt in shopping centers could be shrunk to patches of blacktop the size of tether-ball courts, with that well-meaning idiot’s desire to invent a voice-operated typewriter, so that whole offices full of secretaries could do other useful work with their hands, even while taking care of the typing and satisfying the inherent female need to chatter at the same time.
Gay men and women alike found themselves falling down a well, fearsomely fascinated by her, loving and hating her together, and unable to resolve the conflicting emotions they felt in her presence.
Under an array of names, she became a character in a dozen, two dozen works of fiction, usually as an unattainable object of desire, a couple of times a merciless jorōgumo preying on innocent young people—that last author/authors actually a single bisexual, imaginatively publishing under both of his/her male and female personas, working out his/her/their rage against Beanblossom’s unwillingness to be fascinated by him. Her. Them.
She floated through and above the attention, leaving no one angry, except as noted, few feeling cheated, taking the little she needed and leaving nothing behind but memories, the personification of the sole house cat—more: a Persian—in a sorority.
Tuesday, June 27
In what passed for a downtown in Gilroy, at the intersection of Garlic Press and Nothing Much Streets, Beanblossom hitched, serenely and prettily. She posed naturally, in a man-tailored white dress shirt and white jeans, a spotless white ditty bag leaning against her lower leg. Durr could not have gotten to her any faster without driving over some traffic-control device or obstructing pedestrian.
Clarissa and Mulberry Wing were thrilled to have yet another grownup to talk to. They were in an exotic red foreign window van, touring California on a sunny day in the Summer of Love. They had their own personal driver, and now an older woman, possibly a high school senior, as a travel companion, speaking with them as equals. It was so exhilarating. They hoped somebody they knew would see them.
Beanblossom was pleased by the unique affect of the Bedford, the apparent easy competence of the driver, and the fact that there were two happy, noisy little girls along. Unless Durr were a pervert of some magnitude, the presence of the two girls, cheerful and energetic, though in need of a good wash, offered assurance that she hadn’t let herself be trapped into some mobile Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a rather disturbing art film she’d recently seen in the Student Union. Undoubtedly, there would be an interesting story eventually revealed about how these three got together and formed a working relationship.
She looked around the interior of the van while the darker-haired of the little girls nattered on about some social slight she’d endured in the eighth grade. She couldn’t recall ever having been in a van, truck, or any other instrumentality of transport with actual drawers of cutlery and flexible bedding arrangements. Even Pullman sleeper units and ocean liners didn’t have stoves and cutting boards.
And the entire roof could be made to rise, to add more living space in which people could stand up straight. She looked forward to seeing that as well; Beanblossom’s secret avocation was collecting new ways and new places to live. She took her place on her new throne, high beside the driver, and watched the road approach, part, and flow round her.
Durr kept the Bedford pointed west, on 152, because Beanblossom had expressed some light interest in seeing Santa Cruz, which she believed could be found by keeping the Bedford pointed west, on 152. Just a thought, really, which Durr took as having the force of canon law.
Durr was already passing quickly from the straight male’s first stage of encountering Beanblossom and was hurtling like a driverless truck, loaded with scrap metal, off a wharf into the second stage. Given the least hint by her, he would as quickly point the Bedford towards Seattle, Tijuana, or Osaka as Santa Cruz. He wished to communicate unequivocally to Beanblossom, not that he was ready to do anything she asked, which he correctly guessed she got all the time, but that, unlike all those other guys, he was absolutely listening to everything she said and not staring at her tits or anything.
In fact, by the time they arrived in Watsonville, taking an hour to go twenty miles over two lanes of snaky blacktop, he had already divulged to her, as to no one else ever, his plan for an arts collective. He had nurtured his dream, but never spoken of it, for too long back in Fort Smith while he tacked in base molding. Now he could share his vision, with maybe the best-looking woman he’d ever met.
He would start with an old factory or something, anything big, brick, and cheap, that everybody that was in the collective would put in money for to buy, and they could it fix up. That was the ordinary part, that had probably been done a million times, there were probably hundreds of art factories around the country. This would be different, though, because you could only get to this art factory by a special bus, that the artists themselves could even take turns driving.
The special bus could have food and drinks, and maybe some dope if everybody was cool, and this way (and this was important), the only people that would be inside the art factory would be the artists and people who were really into it, people who were happy because they had found out how to get on the special bus, who were getting free food and maybe dope. Since they would have been treated to a special trip that might take, who knows, maybe ten or fifteen minutes to a place they couldn’t get to unless they got on the magic bus, they’d all be really prepped to dig the art factory when they got off.
And of course they wouldn’t be able to get out, either, unless they got back on the magic bus, but you wouldn’t want to say anything about that, because you wouldn’t want people to take it wrong, because they could feel hassled, you know, and nobody wanted that.
Durr had to make sure that Beanblossom knew that he personally wasn’t interested in anything but getting the nod to do the cabinetry for the art factory. That was all of it. He didn’t want to be one of the guys that ran the place or an artist making art inside the place. It was important for her to understand that, he felt. He wasn’t some kind of hustler or promoter or something, just a craftsman looking for a place to do his thing, and be proud of the results.
He realized he’d been speed-talking, and stopped, unable to conceive a future without Beanblossom’s immediate acceptance of the brilliance of his ideas.
She’d heard dumber than what Durr had to tell her, and smarter, and more intriguing and less, things duller than the souls of cherrystone clams and things with “Nobel” stamped all over them. Durr’s big plan did have one fillip of added interest, in that it was both simply drawn and strong of heart. There was a passion and an order to his stupid idea that took her by surprise, and it was unexpected and heartening that a fellow whose talents were for auto repair and woodwork would be so dedicated to providing a sanctuary for the creation of Art.
Bravo, Durr, she thought. And bravo, Beanblossom, as well: she congratulated herself for her instinctual response, on first encounter with him and the two little girls, that he was an essentially good guy.
In Santa Cruz, the Red Bedford rolled along Beach Street, which had lots of white people and a roller coaster. Clarissa and Mulberry Wing liked the surfers. Surfers were entirely outside both their experiences, and looked like they were more fun than hippies, to tell the truth. It would be really cool to become a surfer.
Mulberry Wing saw herself walking through the front door of her parent’s too-too home in Villa-noo-va, with her new beach bod, tanned the color of Hills Brothers Coffee, in a dangerous bikini, hair washed blond with Comet cleanser and hanging straight to her waist. Mom would freak!
Wait! A tattoo! Mom would begin to spin like a gyroscope. Did surfers get tattoos? She once again recognized her own predilection for the outré: maybe she could become the first tattooed surfer. Life was so full of promise.
Tustin, of Covington, Kentucky, was gorgeous, buff, and dumber than ditch carp. In any gathering, he assumed that he had the full attention of every woman of any age and any race. He didn’t even see men, unless they interfered with his sightlines to women, or were cops.
Tustin was largely non-contributory to the common weal, other than as a stud and as decoration. He had a huge head of naturally wavy blonde hair, blue eyes, a six-pack he’d done nothing to deserve, and an enormous, uncut penis. He wasn’t good at anything except fucking, and that only by virtue of his natural youthful stamina and constant practice.
He was, as noted, extraordinarily stupid, although some of his native thick-headedness could well be ascribed to his never having been called on to think. He carried little money with him through life, since chicks usually bought what he needed. Simply put, Tustin absorbed resources and produced little else but excrement, semen, and carbon dioxide.
But he had standards. He didn’t do fags, mostly because a fag would give him money once but typically lost interest right away in giving him money a second time. He didn’t do kids, because kids didn’t have any money, and a little money was always nice.
And kids were more likely to have older brothers than were older chicks. That sucked. Tustin had had more than one run-in with older brothers. He’d lost a tooth to an older brother once, and, though stupid, he wasn’t so stupid as to lack an instinct for self-preservation.
To be precise, he’d lost the tooth because, when he was seventeen, he pissed off a twenty-one-year-old big brother by hitting on his fifteen-year-old little sister. The big brother only got violent, however, when he caught Tustin nailing his separated-but-not-divorced, forty-eight-year-old mom. The big brother was a concrete finisher named William but who went by “Turk,” which should have given Tustin a clue.
Turk walked into the sewing room while Tustin and the mom were getting it on on a daybed. He picked Tustin straight up off his mom by Tustin’s ponytail and belt, Tustin not even having removed his khaki work pants but performing through his open fly. The suddenly-void mother rose on her elbows on the daybed and emitted a primal, deep-throated, wordless howl, right from the diaphragm.
Turk had a weird flash that if he had carried Tustin out into the open, Tustin would have continued to hump the air, like a Japanese wind-up monkey banging cymbals, his still-stiffened dick glistening, until set down on some receptor, a barnyard animal, a pile of pillows, a clay riverbank, where he could complete his march to emission.
As it was, Turk carried Tustin to the living room and dropped him, face down, on the rug, and, before he could roll over, quickly and methodically kicked him in his ribs, first to the left, then to the right, kicked him hard in his rectum, then up into his balls, then punched him repeatedly in the back of the head, just as he and his Navy buddies used to do to Marines on liberty. Tustin broke his tooth in a frantic effort to squirt forward, cracking his upper jaw on the metal base of a horrible old floor lamp.
Turk left Tustin enough life to crawl away, sobbing, and not leave a trail of blood. Tustin was a mass of contusion and sprain. It took him an hour to make it to the parking lot of an always-open café, where he climbed into a loaded stake-bed truck and curled up invisibly in a pile of construction trash. Eventually, the truck drove him away, and after a bit he jumped out at an intersection in the middle of nowhere.
He took a week to recover enough to move freely again, and the incident changed his life forever. Never again, he vowed, never again. For once in his misspent life, he had a focal point, a fixed center, a point of reference for everything else: he would never again troll for pussy in Versailles, Indiana.
He’d done moms and daughters before, of course, both separately and together, kind of liked it, and looked forward to his next. Sort of like doing sisters, which was cool, or twins, which was even better. Tustin just didn’t have much trouble getting chicks, singly or in any combination, although he bitterly resented the fact that, unlike moms and daughters or just regular sisters, he’d so far been denied the opportunity to do two twins at the same time. That just sucked.
But after this experience? Absolutely never again in Versailles, Indiana. Versailles could keep its mothers, daughters, sisters, girl cousins and aunts, twins, triplets, quads, and only children. They could TCB with cucumbers, flashlights, Greyhound Bus drivers, actual greyhounds, or five-legged Tijuana donkeys, and it wouldn’t hurt his feelings.
And he’d need to keep a better watch out for big brothers. God damn, he wished his balls would stop aching. He wished his ribs would stop aching. He wished his asshole would stop aching.
Tustin washed dishes and sold cars to get west. He could just as easily have gone east if that stake-bed truck in Versailles was set on illegally dumping its load east of Versailles instead of illegally dumping its load west of Versailles. But west it was.
As he travelled, he looked for generous older chicks and your more desolate sort of used car lots. Soon enough, he’d get a little roll of twenties from a generous older chick. Wherever he got hired to sell cars, he’d wait till somebody traded in a solid old beater that the dealership would leave on the back line for the wholesaler. Then he could snag the keys and a ten-day temp tag, siphon gas till he had a full tank, and have a ride a couple of counties further west. No state lines, though, you walk or hitch across those state lines, don’t get greedy or lazy, man.
Tustin would get along, no doubt about that.
Things got better with the advent of the hippies. A whole new cadre of young women sprang up and flew from the bosoms of their families and headed west, all wanting to be au courant, none wishing to be left behind. And Tustin was there to accommodate them.
The only downer was that, out there in the world, the chicks kept getting younger, and he didn’t go for that at all. If it wore a coat, he’d jump in the boat, sure, he wasn’t some queer. But, damn, there was a lot of awful young cooter running around on its own these days. Goddam parents needed to get their act together before the whole country went completely to hell.
Tuesday, June 27
It took him more than a year to get from Versailles, Indiana, to Firebaugh, California. He stood in front of a Flying A gas station, just then changing its sign over to Phillips 66. At the Phillips 66, ne’ Flying A, he encountered a fag in a powder blue ’56 T-Bird convertible, top down, getting his tank topped up with pure rocket fuel.
The fag looked at him, he looked at the fag, and without a word Tustin jumped in the shotgun seat. He told the fag right up front that he didn’t do fags, and the fag said that he was completely cool with that. This fag was named Randy, came from Atlanta, just checking out the scene in California, and all he wanted was some conversation till he could get the h-e-double-hockey-sticks out of the g. d. Central Valley.
Tustin had drawn worse hands. They drove to Santa Cruz, and, unknowingly, passed the Red Bedford at one point.
When they came upon Beach Street, Randy went swoony crazy nuts. He saw uncounted legions of gorgeous blond surfer boys, clean, open-faced, smiling, and laughing; singles, twos, threes, packs of a dozen or more. He took a quick inventory within the confines of the T-Bird, and counted himself and one admittedly gorgeous but smelly and stupid cracker from Kentucky, with dirty nails and blackheads.
In their short time together, he’d already discovered that old Gomer Piles’ idea of surf and turf was fish sticks and beanie-weenies, and that his favorite movie was Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves, largely because it was quite short. When Randy smiled encouragingly and told him he’d seen that one, Golden Boy favored him for five minutes with his hilarious rendition of Popeye saying, “Open, sez me!” over and over, as if practicing his audition piece for the Hell Summer Theater Rep Company.
A minor problem, soon solved, then.
Randy pulled over at the first hot dog vendor they came to on the Boardwalk and dispatched Tustin with a twenty-dollar bill to order two dogs with everything and a Seven-Up with a slice of lime, if they had it, for him, and whatever Tustin might favor for himself. Before Tustin got halfway to the vendor, Randy and his powder-blue Thunderbird, and his huge roll of Momma’s money throbbing in his left front pocket, were gone like a rocket, looking to ride, ride, ride the wild surf, so to speak.
Tustin was outraged, stunned, betrayed, and, yes, hurt. His mojo had deserted him. He stood on the hot sidewalk with an unbroken twenty, a t-shirt, and a pair of bad jeans. He looked around and saw no one even resembling an overheated and lonely trucker’s wife, a sixteen-year-old wanting to be shown the path to real womanhood, a chubby-legged secretary tired of waiting for Troy Donahue to climb through her bedroom window, or any other source of ready cash. All he saw was a bunch of surfboard humpers and a couple of clumps of blond chicks who refused to make eye contact.
“So I’m fucked, is that it?” he said, outraged, out loud, and with hands outspread, palms out. He wheeled to face the hot dog vendor. “I’m fucked, is that it?”
The hot dog vendor subvocalized, but did not say aloud, “Pinché gringo joto,” and smiled warmly.
“Fuck!” cried Tustin.
A Siamese cat wandered back and forth on the sidewalk by the hot dog vendor, with a little name tag on a pink leather collar, and thumped Tustin’s shin with its tail as it passed. Tustin picked it up, almost angrily, and undid the collar. The cat hung itself limply over his forearm, all four legs pointed straight down. He calmly watched the traffic pass, as he awaited his regular grooming, appropriate food, and scheduled box cleaning.
Tustin figured there might be a phone number or something on the cat’s tag where he could claim a reward. Hell, it was all he had right now. He walked out to the direct sun by the curb, and turned the little medallion over and over in the light. It said, “Honey Fitz,” and nothing else. “Fuck!” cried Tustin, and threw the collar and name tag into the street.
He looked around for a satisfying place to throw the goddam cat. There! Maybe up to the roller coaster, over the fence behind the hot dog vendor, that’d work. The cat, now, finally, sensing reprehensible intent, started to struggle meekly, and Tustin clamped down on its neck with his free hand. That would be boss, if he could launch the cat into a passing car on the roller coaster, freak some people out, man!
Clarissa, her face in a side window, spotted a young god among the strollers and posers. He stood hip-shot on the sidewalk, looking upward with a deeply concerned look. To the surprise of everyone, she raised her voice and called the others’ attention to this vision. Like Durr could give a damn, but Mulberry Wing and Beanblossom certainly saw it: young Apollo, golden in the sun. And, draped over a forearm, Young Apollo held a gorgeous Siamese cat, which looked out directly at them. The concerned young man was resting a calming hand on the back of the cat, which seemed to wiggle in pleasure.
Mulberry Wing, of course, felt her foolish heart rise in the back of her throat and her irrepressible soul flutter out towards him like a dove of beseeching. But even Beanblossom felt a twinge of interest. The typical surfer types seemed to be indifferent to companion pets, except for a few of the inevitable black labs with red bandannas, tongues lolling, trotting along behind indifferent masters. And there were a very few older parties in straw boaters with Chihuahuas and miniature poodles trotting on leashes, hunting together for the remnants of the Hoover years.
But this was a vision one and unique, a bold young man with both surfer’s hair and a gorgeous surfer’s bod, and a soulful cat cradled in his arms. She said, “Oh…let’s.”
Durr, responsive as ever to Beanblossom’s whim, pulled up immediately to the curb and slid open the side door. Tustin had a twinge of hope that maybe the owners had spotted their cat and would give him a couple of bucks for hanging on to it. He stepped forward, and as soon as he got within striking distance, two tiny hands with dirty fingernails shot forward and yanked the cat out of his grasp. A mind-fragging blond leaned her face out the passenger’s side window and asked him, smiling, if he needed a ride.
Against his better judgment, he accepted. The blond was great, but displayed as few cracks in her defenses as a tank turret, and Tustin had to have something to work with, for Christ’s sake. Anyway, he didn’t have a better deal on a back burner right at the moment. Even without any obvious chance of pussy, these hippie assholes might be good for some food and boo.
Durr, having pegged Tustin as a worthless nutsack from the get-go, stayed just this side of rude, just in case Beanblossom, for some unfathomable reason, remained interested in the worthless turd. He scoped that the odds of this waste of space chipping in for gas were on a par with Richard Nixon starting a new career in telephone sales, and, even by Durr’s country-boy standards, this guy kind of reeked. Surfer Boy would be gone as soon as Durr saw Beanblossom look away, guaranteed.
Tustin found himself in a silly-assed little house on wheels, complete with kitchen and crapper, which contained two snot-nosed kids, the blond, and a guy big enough to seriously kick his ass. Also, the worthless cat, which had already climbed into a cupboard and was curling itself into a fuzzy Danish. There was a table, a stove, all kinds of crap. As they pulled away, the blond asked him with polite interest about the cat, saw immediately that he was barely aware that he had been holding a cat, and then clicked him off like a bad TV.
Tustin already saw his good thing running away. The possibility of his getting money, drugs, or sex out of any of this crew was as likely as him doing a five-way with the Lennon Sisters. He was gone as soon as Blondie or the swingin’ dick looked the other way. Hopefully he’d have something edible or salable stuffed in his waistband.
Because Tustin couldn’t deal with this particular brand of injustice. He was getting nothing from the snotty blond bitch, the asshole at the wheel was backing her 100%, although she obviously didn’t belong to him, and the two rug-rats looked at him like a zoo animal. Who the hell needed this? After he apparently gave her the wrong answer on the pop quiz about the stupid goddam cat, he kept waiting for Blondie’s next approach so he could turn her down or take her up on it, and…nothing.
So, obviously, she was a lesbian. Although, as Tustin would tell you for free, he’d converted more than a few of those. Admittedly, his defining vision of a lesbian wasn’t well sourced nor fully developed: Tura Satana? Kate Smith in a flannel shirt? Charles Bronson with titties? And, inasmuch as his functional definition of a lesbian was a woman who didn’t immediately fall into a complaisant, tumescent trance in his presence, “converting a lesbian” meant getting any woman who’d initially rejected him to submit.
Tustin didn’t want to think about lesbians, anyway, any more than he wanted to think about men getting it on. Bunch of gross perversion. Although two cute chicks getting it on, hey, well, maybe that could be pretty cool, but thinking about whether it was cool or gross confused him, and, for Tustin, thinking was difficult enough under the best of circumstances.
Anyway, the Bedford went north, on the premise that “north” would get them to San Francisco.
They ended up lost on the peninsula, realizing too late that they had looped back on their route at least twice. The cat came down once to yowl about something, so, at a guess, they pulled over and opened a door. The cat jumped out, scratched, came back, and yowled some more. Beanblossom put out a peanut butter jar lid full of water for it, and Durr set a piece of beef jerky on the floor in front of the passenger’s seat. The cat sniffed and looked at him sadly, then snatched the jerky and went back up in the cupboard.
The three young women were blindsided by the general unlovableness of this cat. They couldn’t imagine such a thing, but this might be the first cat any of them had ever encountered, definitely the first Siamese, that they wouldn’t call out for if it ran off.
They spent the night pulled off the road on a sheet of eucalyptus leaves and bark sheddings so slick, on a hillside so steep, that they had to move around outside the Bedford hand-over-hand, holding on to door handles, mirrors, and the goofy t-handle hood latch. At least the Bedford afforded comfortable beds, however tilted. Tustin, they found, farted noisily in his sleep.
Wednesday, June 28
As dawn turned the world a little lighter grey, the first one to get up to pee found that banana slugs crawled on the tires and underfoot, which caused all, even Durr, to gross out and question the existence of a rational God. The two younger girls were cranky because they expected to at least get fed, Beanblossom was growing actively uncomfortable about Tustin’s presence, and Durr was getting nervous about finding a gas station.
They tried again to locate San Francisco. They found that Cupertino was just over a couple of hills. They stopped and got a bag of bread and a jar of peanut butter, and enough pint cartons of milk so they wouldn’t have to share. Tustin wanted beer and for someone else to pay for it, Beanblossom wanted some kind of French water, and neither got what they desired. They munched PB sandwiches washed down with cold milk. The morning was shaping up as oddly uninvolving, despite their proximity to the Bay, to the ocean, and to San Francisco.
This time they did end up going north, swallowed alive by the South Bay, all exits and ramps. Sullen little stucco houses crowded against the freeway, with privacy fences covered with ragged, dusty vines walling off tiny back yards where the sun never reached bottom. The net result of their tumbling, disoriented scrambling in the angry traffic was to put them on the Nimitz during morning rush hour.
Durr didn’t like this one tiny iota. He felt the Bedford’s spirit accusing him with betrayed eyes of cruelty and insensitivity. This was not cool. Wheeled transport of every description, bizarre rides he knew only from car mags, surrounded the Bedford like the carrots and onions in a metal stew. My Christ, how many lanes was this? How slowly could it all possibly move? How long would this go on?
Tustin settled down and, like Clarissa, spent a lot of time looking out the window. Since it looked like this bore-ass crew of kids, lesbians, and big brothers had already decided they were all going to San Francisco, he figured, what the hell, why argue? He was out the door as soon as it looked good.
Durr finally got sick of the traffic and turned off on Park Street to Alameda to reconnoiter. They continued southwest through town till they got to Central. It was after 9:00, so the mudslide out on the freeway had to quit soon, it just had to.
Spider was medium-sized, dark even for a Negro, his hair short and natural. He had been known as Bon, short for Bontemps, Pierson at Encinal High, in Alameda; he was a high-B student and his father was one of the custodial workers at the high school. He was proud of his father, and the other students liked that he was proud of his father, and didn’t avoid him in the halls. He’d grown to young manhood with a pretty good attitude and a lot of pretty good friends from all over the racial and cultural map.
He was “Spider” only because, one afternoon, without fanfare, he’d gone over the tall chain-link fence at one end of the football field, right up against San Francisco Bay, to retrieve an errant football. It had been so effortless and unexpected a performance that he immediately became “The Spider Man” to the cheering dozen hoodlums, flips, and Navy brats involved in the game. He liked it, it stuck, and when the hippies came he decided to go with their thing instead of the diddley-bop thing out of the Projects over by the estuary, where he’d come from.
He graduated in 1963 and started school at Oakland City College, but soon drifted over to North Beach, falling in with aging beatniks and off-duty topless dancers from the go-go clubs. They liked that he was both a Negro and quiet, so that he made any gathering hipper without being disruptive. And since he was into beat poetry, now kind of a nostalgia thing, and modern jazz, he made a gathering smarter, too.
Spider had been hanging out with Sylvester Stewart for the last couple of months, getting educated in being a radio DJ and just talking. Sylvester was a cool cat, but he changed a lot when he shifted into his “Sly Stone” persona for KDIA, or KSOL, and Spider saw things across the bay he wanted to get into. So he took off.
Since the hippies came, he dressed all in suede. The pieces were mismatched and a little oily, but it was still all suede. He wore knee-length moccasins with a lot of fringe and elaborate buckskin ties, knotted just under his patellae.
Never having owned a car and forever dependent on rides, and always irrationally concerned on any sort of public transportation that he was going to overshoot his stop, Spider had developed himself into a skilled and experienced passenger in other people’s cars. He played his role as a permanent member of the riding class with dignity and aplomb. He could give easy directions from any place in the Bay Area to anywhere else in the Bay Area to a saucer-full of Martians. Sometimes that came in extremely useful.
Wednesday, June 28
Spider stood on the corner of Park and Central in Alameda. In the cool morning light, he looked pretty groovy.
When the Bedford appeared at the intersection, Spider called out to Beanblossom, riding shotgun, which was on the left side of the bus, for a good ride to the City. She liked him on sight and felt that he would at least dilute the Tustin-ness within the bus.
Spider jumped into this cartoony-looking thing full of white kids. One blue-eyed boy acted like he knew Spider or something. The blonde who invited him in looked like a Greek goddess but talked to him like he was somebody on a TV screen in a store window. Two baby girls were off in their own world, although the cleaner-looking one kept looking at him funny. The driver, a tall guy named Durr, was cool, though, and he had the keys. So he talked to Durr whenever Durr wasn’t trying to get over on the blond girl.
Before he even got settled in his seat, he established himself as a hero. Working his magic, he got them through the Posey Tube, through Oakland, to the Bay Bridge entrance, and up over the Bay in a matter of minutes. No thing, done it a ton of times.
Beanblossom was enthralled by Spider’s virtuoso performance, as if he had presented her personally with the gift of the soaring ride into the air, over the Bay, and into the heart of the City, still outlined in the last of the morning fog as it shrank back into the sea. Clarissa and Mulberry Wing bounced around in the rear of the Bedford like a couple of Maltese as it flew up over the water. Durr felt the cool damp air like a blessing from the Pope of Whitworth, sensed it sluicing down and around the overworked little POS four-banger under the hood, and telling it that you are blessed, you have a right to live, and everything will be fine.
Down to Yerba Buena, back up, and Spider directed the Bedford expertly off the Bayshore, around and down Fremont to Market Street. “Here y’all go,” he said, putting his hand on the door handle. “No, damn, not yet, man, no,” pleaded Durr, “Get me back where I can see the water so I know where the hell I am, please! Please.”
“That’s cool, that’s cool. Over there, watch for the right-turn lane, it’s a little stubby-assed thing,” said Spider. He guided them out to the Embarcadero.
Spider saw two of those Japatalian VW bus dumaflatchies sitting in a parking lot on the Embarcadero, with some people standing around. At first look, he decided they could be pretty hip, could be pretty cool, he needed to check ‘em out. There were at least as many chicks as dudes, which Spider always found good. He pointed them out to Durr, and said they looked cool and might know if something was going on. Durr pulled up behind the two other buses and shut off the Bedford. “Stop City, my brothers, my sisters, and all and any space aliens who come in peace,” Spider said, using his Sly Stone voice.
Ady and Clara
Ady’s affluent but unwed mother, to distract attention from the missing father’s name on her daughter’s birth certificate, grandiosely named the innocent child Angelica Domenica. This, in Provo, Utah, for God’s sake. Nobody in Provo had a name like Angelica Domenica, so in use it quickly became “A. D.”, then “Ady.” Ady perhaps could have cared less, had she tried very hard.
Clara, her best friend in the entire world, hated her own name. “As close to nothing as exists,” she called it. She didn’t even have a middle name, just Clara. Ugh.
Ady was quick and scatter-gun in her speech. Clara considered everything she said, which made things tough talking to guys. Both liked guys, although for both there were asterisks.
Clara wanted to like guys more, but there were too many questions about them that were unanswered and unanswerable. Specifically, she saw a wall of secrecy around guys’ sexuality, and she resented the hell out of it. It made her feel like she was being patted on the head by Aunt Harriet and told that you don’t need to know all that, honey, why bother your pretty head about it, put lines in that cute face?
She wasn’t given to big demonstrations of emotion in general, and it wasn’t like she went around looking for things in her life to be mad about. She’d been neither sexually abused nor enticed as a child, nor raised in any remarkably liberated nor repressed environment, and she had lots of other things in her life on which she could have fixed her gaze. But, oh, this pissed her off.
It moved her to become actively obsessed with men and their parts and their ways. Much of that obsession was in direct reaction to being told, “No!” But much of it was no more than sensible Clara simply being sensible Clara: she didn’t want to fall into the well of love, sex, dating, boys, babies, and the arousal and management of passion in dark and private places without knowing a lot more about what she was doing than she did now or, so it seemed to her, than what anybody ever wanted her to know.
How stupid it was. She was supposed to chart her own course from adolescence to courtship to marriage to blessed motherhood? “Here, honey, we want you to learn to make a lovely Sunday dinner for the whole family. Blindfolded. Wearing mittens. Don’t bother asking anyone for advice.
“And everyone will be there, so don’t disappoint us.” Bull-doodoo.
This also left her sensibly reluctant about engaging in actual intercourse herself, which was especially important given the male—children—at school with whom she would have been engaged in such premarital experimentation. As individuals and as a group, they were as ignorant of what was supposed to be going on as she, and, moreover, they were all irredeemably icky.
In Provo, that set her apart a little. Premarital sex was widely regarded as an absolutely unforgivable misuse of a woman’s body, which was designed by God to produce and nurture babies within the support of a Christian marriage. It was also pretty much what everyone did on weekends, without benefit of condoms or the newly-invented pill. There was a lot of withdrawing going on, a lot of misdirection of eager fluids.
So Clara knew too few women in town who’d not dropped a calf, in her Nebraskan father’s inelegant phrase, before they were eighteen. They were expected to blow up to Venus of Willendorf proportions as they grew with child, before most could vote, and lose none of it at parturition. Clara had deep reservations about the wisdom of all this.
But she was absolutely interested in boys. To her, however, “interested in boys” wasn’t just a catch-all phrase for the entire process of finding, enticing, and keeping the exclusive interest of a male for some significant length of time. Her interest in boys was literal and explicit, the uncovering of their physical and behavioral secrets that society seemed so intent to keep from her.
Based on simple observation, she’d already formed the strong opinion that what guys were mostly all about was their penes and their cars. The difference was that if you, too, were interested in their cars, you could go to any magazine stand and buy lots of magazines that would tell you all about their cars. Their wieners were an entirely different matter.
She wanted pants off, in bright light. She wanted to see what happened when guys ran around naked, the way they all said they wanted to do in Provo, but never did except in school locker rooms. Did naked boys, when gathered in those locker rooms, standing around talking with no girls around, casually grab and adjust themselves, the way they did all too frequently when wearing clothes with girls nearby? If everyone can see their genitals, do they still make constant reference to the size of their parts?
It seemed to Clara that it would be pretty stupid to claim to be equipped like a prize bull if everyone in the room could see otherwise. But who knew? Would that change when “everyone” meant “everyone,” and not just other boys? Were other boys at all interested in the aspects of boy’s parts? Or was boys’ seeming unconquerable need to discuss the junk between their legs like her adult male relatives’ need to sit around at family gatherings and discuss their individual gun collections, where all were talking and nobody really listening?
Urination—what about urination? Left to their own devise, would guys just do it where they were and continue talking? Would they lean forward to avoid sprinkling their feet? Or would they excuse themselves and “‘go” against something vertical?
There! What was that “something vertical” business about? Why did guys find it impossible to simply let fly in the middle of a parking lot or field if they needed to, unless they were gibbering drunk? After all, dogs did similar, although cats not so much, and cows least of all. So how “natural” was that impulse, really?
In her younger years, she had aspirations to be seen as one of the boys, a girl you could talk to. Once she was in an otherwise all-boy group, which led her to try and pass on a joke she’d heard from a girl at camp. It involved miming a boy masturbating, stopping what he was doing in the face of some distraction, and resuming, repeated the obligatory three times, while saying a humorous phrase. At first she thought the odd grins on the boys in the circle meant she was telling the joke effectively, being a bit outrageous, building to the punch line, which gave her hope that she was solidifying her position as a guys’ girl.
She learned from this incident, to her mortification, that boys don’t masturbate by rolling their things between the palms of their hands like pencils, as she had been mimicking with her hands. Several of the boys finally stopped her and explained what she was doing wrong. Clara couldn’t have been more embarrassed than if someone had passed around a picture of her at age one year sitting on a potty. It had been so awful that, in later years, she could feel her face redden if she so much as thought about how reddened her face must have been on that day.
Eventually, her shame receded, and was replaced by slow-burning anger. She wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t a nun, and if she didn’t know how boys did that to themselves, fine. But how was she supposed to know these things? How the hell was she supposed to know these things?
Boys masturbated, she knew they did, because by the time she was twelve, she’d read the first Kinsey Report in the reference section of a college library, cover to cover, a hundred pages at a session. They all masturbated, by all accounts a lot, which was fine, too. But how?
Boys thought that girls all did It, too, which was sort of true, but not really. But they thought that it involved sticking things inside themselves, which was silly and ignorant. Now, how was that any different from her own ignorance of how half the race spent its most private moments?
It was just not fair. She was quietly furious with the Big Secret aspect of it all. There were many layers to her near-obsession with finding out how boys worked, and the incident of the busted joke may have been the thickest layer of all. But it was the whole thing, not just self-abuse, but the way sex really worked.
My God, how was she supposed to know what to expect the first time she got really, really serious with a boy? Sparks? Tentacles? Loud honking noises?
As far as asking other women, she had to deal with a really confusing situation. Ady was her best friend, ever. They talked about everything. But what boys did with girls, what boys did all alone, that was something that just wouldn’t come up for the longest time.
Then something changed for Ady, and she let slip one day that, yeah, she’d done it with a guy. Now she was going at it, not a lot, but regularly. And her whole deal with doing it with boys was kind of strange, no details right now.
It still didn’t mean that she wanted to talk about the important stuff with Clara, those things that Clara really wanted to know. Clara was dead sure that if she brought it up, it would come out all wrong, that it would sound like she wanted to hide in a closet and watch two people do it, on purpose, to see how they did it, or even worse, watch some guy do it to himself. Ady would give her such a look, recoil from her in real horror, because that was disgusting, perverted, and sick. Ady might wonder if Clara had ever been hiding under the bed with a freshly sharpened Number Two pencil and a steno pad, taking sweaty notes while Ady herself was doing it. So, no, no and no.
She still wanted to know it all. She wanted all the information, all the details, which for some reason was kept hidden from the very people with most pressing need for it. She wanted to watch the changes in a guy’s face when he was becoming interested in another girl. She wanted to know, other than the obvious, what else a guy’s body would do: would the flesh of his chest flush? Did all boys’ hands sweat like Mason jars filled with iced lemonade on a hot day when they got close to a girl, or was that just that phony little jerk Ross Ungar, who always wanted her to come look at something in his garage?
Why couldn’t she just check a book out of the library, for the love of God? She would swear before a frowning panel of dubious librarians that she had no intention of reading their precious damned Book of Secrets while sticking carrots or cucumbers into her mouth or ears or anywhere else.
She knew all she cared to know about how other naked girls looked and acted, that was showers-after-gym stuff, yawn fart snore. Had she thought about it, she couldn’t state with complete certainty that she’d ever seen Ady entirely naked, but then she’d never had any reason to think about it. As far as Clara was concerned, naked girls were of interest only in their power to bring forth naked boys.
It was a strange time, after all. Clara lived late in the decade between the introduction of the birth control pill and the first copy of Our Bodies Ourselves landing in Provo. Our Bodies Ourselves wouldn’t have given her much detailed information about male wanking behavior, but it would have done wonders for her attitude. She would discover it soon enough.
Ady had asterisks concerning boys as well. Hers were both simpler and more complex than Clara’s. They manifested themselves only intermittently. Clara knew about her little ways, and so did a couple of dozen boys, and whomever they blabbed to.
So she did what she could to keep their chatter to a minimum, and so far, so good. She didn’t worry about it too much, because she was primed, cocked, and ready to get out of Salt Lake whatever happened.
That aside, Ady’s nature was to hide little. And she changed constantly. She had a core, and a strong sense of who she was, but to Ady every observation was a response to what she saw, felt, or heard at the moment. Continuity was just no big deal. On two different days on the same subject, she might well have two different responses; to lock in a personal observation against further revision would be pig-headed, silly, and a clear indication that she wasn’t prepared to learn as she went.
If she asserted on a Tuesday, for example, that Lyndon Johnson was unquestionably a pig bastard, and on the following Thursday that Lyndon Johnson was unquestionably a psycho degenerate, why was that supposed to be a problem? She had a different perspective on Thursday; was she supposed to lie about her true feelings?
Look, she might assert, some people are player pianos, some wind chimes. She was an unapologetic set of wind chimes. If you wanted repetitive precision, you could bug off and go look for a player piano, see how you liked that.
Clara thought about Ady a lot. Ady made her feel safe, since Ady didn’t seem to want anything material from her. Clara grew up with, not only other children who were always trying to take things away from her, but with her own schitz mother doing the exact same thing. The over-the-shoulder snatch-and-grab at her house seemed to be constant. Clothes, dolls, makeup, books, and food were fair game.
Her mother was the world’s worst at, “You gonna eat that?” with her fork already in the last meatball on Clara’s plate. She seemed to think it kicky, with it, and virtuously resourceful to bag Clara’s clothes and makeup and make them work for her. Thank God she’d never tried to sink her claws into one of Clara’s rare male friends.
Ady, on the other hand, never so much as picked up anything of Clara’s without express permission, much less popped it in a pocket. That was such a welcome relief in Clara’s life that she started fantasizing about moving out of her Mom’s and rooming with Ady within months of their first encounter. God, what a revelation, not having to count the M&M’s in a package half-eaten and dropped in her purse for later to determine whether she’d been raided or not.
Best, and better than best, was that Ady didn’t want Clara’s guys, such as they were. Clara may have been dubious about going too far with any guy before she had a handle on what sex really was all about, but Clara didn’t want to stand on the sidelines and watch as everybody else joined the dance, either.
But Clara was growing up solid and sturdy rather than sleek, and male attention was something she had to work to get, and to keep. She tended to answer questions with questions, and she felt she needed to think carefully about how to respond to simple social intercourse, right down to the level of, “How are you?” This slowed even the horniest and least discerning guys down quite a bit.
And too often in her past, prettier girlfriends has used her as a holding cell. A girlfriend would be chatting up some guy and set Clara up to hold the attention of another guy who girlfriend thought might have possibilities. When the supposed friend determined the first swain wasn’t going to work out, she’d take the backup boy away from Clara, who would still be blushing and stammering and trying to get acquainted, to leave her with nothing but to go home and chew the roses off her pillowcase.
It happened with one girlfriend, another, and then another, and Clara had no idea what within herself drew these girls to her, what invisible-to-her “USE ME!” neon sign she wore on her forehead. Each time it happened, she succumbed to the strongest emotion she’d ever known, a violent oscillation between impotent rage and tearful inferiority. Would she eventually slash one of these treacherous bitches with a ham knife, some place where the hideous scars would show every time the slut in question looked in a mirror for the rest of her life? Clara wished she could dismiss the idea out of hand.
When she met Ady, it was shocking and wonderful to discover that she could be close to, be in the confidence of, be best friends with, another woman, a good-looking and heterosexual woman, and be entirely confident that if she, Clara, were to somehow get a guy interested in her, that his feelings for and commitment to her would be hers and hers alone, to toy with and misuse.
Clara sought love and closeness like anyone else, and all she wanted was the freedom to make her own arrangements in her own time without interference from third parties, particularly lying, traitorous third parties who said they were her friends.
Ady and Clara did end up tossing the idea of rooming together around for a while, and decided that, given just how little money they had, they might as well jump on a bus and go someplace new and exciting and get jobs. Ady’s Mom had money to give her but no inclination to do so. Clara’s Mom felt that Clara was already past the time in her life that she should have been planning her future as a wife and mother.
Danielle Tibbett was a tall, lanky Catholic from Clearfield. Her Dad died in a crash at Hill Air Force Base when she was young, and she and her Mom moved to Salt Lake. She had his hawk nose and huge eyes and his orderly ways. She was a good girl who, in this summer of love, would occasionally try to work up a pair of ostentatiously dirty bare feet to show her unity with the New World Family she was hearing about, but her teeth and personal areas were never other than scrupulously clean.
Friday, June 23
The day before Danielle took off, she let her Mom know she was going to run around the country for a few weeks, and she asked for a couple hundred dollars. Her Mom gave it to her in fifties, which made Danielle sigh to herself and which she wrote off to old age: her Mom should have known that fifties were impossible for a girl to break out there in the world, unless you went to a bank and looked all fragile and weepy-eyed.
But she certainly didn’t hate her Mom, the way it kind of sounded you were supposed to these days. She loved and trusted her Mom, and her Mom loved and trusted her. Later on, Danielle came to realize that, as a matter of spiritual growth, she should probably have given much more thought to how her actions, both at the time of her leaving and before, made her Mom feel. More fortunate than many, she got to tell her Mom that before too much more time had passed, and, though always best friends, Danielle and her Mom drew even closer.
Gerald’s car was the Glen Cove Green 1962 Rambler 400 four-door that his real father left behind when he took off. All he wanted was his own car with his own name on the title, and the Rambler still technically belonged to his real father.
When one of his mother’s boyfriends turned into his stepdad, the situation had become too complicated to cope with. Every time his mother and stepfather discussed the resolution of the car situation with each other at the kitchen table, late at night, they came up with a new and different plan to get the title, insurance, and equity in the car out of his real father’s name without having to hunt him down. And the new plan always seemed to boil down to getting the title into his mom’s boyfriend’s name.
To date they had never followed through, but Gerald was sick of it. He always felt like a sucker polishing the car and keeping it maintained, because it wasn’t ever going to be his, if his mom and her current bedwarmer got their way. Fine! Then he would get his own wheels, park the Rambler, and let them defraud the State of Utah as creatively as they wanted.
His current stepdad occasionally made an effort to talk to him, but his mother seemed to assume that Gerald couldn’t be happy until he went into the Army or something. Every time they talked, she acted as if she were trying to defuse an incipient argument. She acted as if she believed that if she didn’t intimidate Gerald at every turn, he would explode in defiance, so she was perfectly justified in being defensively aggressive and demanding, and loud. Gerald was ready to go into the Army, or something.
Saturday, June 24
Gerald had upset his parents yet again. He had gone into their bedroom early in the morning to get the phone book from the phone table they kept next to the dresser, across the room from their bed. When he opened the door, his stepfather had been quietly and earnestly plowing his completely-absorbed mother, and both jumped and fell apart when the door opened, still covered with the sheet, thank God. There had been a brief exchange of words that did flare into anger but which still were directed by all parties at getting Gerald out of the room as quickly as possible.
He fled down the hall without the phone book. All he wanted was the phone number of a body shop called Rudy’s that one of his friends said might have an OK car to sell cheap, for God’s sake.
His mother made one of her pre-emptive references to the phone book incident that morning every time they crossed paths, and finally started shouting at Gerald that if he couldn’t stop provoking arguments with her, he could just get the hell out, because she’d done nothing to deserve being treated this way. Gerald shouted back at her, in absolute frustration, that he didn’t know how to act, he didn’t know what she wanted him to do or say to her.
His voice rose and rose, out of his control, until he started shaking and ran to his room. He put on his corduroy jacket, got his keys and wallet, and went out the front door to the little green car sitting at the curb. He drove off doing what he’d been doing a lot lately, talking things out at the top of his lungs on the open road, but this time was worse than usual. His voice would go up and up and then break, and he would end up screaming incoherently. At least Salt Lake had a lot of open roads in easy reach, so he could keep on driving and screaming for a couple of hours.
Eventually he arrived at a curb by the Greyhound Bus Station downtown. He thought he’d come to a stop, and then found he was still rolling gently forward. He couldn’t manage the confusion in his head about how to put on the brake, put the column shift into park, and put on the parking brake all in the proper order. He would so like someone to step in and take over for him.
A little earlier that day, Ady and Clara and Danielle met inside the bus station.
Ady and Clara were totally focused on running away from Salt Lake and, by extension, Utah. So they were ready to roll the cosmic dice and just go do it, together. Heading to the downtown Greyhound Station in Salt Lake looked to be their best bet, because the idea of staying in Utah and finding work in any field except maybe the travel industry made both of them a little ill.
Danielle was striding forward into an interesting future, full of promise, with her arms pumping, as she always did. She was at the bus station because it was what she could afford, and buying a bus ticket seemed simple enough.
They joined forces out on the sidewalk after the two and the one noticed each other’s presences inside while waiting to price tickets.
The dynamic was pretty simple. The Salt Lake Greyhound station was very scary, even in mid-day. Despite its location near the Temple and its being commonly bathed in bright sun, the station and surrounding block were home to a large, floating cadre of actively dangerous and dysfunctional people, who formed a strange, gritty, urban counterpoint to the purity of the nearby Temple and the sincere and harmless people who frequented it. Three girls were just safer than two, once they’d determined that all were, you know, nice.
So they reassembled outside and tried to figure how pooling their resources might make tickets out of Salt Lake cost less per person per mile, somehow. Few options presented themselves. Danielle knew now she should have checked first about bus ticket prices before asking her mom for money, because the promotional price she remembered from a TV ad had evaporated, and she was now looking at being able to just afford a trip to California, out and back, and that was about it. Ady and Clara had gotten together what they could, and hoped the world would adjust to their budget.
Even taking a really positive attitude about it, that if three smart, motivated, and essentially nice people put their heads together in common cause, every wall must tumble, every gate must open, and every watchtower fall, the numbers still were kind of glum.
A chunky little car, well-polished and painted some kind of a pretty light green with a little blue to it that would have been cute on a vanity skirt, with a big chrome grill that made the car look thoroughly dismayed, rolled slowly toward the curb ahead of them. It was close enough to catch their attention, stop the conversation, and induce them to watch what would happen. It wasn’t near enough to the curb to be considered parked, and was still far enough out in the stream of traffic to be a little discomfiting. A tall guy with a lot of hair sat in the driver’s seat, sort of driving and flailing his arms at the same time, and they could hear him sobbing loudly and half-shouting something.
The guy started banging his head on the steering wheel, and apparently took his foot off the brake with the car still in drive, because the little car slowly rolled forward again and didn’t seem to be stopping, really. Danielle strode over to the back of the car, taking a few quick steps to keep up with it, and slammed the flat of her hand on the trunk several times. “Whoa!” she cried. “Wow, guy! Whoa!”
Ady and Clara thought this was a huge chance for her to take, because none of them could have any idea what this guy’s problem was, and no one could possibly deny that he did have a problem of some kind. Danielle told them later that she was responding to the car, which was adorable and obviously well-kept. An ax murderer or a rapist wouldn’t be that nice to any car unless it was some lurid, look-at-me color and made loud farting noises, she explained.
The guy driving didn’t turn around when she thumped his car, but he did start pounding his open palms against the headliner and shouting, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” straight up in the air. That gave Clara a big twinge, because, beyond doubt, this poor man was hurting badly, and she was the type of person who would swat a bug-sprayed fly to keep it from tormentedly buzzing out its death throes. Ady reluctantly followed Clara to the passenger’s side, as Danielle cautiously circled around to the driver’s door. Danielle was afraid he was going to knock the dome light loose and it would crack him in the forehead or he’d electrocute himself somehow.
He looked out at them over the point of his left shoulder, then his right, clinging for life to the very top of the steering wheel. “I’m sorry,” he said to them, in a softer voice. Clara felt another kind of twinge, because although his cheeks were running with tears and his eyes were puffy red, he was actually kind of lean-faced good-looking. Clara didn’t recall ever seeing a man, at least a sober man, who was that open about any emotion not related to athletic performance, except in the movies. He had her full attention.
Ady was looking over Clara’s shoulder, standing on tiptoe, both hands flat on Clara’s shoulder blades. “Why is he sorry?” she asked Danielle, rather intrusively, Clara thought, and showing a certain insensitively to this poor man’s suffering. Danielle shot her a calm and authoritative I’ve-got-this look. She turned back to the driver. “Why are you sorry?” she asked him.
He looked left and right at them again, focusing and straightening himself. “May I get out, please?” he asked.
“Please park the car properly first,” said Danielle.
“OK.” He did, without scaring anybody or scraping the tires on the high curb, and he turned the car off and set the hand brake. The thick-skinned, squared-off Rambler American 400, so identified on its flanks and rear by solid-looking, chromed-pot-metal lettering, looked relieved that kind people had intervened on its behalf.
They stood back respectfully and he got out. He was as tall as or taller than he looked in the driver’s seat. He stood in the slanting sunlight in a suede-colored corduroy jacket over a dark blue collared shirt and almost unfaded jeans, his shoulders slumped, wiping his eyes with the back of both hands. Clara couldn’t imagine looking anywhere else in the whole world but at his tragic face.
The next time he brought his hands to his eyes, Clara got a glimpse of the naked reality of the leather patch on the left elbow of his jacket. The slight nap of the leather and the stitching around the margin of the patch were etched as if by lasers in the brilliant afternoon cross-light. His slim but still strong-looking wrists twisted about in his pain, showing, all the while, a little discreet cuff. She thought her knees would give way.
“I’m really sorry, I’m OK now,” he said. He took a deep breath and reached for the door handle.
Danielle made a move that Ady really liked and left Clara speechless with envy: she held the boy’s eyes and shifted forward, not to directly block his attempt to open the door and get back in the car, but only to stand close enough so that, if he tried to open the door, the corner of the door’s window frame would just brush her right boob.
He saw it. He dropped his eyes, stepped back and blushed, and now all three women wanted to put a saucer of milk out for him. They maneuvered him to the sidewalk side of the car and, standing in a circle, induced him to talk. Eventually each drifted back to the car and found comfortable places to sit on the hood and trunk.
Gerald calmed and got control of himself. Three really pretty girls whom he didn’t know surrounded him, and they were looking at him intently and openly and encouragingly. He couldn’t go home, and he had nothing left in the world except the clothes he wore and a car he didn’t really own, so he put all these facts together and somehow concluded that, if they’d let him, he could tell these benign, soft-eyed strangers everything.
For the girls’ part, none was yet quite ready to put an arm around him. But they were certainly ready to listen to whatever this boy might have to say all day, all night, and through the next weekend. Bus companies and their schedules, aggressive winos, fat brown women with dozens of children, rich kids wandering around the country pretending to be poor kids, and all the rest of the Salt Lake Saturday Afternoon Bus Station Brigade could just stand over there and wait their turn for attention.
And as Gerald unbundled his wretchedness, a remarkable and sparkling moment of cosmic clarity came unbidden and almost simultaneously to Danielle, Ady, and Clara. Daylight still surrounded them with promise, the air was fresh, warm, and damp, and they were full of blood, wit, and hope. They had only a little money, but a mere pittance of bus-ticket money translated into thousands of miles of gas money. Especially in a thrifty, sensible, roomy compact car like a Rambler American 400.
The Ordering Power of the Universe must have brought them together, they realized, three girls with a common cause, and then it quickly thrust upon them a fourth member for their group, a most interesting boy with heart-breaking problems and no home to go to. Not that it really mattered, but he also had good manners, a distinct sense of personal style that shone through his distress, and one terrific head of hair.
And he drove a cute car with room for them all and which got, at least per George Romney in his ads, great gas mileage. Since George Romney was, for whatever it was worth, an Elder, he could probably be relied on to tell the truth.
And out there to the west, across the Great American Desert, lay the Summer of Love.
Other than the gleaming little car, to which the boy himself seemed oddly indifferent, and that sharp cord jacket, the boy really did have nothing. So, clearly, as a matter of simple humanity, he must be cared for and watched over by good, concerned people who had only his best interests at heart. Their duty was clear.
Gerald only realized that the High Council of Concerned Young Women had handed down their ruling, that they four should all drive off to find adventure together, when the tall girl with the beautiful eyes took his keys out of the ignition. Then she opened the trunk of his car, and all started throwing in their bags.
He felt a surge of dismay at the naiveté and trusting innocence of these three wonderful girls, so foolishly placing themselves at great danger to their persons and their reputations in their willingness to go off with a complete stranger. They just didn’t seem to realize might be capable of doing awful and unspeakable things, although, of course, he wouldn’t. He resolved grimly that whatever else happened, whatever his temptations, he would honor their trust, take no advantage of the situation, and be a credit to his upbringing at all times.
So they went boogie-ing west, in the green Rambler, across the Lake to The Great Beyond. After a last fill-up in Salt Lake Shitty, they landed first in Wendover. They loaded up on vittles, and across the high desert the quartet grazed on undressed bologna sandwiches, unwashed celery, unpeeled carrots, unhulled sunflower seeds, and Coca-Cola.
A line of rainstorms the day before had cleaned the air, and today the sky was solid blue. The air was warm, the wind was a breeze, and the just-now-lowering sun lit the way ahead. In this day of light and clarity, Gerald’s soul was stripped bare, staked out, and spread with honey. The three girls climbed, ant-like, all over and through his sixteen years of conscious existence.
He unburdened himself almost without reserve. He was so articulate and orderly in his telling that it struck all of the young women that he must have been waiting to tell his stories for years. They responded to every tale of twisted injury to his personhood inflicted by his crazy mother, from as far back as he could recollect, with the sounds of Upper Midwesterners gathered for a municipal fireworks extravaganza on Independence Day down at the riverside park.
Clara, in particular, was drowning in pleasure. This was her dampest fantasy, a boy to play with like a tea set. She finally owned an opportunity to really find out what boys wanted, felt, needed, and knew shame and pride over, within a sexually neutral situation. Being Clara, she took up a place in the right back seat that let her hang on the front seatback, where she could naturally and unobtrusively observe Gerald’s lap as he drove and talked. She wanted to see what really piqued his interest and what was just conversation.
So far, it seemed, it was all just conversation to him. She wondered if he were a homo. On one level that would be a disappointment, but then having a homo to dissect for several days could be intriguing of itself, a possibility she hadn’t previously considered. Oh, this would be a good day, as would be tomorrow as well.
Neither Ady nor Danielle could have imagined doing what Clara was doing. Ady was immersed in the talk, which for her was the real purpose of having a mouth.
Ady used her mouth primarily to load fuel for more talking. She wouldn’t have cared less if one day, when she woke up, she would find that the rules had been changed, and that from then on people would take a blue liquid for sustenance through a tube run up their left nostril. Great! Hit me! Now, let’s get back to the conversation!
Talk gave meaning and purpose to her life. The words that filled the boxy Rambler could have been about kitties, or careers, or how each would clothe herself or himself for the concert if the Rolling Stones ever came to town, or how to most effectively deal with warts, and she would have been just as immersed.
No. No, she wouldn’t have. This was better. Almost everything Gerald had to say was Gerald-and-his-Mom stories. On a drizzly morning, when he didn’t bring in the paper quickly enough to keep it from sogging out, his Mom made him eat a whole onion, including the outer skin, as punishment. Every time he woke up with soiled pajamas from a wet dream, she made him wash out the entire current contents of the clothes hamper by hand. One Thanksgiving, with his mother’s and his stepfather’s extended families attending every word, he got to repeat what he had told his mother in confidence the previous week about a girl he liked at school.
The stories went on and on, and never got stale or repetitive. He told the stories perfectly, without whining or self-pity, a little reluctant to make his mother out a complete villain. But still, it was clear to the other three that his mother was not just a douchenozzle, but an inventive douchenozzle.
Danielle wanted to know everything about Gerald because Danielle wanted to know everything about everything. Gerald’s stories she found interesting because they were new knowledge, and outside her understanding of how things worked. Danielle knew nothing resembling abuse of any kind as a child or as a teenager, so she was fascinated by the implied progression of Gerald’s mother from a primapartura tenderly holding a newborn in her arms, her own blood and fluids just wiped away from her new baby’s face, to a taloned harpy capable of reducing her child to the tortured young man they found crying to the heavens in downtown Salt Lake.
Danielle liked her new friends Clara and Ady, and figuring out what it was between those two would have been interesting enough on its own. But she herself wasn’t the girliest of girls, and was happy that with Gerald present there would be little chance of the intercourse within the Rambler descending into what she mentally called “hair talk,” two or more girls without men present talking endlessly about, “My-uh hair-uh.”
Ady happily settled in for the ride to California. She’d gotten a call from Aunt Flo that she would be dropping by in the next day or so, but if that was all she had to deal with…well, the Lord doth provideth, dothn’t he?
Gerald’s fresh memories of his recent escape from Salt Lake were now turning into something remarkably pleasant. He had come out of a horrible experience in his life, leaving home and Mom with his guts tied in a knot, to fall by sheer chance into the company of three terrific, supportive young women. They were nice to him and never criticized what he said or how he said it, and seemed to be completely uninterested in weighing his social skills against anyone else’s. He loved the music and rhythm of their voices; he loved their collective scent in the tight confines of the Rambler, that lingered even with the windows open. It was nothing like that of his Mom, who always smelled like Kents and Shalimar.
He saw that the tall girl, Danielle, didn’t wear a bra. Every time she sat to his right, he was offered wonderful peeks at her small, pretty breasts, set on her wide, thin chest, through the gaps in her button-up top. He felt no need to stare, just knowing they were there was exhilarating.
They decided to drive as late as they could, taking turns napping, and maybe even save the cost of a motel that night. All agreed that it was worth a try. All four had driver’s licenses, so when it came time for Gerald to hand over the reins, any of the group should be able to take over without any trouble. The little American couldn’t have been any more prosaic and straightforward to operate.
The high desert night was blacker than black. The breeze was cool but never grew cold. Their talk finally drifted away from Gerald and settled into a pattern of an idle chat between whatever two people shared the front seat, while the two in the back attempted to doze. Enough sleep came to them in fits and starts that, without much fuss, they were able to keep a relatively alert driver at the wheel at all times, with an awake passenger to engage them.
In that blackness, with Ady driving and Danielle riding shotgun, Clara leaned against the driver’s-side passenger door with her head rested against the rolled-up window. Gerald was supposed to be asleep behind Danielle, but he drifted among thoughts of Salt Lake and how much he’d revealed that day to these wonderful strangers. He could watch Clara as if she sat on the other side of one-way glass. All she was doing was looking out the window and breathing, and that was great.
Then Clara sat up quietly and pulled a clean cotton shift out of her bag, and changed quickly out of the one she was wearing and into the other, in what was supposed to be concealing dark. He watched her through his lashes, his heart and his breath stopped. Clara wasn’t wearing a bra, either. The pale green light of the dashboard gave him a stunning and indelible image of her solid body, mounted above with little pyramidal breasts like ornamental bosses, segmented below by big, forbidding white panties, with one solid leg folded on the seat like the Hanged Man’s. She sat sideways facing him, her back against the door, chin down, and worked ancient girl magic, slipping out of and back into wisps of insubstantial cotton, that somehow transformed from inchoate blobs of cloth into pleasant garments even as you watched.
He feigned a soft snore to keep her from realizing he was awake and to, he hoped, prolong the moment forever, because he felt that his head would explode if she covered herself too soon, or didn’t cover herself soon enough. Earlier, when he came to rest on his side of the seat, his tired, flaccid penis had rolled over on its back for a nap, pointing languidly at his chin behind his fly. Now he gave thanks for the darkness, because an awful erection came upon him as Clara revealed herself to the night, which, had he been required to stand up, would have left him running a spanker. Correcting the situation would probably have required him to get out of the car and remove his pants entirely.
Clara knew he was awake the whole time by his breathing, of course, and assumed he was watching her every move. She was also nearly certain that Gerald could be relied on to not react while she was eighty percent naked, but would just watch and pretend he was asleep. Ady, noticing movement in the back, twisted around, saw all, goggled, and hissed, “Clar-a!” which gave Clara lief to hiss back, “Nice move, Ex-Lax, he’s asleep, wake him up, why don’t you? Make sure he sees me!”
Clara finished and settled back and pretended to doze herself, positioning herself to keep tabs on the cartoonish prong she’d produced in Gerald’s lap. How long would that stay there, she wondered. That must be so embarrassing for a guy. More planning next time, girl; she wasn’t wearing a watch and couldn’t see the dash clock, so could only guess at the duration. Science shot down in flames. Impressive boner, though. Real staying power.
At one point, Ady started to turn around in the front seat to say something further to Clara, but saw Gerald’s ongoing condition and snapped her eyes back around to lock on the pool of headlit road ahead of them. Her cheeks were burning, and she refused to think about what Clara was doing back there to, with, or despite poor Gerald, if anything. That girl could be so weird and so embarrassing.
For Clara, there was admittedly more than science involved. She’d been thinking about Gerald a lot, to the point of making her uncomfortable within her clothes when she went on too long. And yes, from a scientific standpoint, this really was separate from the abstraction of her obsession with finding how boys worked. But instead of becoming confused within the two issues, she found the switching back and forth from one state to the other exhilarating.
One moment she would be trying to conceptualize the mechanics of a boy’s trying to cope with that unmanageable thing in his pants. Could he really make it go away by thinking of things like gravel and cardboard? Would he want to? Did boys ever chafe from the friction with their clothes from that thing?
The next moment, without transition, Clara felt her lips warm as she wondered what would happen if Gerald as much as brushed against her accidentally, which hadn’t happened yet in the now eight-plus hours they’d traveled together. Would that happen again? What about her? Would the lightest touch leave her unable to stand?
That in its turn made her giddy, and silly. Would he be a good brusher, then? She’d never personally brushed a guy herself, but she’d heard that one of the girls in her Health class had brushed a guy, maybe more than one. In fact, she had it from someone who knew what she was talking about that the girl in her Health class was a notorious brusher. She brushed around, a lot, and didn’t care who knew it.
Everybody brushed sooner or later, of course, but there was such a thing as self-respect and setting limits.
That last set her to giggling out loud, erasing any illusion that she was asleep. Ady gave her a look. Danielle turned to her and said, “Something to share, snickerdoodle?” Ady told Danielle, “Don’t let that virginal innocent face fool you, Danny, Clara’s crazy insane nuts.”
Clara thought to herself that she knew a guy who was rumored to have crazy insane nuts, which set her off again.
Gerald, whose embarrassment had subsided to a suspicious fold in the crotch of his pants, looked at her, too, quizzically, she thought, as if he were afraid she might be laughing at him. She stopped braying like a jackass and tried to look casually out the window, her face, she knew, beet red, and so thankful was she for the dark. She couldn’t remember whether red was the last color you could see in dim light or the first to go.
Gerald loved the sound of Clara giggling and didn’t want her to stop. She sounded as loose and fearless as a little kid, and he liked that Clara wasn’t afraid of him or sneering at him, and was relaxed enough around him to let herself act like a little kid. And, he’d seen her boobs, and a lot more.
Gerald wished that Danielle would giggle sometime, too.
Ady, he wasn’t concerned about so much, because Ady let you know what she was thinking at all times. Ady, too, had stopped wearing a bra at some point in this Summer of Love, he’d noticed. That meant that he was completely surrounded by six soft, swaying female breasts, without a bra anywhere in evidence, which was indescribably wonderful.
But somehow Ady’s boobs weren’t the same thing as Danielle’s or the other girl’s. Realizing that it was possible to have preferences among observable boobs was itself a turning point for Gerald, because to that point in his life, all boobs were an unequivocal, unmitigated good. Even a fleeting glimpse of someone’s boobs was worth giving up a sandwich for. If someone had showed her boobs knowingly and directly to Gerald, he would have felt completely bound to marry her on the spot. Gerald remained single, but that’s what he’d do.
Now, he recognized that a certain sophistication had infiltrated his world-view. He was becoming dizzy with the revelations of his own march towards adulthood.
He had never, thank God, seen his mother’s boobs, even a glimpse, even in the close confines of the little apartments and duplexes they lived in. His leaving home thus opened the marvelous possibility that never in all his remaining life would he have to worry about seeing his mother’s boobs, never again would he have to take special care, just moving around in his own living space, to not see his mother naked, ever.
That made him relieved and happy. He would have liked it, a lot, if he’d known that was how his mother felt, too.
Sunday, June 25
Well after midnight, Clara was driving, and she couldn’t have slept at that point unless chloroformed. Everyone else was gone, gone, gone, including Ady in the shotgun seat. At Winnemucca, she stopped for gas at a truck stop. When she finished filling up, she took the wheel again without waking anyone, and crept back towards the highway around the enormous sleeping trucks, snoring at idle.
A few trucks were refueling and moving around, but most were parked, jammed in close, while the drivers slept. Either way it was hard to tell which ones were going to suddenly fire up and roll out and which were going to be idling till dawn. It was confusing, and Clara absolutely did not want to pull out in front of one of those monstrous big things just as it started to roll forward and get honked at or squashed. So she paid too much attention to the details of maneuvering out of the truck stop and not enough to the direction in which she was headed.
So she ended up returning east along Highway 40,
The Rambler passed through Wells. In the middle of nowhere, Ady woke up and she and Clara switched places. As the horizon ahead lightened and the road signs started giving distances to Salt Lake City, Ady, and then, very quickly, everyone else in the car, realized they had been driving back towards Salt Lake City for some time.
Dull dismay left them all near speechless.
Finding themselves in Wendover again, they tried to regroup. Commendably, no one jumped on Clara, who wanted to sink through the carpet, through the floorboard, through the pavement, and down, down, deep into the living rock. Ady took the lead, insisting that they not depress themselves further by retracing their steps; she knew for certain that they could go south on 93, pick up U.S. 50, and go to California through Carson City. She knew, because she had done just that with her Mom when she was eight.
No one was prepared to argue for just going back along 40, back through the W’s again, Wendover to Wells to Winnemucca. So they went south, kind of, to Ely, missed U.S. 50, and continued on 93 to Tonopah, which was on the Lincoln Highway, U.S. 6. Gerald knew all about U.S. 6 from a prewar civics book they were still using in his grade school.
Gerald was the least bothered by their doubling back. After one day away from home, his heart was filled with helium. He felt like he’d jumped higher than he could have imagined and landed on the moon in his socks. He felt like he was surfing across the Pacific on the crest of one giant wave moving sixty miles an hour. On this first morning out, he asked himself over and over again why he hadn’t done this years ago.
Of course he hadn’t done this years ago. He never had any money. If it hadn’t been for these three amazing girls, all of whom liked him, and didn’t make faces when he talked to them, and had actual young women’s boobs, many of which that he’d seen plain, he would still be on the streets in Salt Lake. There he would have had four choices: sleep in his car then go home, just go straight home, join the Army (except his Mom would have to sign for him since he would never have been able to lie credibly about his age), or go die in the desert. This was so much better.
God bless his father for keeping the Rambler nice, and thanks be to God for making it so that Gerald could have the neat and polished Rambler to drive, which let him give the girls a ride to San Francisco that they were willingly paying for. Gerald was now entirely happy for the first time in his life. He was happy in a way that left him unable to imagine not being happy again, like someone who’s just overeaten and honestly couldn’t call forth a sense memory right at the moment of what it was like to be hungry, and could honestly not imagine ever being hungry again.
Caught up in it, he grinned widely, grinning even more widely at the unfamiliar sensation of grinning widely. He looked at each of the three girls with a manic Steeplechase-The-Happy-Place display on his face. Clara grinned back and felt her heart thump. Guys could be so nice, she thought.
Danielle gave him an exaggerated, pull-her-head-back, “What’s your problem?” look, but smiled back, and Ady started telling him about a movie she saw, Sardinia or something, about a guy who couldn’t stop grinning. Gerald turned back to his driving and looked forward. God bless Clara, and Ady, and Danielle, he thought.
The girls had enough money to treat them all to two cabins at a terrible old motel in Tonopah, a row of tiny individual rooms connected with carports. The carports had backs, like miniature connecting garages with the doors ripped off. The cabins had walls of paper on paper on paper, and plumbing of compacted rust.
High on adventure and sugar water, the travelers darted back and forth between the two cabins, seeking the cleaner shower, the less lumpy beds, and the mirror with less silvering gone. They chased the hot water around, as one cabin, then the other, steamed up its mirrors. They were unable to sit still more than a quarter hour at a time.
Ady and Clara, as they would often do in Salt Lake, climbed onto one bed at one point and lay on their backs, gazing at the ceiling and examining the details of every moment they’d spent since leaving home. In this position, they could both look almost straight upward, yet by each girl holding her arms straight up in the air and gesturing profusely, the other could see her hands without having to turn her head.
In the other cabin, Danielle and Gerald sat across a rickety table with foreheads almost touching, in constant and complete eye contact, exchanging every story and factoid they knew about personnel changes in the most important bands. Much of Gerald’s social life had been second-hand, derived from hours of listening to the radio, and he loved having someone to argue and discourse with constructively, for a change.
When he was younger, he memorized labels on Top 40 45s: who was on what label, who had written each song, A and B, and how many minutes and seconds could be expected from each side. Today his most recent fascination was with who in the new bands was reputedly a Satan-worshiper, and the always-skeptical Danielle spent much time beating back against his insistence that, per his informant (a guy in one of his classes who worked on Saturdays at a record store, who was in a position to know these things), Neil Young and Mitch Mitchell were the biggest occultists in all music. Ridiculous! Danielle insisted. Jimmy Page, hands down.
After one final shuffle, early in the morning, Clara and Danielle ended up in the same cabin in separate beds, exhausted from talk, driving, and the new-found, shocking, and forbidden lust both felt for the glorious sensation of escaping from their benign imprisonment in Salt Lake.
Ady, a few hours before dawn, and a few hours before the onset of her period, took an astonished Gerald into the other cabin, stripped him down, and pulled him into the shower for his second and her third shower of the night. She soaped him up, hosed him off, took him to the lumpy bed untoweled, and screwed his brains out.
This was her ordinary and customary anodyne against the oncoming discomfort of her period. This was the every-four-week ritual, in which Clara was frequently her dutiful accomplice, of finding a young, unattached male who could drive away her blues and relax all within her that needed to be relaxed, and then have the decency to disappear from her life.
This time, she’d found her temporary best friend all on her own. He was a godsend and a treasure. At times like these, Ady wished that she had a strong belief in a Supreme Being, because she wanted to silently express her powerful and sincere feelings of boundless gratitude to somebody, for God’s sake.
Their nostrils filled first with the swirling remnants of the aroma of Palmolive soap and Breck shampoo, then with the scent of Ady’s lust, then Gerald’s. She wanted, as she always did on these occasions, to make it count; she refused to let him withdraw, but drove him to rise again within her, and again, and yet again. She released her hold on him only when both their mouths were so dry their tongues stuck to their own palates, and the center of the sagging bed became a cold, soggy joke.
With dawn filtering in, they showered again, more slowly, till the hot water turned cold. The streaky floor of the tin shower stall was littered with slivers of soap and drabs of shampoo left in little bottles, and intertwined strands of each’s hair. They held each other up, which started things going again, and they moved one final time towards the other, drier bed. Practical Ady spread the damp towels beneath them this time before they settled in.
Gerald eventually lost consciousness. Ady pulled the towels from under him, and then moved all the belongings of all four travelers that remained in that cabin to just inside the door, arranged neatly. Now, in the fullness of morning, the other two wouldn’t have to come all the way in to the pungent diorama of Gerald’s deflowering to assemble their things. She took sensible precautions against the mense that would arrive shortly, then herself fell alongside Gerald, who already snored like an unmuffled Chevy straight six at idle.
She bounced back up to switch off the lone light in the cabin, and snuck one look at what her mother would have called Gerald’s winkie, still breathtakingly long, but now flopped over on his leg in a state of complete surrender. Ady quickly twisted the knurled Bakelite knob on the lamp, blushing, and the room was dark, kind of. She certainly didn’t anyone to catch her staring at his…part; that would have been slutty. As it was, she felt mildly ashamed that she’d looked long enough to notice that he wasn’t, you know, trimmed.
Monday, June 26
Before they left the cabin in mid-morning, Ady gave Gerald The Speech, where she almost apologized for being carried away by some unknown emotion in the middle of the night, she almost apologized for upsetting the balance of the terrific friendship that had sprung up between them, and she almost made it crystal clear that under no circumstances would he ever be invited back into her parlor that way, ever. That was one-and-done, amigo, hope you had a good time!
He walked out in the hot new sunshine physically drained and completely comfortable within his skin for the first time in forever. He was emotionally stunned at the intensity and impersonality of what he’d initially thought of as What He’d Done to Ady a few hours before. Somehow, after The Speech, the construct of What He’d Done didn’t really fit. What He’d Done was to meekly climb up on a workbench and let a skilled, intense craftswoman take him apart.
Under those circumstances, he felt no compulsion to solemnly accept his responsibility as a man and ask her to marry him. In fact, he was happy and grateful that she had looked directly into his eyes and given him The Speech. That meant that they could still all be friends at the same level as yesterday.
That wasn’t exactly accurate. This morning, he now knew more about Ady’s body than he knew about his own. At least while she was in her state of grace, Ady either wanted the light on or was indifferent to its being on. So the things he had seen, now etched into his memory forever, were more things than he dreamt of in his philosophy, places on Ady that to see on his own body would have required two mirrors and a flashlight. If he were to look at her this morning, fully clothed and drinking coffee and in the company of the other two girls, he knew he would flush and stammer and have to look away from her. Because he now knew what he could never again not know, what Ady looked like within her clothes.
How could married people stand it, he wondered? What he and Ady had done earlier in the morning, they did all the time. Wasn’t that why you got married?
Yet they had to be all sociable and polite when they were around other people. How could they ever stop thinking about what the other looked like, felt like, smelled like, all naked and aroused? How could you exchange pleasantries in the presence of company around a dinner table with your wife present, when you knew how she looked and acted and the sounds she made while the both of you were writhing around under the sheets?
It didn’t seem possible. Yet, clearly, a husband and wife, knowing all each other’s secrets, had to eventually get to where they could operate normally, at least enough to stop thinking about their spouses naked long enough to order dinner at a restaurant, or play cards with friends on Friday nights, or…
My God! It hit him that every one of those married couples in church on Sunday stood before the Lord and proclaimed His glory, hymnals spread, even as the memories of…? And the scent of…? Oh, the wonders of the realities of Life.
His pubic bone was sore and felt bruised. Yesterday he hadn’t been specifically aware that he had a pubic bone.
As it was, as Ady went up the two steps to the door to the cabin where Danielle and Clara still slept, he caught a wisp of her morning scent, as she raised her hand to slap on the door. He thought he would die, smiling. My God, life couldn’t stay this wonderful.
The other two answered the door slowly and sleepy-eyed, so Ady went in to be obnoxious to them, and Gerald moved bags around.
Danielle, driving again, said brightly that she felt like she’d been hit by a bus. She didn’t know what was in the water around here, but they could make a fortune putting it in bottles and selling it for a sleeping potion. And, she asked, how’d you guys do last night, Ady? Ady said that, oh, hell, she’d fallen off the roof last evening, and poor Gerald got to spend the night in the same room with a cranky girl. Danielle laughed. “Poor Gerald, girls are a pain, aren’t they?”
Clara stiffened and her lips compressed. She breathed slowly and carefully through her nose, staring straight ahead down the road. Holy Christ.
Last night, Ady had gotten what they two called her order of Chinese. Shit fuck whore suck ass bitch fuck shit!
When Ady became a woman, her mother gave her the marijuana cure, handed down from her mother’s mother, as God’s secret mercy for his suffering girl-children with the cramps. Grandma and Mom bought their hemp from an old family friend with a little place up Chalk Creek, an ancient Carolingian who had no goddam use for the goddam Federals or the goddam Mormons. The ladies needed their surcease, that was all that counted, what higher calling could there be in this life than to keep the ladies from needless discomfort?
However, after a couple of years of sharing the family herbal secret with her Mom, Ady discovered that a man’s thing wobbling around inside her for an hour or two, once a moon, had virtually the same effect. It released the primal tension. It chased away the cramps, the blues, the out-of-sorts, the urge to bite someone, anyone, hard, to share the pain and unfairness of it all.
Moreover, the smell of boy didn’t permeate her hair and her clothes afterward the way the marijuana did. Most importantly, she didn’t have to ask her mother for use of a boy for a few hours. Her time of the month was her business, she felt, and she preferred to manage it herself. Her mother wondered why her beloved daughter never asked for a little of the family ladies’ Cure of the Curse any more, but let herself persuade herself that Ady was just one of the lucky ones.
In any case, Clara was the only one who shared knowledge of Ady’s replacement for the Cure, other than the penis-bearers involved, of course. She and Ady called it Ady’s order of Chinese, taken from a thoroughly disgusting joke they’d heard, whose punch line was, “Sure, lady, just what you ordered, Sum Yung Goo.”
The two had been co-conspirators a number of times in arranging delivery of Ady’s order. It required finding a guy on the very fringes of their social contacts who could be counted on to do his manly duty and then go away and not come back, ever, after his assigned encounter with the just-premenstrual Ady.
Ady was doing what she had to, after all, but she and Clara both found it perversely informative that, much as they might present themselves to the contrary, many guys did have feelings. Given the chance, some would have fallen for Ady, and some would have fallen painfully hard. Clara understood that Ady wasn’t cruel or exploitative; she wasn’t out to break hearts, she just didn’t want to go around doubled over with cramps for the better part of a week, for God’s sake.
For the rest of her lunar month, Ady was sexually near-neutral. Clara was a little envious, because Clara was bothered and fascinated by men all the damn time. Unless the call was upon her, Ady could otherwise take guys, as guys, or leave them.
So Clara had been here before with Ady, keeping an eye on the aftermath of Ady’s having her order of Chinese delivered. But never before had it been so dangerously personal. She made herself calm, and called on the deep reserve of trust she had for her friend. Ady could not possibly have known that Clara had any interest in Gerald. She thought about that a bunch; no, not possible. Clara had said nothing flirty or suggestive to Gerald, done nothing, never stared at him like a goof or lost her ability to construct a sentence in his presence.
So if Clara could make herself buy that, then what Ady had done to poor, hapless Gerald for, quite possibly, several hours straight last night and on into the morning was, from Clara’s point of view, completely innocent. Gerald had been handy, complaisant, Ady got her order of Chinese, she’d given him The Speech, and it would be four weeks before the subject even came up again. But, shit shit shit.
Clara had no idea how boys assessed such things, and once again her irritation rose that she was forbidden from knowing, but she hoped that whatever Ady had wreaked on his poor young body hadn’t ruined Gerald for anyone else. That would be awful. For all she knew, Ady might be so GIB that Gerald could never look at another woman, even if he knew that it was nothing personal and that she (probably) would never give him a second opportunity.
Stop, honey. This was completely different from Ady stealing her boyfriend, yes, for certain and for real. Ady had never done that before and, as she calmed down, the more certain Clara was that it hadn’t happened last night. Ady couldn’t possibly have known. Clara had never even sat a bit too close to Gerald; all right, there had been the night before when she’d flashed him, but still…
Oh, my God.
Ady had seen what was in Gerald’s lap, and the little red devil in her back brain had put him on the short list for her order of Chinese. It was Clara who started him up in the first place. Oh, sweet Lord. She blushed. It wasn’t in her nature to try and take the blame for everything herself, but this was almost undeniably her fault.
Losing Ady as a friend out of unwarranted jealousy would hurt, hurt, hurt, and losing her because of thickheaded pettiness on her part would be stupid beyond redemption. So we will be done with it, and get back on the road. Danielle could figure what was going on for herself.
Danielle was now glancing back and forth between her and the road, giving her a strange look. “Hello? Anyone still alive in the capsule? Cape Kennedy to Astronaut Clara, hello?”
Ady looked at Clara directly now. Clara pulled the corners of her eyes up to make them slant, bucked her front teeth, and said to Ady, “Doan’ know ‘cap-suhl,’ how-uh you spell daht?” Ady’s face split with a huge grin. She made the same face, and said, in a sing-song voice, “You wanna duck sauce wit’ daht?” and they both laughed without reserve. So Clara knew that Ady had only been taking care of business, and Ady gave Gerald the remains of her big friendly smile for no reason in particular. Gerald was confused but incredibly happy to be here, surrounded by laughing, pretty girls.
Danielle wobbled her head around, her tongue lolling, pretending to be a cartoon character with little birds and stars whirling in orbit around her crown to indicate she’d been hit hard with an anvil or a clown hammer or something. “You two are cray-zee!”
They rambled over long stretches of valley between huge upthrust reefs of red rock. Ady, done with Gerald and brimmed up with coffee and doughnuts, must describe why she thought the cuts made for the highway through the reefs looked like rare roast beef, served with small white potatoes and sprigs of parsley at their base.
At Bishop, they got spectacularly good chili at an old diner. Gerald was tall, conservatively dressed, and quiet, and his presence deflected any remarks the girls might have gotten, if unaccompanied, from the real and pretend cowboys who filled the booths. Gerald liked Bishop. And he liked being the man in the group.
West of Bishop, they wandered south in the modest tangle of roads between the Nevada border and the Central Valley. Never realizing their luck, they defied ancient California tradition and neither got suckered south into Death Valley, or lured north to Reno and Truckee to end up staring down the long slope into Sacramento, which would have left the ridiculous brakes on the Rambler a smoking ruin. Nor did the Rambler die from exhaustion climbing through some absurd pass in the Sierras, nor did they fry it on the featureless straights by losing track of how fast they were going. They did do a huge loop around Owens Lake, which wasn’t very interesting. Danielle raised the subject of obtaining a map in mid-afternoon.
They slept in the car that night, pulled off the road in the mountains. Even in midsummer it got damned cold inside the Rambler, and no one had brought anything like blankets or even sweaters out of Salt Lake. It was midsummer, for God’s sake.
Fortunately, nobody was dumb enough to suggest running the engine and the heater all night.
Clara and Ady curled up together. Danielle and Gerald, surprising them both, did so, too, comfortably and easily. Danielle liked that Gerald smelled mostly of soap and shampoo, even after a day on the highway. Say what you will about mama’s boys, they stay groomed pretty well.
Danielle also appreciated Gerald’s maturity in keeping things polite between two people who were still really strangers. They just needed to share some body heat on a cold night, for pete’s sake, did it always have to be a big sex thing? It was always nice to have it confirmed that men could be human, on occasion.
Gerald hoped that Danielle wouldn’t think he was queer or something for not even trying to get romantic with her as they lay in the confines of the back seat of the Rambler. He was prepared to be a perfect gentleman mostly because he didn’t have many other options, given what had gone on with Ady. At that point, he probably could’ve taken a bubble bath with Brigitte Bardot and her little sister Mijanou and been a perfect gentleman.
He liked this, because, rather than feeling hot, bothered, horny, and confused at being this close to Danielle, he could just be there and listen to her breathe, and they could talk a little. She was really nice, he saw. She was awfully pretty. Her eyes were, what? Expressive. Her voice was low and smart. She seemed to like him.
Gerald fell asleep thinking about how bruised his pubic bone was, and how nice Danielle smelled. Early in the morning he’d had wild, crazy sex with Ady and then in the evening he got to curl up with Danielle like they were married, and both girls seemed perfectly happy with the situation. If this was what his life was going to be like now, he never wanted to die.
Tuesday, June 27
They all woke feeling kind of gummy, but they were confident they were pointed towards San Francisco. The mountains were pretty and the road along the foothills was delightful, but then they curved into the Central Valley and soon got tired of looking at nothing. At least it was downhill and then perfectly flat all the way, except for one last run over the hills when they got to the west side of the valley.
Despite the careful driving of all four travelers, rather perversely, the head on the silly little six under the hood of the Rambler cracked somewhere in the transit across the flatlands. Gerald was sure that it wasn’t the relatively benign climb up the coast range that was the culprit, and he was sure enough of that to tell the girls with some confidence that nobody had done anything wrong when each had taken her turn at the wheel. The darn thing just cracked, that’s all.
The crack widened and manifested itself beyond recovery on the Altamont Pass.
The girls sat glumly on the shoulder for a few moments, while ugliness arose around them, from under the hood and from the end of the tailpipe. There was no help for it; they must get out of the car and do something else. There would be hitchhiking involved, since they were really kind of short on money. They all glanced sideways at Gerald to see how he was taking this, since it was, of course, his car.
Gerald was fine. He’d just felt a snake uncoil from around his heart. A revelation had come upon him, that he could just walk away from the Rambler. His mother and her buddy never managed to get it out of his father’s name. He had no idea what insurance, if any, the car bore. He knew he didn’t have any card saying he did have insurance in his wallet.
Use of the Rambler was a wizardly gift from his disappeared father, a great gift, because it had flown them away from Salt Lake like a mythic eagle. But now, its work almost done, it would vanish from his life and let him begin again. In practical terms, as it sat there hissing by the side of the road, he couldn’t sell it, he couldn’t fix it, and nobody could link him to it, especially if he took the plates with him.
When they got out, unloaded the trunk, and took their positions on the shoulder to start hitching, he didn’t even look back at the pretty light green car with some blue to it. Although he was grateful for its efforts in bearing him away from his bondage, it really wasn’t part of him.
Besides, he wasn’t nearly so much the excessively responsible virgin he’d been three days ago. Not only was the Rambler not his problem, but he had other interests to divert him. They would get to the city. Life called.
It had been a wonderful forty-eight hours. The marvelous young woman who had left a deep, satisfying bruise on his pubic bone still wanted to be his friend and traveling companion. The other of his companions who had shown him her breasts so charitably, without prompting on his part, looked directly at him at every opportunity, which made his heart soar. And just after midnight, early this morning, he entered even further into the mysterious world of women, when he discovered that, on a cool night, healthy young women release their core heat after they fall deeply asleep. Danielle, gone away into unconsciousness, gifted him a sheen of her perspiration to lightly dampen his shirt, his jeans, and forever mark him with her scent.
If they were all ready to shrug their shoulders in response to the events of the day and move on down the road, so was he. Despite having no money, no car, and no immediate prospect of getting either, Gerald had a strange and utterly new feeling of being in control of his life.
He wanted Danielle to talk with him again, as she had done in the night, effortlessly, quietly. He didn’t know how to make that occur, but he hoped it would. He hoped that Danielle wasn’t aware of his having gotten caught in Hurricane Ady, or of his seeing Clara’s breasts and being swept away by the vision. He hoped she was not disappointed in him for not trying to touch her own breasts last night, so as to give her the courtesy of an opportunity to brush him away and demonstrate her virtue.
Talking to Clara the same way as he had with Danielle would have been nice, too, except that Clara always seemed to have something else going on in the background. Danielle was right there in front of you, like Ady, but Danielle was also deep, smart, and subtle. Clara didn’t seem to be plotting anything, or consider herself clever and manipulative, but she replied to too many questions with more questions, which Gerald found disconcerting. Of course he would like to see her breasts again, but not if it involved having to figure out her entire life story.
As they now all stood on the shoulder of U.S. 50, their things in bags and boxes, the still-shiny but mortally-wounded American abandoned a short distance away, the Salt Lake crew could have let themselves be thoroughly bummed out and despairing of the future. But why? They were deep within California! They were at least seven hundred thirty miles from Salt Lake Shitty!
The Bay, the City, and the whole damn Pacific were just over the hill, and they were neither hurting nor entirely broke nor feeling particularly grubbed out, hungry, or tired. Half their number had gotten thoroughly and completely laid in the past forty-eight hours. One had lost and regained the best friend anyone ever had in a matter of minutes. One had met the first handsome and inarguably virile young man of her own age who, given the opportunity to act like a grabby jerk, treated her with intelligence, dignity, and respect. And who smelled awfully nice.
They formed a little circle of power to figure out the best way to catch a ride. Should everyone stick out their thumb? Should just one of the girls stick out her thumb, or all the girls together? Or would they do best putting the tall, clean-cut Gerald on the shoulder by himself, with the girls standing back? That might convince a prospective ride that, hey, it’s OK, I’m the only guy and it’s cool with all these girls, we’re safe, we’re friendly, and all we need is a little ride over the hill, OK? And thanks so much.
Bill and Berry
The two guys from Medford were friends from the end of the first grade or the start of the second; couldn’t remember, didn’t matter. Given that their place of birth and residence, Medford, Oregon, sucked, majorly, they still had it pretty good. There was stuff to do and nobody bugged them much. By virtue of each having a long-time best buddy to watch his back, it was like having a brother, except you didn’t have to share a bedroom and listen to him blow bombers all night under the covers.
They both liked to face front and move forward.
Berry’s brain worked in an unusual, very direct way. He saw things, all things, as connecting up in logical and complex relationships that were describable in strict and mathematical terms. He wasn’t that great at actual math, yet, but he could see the mathematical bones that let life stand up and move around. He did know enough math, even this early in his life, to recognize that even if he couldn’t work the math now, he would certainly be able to in the near future. It wasn’t about the math for its own sake, though. It was what the math let you do, how it let you see those x-rays, see the bones, see how things really worked.
There were structures and sculptures that would form, unbidden, in his head, Tanguy Tinkertoys, that flexed and reformed as appropriate, with both solid rods of certain connectivity and fuzzy, less certain relationships like pipe cleaners linking stable structures of persistent regularity, anywhere and everywhere he looked. There was nothing mystic or unknowable in his observed world, just links he hadn’t had time to work out, like friends he hadn’t made yet.
Other people saw cars on the highway. Berry saw busy rigidities stabilized in their vectors on the road, moving with brilliant predictability, except for the stochasticity of the operators’ inputs and the errors in the structures of the cars themselves. Even out-of-alignment front ends and bent chassis moved in regular fashion, though maybe not the way the driver might want them to, so the drivers could only make errors within the strict limits of the machine. Obvious, and he still didn’t know the actual words like “vector” and “rigidities” yet, but it was still all fun to contemplate.
When he first heard the old golf ball thing, that the flight of a golf ball from the tee was a clear record of every error made by the golfer in his swing, it made him happy. Other people saw it, too! That was so cool. He would find these others, hook up, surround himself with like-minded not-stupids. (He’d gotten “not-stupids” from a story in Worlds of If a couple of years ago about how a giant computer saw the world; now it was lodged in his back-brain and he couldn’t not use the term.)
And then there were girls’ butts. They drove him berserk. Girls hated it when you even tried to say anything about their butts, whether or not you were sincere, and Berry was always sincere when it came to girls’ butts. What he meant to come out nice, girls thought was nasty. Even a lot of guys thought you were a little weird if you talked about girls’ butts too much and not about their boobs, so he usually kept his butt-centric comments to himself. But that didn’t mean he didn’t think about them.
As Bill and Berry grew up together. Bill let Berry pretty much take the lead. Berry was the more outgoing of the two by far, but Berry also had a great deal of trouble communicating with chicks. So maybe Bill was a little retarded in his personal development, because when it came to the ladies he probably could have done better on his own. For one thing, Berry inevitably referred to young women of their age group as “the ladies,” which Bill always thought did more harm than good.
Other than that, together they reinforced each other’s basic stability, and both sets of parents relaxed when the other parents’ son came over. They avoided many of the behaviors involving railroad tracks, illegal fireworks, household pets, army men, and lighter fluid that had damaged the lives, and in some cases the fingers, toes, and household pets, of many of their peers. All it took was having a best buddy who agreed with you that that kind of kid junk was stupid.
In anticipation of their graduation from high school in 1967, the two guys from Medford developed a simple, feasible, and even intellectually defensible plan of action to celebrate. They were going to get in the 1959 VW Bus they’d rebuilt over the last year and head south on U.S. 99 to California, on the premise that anything in California would be in California and not in Medford, which sucked, and would therefore be cooler than anything in Medford, Q.E.D.
The bus in question was white on top, with the rest of the body painted one of those strange European colors that didn’t really match anything in nature. In this case that was a mustard/weak tea/amber kind of thing. Their mothers both loved the sort-of-yellow color, and thought it very European. Whatever you called it, the two guys from Medford rubbed and waxed it until they got bored with the process, then went back to working over the ridiculous engine.
They possessed some observational data that did not tend to discredit their initial hypothesis of expanding coolness to the south. Twice in their lives, they’d been as far south as Ashland with friends and family. Ashland, since it was still inarguably in Oregon, did, as their theory predicted, suck. But when viewed objectively, it seemed to suck notably less than Medford.
Then, when they pooled their money and energy and got the bus in running condition, they’d made a deranged, unaccompanied, event-filled test run to Yreka. Even discounting the really cool name, Yreka sucked substantially less than not only Medford, but Ashland as well. And Yreka, they observed, was undeniably in California.
The way seemed clear, then: go even deeper into California and see if things continued to suck less and less the farther they got from the border. Since all their previous observations supported the hypothesis that they would, it would be within the realm of possibility that if they could get ‘way south in California, maybe even to the Mexican border, things could potentially be amazingly suck-free.
Since the two guys from Medford had never lived anywhere that didn’t suck at all, they had no direct, active concept of a place that not only didn’t suck, but went past not sucking to whatever was on the other side of “suck.” Even the speculative prospect that such a thing could be was patently worth exploring. After all, the alternative was to not pursue a suck-free existence, and that would really suck.
If they planned their work carefully, however, and carefully worked their plan, the outcome could potentially be boss.
In any case, once they got to Yreka again they could continue on past, but be free to stop anywhere they wanted and just hang out if they found that it sucked enough less than Medford to be cool, and if they did stop they could retain money previously allocated for gas and use it to get chicks.
Berry, again, the more natively analytic, built a mental Suck Index, superimposed over a simple line map that included Oregon, California, and a narrow strip of northern Mexico. The Suck Index would work against a Cost of Gas Scale, and by using this analytic model they could determine where it would make sense for them to come to rest. That would be at any point where the negatively-sloped line representing the Suck Index crossed the positively-sloped Cost of Gas Scale.
Of course, for all they knew the price of gas in southern California could be half that of northern California, so they might easily go straight for San Diego and still have money left to just hang out in LA for a while.
That would be just frickin’ awesome.
Though their parents were responsible for their living in Medford in the first place, the two guys from Medford didn’t hate their parents at all, despite the indisputable fact, as should have been clear to their parents from the get-go, that Medford sucked bark beetles. They recognized that their parents were really pretty nice people, though old, who were actually OK with their sons getting out and driving around a little before going off to college. None of their parents were themselves born to travel, and had never done anything like what their sons were proposing when they were younger, that was all.
Both mothers and one father advanced their respective sons some gas money, and all offered considerable advice on how to survive in the world outside Medford, from optimal resource management in laundromats to low, worried proscriptions against placing themselves at risk from venereal disease. All four parents, sensibly enough, were convinced that the weary VW bus their sons had acquired, no matter how earnestly it was massaged by loving but unskilled hands, would be dead on the roadside within a couple of days, blowing a total investment of no more than three hundred dollars and change.
The boys would have a teen-aged adventure under their belts, anything bad that happened would have taken place at a pace no faster than fifty or so miles per hour, and then they would be back home. At worst, somebody’d have to drive down and fetch them back. On their return, all four parents promised themselves that no one would yell about or crow over the boys’ aborted odyssey, and their boys would then be ready for the more certain adventure of going away to the dorms in Corvallis in the fall.
Monday, June 26
So the two guys from Medford left home with good wishes and an oversupply of provisions: sacks of sandwiches, apples, frozen Hostess pies, an ancient stainless steel insulated jug filled with a brand of canned fruit punch that one of the mothers was still convinced was her son’s favorite beverage, and enough cash to get them one way to San Diego. Should they so choose, they could even exhaust their funds completely and hitch back, abandoning the VW bus. Or they could sell the bus for whatever it might bring, for the price of two Trailways tickets.
Both fathers secretly envied their sons.
Both mothers were smart enough to pack multiple changes of clothes in drawstring canvas bags instead of hard-sided luggage. Both boys had blankets, both had pillows. Bill had a good supply of crisply ironed and folded handkerchiefs.
Their plan worked, right from the start. The bus chugged south along 99 at a prudent speed. The country was pretty. Some people waved at the two kids in the VW, some flipped them off, but, at least starting out, most people ignored them, most importantly cops.
There was a lot of up-and-down driving in the border hills, but nothing that slowed the VW to the point of futility. No really cool people materialized by the side of the road to be picked up and add to the fun, but nobody they encountered at gas stations or burger stands along the way really sucked, either.
Ashland was pretty big, but when they did cross into California, Redding was even bigger. And Mount Shasta was really cool. They discussed getting a camera. Chicks dug cameras.
On 99 outside of Red Bluff, adventure presented itself. An older chick, more like middle-aged, maybe twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old, stood by herself on the side of the road. Only a big bandana held back her huge breasts. A little roll of midsection sagged out from under the bandana and over her waistband.
When they got close, she stepped aggressively towards them, like she wanted to key the side of the bus with her thumbnail. Well, you never know till you give it a shot, so, ready to pick up their first chick hitchhiker and curious to see what would happen, they pulled over. Immediately, two large guys with duffel bags and a black Lab with a doggie back-pack emerged from the bushes and loped towards them, even as did the middle-aged chick with the huge breasts. So Bill, doing the driving at that moment, dropped the clutch immediately and took off. The three people on the shoulder all gave them the finger as they shrank in the rear-view mirror, and the dog ran in a circle, barking.
Chico not only sucked a lot less than anyplace in Oregon, but there they got the sense of a growing migration of cool people headed south. The two guys from Medford saw more and more vehicles of every description with decorations and weird painting on the sides. Station wagons with four, five, six and more people their age inside, often with radios turned up, went by. Many waved and flashed peace signs. A few held up marijuana cigarettes, or “joints.”
Judging by the general tenor of the reactions they were getting on the road, the two guys from Medford began to suspect that many of the people they encountered viewed their VW bus as being essentially cool, which they thought was smokin’-hot great, and could definitely help them out with chicks. They needed a peace symbol somewhere on the exterior of the bus. That should practically guarantee them getting laid.
Hitchhikers headed south started to appear regularly. They stood by the road with nothing but Coke bottles in their hands, or wearing or dragging backpacks, or with bundles of canvas, clothes, tent poles, pots and pans. Occasionally they were accompanied by small children, more frequently cats and dogs, twice birdcages with excited-looking parrots. Some carried guitars, some beatnik-era decorative bongos, and a very few bore awkward-looking things that looked like wooden plumbing fixtures that the two guys from Medford learned were Indian guitars called “sitars.”
Despite their sort-of uncool experience outside of Red Bluff, the two guys from Medford were, of course, still particularly intrigued by hitchhiking chicks. First, they existed. Second, very few travelled alone. Most were in pairs or threes, which they were completely cool with, because the guys from Medford were hip enough to know that, sad to admit, a chick had to deal with many horny creeps out on the road, which was tough if you were by yourself, and a chick. Two hitchhiking chicks traveling together was perfect, though.
But third, they had to consider the possibility that, as they got further south into warm and sunny California, hitchhiking chicks might not be buttoning up their shirts as far as those in northernmost California. Or maybe they would even be not buttoning their shirts at all, or might even be ditching their shirts completely. That, man, would be majorly awesome.
Obviously, they wouldn’t want to be stuck with a full-up van-load of northern California hitchhiking chicks, all wrapped up in flannel shirts and army jackets, whom they’d picked up at the beginning of their way south, and then run into even more hitchhiking chicks further south who were going commando or even topless, and have to pass them up. That would suck. So after some discussion, they decided to hold off any more stopping for northern hitchhiking chicks, and concentrate on seeing what the deal was with southern hitchhiking chicks.
After Chico things changed. The land got flatter and pretty boring.
Sacramento was big, really big. There was a major paradigm shift in Sacramento. Berry explained to Bill what a “paradigm shift” was, and Bill immediately agreed that this was a definitely a paradigm shift. Sacramento, despite its status as being their furthest reach into California, did suck, and majorly. Moreover, that invalidated their previous method for determining suckage, forcing them to revisit and rethink their entire concept of how to measure suckage at all.
But, OK! This was science! In science, you don’t get all pissy and whiny when you get new data that stresses your old model past the breaking point, you adjust your model! This was a critical and undeniable change in observed results, so they had to break down the old theoretical tent and set it up again on higher ground. Kind of fun, actually.
They made a mental list of what changes Sacramento imposed on their model.
First, there were bags of police. The two guys from Medford weren’t actually doing anything to annoy the police, yet. Their hope, though, was that when they got into California far enough, to where things were pretty cool, they would be able to secure illegal drugs with relative ease and thus earn the right to have to keep watch for cops. But for the moment, they were clean as driven snow. Moreover, they were as legal owners and operators of the VW bus as some old dude in his Mercury Montclair. Still, in Sacramento, they felt hassled by The Man.
Second, in order to join the world-family revolution via counter-cultural activities like holding dope, they had to make contact with cool guys who actually possessed dope, and in large enough quantities to share. Sacramento offered no hope of that. All those who might be able to direct them to drugs and other counter-cultural activities, the few hippies and the many Negroes and Mexicans they saw, were universally kind of big-city-scary-looking.
Worse, their own relatively short hair and their (mercifully self-realized and acknowledged) inexperience in dealing drugs could easily lead people to believe that the two guys from Medford were connected to the police, which would suck dangerously.
Third, Sacramento was so freaking huge that its hugeness became a major issue. You get involved with the streets of Sacramento, you have made a commitment, my friend. The two guys from Medford could totally believe that if, say, a band formed spontaneously in northwest Sacramento, it might be such a hassle to travel to southeast Sacramento that they’d be stuck with the scene in northwest Sacramento unless they had a regional breakout record or something.
Jesus, it was a confusing and intimidating place to move around in. Was this what San Francisco and Los Angeles were going to be like?
Now loosed from their dreams of universal and ever-expanding coolness to the South, they, sobered, saw the next string of towns in the Central Valley, strung like stale dusty popcorn along 99, as being actually pretty repetitive and agricultural and not noticeably cooler than Medford. Agricultural? They’d just come from “agricultural.” They wanted to move up to an economy based on free concerts, breasts, and no high school football.
What they were encountering in the Central Valley was lots of Mexicans. Even in the heat, they wore long-sleeved work shirts with cuffs secured and collars buttoned, and heavy work pants with cuffs and belts, clothes that looked much too warm for the bright sun. The Mexicans were being distributed up and down the Central Valley on benches in the backs of large, turtle-cabbed farm trucks, for the strange and specialized ag jobs of preseason and early season.
This didn’t actually suck in and of itself, but the two guys from Medford really had envisioned something more…Californian, like, really cool bands, forming spontaneously in parks, that needed tambourine players and road crew, or maybe somebody to design posters. They would have liked to see more evidence of communes allocating stuff according to the members’ needs, and taking from members according to their abilities. And definitely chicks, with huge hanging fans of hair, decamping from high school for the city, striding along in colorful clothes with their chins up, their recently-unbound breasts bobbing or swaying, depending on whether they were sophomores or seniors.
Food being shared, drugs being shared, lots of dogs catching Pluto Platters, that sort of activity would have been welcome. But the Central Valley had a kind of Soviet-collective air, solemn workers in near-identical clothes in the backs of stake-beds headed for unexciting tasks involving truck crops.
They finally came to a game-changing inflection point in Fresno. Fresno just did not work for them at all. Certainly there had been some wrinkles in their blueprint, but Fresno caused them to rethink the entire construction, even with the changes they had forced on them by Sacramento. Berry explained to Bill that, even if they took another look at Sacramento and decided that maybe it wasn’t a paradigm shift, after all, then Fresno was still going to totally be a paradigm shift.
Because until their arrival in Fresno, the most pointedly negative experiences they’d encountered were their discovery of just how bad a Texaco restroom could be out on the road, and that, no matter how bright the smile on the face of the friendly local girl behind the counter shone, you just had to resign yourself to counting your change carefully and without exception for every transaction, or you were going to give her a ten and get back change from a five. That sucked, but it was real.
But in Fresno, while still wrapped in the cloaks of universal brotherhood they had worn for their adventure, they left the bus unlocked when they went into the sit-down part of an A&W for Dad Burgers and icy, refreshing mugs of root beer. Of course, when they returned, they found the interior of the bus emptied of everything, including the less-well-hidden of their two rolls of bills.
A disaster, and who could disagree? Still, still…they did retain their other roll of bills, kept in Berry’s pocket. They were full of Dad Burgers and root beer. And they now had a fixed point on their journey: they knew where they did not want to be, i.e., Fresno.
More, they had tested once again, and failed to support once again, the hypothesis that the amount a town sucked was inversely proportional to the depth of one’s penetration into California. Fresno was halfway down the state, and sucked like a cockroach cocktail. So, now they knew. Science, man!
Thus they reversed course and climbed back up the Highway 99 “M” ladder, Madera Merced Modesto Manteca. At Manteca, as evening closed in, they got into an extended conversation at a gas station with a 1959 Country Squire-full of cool guys.
When the two guys from Medford told them of the events of their day, the cool guys in the Country Squire informed them, with all the awe and respect due their having participated directly in the new world unfolding out there in the Summer of Love, that they had been “ripped off.” Not only “ripped off,” but “ripped off big time, whoa.”
So now Bill and Berry were blooded members of the world-family tribe. They had a campfire story to tell the next class of entering freshmen. They took some pride in their having been, not merely stolen from, but ripped off, big time, as certified by guys who knew what they were talking about.
They already knew about karma, good and bad, and had already heard how nothing really belongs to anybody. Thus they felt pretty OK in their new state, burdened by so many fewer possessions, and still with over three hundred dollars in hard cash. Three bucks filled the gas tank, so there was no question they would soldier on.
They told the cool guys in the Country Squire they were headed to San Francisco, which the cool guys in the Country Squire told the guys from Medford could not be a better place to head for. The cool guys themselves were only going into the Central Valley to pick up some ready bread doing something seasonal with grapevines and twine that one of the cool guys knew how to do, because he’d grown up around viticulture. Otherwise you could not stop them from going back to the Bay Area as soon as the work dried up, don’t even try.
The VW and the Country Squire backed from the gas station into a sandy lot that was fringed in some insane shaggy-assed trees that smelled like Vicks VapoRub and some actual palm trees, and they talked until late. A couple of doofuses in an Opel Kadet pulled in after the gas station closed and joined the group. The two guys from Medford couldn’t have been happier. Without embarrassment, they did lock the bus from the inside when they finally crashed, a little after midnight.
Tuesday, June 27
In the morning, the two guys from Medford listened carefully to the directions they got from the cool guys in the Country Squire, and headed north to Stockton, then on to Lodi. In Lodi they stopped at a gas station to make sure they’d gotten the directions right, and the guy at the gas station told them the directions they’d gotten couldn’t be more dicked up. Cutting across to Fairfield and then on to San Francisco was completely insane.
What they needed to do was go back to Manteca, then go west to Livermore, he told them. Don’t listen to hippies, the guy said, that pot they smoke screws with their brains. So they turned around and went back, but then Berry got caught up with Stockton, which was this crazy kind of place in the middle of a field, except that it really hooked up to San Francisco Bay, according to a fat chick in a grocery store, who sold them Hostess cherry pies.
Berry just had to look around, and Bill stuck with him. There wasn’t much going on in Stockton as far as the Summer of Love, but there really were ships in the middle of town that had come from the Pacific Ocean and would return there, probably. It was all cool, because this was the kind of stuff they had never seen, never heard of, never could have imagined. They finally left Stockton, got to Manteca and turned west.
Without deliberation, on the long drag towards Altamont, sitting up high in the bus, out on open highway, both guys dropped trou, and after shucking out of their underwear and socks, tossed them out the window, hollering as they did so. They waited impatiently for their hair to grow to their shoulders. They lacked beads, chicks, and drugs, but their karma sparkled and their balls swung free.
Outside of Livermore, Bill and Berry saw that a Glen Cove Green 1962 Rambler American 400 four-door, with Utah plates, had taken a dump on the shoulder on the downslope, apparently after having made it up Altamont Pass. Kind of a shame; it was a piece of crap suitable only for grannies to drive, but somebody’d done a righteous job of keeping it shined up.
Four kids, presumably from Utah, were still trying to figure out who should have their thumb out for best results. The two guys from Medford saw one cool-looking guy with three cool-looking chicks, all mostly non-hippie looking. However, both noted with some excitement, none of the chicks was wrapped up in a flannel shirt or Army jacket, at least one had a couple of buttons unbuttoned on her shirt, and she and maybe one of the others wasn’t wearing a bra. Their plan had worked! The VW wasn’t full up with bundled-up hitchhiking chicks, and there was plenty of room for cool-looking girls, living the dream! Groove!
So they stopped and filled the bus with people and baggage, and all six enjoyed one of the great rides of their lives, the descent into the Bay Area. The Rambler stayed behind, unmourned and plateless.
Chat swirled joyously within the bus. They spoke of cops, burgers, karma, rip-offs, how much Salt Lake City sucked and how much Medford, Oregon sucked; parents; opportunities for setting up commercial enterprise that would permit them to make money but not be turds about it; how it felt to be betrayed by friends; how much they yearned for the chance to maybe score some really good LSD, which the hipper referred to as “acid;” how to get their hands on some weed, grass, supercheese, boo, marihuana/marijuana; and whether Chuck Berry or Little Richard were still alive. They exchanged volumes of uniformly inaccurate information about drugs in general, birth control methods, and rice cookery.
Boys and girls checked each other out. Theories about stuff ricocheted around the painted metal walls. The need for one or more dogs to add to the party to complete the circle of life, or something, grew till it was almost painful. The expansive joy that accompanies being young, with unengaged hearts and uncommitted genitals, and just the freedom of fending for oneself, kind of, filled the air. No one, thank God, had a guitar, sitar, dobro, tambourine, auto-harp, recorder, or flute.
The bus thrummed and burbled. They were on Castro Valley Boulevard, headed west.
They realized, all together, that, having crested a critical hill several minutes ago, something of significance was happening to the west. Around a turn, and now the Bay spread out before them. The Peninsula cut the horizon. The City capped the Peninsula to their right. Fog boiled over San Bruno Mountain. Fog snaked through the Golden Gate. Mouths opened, and nobody spoke.
Danielle felt her inner spirits of earth, sky, and water come together. She couldn’t make herself blink as the Bay opened before them and a twelve-string rang on the radio. “Oh, stop, my God, stop,” she said, in the voice one uses in a dream when one wants to cry out and can only make a faint gurgle. She reached behind her and found Gerald’s hand and drew it around her from the left, because she needed a man’s hand to cup her breast, just to keep her heart inside her chest
Against all reason and his past incomprehension of girls, Gerald got it, got it all and got it right: he held her as she wanted to be held, and then let her lean back and model herself to him, still looking out the windows and windshield in dazzled wonderment, and she never turned and looked at him directly until long after the bus finally stopped and they’d gotten out and walked around a parking lot in Hayward.
On that afternoon, when she finally gave him her face, when she’d recovered herself enough to laughingly demand that he’d better stop thinking about her boobs because he would never, never encounter them again, he saw the look of complete serenity, understanding and gratitude in her eyes, and he accepted without demur that they were now joined at the soul. The recognition of what she’d done and what he’d done, a gift of trust given to a heretofore clueless, feckless dipstick with serious mommy issues (but a good heart), whose salvation came from having one pivotal moment in which he didn’t screw things up—that was what it took for Gerald to transcend himself and become as a god in life, to rise and stay risen.
From this point Gerald and Danielle went on together for almost twenty years. Then they parted. Then they reconnected when both were nearing sixty, the memory of Danielle’s one unconsidered initiative and Gerald’s perfect response living in them both till each passed on.
The voices in the bus dimmed, and their eyes widened. The bus fell down the hill to East Fourteenth, wandered northwest, and found Alameda purely by pedesis.
On Park Street, a representative ran into a grocery and brought back a long loaf of bagged bread, a pound of packaged baloney, and a jar of mustard, to feed the multitudes without the hassle of getting burgers. For the future, they noted the desirability of acquiring at least a Popsicle stick or plastic knife or something, to spread the mustard, but for the moment used their forefingers and wiped them clean on the heels.
There was a common sense among the group of stepping upward in the ascent towards personal freedom, no longer bound by what some capitalist chose to put on a menu. And baloney sandwiches were cheaper than burgers, and tasted pretty damn good in the cool, dank Alameda afternoon.
The busful of pilgrims putted through town, looped around one block and discovered the West End Foster’s Freeze. They sat on the curb, the bench, the tailgate and the open doorsill of the bus, and ate dipped cones.
In a universe now swimming in content, the bus chugged north, then west. The two guys from Medford were clear and forthright in sharing their judgment that this sucked one whole big bunch less than Medford, and was probably actually pretty cool. They agreed that, until proven otherwise, dropping below zero on the Suck Index into negative suck numbers could probably be safely characterized as “pretty cool.”
They kept getting glimpses of the Bay and San Francisco sticking up over the water, though there was still a lot of fog involved.
Bill already wondered if it were possible that the cute girl in the back seat with the terrific body, Carla or Clara or something, could actually not be dating some other guy. He might not be sure what her name was, but boy, was he ready to get to know a real woman. Bill wanted to be done dating kids, one of the big reasons he had to leave Medford. The girls in Medford he went to school with were rapidly transitioning from just learning to kiss to taking preliminary measurements for a guy’s wedding tux, without passing through any intermediate stages, like taking the time to develop hips. Gah, prunes.
Clara had already moved on from Danielle’s co-opting Gerald. She didn’t really know Danielle, or, for that matter, Gerald, and this was nothing like being stabbed in the ribs by someone you went to school with and who was supposed to be a friend. At the moment, she was gazing thoughtfully at the nape of the shorter guy from Medford’s neck as they drove, wondering if he had any such hair as she saw above his collar going down his back, and how big his hands really were.
Danielle herself was looking forward to striding through the hills of San Francisco, with the man now permeating her life at her side forever. Somehow in her vision he was also, rather improbably, holding her left breast as they walked.
Ady was weeks away from her next order of Chinese, and wanted to talk some more, with anybody, about pretty much anything.
After a majestic ride up the Nimitz, they entered the massive tangle of the Bay Bridge approaches, lifted into the air, descended, rose again, and flew into the airspace above the streets of San Francisco. Danielle’s already-accelerated heartbeat became like a sparrow’s, her breathing deep and ragged, and she didn’t care if anyone noticed. She pulled Gerald’s hands and forearms around her waist, her own hands trembling, and entangled them with hers like a knotted gypsy sash.
She occasionally drummed her heels on the floorboard. She couldn’t have imagined anything so wonderful. This was the first time in her life she had someone wound all up around her so close that she could feel his chest expand with his breathing. This new part of her, this partner, was there to experience the same things as she did and share what she felt, so that the rush of this new experience had weight and meaning and could be gone over with her partner later, when they were alone, and oh, they would be alone.
And when they were alone, there would be something besides words, which was all she ever got from girls, and it would be behind and above the words. And all this was happening as she came home to a place she’d never been before.
She couldn’t have imagined, she could not have imagined.
As they fell into the city, Berry, too, was come home, gone from Medford forever. His head was shot through with visions of rigid bridge cables, ten thousand intersecting walls and roofs above him, below him, at the level of his eyes. They flocked through the matrix with hundreds of wildly-colored rubber-shod devices from Vespa scooters to Mack sixteen-wheelers, in orderly but shifting formation into the heart of the city; they flew through the amazement of each of the little buildings and each of the little beetling shells straddled or filled with people, all connected and networking with the city and each other. He was looking at the inside of his head, man, the inside of his fucking head.
Bill and Clara made solid eye contact for the first time as the bus passed through the Bay Bridge toll booths. He laid his Big Move on her, a mirror-practiced high-powered toothy smile, as they descended, since he believed his smile made him come across as harmless, but friendly and intriguing, probably.
He did so really, really, honest-to-Christ really, want to maneuver her into a long, long talk, off by themselves, because (if she wasn’t dating anybody, of course) he was ready to go after her bod, big time. This boss babe was the best girl he’d ever had the remotest chance with. Bill was so intent on somehow finding out if she was dating anybody that he didn’t retain much direct memory of that first approach to San Francisco. He was more interested in getting a good look at her teeth. His mom said that that was the first thing she always looked at on a person, their teeth, a real measure of a person’s character. If her teeth were cool, and if she was available, of course, was this chick exactly whom he hoped to meet once he got out of Medford, or what?
Clara smiled back, with less wattage than Bill and more mystery, she hoped, turning away to wonder at the city, yet looking back at him over her shoulder. Clara wouldn’t be giving anything away, thank you.
She definitely wanted to do that business Danielle had done with Gerald: when they all got out of the bus and were walking around, when everybody came to a halt on seeing something great, she’d make sure she was right in front of Bill. And if he didn’t run into her, she would make sure she would back up just a smidge. Swept up in a moment of wonder, they would be, and both his hands would rise to cup her, her hands guiding his, subtly but irresistibly. Woof!
Any other female who wanted to know what Mr. Bill had to offer would get her chance to find out if, and only if, little Miss Clara was done with him, by God, for she intended to Work Him. She sang gently to herself.
Through the city, then. They poured from the flow over the bridge south on 101, then turned off on Alemany, because it looked like it was heading west, and 101 was taking them away from the city. Alemany swooped around through the evening, over hills, through trees, through suburbs, and ended in Skyline Boulevard. Now they were enveloped in fog. It was immediately apparent that here, at least, there was no “skyline” in Skyline Boulevard. They were flat down by the ocean, or awfully close to it, and somehow they had gone so far from the heart of the city that they could no longer see tall buildings anywhere.
Communal consensus, with fog accelerating the encroaching darkness, was that they could always just spend the night on the beach and explore the City in the morning. It wasn’t a vigorous consensus; Bill and Berry, though they’d not spent much time outside Medford over on the Oregon coast, were pretty sure that this wasn’t going to be a beach of white sand, still warm from the day’s sun, with couples on spread blankets watching the last rays of the sunset. Oregon beaches were ass-freezing cold most of the time, and they glumly suspected that San Francisco’s beaches would be, too. Ady was equally dubious, because what she knew for a fact was that she and her Mom had never once gone to the beach in San Francisco, and if those beaches were all about swimming and surfing and laying out in the sun, she couldn’t imagine her Mom denying them a visit.
Clara, Danielle, and Gerald, however, assumed these were the same kind of beaches that Frankie and Annette inhabited. If they weren’t beaches, they reasoned, why would they call them “beaches”? Besides, they should all head back towards the city anyway, if it was going to get dark, because that’s where they were going, duh. So Berry made a right and they went north.
There was something gloomy and military going on to the west, between them and the ocean. On the other side of the road, inland, there wasn’t anything, no lights, no traffic. How strange was this? They hadn’t driven that long after they got off the Bridge. They seemed to be in some kind of black void in outer space, around them nothing but a few dispirited cars with headlights like fireflies in Mason jars. San Francisco was smaller than it looked.
In a couple of miles, the road split and they were borne off to the left. Up a hill, and then to the Pacific. Or at least they assumed the Pacific was over there, because by now the fog had gotten fully obnoxious, and it was coming from their left, and it didn’t make sense that the fog was being generated by San Francisco. So they pulled over in the last remaining light and rolled down a couple of windows, and, by God, there was something growling and heaving out there.
Danielle was a full-on blue-water virgin, never having been within eight hundred miles of any body of water bigger than the Lake. Lovely as the Bay itself was, the Lake was larger. But this! Even as the light failed, she didn’t know what to do. She could demand they stop, get over to the water, pull into the first beach parking or whatever you did to get to the ocean, and she could just wade out till her knees got wet and listen to the roar. She could have done that.
She did ask they pull over. She got out and almost immediately observed that, romance be damned, the thick watery batting of fog was so fearfully cold, knifing through to bone, that nobody had better get between her and the warm safety of the middle of the group in the VW. Danielle had been to the snow to ski, had rolled around in snow, had been in a sub-zero winter in Montana once, but this was horrifying.
Happily, she had Gerald to wrap around her. Gerald was happy with that as well.
It was cold enough to discourage serious intimacy, although apparently not so much so in some of the nearby vehicles. However, it gave Bill and Clara a nice place to talk quietly for several hours.
Danielle and Gerald simply held on to each other as if they’d grown in that position from saplings.
Berry and Ady had a curious but pleasant night of asexual, occasionally exhilarating conversation. Ady didn’t see the world in proto-binary code as did Berry, but on the days when she was in her “off” position she generated no more sexual tension than a Weston exposure meter. Berry found in her the first woman he could ever discuss butts with rationally, not because Ady was flattered by the attention or because Ady was aroused or appalled by the conversation, but because Berry wasn’t staring at her tits, which she always found annoying, and because otherwise Ady couldn’t care less what they talked about, as long as there was some sort of chin music going on. As far as Berry getting into her step-ins, that would’ve required chloroform sprinkled into a wad of cheesecloth.
So what should have been disastrous turned out pretty OK. Danielle fell asleep with the surf pounding and Gerald singing so softly to himself that only she could hear him. She was happy that he was happy, and she still loved the way he smelled, even after a day on the road.
Wednesday, June 28
All woke early. They resolved to go back to downtown and start their encounter with the city there, and, like so many before them, to make their way there in the simplest way possible, by sticking close to the water and tracing around the northern edge of the San Francisco Peninsula from west to east.
They found, as also had so many before them, that they could have circumnavigated the peninsula on bicycles and traveled faster. Bicycles? Unicycles. The water was never far away and they never got lost and their logic was impeccable. But hours went by. They encountered beaches, cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, and gigantic piers; they encountered pedestrians crossing in front of them at random, bicycles and, near Aquatic Park, two mimes performing in the middle of the street. Owners of cars covered with glued-on seashells, glued-on toy animals, and glued-on household appliances blocked traffic lanes, parked so that passersby willing to pay a small honorarium could take pictures of their magna opera. Buses, trolleys, electric buses, and people queued waiting to ride cable cars impeded their passage. Lines of stations wagons seeking parking spaces where none had been observed since Roosevelt’s third term slowed their passage to a crawl. And hours went by.
There were fewer hippies visible than you would have thought.
Ady knew a place that her mother had taken her called The Bagel at Polk and California. It would be great for breakfast, she told them. She thought she got a glimpse of a street sign for Polk, a street sign for California. Berry continued to drive around the perimeter of the city despite her hopeful directions.
All the rest recognized that they were now in The City, and that there was much familiar from television and movies appearing around them. Ady’s voice kept rising, because now her need for a bagel was becoming painful. She didn’t want to go downtown any more, or at least didn’t want to go right now, she wanted them to go to California and Polk.
Eventually they caught sight of the Bay Bridge and their destination became inevitable, to Ady’s dismay: “You guys, come on, this is going to the Embarcadero. There’s nothing at the Embarcadero. Come on, this just isn’t cool. You guys, listen,” and so on. Ady was constitutionally incapable of sulking, but she was doing a good fake of overt whining. Berry was off her Christmas card list, probably forever.
On the Embarcadero, Berry putted around in second gear, mesmerized by the angular power of the titanic fan of pier buildings ordering the shore. Ady, having given over any idea of going to The Bagel, started talking about Alcatraz. The others saw a green VW bus with California plates parked, with one guy standing around next to it, and they convinced Berry to pull over behind him to see if he knew a good place to pee.
Larry and David
Larry and David, as did so much of the population of Springfield, Missouri, spent their days and, too often, their evenings and nights doing brain-destroying, soul-leaching things to make enough money to get from the fifth of one month, the last day of the grace period on their rent, to the fifth of the next. In between the fifths, there would be beer and smokes for most, church and child-rearing for many. That was about it.
Larry and David flipped burgers and sliced onions at Bernie’s Burger Barnyard over on Range Line, and plotted the downfall of General Manager Noland, The Turd That Walks Like a Man.
Bernie’s was a grease-pit in an ancient frame building that had provided sit-down burgers for decades to Springfielders, who misled themselves into believing that the bad meat and undersized buns were good old-fashioned food, and the grease-covered walls and rancid service constituted nostalgic charm. Noland himself was a Baptist deacon who shorted the counter help’s hours on three out of five paychecks.
He drove away counter help with careless panache, and looked for replacements with visible pregnancies, meaning desperation and short tenures. He took some pride in never learning their names in the few weeks each would spend in his employ. He was so vile that the female counter help left because he was vile, not because he sexually harassed them, which in most other venues at that time and in that place was part and parcel of working as counter help.
Larry and David were rabid to escape the hopelessness of life in The Queen City of the Ozarks. There they could anticipate little better than some day having the opportunity to knock up a slouchy Baptist girl. You could hope that if you found one such, and your two hearts joined and two became as one, that eventually her skin would clear up; that she wouldn’t double in size after her first pregnancy; that she had no violent, meth-head, tattooed older brothers who worked construction, drove rotting Dodge Lancers, and needed places to crash over the winter when work was slow. You would settle for one out of three, would feel blessed to get two out of three.
With much hard work, the endurance of a pit pony, and considerable luck, Larry or David, but not both, might work up one day to shift manager at the Burger Barnyard, perhaps even succeeding Noland, when he finally retired or died of gross rectal prolapse from decades of taking it up the Hershey Highway. “Home” would be a series of roach-riddled apartments and termite-shack rental houses, furnished out of a thrift store up on Division Street or with crusty sofas and recliners snatched from curbs.
When your Baptist honey started to show, and you got married, things would get worse. The only saving grace to it all was that damn few of your friends and relations were going to be sneering at your rental color TV or your manufactured home village with the free-running household pets, because everybody in Springfield was pretty much in the same degraded, hope-crushing, hole-in-the-bottom-patched-with-Bondo bass boat; there was a certain democratic sharing of the common misery.
They stayed on at Bernie’s because quitting a job meant you had to take whatever you could get as soon as you could get it, since you were certainly going to be broke when you quit and couldn’t go more than a few days without money coming in from somewhere. Thus however bad Bernie’s might be, the risks entailed by leaving were too great and the odds that you could get something significantly better down the road was negligible. So Larry and David put up with it, and counted themselves lucky that neither was currently towing around a Baptist whale princess and a couple of curtain climbers.
That existence ground away at people. If you tried to get out, you couldn’t escape to Kansas City because it was full of Negroes, you couldn’t go to Joplin because it was full of queers. St. Louis was out of the question because it was full of queers and Negroes, everybody in Arkansas was desperately trying to escape to Missouri, and the rest of the world might as well have been in Dimension R-34 under the suzerainty of Zarkon the Space God. Once in a while, somebody they knew would escape to California, and never be heard from again.
They had no money, no prospects, and a lifetime of scutwork stretching out before them.
Then one day Larry and David were accosted in the back parking lot of Bernie’s by a short, skinny guy with a big head, a goofy little spike beard, and fruit boots. He said he was in a band, and their lead singer had just gotten out of jail in KC on short time, and that he needed a car really bad that was big enough to transport him and his old lady and his drum kit up to KC. Going right to the point, he told them that their vehicle was big enough to do the job and looked like it was enough of a junker that he could afford it.
“Their vehicle” was a frighteningly huge Travelall that one of David’s uncles gave them for free to open up space in his garage. It sucked gas like Noland sucked dick. Larry smiled, told the guy it was a three-speed manual with a first gear that was making bad noises, so he probably wanted to look elsewhere. David frowned and put his hand on Larry’s arm, and told the guy that Larry was telling him the truth, but how bad did he want to get to KC and how much money did he have? The guy had four hundred bucks he could spend, and said he only needed to get to KC, which was less than two hundred miles away, but he had to get there, man. Straight up, would this thing make it?
Actually, in all honesty, Larry and David couldn’t think of any reason why not. First gear was wobbling on its shaft like an unbalanced top-loading washer, but the POS Travelall had more torque than a nuclear-powered tugboat, so if the guy started up in second and stayed out of first, hey, why not? That’s how they’d been driving it for a couple of months. David felt his head clear in a strange way, like when sinus medicine kicked in, and told the guy that they’d sell him the Travelall for three and a half, which would leave him gas money. But the guy had to promise to not hold it against them if it broke, and would shake hands on that basis.
The guy, whose name was Ian, was on it like white on rice. Apparently the gig in KC was real and worth some bucks to Ian, because before Larry and David went on shift the Travelall was waddling up Range Line, and they had three hundred fifty bones in twenties and a couple of fives. Hell, if it rained they could afford to call a cab.
The Travelall worked our perfectly for its new owner, because what Ian actually needed it for was only to go about eighty miles north to the lake. There, he and two buddies used it to clean out some guy’s lake cabin, right down to the Buck stove, and get their spoils back to their buyer in a junk shop just over the state line in Galena on old 66, all together less than two hundred miles total. Return on two of the guy’s shotguns alone took care of the dog-assed Travelall, and Ian was congratulated by everyone concerned for copping it. Fucker had as much room as you could get inside something that still looked like a car.
They took the Travelall out to the woods, shot it up and burned it, which has always been the best thing to do with a Travelall. Ian was still annoyed that the stupid IH had only gotten six miles per gallon, though.
Larry and David, on the other hand, engaged in some discussion over the ethics of what they’d done. The Travelall had cost them sixty dollars for four used tires and another fifty for a radiator core. Larry thought what they’d done was kind of questionable, because they’d made a profit off a guy who was clearly running on empty. They could have sold it to him for a hundred bucks, and been out from under the astonishing cost of buying a new first gear.
David didn’t agree. It’s not what the bastardized car-truck was worth to them, he said, it was what it was worth to the buyer. If the guy needed it to transport orphans to a burn hospital and only had twenty bucks, they would have sold it to him for twenty bucks, right? They hadn’t talked him into it at all; they’d even cut the price without being asked. Larry thought about that, and decided that, OK, that was reasonable.
Similarly, Larry’s conscience bothered him about having no paperwork to offer, and a license plate that would expire in September and was off something else that his uncle couldn’t remember offhand. This time, getting into the spirit, he supplied the rationale himself: Ian knew all that and didn’t care. He freely entered into the transaction. Ian was a musician, man, they thought differently about stuff.
So! We’re done here, then. Move on!
Now they had to get some wheels themselves, and David already had a plan. There was something he'd always wanted to try, and now the opportunity spread itself before them. Down the road there was a 1961 Valiant two-door, sitting on the corner at the far end of the parking lot in front of the Gibson's. It was a sad, chalked-red paint, weary old sled, absolutely bottom-line trim, but if you looked again, it didn't have the cancer and it sat up on the suspension, so they were 90% sure that it was an old guy's car. They went past it on the long walk home that night. It had a sign in the window, black grease pencil on a square of cardboard, "4 SALE $295, LO LO MILES, GOOD ON GAS, A GOER," with a phone number.
They called, they drove it, they crawled all over it, and they drove it again. The owner was, in fact, an old guy, a nice old fart who wore a knit tie and a tennis hat in the middle of the day. He had all the papers, he liked these two good, respectful boys, and he sold it to them for $275, sealing the deal by offering to pay for the tags at that price.
Larry and David drove away in a genuinely nice little sled, with the slant-six and three on the tree. The little knurls on the back side of the steering wheel were encrusted with the black gum of human funk from the nice old guy’s hands, and the clutch pedal was bright and shiny from lacking a rubber pedal cover. Interestingly, Larry saw that David didn’t seem ecstatic at their now having reliable transportation and coming out $25 to the good on the two deals, and with a good title. So he knew that something else was going on in David’s brain.
David was tasting blood. David saw an opening, a way to get out of Springfield. He had a bigger plan. Larry was dubious, but he did jump in on David’s bigger plan. They washed the Valiant, washed it again, and vacuumed it at the car wash so they could climb all around in it without getting old-guy tracked-in boot-nuggets in their hair.
They unbolted the seats, pulled the carpet, and discovered the floor pan was solid. They soaked the carpet in Tide, hot water, and a little kerosene in the bathtub, and let David’s Mom’s garden hose run through it to completely rinse out the detergent and the emulsified funk, which took hours. The first day they drove to work with the front seat thrown back in but unbolted, an adventure unto itself every time they hit a bump.
Now it smelled pretty good, and you didn’t stick to every handle and knob. So they sat in a park and developed their big plan in this new context, that of a nice older piece that had cleaned up and was solid underneath.
The idea was that lots of guys their age wanted cars. They wanted a hot coupe, preferably red or maybe black, with a stripe or maybe flames. It needed to be jacked up in the front, back, or both. It needed to look and sound fast, but they also needed a car that was good on gas, because, hey, this was Springfield. Nobody had any damn money.
Anytime somebody wanted to race, you could always slit your eyes, shake your head, and tell them, sadly, “No can do, man, too many tickets already.”
So Larry and David hacksawed off the tailpipe just forward of the rear wheel opening and ran a piece of stainless steel exhaust-repair flex tube out the side. They tossed the hubcaps and spray-painted the wheels silver. They cranked the torsion bars down in the front and put shackles on the rear springs to jack up the back. They degreased under the hood and tuned the brainless six, and advanced the spark and filled it up with premium. Then they spray-painted the window frames black, and very carefully did a nice job of cleaning the grill, masking it off, and spraying that flat black, too.
They sprang five bucks for a fresh, shiny black can of Classic Car Wax, got their most worn-out t-shirts, and carefully, so very carefully, started waxing it out. Oxidized paint filled dampened cloth after dampened cloth, and Larry, knowing the danger, took forever to rinse and inspect every accent line and crease in the sheet metal as they proceeded, to make sure they weren’t rubbing through the paint to the primer. Then, having given the car a good skin peel, they stripped the wax back off with Prep-Sol.
Their treasure was looking good, but they had to kill this, just kill it. So they spent two more days meticulously taping off and spraying a big white stripe down the center of the car, over the roof, bumper to bumper, and then flanked it with two little trim stripes. They shot the sills flat black. And after a couple of days of letting the Valiant sit in the direct sun, they gently waxed it again.
Plugs, points, condenser, filters, oil and filter, six cans of spray paint, Classic Car Wax, piece of tubing, shackles. Less than seventy bucks total, and the little MoPar was ready to break hearts.
Best, the more they farted around with it, the more confident they were in the solidity of the car itself. It made a lot of noise now and snowplowed through a corner like it was pushing a boat anchor across the asphalt, but it ran and felt great. As a bonus for hoisting the tail up into the air, they could now break the rear tires loose in two gears, even on dry, warm, blacktop.
They didn’t even get their ad in the News Leader. They parked the car at Bernie’s next to the street with a piece of cardboard in the window that said “4 SALE” in black felt pen, and a brain-dead redneck asshole with a Klan t-shirt came in right before the dinner rush wanting to check it out. Larry started to panic, but David stepped in and started apologizing like crazy to the guy. He told him they forgot to take the sign out, they were just going on shift, but (writing “$100 OFF” on the back of one of Bernie’s business cards from the register) told the redneck asshole that if he’d come back at the end of their shift they’d make it right with him, just hand me that card, man, and David continued to apologize like he’d just called the guy’s sister a bad name.
They never did tell the guy what the price was supposed to be.
David told Larry to take the lead, ask for $950. Then take the card and make it $850, and see what the guy said. Whatever he said, make it $750, and then let David take over. When David gave him the high sign, all Larry had to say was, “Hey, man! What about Melba?”
So the redneck asshole came back at end of shift, after dark, triumphantly handed Larry the card after Larry quoted him the price, and said, “Man, that’s still too high!” This, before even starting the car.
Larry immediately dropped the price to $750, and David jumped in front of him, yelling that he was crazy and they’d put a bundle into this thing, man! David, never taking his eyes off Larry, started it up, revved the engine, and started yelling, “Listen to that, man! Seven-fifty? Seven-fifty? Are you drunk, man?” And pointed at Larry
And then Larry said, “Hey, man! What about Melba?”
All the life went out of David. He pounded the top of the steering wheel a couple of times, gritted out, “Fuck. Fuck,” and got out. He walked up to the hillbilly asshole and said, sadly, “Seven fifty, all yours, man.” And walked away.
Guy had brought cash, for Christ’s sake.
That was kind of rotten, but the greaseball they sold it to was, after all, an asshole, who’d probably drop a u-joint in the first week anyway trying to impress his knocked-up Baptist girlfriend by doing burnouts in the church parking lot.
Now they showed some balance and maturity of judgment. They recognized that they had been lucky twice. They didn’t even want to think about not being lucky on their third or fourth or fifth try, especially if a buyer who bought a bad car from them (or even thought he’d bought a bad car), owned a gun and routinely got drunk, which in Springfield was pretty nearly every swinging dick and half the chicks.
Their goal wasn’t to open up a used car lot, for Christ’s sake, it was to get the hell out of Bernie’s. And Springfield. And the Ozarks, Missouri, the Central Time Zone, and anyplace else where recalcitrant children were described as “awnry” and restaurants served cheese plates featuring neatly-trimmed strips of Velveeta, and the gal at the cash register who called you “hon” had a little tin ashtray on the cash register where she laid her Marlboro while she rang you up.
And stay gone for-ev-ver. That would take a car that was a keeper, and it would have to be cheap enough to leave them plenty of cash left over. They found the car, a black 1959 Renault Dauphine with forty thousand miles showing on the odo. The current owner settled for one-fifty, cash money, and, as expected, offered no paperwork, not even a license plate. He wanted money for smokes out of it so bad he offered them most of a fifth of Jack Green to close the deal. The seller then excused himself for about fifteen minutes and came back with a nice plate with six months left on it. They didn’t ask, he didn’t tell.
They wanted to make this good. So they spent a couple of nerve-wracking weeks planning their work, preparatory to working their plan, watching over their shoulders for the guy with the Klan t-shirt. As lift-off approached, they chickened out and had their phone disconnected a week early and stopped their mail at their rental.
Saturday, June 24
Larry and David timed their escape to maximize the carnage at Bernie’s. They were scheduled on shift at 9:30 on Saturdays. So they waited for a Saturday when Noland would be gone to Baptist youth camp, molesting the youth. And they timed it so that at 9:15, in a fair-to-middlin’ thunderstorm, they were rolling slowly past Bernie’s with twenty pounds of stolen burger patties in a huge stolen ice chest, a stolen box of rolls of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and two large (and stolen) commercial-pack bags of Wonder Buns. The only person there at that hour was the other counter help for morning shift, a cow named Dyanne, who had more kids than she had teeth, and the key to the front door.
They honked and waved elaborately at Dyanne, whom they caught standing at the door with her keys out, trying to get in the door before she got soaked. She squinted, figured out what was going on, and her shoulders slumped. Dyanne knew that those two assholes gliding by honking at her meant that she would get to handle the morning mudslide all by herself. Since Dyanne routinely split for smoke breaks during lunch rush, Larry and David’s give-a-crap meter didn’t budge from zero.
When Dyanne or Noland finally cottoned to the fact that inventory was short a couple of hundred dollars' worth of buns, burgers, and foil, they could call the cops all they wanted. In fifteen minutes or less, Larry and David would be snaking out of Springfield and on county roads, they were 100% guaranteed to be never coming back. Adios, amigos!
Larry and David had briefly considered burning down Bernie’s before they left town, and decided against it only when they considered that The Turd That Walks Like a Man probably had it insured for twice its value, and might well be planning the same thing himself. Besides, it was raining.
What they stole matched the amount, carefully accounted, they had been shorted on their paychecks by Noland over the last six months. Accounts settled, they intended to live on burgers all the way to San Francisco by keeping fresh ice in the ice chest. The ice chest and two small bags of personal items were in the back seat. The rolls and the aluminum foil were in the trunk, which was under the hood of the little rear-engine Renault. The rolls were on top and compressed nicely when you pressed the front-hinged lid down on them, and when you popped the reverse-hinged hood it did, in fact, pop.
Having made their farewells to Bernie’s Burger Barnyard, they turned west on St. Louis Street, drove around the tiny square at the center of downtown with an extended finger out each front window, threw an empty Coke deposit bottle to break on the sidewalk in front of Heer’s to even the score for their getting routinely shortchanged at the mezzanine candy counter when they were little, picked up Route 66 on College Street, and blew Springfield.
It took time to sink in fully. They were out. Life had begun. There was money everywhere on the planet but Springfield (and Arkansas, to be fair) and now they were climbing out of the well and could finally get their hands on some of it. And with moneys came honeys, and now they could get to them, too. Springfield offered despair, San Francisco offered life.
What was really cool was that the rain fell off as they left Springfield, and when they looked back there was a big black mass of gloom and turmoil over the Gateway to the Ozarks. They needed a camera. Damn! They did so need a camera. Honeys dug cameras.
In mid-morning, they stopped at a roadside park in Baxter Springs, Kansas, and, using a huge pile of newspaper and a mound of twigs, got four patties more or less cooked, or at least got the exteriors to change color. It wasn’t that great. They ate a couple of the buns dry to fill up.
Both had been to Tulsa as kids, and they drove around Tulsa a little, to kind of reacquaint themselves with something vaguely familiar. In less than thirty minutes, they were all done with that. How was this getting them to San Francisco, they asked each other?
So they blew Tulsa and left any desire to play tourist behind. Now they would be entering virgin territory. It was exhilarating but scary. They reminded themselves that they had planned their work and worked their plan, and nothing but adventure, moneys, and honeys lay ahead. Taking their balls in their hands, they plunged into the infinite promise of the afternoon, and made it as far as Bristow before they lost their nerve.
Bristow had a couple of little motels. It still kept trying to rain, and even with the clouds it was hotter than hell, and steamy. So they sprang for a motel, Nell’s Little Bit, with tiny window air conditioners and a wishing well in front of the office, just to get started on the right foot. The original plan had been to sleep in the car, but it was crowded with the food and their stuff.
The motel was OK, kind of a new experience for both. Neither had air conditioning at home, just lots of old fans. They stretched out on the beds and watched TV, and explored how it felt to be out of the Ozarks. They walked around Bristow a bit, got something to eat, and watched a lot more TV. It was great, just great.
They neither talked about nor even dared think about the next reveal, what it was going to be like to wake in the morning and not have to ever think about going to work at Bernie’s Burger Barnyard again for the rest of their lives, ever, never again. There was nothing on earth as disheartening as trying to meet honeys knowing that not only were you broke, but you smelled like caramelized onions.
Nine-ish, a couple came in to the next room, two sheets of drywall away, apparently celebrating their honeymoon. It was a strange counterpoint to Mission Impossible and Gunsmoke on the TV: at random intervals, a female voice repeated, “Ow, you’re hurting me!” in an annoyed voice until everyone fell asleep.
Sunday, June 25
They wanted to get out of the Big Basin, and they sure weren’t thinking about a big sit-down breakfast every morning, so they zoomed out of town at first light with a bag of doughnuts and a couple cups of coffee. They were rested, more than a little wired, and, as men of the world now, they were impatient with the thought of even slowing down for Oklahoma City. They were, after all, on a quest to San Francisco, not on some grand tour of every podunk town in the Central Time Zone.
They poured black coffee as an accelerant over the elemental rush of not having to ever steel themselves to get up and go to work at Bernie’s ever again. They would never have to confront Noland, fry onions for eight hours, or watch counter customers stub smokes into leftover food on their plates. Whichever of the two was driving, his high had him exploring the limits of the Renault’s seventy-four mile-per-hour top speed. Between their coffee buzz and their exhilaration, if they’d been driving anything more powerful than the Renault, which is to say anything, they would have been in a ditch by eight AM. Gwine to hebbin, chillun, as fast as thirty-two horsepower will take us there.
They screamed at jackrabbits, threw a couple of pieces of wadded paper out the window, rolled down all four windows and honked both the city horn and the country horn.
Elements of the master plan developed big cracks by the time they got to Alanreed, Texas, and they had to rethink. The burgers had taken on odd colors, odd smells, and a kind of gluey texture, and the ice chest itself was full of stinky water. They left it in a ditch for the coyotes of Gray County.
The tinfoil really worked out, though, in an unexpected way. The skies cut loose a second time that morning, to where they had to slow down to stay on the road. As soon as the rain broke, the sun came out, big time, and the Dauphine quickly began to heat up in the June sun. Suddenly it had seemed to be a really good idea to cover the roof with stolen tinfoil, shiny side out, before they left Alanreed. Larry and David spent almost an hour carefully smoothing and crimping the foil over the roof, tucking it under trim, folding the strips together. They even got shiny side out on all the strips the first go-round. They tacked down the edges with masking and duct tape.
They got ten miles down the road and the tinfoil started to come loose, partly due to the incredible amount of wax David had rubbed into the paint in the few days they’d owned it. They pulled over and pressed it back in place. This time they got almost to Amarillo before Larry saw a length of tinfoil go swirling down the road behind them in the rear-view mirror. They pulled over and started again with fresh tinfoil, being a lot more careful about not crumpling it before they applied it.
They were still less than half done when three freaks in a sleek, pale green 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 pulled over and gaped at them. Larry and David stayed at their enterprise, and low murmurs of, “Far-r-r ou-u-u-t,” came from behind them periodically. Unable to contain himself, the driver of the Ford finally asked why they were covering the roof of their car in tinfoil.
David was getting cranky about the whole deal, and growled, “We’re doing the whole car with foil. Gives the sun something to push on. Saves gas.” The driver took a few seconds to digest this, then the occupants of the Ford came over to watch more intently. They generously lit up a pipe and passed it around.
The driver wanted to work out the logic of a tinfoil-covered car. “Like, if you make a boat sail out of, like, window screen, the wind would go right through it. But if you use plastic or that other cloth stuff that they make, like, sails out of, the wind has something to push against, right?
“OK, so if you paint a car with black paint, it’d soak up the sunlight and that would slow it down. Wait. What? Maybe if you paint it white.” Here the driver struggled to recall the details of a little thing he’d seen in a toy shop as a kid, in the concourse at the Port Authority Building in New York, with tiny black and white paddles inside a little glass bulb, where light hitting the paddles made them spin. He was trying to figure on the fly whether it spun because the light pushing on the black paddles or the white paddles.
“OK, whichever. But if the whole freakin’ car was covered with tin foil, that would give the sunlight something hard to push against, and you could save on gas! And,” he said, his voice rising with excitement, “if the car was real light, you might not need any gas at all!” Murmurs of, “Yeah!” and “Heavy!” came from the others. The pipe continued ‘round.
So he concluded that if you had a car all covered with tinfoil, right, and if you got rid of all the bourgeois excessive decadent stuff inside, and just kept it down to a place to sit and a wheel, you might just go sailin’ past gas stations and give them the bird, man! Flip ‘em the finger! Airmail ‘em the Rigid Digit! Man! Would that piss off those big oil companies, or what? A rising chorus of assent came from his companions.
Something started tugging at David’s mental sleeve. He made a wry face at the three dudes from the Fairlane, made an exaggerated gesture of embracement towards the Renault, raised one eyebrow and said, “Well, yeah.” His implication, clear to even the most hammered of hippies, was that that was precisely why they were covering a Renault Dauphine with tinfoil, and not an Oldsmobile Rocket 88.
Think, man! What could be smaller, lighter, and with a sleeker, more aerodynamic nose than a Renault Dauphine, and thus more likely of success as purely-solar-driven transport? What vehicle had less bourgeois excessive decadent stuff inside to start with, other than the two-tone horn? My God, his gesture went on to say, look at those huge vents in the side! How could there be any question in anyone’s mind that this car was designed from the start to be covered in tinfoil, roam the world powered by the holy Sun, and thus bring Standard Oil to its knees!
Candidly speaking, David wasn’t all that big a fan either of getting stoned or being around the stoned. Though he’d done a lot of slurping and sucking on the pipe, he hadn’t inhaled all that much. In addition, there was something about these guys that just pissed him off.
Also, he and Larry were getting the message that, if they were going to San Francisco and join the Summer of Love, already in progress, they might not get there in the Renault until midwinter, unless a mighty wind rose in the east and blew them there.
So he shot a look at Larry and turned towards the Fairlane. “Of course, that’s all cool if you’re going out on the road and checkin’ out the world. But it’s not like we’re going to San Francisco or California or anything.” The three guys from the Fairlane looked at him with different degrees of quizzicality. “Aw, no. We’re going to go up in the hills…” and then looked around and saw no hills, so clarified, “…back over the horizon there, and farm. Yeah. Do farm shit.
“So we’re gonna have to get something heavier duty. My bud Larry, here, can work a torch like a mad fiend, man, he took a Biscayne four-door back home and made it like a pickup truck, but like four guys could ride in it, too. Pretty cool, we could carry like hay and corn in the back and still have a car, too. But the pigs took us down and we had to get out with this little guy.” Larry looked down modestly, and sighed for the loss of the wonderful Chevy Biscayne four-door half-ton.
“So we’re gonna do that again, just use this thing for running around, like out in fields, and like that. Probably going to look for a Plymouth, like a Belvedere, or another Chevy. Might check out a Rambler, never know.” And David looked off over the Fairlane driver’s shoulder as if even now a suitable Fury or Impala might be approaching with a hand-lettered, “RUNS GREAT, SELL CHEAP” sign in the left rear window.
A cunning look came into the Fairlane driver’s eyes. “Hey, man, d’you ever think about how all this paperwork and red tape the Man stacks on us is just one more tool of oppression?” It seemed that the three guys in the Fairlane didn’t have any registration, title, or proof of insurance for it, or anything else in the glove box except old soda straws and paper napkins and empty rolling paper packets. Larry asked them if they’d, like, liberated it.
No, actually they hadn’t, as far as they could remember. It developed, after some recuperative discussion round the circle, that they’d been wrecked so long that they really had forgotten how, when, or why they’d acquired it. The plates were from Colorado, but none of them could remember having been to Colorado recently.
It didn’t matter. The Fairlane posse was consumed with the idea of gliding in eerie silence over North America in a Renault Dauphine covered with tinfoil, with the possibility in view of tossing the engine and transaxle and stripping the little car down even further to a few hundred pounds…no, wait, you’d have to leave the motor in for big hills or on rainy days or to get away from the pigs. Momentarily, they were crestfallen.
But then the quietest of the three said, shyly, “But man, on a sunny day, could you hear the radio!” and the general mood lightened back up to the point of giddiness. No one was so naive as to count on being chased around by limousines full of oil company lawyers, futilely trying to give them suitcases full of money to keep their mouths shut about their incredible invention, but, hey, hey, hey, if it happened, it happened.
Larry and David gave them the single all-seeing, all-knowing Renault key, and generously threw in the remaining tinfoil, and such paperwork as they had. David suggested that they get some rubber cement to keep the foil tacked down, but warned them to watch for the fumes, man, rubber cement fumes’ll give you a wicked head rush.
The Fairlane posse, now almost frantic to take command, cleaned out the Ford, gave Larry and David the keys, and swarmed their new ride. As Larry and David drove off, the three were already ripping out the headliner of the Renault and popping out the door panels to lighten it even more. An argument was already starting as to whether jettisoning the hood would lighten the car enough to offset screwing up the aerodynamics.
Larry and David, ever perceptive of their environment and the ever-changing world around them, believed that it really looked as if the sun were going down unusually quickly that day, so prudence dictated that they move along briskly. Fortunately, the Fairlane was quite capable of moving along briskly, much more so than, say, a Renault Dauphine, even one covered in tinfoil. David drove, Larry waved vigorously as they pulled away.
Amarillo barely registered as they blew through, coming across like Springfield after a fire, followed by a dust storm, and with Mexicans instead of hillbillies. As soon as they got on the west side of town, the rain started again. They wished their now-distant new friends well.
Tucumcari stood ready to sell them burgers, shakes, fries, ice, maps, Cokes, gas, tires, postcards, and authentic Navajo rugs, from which they selected burgers, fries, and Cokes, and a little gas. They had been on Route 66 the whole way from Springfield and were going to stay on Route 66 for most of the rest of the trip. Route 66, wow, groovy, whoop-de-doodie. So far the romance of Route 66 for them was limited to the fact you always knew you were on Route 66, because everybody along the way had a big honkin’ sign out telling you that you were on Route 66.
Albuquerque was one more boring, sunburned-looking desert town, but it not only had cheap motels, it had the cheapest motels anybody had ever heard of. Some of the motels on 66 out on the west side had big hand-painted signs out front on 4×8 sheets of plywood, saying simply, “4,” or “5,” and at least one “3.” It came to them that those were actually room rates.
They looked at each other. This was too cool. They found a place for six bucks a night that actually had TVs, and laughed at the poor bastards staying in some four-dollar place, what a total toilet that must be.
They spent a pleasant evening in ongoing epiphany, still reveling in being gone from Springfield, the Ozarks, and the entire retarded, scum-swilling Central Time Zone. They wished they could try some marijuana or buy beer. They could stay in their six-dollar motel for a month, they could split immediately and drive to Tierra del Fuego in their slick Ford Fairlane. God damn, life was good.
Monday, June 26
In the morning light, if Amarillo looked like Springfield after a fire, then a dust storm. Albuquerque looked like Springfield after a fire followed by a sandstorm. And it had even more Mexicans than Amarillo. Springfield didn’t have a whole lot of Negroes, but Albuquerque had hardly any at all. Yet here Larry and David could go a mile or two at a time and still not see a single white man. This was some kind of different deal.
Larry and David talked about what they’d seen so far over Cokes and doughnuts, and agreed that, although being gone from Springfield and the Ozarks was even better than expected, that when you looked at it straight on, a lot of people really seemed to want to live in hellholes. Interesting. The road belonged to everybody, gas was cheaper than ditchwater, and who didn’t own a car? So, go, man! Leave!
You’d think that the highway would be jammed solid with cool guys bailing out of Shit City, Arkansas, and Wet Fart, Oklahoma. Yet, somehow, in retard ranches like Joplin and Oklahoma City, life went on. People stayed and raised families in places like Springfield, Tulsa, and Amarillo of their own free will. This one had more white people, this one had more Negroes, this one had more Mexicans. But otherwise they all looked and felt the same. Hunh.
No, not exactly the same. None were as close to nothing with a side of fries as Springfield.
They liked picking up a free hour by changing time zones. They knew they’d do it again when they got to California. That was weird and pretty cool.
The Fairlane was driving them crazy. The Renault got terrific gas mileage, granted. But its road manners? Larry had a neighbor in Springfield who lived in a single-wide two lots over, had no television, and lived on a pension. He owned a bulldog named Dimwit and thought it was hilariously amusing to get Dimwit drunk by pouring Falstaff beer into Dimwit’s water dish. He would then throw a stick into the street, and Dimwit, ever eager to please, and now drunk on his ass, would do what he could to get the stick. That was what the Renault was like at sixty miles an hour on the open highway in a crosswind, front end approximately on course, back end swaying like a pendulum.
The Ford, though. God, it just ate up highway like a mad fiend. They started blowing through towns along 66 like guys in a biker movie. It felt like they were leaving a trail of swirling tumbleweed, squawking chickens, and broken hearts behind them, all taken in a low-angle shot from the middle of their lane on the highway.
They went bombing up the eastern slope of the Rockies or the Sierras or whatever they were into Flagstaff like it was nothing. Flagstaff was crazy-high up in the air, like 8,000 feet, and the Ford just didn’t care. God, this was great! This was all the good livin’ they’d missed in Springfield. Five, six hundred miles a day, flying across the giant red desert, what could stand against them?
Their first shot across the real desert was bizarre, endless, and kind of boring, but unbelievably educational. The desert didn’t look anything like Roadrunner cartoons. Rather, it did, for a little while, then it looked like something else, then something else, then back to Roadrunner cartoons.
It also had the most annoying billboards imaginable. They put up one every mile to announce the number of miles remaining to some goofy little lemonade stand that sold moccasins and had a dead two-headed snake in a pickle jar. Larry and David thought those Baldknobber assholes in Branson were obnoxious, where if you parked in their lot, they’d cover your bumper with their ignorant bumper stickers, but the trading-post billboards were dumb-ass beyond anything the Ozarks could imagine.
Larry noted, though, that they seemed to work. Some of the rattlesnake-and-teepee places looked like they’d been open since Teddy Roosevelt was president. It all went into their mental card file.
In Needles, they did a motel again. As much bigger than the Renault as the Fairlane was, sleeping in the car wasn’t going to work when the temperature stayed above a hundred and eighty all night. They didn’t care, they just didn’t care. Cold AC blowing on their toes, a package store that didn’t even blink when they brought a couple of sixes to the counter, all they lacked were honeys and some tunes. David was still moaning about a Navajo chick working the register at a doughnut shop in Gallup. He had never seen anything like the kewpie-faced, big-eyed little woman with a dress that went all the way to her ankles, and who had looked at him like he was God’s half-brother.
He loved this, Larry loved this, life for real, not getting your kicks by spitting in burgers ordered by snotty customers.
A scorpion was dancing around in the middle of the braided rug in the middle of the linoleum floor of their motel room. It wasn’t anything like they thought a scorpion should look like, being about the size of a trout fly. But it was wonderful and exotic and as shocking as seeing their first palm tree. David squashed it, but only enough to just barely kill it, so that it was still recognizably a scorpion. They tucked it in a piece of motel stationery to keep, just in case they never saw another one.
Tuesday, June 27
When they stepped out of the air conditioning, Needles was kind of hot, even at six in the morning. Internally, they were still on Central Time, still fascinated by the concept of picking up an hour as they headed west, and here they were picking up yet another. Could people ever get used to this? It was eight in the morning, and it was showing six AM on the clock. How totally wonderful and bizarre.
They got across the desert on the strength of twelve-ounce bottles of Coca Cola, one after another. They found that this part of the desert really sucked. Barstow should have been targeted as the third Jap city to be nuked in World War Two. If there weren’t any Japs there to start with, they could have trucked some in, if anybody needed an excuse. Jesus.
They hit Bakersfield. As David said decades later, retelling the story of the Summer of Love for the hundredth time, “And we wanted to keep hitting it, and hitting it, and hitting it, over and over.” Bakersfield was living proof that, not only did people willingly remain in places like Springfield and Amarillo, they would, voluntarily, go even lower on the evolutionary scale, for reasons known only to them.
Bakersfield, ladies and gentlemen, Springfield’s retard big brother.
They drove fast and they drove slow. The Central Valley was somewhat cooler than the desert, though not as much as you’d expect. The Fairlane was still wonderful on the highway. The front wheels were only vaguely aware of what the steering wheel wanted them to do, but then they’d started out in a Renault Dauphine, where the links between the steering wheel and the front wheels was basically two lemonade cans and a piece of string. Still, Larry and David could have happily driven to Guam without batting an eye.
Just south of Fresno, they heard a little tick start up in the front of the engine. A friendly guy with an Okie accent at an Esso Station said that it was the little lee-ver that worked the oil pump, and that the oil pump was getting ready to shoot craps, and when it did the engine would seize up. This station didn’t do nothin’ but pump gas and he couldn’t help ‘em out, but they’d probably need to see to it pretty quick. Since the friendly guy wasn’t trying to make a buck off them and didn’t even tell them about some personal friend nearby who could help them out for not much money, they believed him.
There wasn’t anything they could do about it, though. They decided to just keep on pushing. They sang, “Keep on pushin’!” in falsetto harmony, over and over, till their throats got sore.
Slowly but inexorably the ticking got louder. They would stay the night in a crappy motel in crappy Manteca. They walked around and talked about the situation. They developed a plan. They’d get up early in the morning while it was cool, and try to roll carefully into San Francisco. If they could get that far before the car died, they could at least ride around on cable cars and check out the local honeys.
An awful doubt crept up from the depths: was it possible that San Francisco was Amarillo with an ocean, Springfield with cable cars? The desert was awesome, and, OK, Flagstaff was kind of cool. Naw, be fair, Flagstaff was really cool.
But otherwise, so far, none of the cities they’d passed through were notable improvements over Springfield. Someplace had to be better than Springfield, or did it? Was it possible that Washington, D.C. was Springfield made out of white marble, London was Springfield with fog, Moscow was Springfield with nuclear missiles? Tell me it ain’t so.
Wednesday, June 28
In the morning, the ticking was loud when they started the car, quieted a little bit when the car warmed up, and then changed over from tick-tick-tick to almost that nasty rattlesnake sound of a bearing going out.
Yet with balls retracted and the cold sweat of failure at their temples, they looked around and awoke to the fact that they were on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge crossing San Francisco Bay, the certain destination of San Francisco directly ahead of them, and this traitorous Ford could go fuck itself up the exhaust with its own dipstick and Springfield could fucking burn to the goddam ground, they were here, dammit, they were here! Now they were in the middle of a bunch of skyscrapers, hooking around to the water, the engine was going BANG BANG BANG and people were staring at them from the sidewalks.
Done! They pulled over, Larry threw the keys straight up in the air, and both yelled as loudly as they could.
Sure, it could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse. Larry and David had come two thousand miles and landed with all their limbs intact at their intended destination. They started out with a nice wad of cash, an old Renault with no papers and a stolen license plate, a couple dozen stolen hamburger buns, twenty pounds of stolen hamburger, and a stolen cooler. Now they had no car, but they still had a nice wad of cash, and were standing in San Francisco right next to the San Francisco Bay, looking up at the big goddam bridge that had borne them over the water, and out at a bunch of stuff on the other side of the bay.
Hell, they’d take this. Count it down, man! First, they were here. Second, they were free. Third, they weren’t being pursued by some dim bitch who wanted child support for a kid that looked suspiciously like her cousin or her father. Fourth, and most important, they weren’t in fucking Springfield!
They’d take it, they’d take it, without a minute’s hesitation.
A bunch of people were standing around three vans with license plates from three different states. It looked like there were a lot of honeys and a smaller number of pretty cool-looking guys. Several watched them approach. “Cat’s ass,” said David to Larry as they strolled over.
Tom Gridley was a BM1 at the station, a great big guy who had gone through Coastal Forces training at Government Island, down in San Francisco Bay. Coastal Forces was a Reserve Special Forces rating the Coast Guard had tried to work up in the Sixties, and lost interest in shortly thereafter, so Gridley went back in to the regular Guard.
Gridley knew a lot about hand-to-hand combat and rigging explosives, which really wasn’t all that useful at a lifeboat station. Gridley also knew how to pick locks and kill a sentry, which was kind of cool.
His face was something out of a medium-budget horror movie, a death-white puffball, the color and texture of a supermarket mushroom: two black holes for eyes, two black holes for a nose, one lipless slit for a mouth. His face had burned off in the same boat explosion that put Marcus’ Dad permanently on painkillers. Marcus always thought, and Gridley never said differently, that he was the luckier of the two, because although he looked like rancid hell, he was otherwise almost done with it: no dullness and little pain hanging on, no drugs, the only physical residual of the disaster an eternally runny nose. Other than his having no face, of course.
Gridley was holed up in a little clapboard redoubt south of town in the middle of a failed development, hidden in the pines, by grace of the developer’s senior accountant, who didn’t want Newport to lose anyone as solid and admirable as Gridley to the desert or the mountains somewhere. Gridley, naturally, lived mostly in seclusion. He went into town sometimes in the summer, but at odd hours to avoid scaring tourists.
It was easier to pass unnoticed in the winter without the traffic, and the locals all knew him and his truck. Objectively viewed, his face wasn’t unbearably mangled, just unexpected and strange on first encounter. He had all his fingers and toes, and there were plenty of Nam vets walking around showing worse.
On cold, wet Mondays and Tuesdays, when the waterfront was as deserted as it ever got during business hours, he could go into the fishermen’s bars and sit in a corner and, if he was broke, drink beer and eat pretzels all night for free, courtesy of deeply respectful crabbers.
His eyes were still all Gridley. The overall effect was more like Gridley wearing a kind of lame-assed mask than some giant mutant white mushroom with Gridley’s eyes. In any case, it didn’t bother Marcus or Syl, who thought it was all pretty cool. And Gridley could teach them al kinds of spy stuff.
The interior of the midget house was, as would be expected, clean and ordered. A compact galley had a three-burner electric stove, a refrigerator, and white cupboards with round brass knobs. The head, with shower, was in a 4×4 compartment in one corner. Gridley’s rack was a simple twin bed, a bench of a sofa, a wardrobe, some shelves. Tight, and seaman-like.
And flame-free. He kept neither matches nor a lighter, and he used either kerosene or detergent and water for solvents. Gridley waited impatiently for the first practical diesel pickup to come out. No gas, no propane, no butane, no gasoline outside the tank on the Dodge, not even denatured alcohol. He claimed that he felt about fire much as he did about rattlesnakes: he didn’t hate or fear rattlesnakes, he just saw no reason to seek out the company of that sort of critter ever again.
Sunday, June 25
It was colder than a brass toilet seat, more like what Marcus and Syl were used to in June. They shagged over to the beach in wool shirts and jeans, just to mess around. All that was going on was a couple of tourists walking dogs and looking out to the sea, like a Russian sub was going to pop up. Pretty bore-ass.
It was too soon to go home, so they angled over into the path that went out to the rock jetty. As they ascended the wall of rocks, Marcus looked out to the corner of the concrete barge poking above the surface, a few hundred yards north of the end of the jetty. It was supposed to have sunk in World War Two. They’d always thought the coolest deal imaginable would be to swim or get a boat somehow out to the little brown pyramid, and just stand on it. It was gone from view two-thirds of the time due to tides and waves, which only added to the mystique.
Syl went further, of course. He had obsessive fantasies about tumbling rocks off the jetty, near its tip, into the ocean, and get a channel opened between the jetty and the rocks. He convinced himself that rocks separated from the tip of the jetty, as demarcated by seawater, as well as the concrete barge, were both virgin territory. They would be open to claim by anyone brave enough to stand on them, because they stood out in the water freed from the mainland and were thus…something. There was undoubtedly a law that said that this kind of new land belonged to the first claimant.
He believed in that law because he couldn’t imagine a universe in which such a law wasn’t on the books. It wasn’t like an island, which was part of the country it was, uh, part of. That was old land that had been around when the country was made, so of course any little island or rock sticking up off the Oregon coast was part of Oregon. But nobody owned the new land, though it was obviously part of the U.S. It wasn’t there when they made Oregon, it was new, so wasn’t really part of Oregon at all.
Well, it had to belong to somebody. He’d created the one bit of new land, or would if he could, and he’d never heard anybody in town claim that they’d taken possession of the concrete barge, so why not him?
And Marcus, if he wanted in and was nice to Syl.
Syl, incentivized by his conviction that a flag was his to plant on any such virgin territory, came as close as Marcus ever saw him to engaging in a focused and objective hunt for theoretical knowledge and theory-derived application: what would it take to get a rock off the jetty and into the water?
He experimented with a three-foot stick used as a lever, which broke immediately on the four-and-a-half-ton boulder. He got a two-by-four and then a six-by-six, with Marcus’ help, to jam between two rocks. The two-by-four broke after a lucky pull, and the six-by-six, well-wedged between two rocks that together were as heavy as an unloaded dump truck, just sat there.
Syl danced around for hours before settling on a new strategy, which involved tying a rope from the six-by-six to the front bumper of a car on the beach, and then carefully backing towards the highway. That plan was defeated early on by Syl’s discovery of the cost of an approximately one-mile length of hawser.
Well enough, then. What was more powerful than a lever and less expensive, probably, than a very long rope? Explosives! By incredible coincidence, Syl had just finished Farnham’s Freehold, so was now expert in the manufacture and deployment of nitrogen tri-iodide. He figured that they could just paint the rocks with it, stand back a way, and bang it with a Crosman pellet gun.
Bertram, the longer-serving of the two pharmacists in Newport, immediately called Syl’s mom when Syl tried to wipe him out of iodine, ready to spend all his Christmas money on little brown bottles. Bertram had no idea what project Syl wanted the iodine for, but he was ineffably certain that it was pea-brained beyond redemption. Syl got in such deep trouble over that one that Marcus never did discover details of what Syl’s mom did to him. He wasn’t around for over a week, and was extremely uncommunicative for several days after he did resurface.
Syl’s behavior was usually harmless.
Today they clambered over the huge rocks for a while, trying to get to the end of the jetty, abreast of the barge. But both had turned sixteen, and climbing over rocks just wasn’t working for them any more as a way to spend the summer. They found a rock with a big flat surface they could both stand on and practiced some of the karate moves their friend Gridley had shown them. Tom knew this kind of shit, and he didn’t have a face, which was too cool.
They looked around, Syl started in talking about even more ways to make his own island by screwing with the rocks in the jetty, and even he wasn’t entertained by the idea anymore. All that was left was to get some food. Syl’s mom’s drinking had taken her past reliably putting meals on the table on weekends, and Burma Distelfink, living in perpetual exhaustion, had put out little stacks of baloney, white bread, and pickles for Sunday dinner for Marcus and herself to pick at. So the two were ready for Crab Heaven.
Marcus’s stomach was empty and lonely and needed a hug by the time they reached Crab Heaven. Crab Heaven was dark inside, and everything, floor, tables, chairs, ceiling, was bare brown wood. The only color was from the red-and-white tablecloths and an illuminated Olympia Beer sign with a moving waterfall and a clock. Bernice brought them a crab salad. On the side was a stack of white bread on a saucer, and a skinny bottle of cheap hot sauce with a dried red crust around the threads beneath the cap. For several minutes, there was no sound except Syl breathing asthmatically through his mouth around the disappearing gobbets of crab.
In a little while, Marcus signed the ticket, and they got up very slowly, stuffed completely full, near comatose, only the caffeine from two Cokes keeping them operational. Marcus put two PayDay bars from the glass case by the register on his Dad’s account as well.
They sleepwalked up from the waterfront on Fall Street, off to the right at Canyon Way which turned into Hurbert, and over the hill to the middle of town and across Highway 101. The two parted company, Syl going north on 101 and Marcus continuing over the hill, towards home.
Down the last slope, and then there was his house, second one on the block from the corner and the only one straddling two lots, poking up above the surrounding beach cottages, and painted that regrettable bright blue. From his window came a thick rope of black smoke, now pouring up into the slope of the roof to the peak, and then rising straight up into the bright afternoon till it caught the sea wind.
A second plume rose from the other end of the house, and more smoke from the windows low on the side of the house, and it was still so unnaturally quiet. It felt like someone was squeezing Marcus’s head between their hands, and he felt his heart thumping. He couldn’t deal with everything he saw at once: his brain tried to cope with it piece by piece, smoke up one side, yes, and smoke up the other, now smoke down low, got that, and still no human presence outside, agent or victim…
He focused back on the ugly twisting plume coming from his window. “My stuff,” he half-whispered, half-thought, “All my stuff, my stuff.” His comics, his models, his records, so painfully acquired, one by one, all blackening in smoke and evaporating in fire. Marcus nearly lost his balance. It came to him that, at five in the early evening, his father was probably upstairs in bed in a morphinated fog, and his mother was sitting alone in the living room with a thick paperback and a sandwich.
So he ran to get within sight of the other side of the house, to see if the Falcon was still in the carport. His vision was narrowing to a tunnel lined with black velvet, and all the air went out of his lungs, and then they filled again and his sight cleared, but his legs were already pumping hard and Marcus hurtled down the gentle hill at the unfair, unfair, unfair intrusion on his life and whatever happiness and order his family had scraped together. Still fifty, sixty feet from the house, he saw the first flames licking out of the windows, and clearly heard the sound of the fire for the first time, and somebody grabbed his t-shirt solidly from behind and pulled him up hard to a skidding stop like a cartoon character, with his legs windmilling in the air.
Marcus jerked around, twisting to get away from one big guy and then a second, both wearing sweatshirts with ripped-off sleeves and faggy sunglasses, one wrapping Marcus’s shirt around his fist, and the other grabbing for his arm and extending a crooked finger for a belt loop. Something went off in the house like a gunshot, a loud crack-pop! but the grip of neither man flinched. Marcus flailed with one arm, got the other one free, hit one guy with a backfist in the nose, even harder than he intended because the guy’s face was about six inches closer to him than he thought, and now his shirt was free and the other guy was having a tough time keeping hold of Marcus’ writhing upper arm.
A weird sound like blowing on a giant comb with tissue paper came from the back of the house, and this time the second guy’s grip did loosen. Marcus was off like a shot, not to get away but to get upstairs in the house to see if his Dad was lying helpless in the smoke, and, failing that, to at least run around the side to see if the car was there. Marcus hit the front door like a wrestler, and it was locked. He spun away from the two big jerks as they closed in on him, ducked inside the closer guy and ran around the near side of the house.
The Falcon was in the carport, but there was no way he could get in the side window, billowing black smoke and flame, and now there was only one guy behind him, which meant that the other one was circling around the other way. So he did what his mother said she’d kill him for if she ever caught him at it again, and grabbed the TV antenna wire where it ran up the sloped roof, which thank God his father had secured with heavy metal brackets, “In a squared-away military manner,” he’d said, smiling and satisfied with his work, and Marcus went right up the side of the house, the shingles hot under his Chucks.
The guy chasing him was completely dumbfounded by Marcus’ move and couldn’t figure what to do. Then the other guy came pounding around the end of the house, and the two of them stood there hopping from one foot to another, till the bigger one pulled a gun from the back waistband of his green jeans. Marcus went even faster, right up the black cable to the antenna at the peak of the roof, and went over the top, holding tight to the base of the antenna. He hung there, the shingles growing hotter, to watch the two big jerks and see what came next.
They were so stupid that they broke from their position at the side of the house and ran in opposite directions to catch him when he came down the other side, so Marcus immediately went back down the way he came, sliding, falling, tearing his hand on the cable brackets, as a big black circle in the middle of the roof charred, fell through, and started gushing flame. He landed on the corrugated fiberglass roof of the carport, and dropped to the ground running straight out from the side of the house, shoulder blades knotted, waiting for the big stupid guy in the sweatshirt who he’d never seen before to cheat and shoot him, which would be as unfair as the fact of the fire itself, and Marcus ran for the street with no air and no strength left in his arms and legs, and still ran harder.
He saw one white face appear at a neighbor’s window as he pumped past, and finally heard, finally! a siren start up at the station half a mile away. But he didn’t even slow down, he cut right at the first house he came to with a fenced corner on the yard, and went right again, so he was almost doubling back but one street over, and he saw the two guys go by down his street. One finally doubled back and saw him, jumped a fence and ran through Mrs. Terwilliger’s side yard, but by that time Marcus was putting some distance between them.
He knew right where he was going. He wasn’t going to try and find somebody at home and try to explain what was going on in just a minute or two, when the two jerks could come up behind him at any second and shoot him and whomever he was talking to. Marcus wanted just four blocks, four blocks (and they were both behind him now, he saw over his shoulder, two young but full-grown men who should’ve been playing touch football or slow-pitch with cans of beer in their hands in the park, or working on a car, or bothering women on the street, but who were spending their afternoon trying to kill him or at least seriously jack him up), because in four blocks, then three, then two, and left towards the beach, there it was, the old roller rink, closed since before he was born, nothing there but a big shamble of sagging grey wood.
Marcus had a rabbit hole in one side, a board down low that came away and let him and Syl duck under the rink to a hole in the floor so they could mess around inside. It was right there in front of him, and bam! he was in so fast it didn’t matter whether they saw him go in or not, no way could they follow. And it worked, almost too well, because they gave up too quickly. He thought he’d be able to hear them banging and crashing around as they tried to follow him. But now he’d popped up inside, in the grey gloom, and suddenly it was dead quiet, except for the pounding in his ears and chest and his ragged breathing.
He and Syl and small groups of their peers had kind of slow-nuked the place over the years, without actually lighting anything on fire or kyping stuff. There had been more amusement in hanging out and using the space than doing primary damage, and in any case the remaining lath and plaster and drywall was nasty with mold and no fun to pull down because it crumbled and stank. So there was still some structure inside, and enough rink left to navigate across the floor. Not much dust, next to the ocean, but the roof was slowly acknowledging entropy.
He looked around at the dim, familiar interior. Everything except some of the drywall and the studs had fallen down or been pulled down. Even the low wall around what used to be the skating rink was knocked flat. He knew the two morons chasing him couldn’t get under the building and up through the hole in the floorboards without making a whole lot of noise, so he collapsed on the floor and let his body catch up with his brain. Mouse crap and mold mottled the floor, but for a couple of minutes he could think.
What was going on? What could possibly be going on? The last five minutes made less sense than Mr. Bell’s freshman math class. He didn’t know the guys who were chasing him, and didn’t know of anybody in Newport who ran around in clean sweatshirts and expensive-looking sunglasses at all, except some of the guys who came back from Oregon State, and most of them smoked pipes with the sweatshirts and sunglasses, which made them look like real dicks.
And where were his parents now? The car had been in the carport, the side door locked. If both had been home, why was his mother not outside, screaming her head off?
A long, low creak from the front of the building, and the sound of a piece of broken wood being twisted around a nail. It didn’t sound like they were in; it sounded like they’d broken something around the door frames, or maybe splintered a panel in the door or the plywood that covered where the glass had been. Marcus’s first idea was just to go back down through the hole in the floor, but these guys were at least smart enough to have split up back at the house, so he wanted a serious fix on them before he did anything.
There was a big stainless steel freezer or locker or something back where the snack bar had been, but if he got inside he could die in there if he pulled the door shut (and now there was a more serious bang! from the front door), and anyway, they’d have to be incredibly stupid not to look inside the only place in the building with a closed door, and it was probably time to get out of here anyway, or (now, a complex crunching sound) at least get out of the middle of the floor (and here they came! no, just one, man, that complicated things). He did the best he could, which was to shy a water tap handle at one guy’s forehead, shortstop to first base, as soon as the guy showed himself, making him duck and miss a step.
Marcus faced away from him when he dropped back into the hole, but spun around as soon as he got under the building and squat-ran back in the direction of the front door. He thought the other jerk would probably be covering the back of the building, assuming Marcus would run away from his partner. Marcus froze, crouching in the damp darkness. Wait. Wait. Hold on. The hole in the floor was ragged, and just big enough for a sixteen-year-old to get through without touching. This guy could definitely get through the hole, but if he stuck his head down through, Marcus couldn’t see any way the guy could get his arm under the floor to use the gun. If the guy came all the way under the building, he’d have to fold himself down under three feet tall and wouldn’t be able to use the gun unless he stopped. Or crawled along on his stomach. OK, there’s his head, and he’s looking the wrong way, good.
Marcus looked around as best he could without making any sudden moves, and couldn’t see the other guy moving around outside, through the slits of sunlight in the boards around the base of the rink. Now the first one was coming down, and his feet were facing the wrong way. Marcus took off on his hands and knees as fast as he could. When the first shot exploded behind him, his heart jumped into his mouth and he dropped down to his stomach, but didn’t slow down, crawling, slithering, shoulders tensed for the next shot.
He saw what he was waiting for, the other flickering shadow as the other guy moved around the building. For the first time one of them spoke, as the guy outside barked, “Don’t shoot, asshole, it’s me!” The other one, flopping and hitching along in the crawl space towards Marcus, shouted back, “It’s OK, I’ve got him! To your left, to your left!” The one outside was trying to pull a board away to get in. The one chasing him was closing in.
Marcus was almost where he wanted, up where the rest rooms used to be, and there they were, the holes where long-gone toilet bowls had once squatted on long-gone stacks.
Gross, but quick and easy. He popped up through rotting boards covered in nameless wet brown things to the main floor, ran out, and blew down the street and over to the beach in orange slanted sunlight. There were rocks, junky bushes, and beach grass, and sandy little cliffs, and he hid.
Nothing happened. In a while the sun fell low, then lower, and in an hour got sucked down flat against the horizon. With all the caution in the Western world, Marcus stood in the dimming light and snuck south, a little at a time. A few people were still on the beach, people climbed up and down from the beach to Coast Street and Elizabeth Street, and nobody showed any interest in a kid crapping around in the last of the light.
At full dark, he hunted for a while in back yards that he knew were dog-free, and stole two beach towels from clotheslines.
He went back over the edge of the beach and kept going south. At the circular parking lot, at the overlook point of the state park surrounding the lighthouse and watch tower, he followed the outer side of the wall around the parking lot, got to the bridge side, jumped the wall, ran over the blacktop, and doubled back into the abode of the Gazort.
Marcus found the hollow under the canopy where the Mason jar was buried, and curled up in the beach towels. One was dark maroon with a stylish, grinning cartoon French poodle drawn in light blue and white chalk outline, with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Marcus hoped it would be less visible spread over him, under the scrub, in the dark, than the white towel, which he rolled up for a pillow. He slept.
Monday, June 26
When he woke up to the first light in the morning, he knew that whichever SN or SA was on duty in the tower above him was bored senseless in the grey dawn, likely reading a forbidden paperback or fiddling with the massive all-band radio, and unlikely to be watching the bushes in the park or the path. Still, movement was movement. Marcus under no circumstances wanted a call-in, with a Newport cop rolling up behind him and asking him questions till he found out what was really going on.
Because something reeked. There had been too little response to a fire in the middle of town on a Sunday evening and two guys with guns chasing a local kid across the neighborhood.
Maybe the two big jerks had been two off-duty police on vacation who were rushing to his rescue, trying to keep a panicked young man from harming himself, and drew their weapons out of long habit as law-enforcement officers. He’d ask Santa Claus what he thought about it when he came over for lunch with the Easter Bunny.
So he slipped over the side of the hill. He stuck close to the scrubby pines fringing the road, ready to melt into the brush at the sound of an approaching car. At the bridge, he hooked to the left, over the low retaining wall and across the grass, to the old curving stone stairs up to 101.
He kept down behind the pillar at the entrance to the bridge till he got centered and sure of the pattern of traffic. He made sure that nobody was out on foot from the Station or just walking a dog. Then he ran as fast as he could south, over to the narrow archway in one of the low, hollow concrete towers that blocked the walkway like little guard stations.
He hid again, safe for another moment, then took off again under the big green metal arches holding up the bridge, and made it to the tower on the far side. He waited for a truck and a station wagon to clear the bridge, then loped down the long curved slope to South Beach, feeling like a rabbit running the length of an airport runway at noon, with hawks in the air.
More vehicles passed. A car, a truck, and a teenager on a Honda 90 trail bike doing half the speed limit, who saw him and shouted something, the tiny jiggling headlight illuminating nothing, with an even tinier taillight, square and jiggling on its bracket, lighting up a trail of blue smoke. Nobody slowed down and nobody jumped out of or off anything to grab him. At the first intersection, at 23rd Street, he cut diagonally across 101 to the east side of the highway.
Marcus was enormously hungry and thirsty, and he fed the machines at the still-closed Mobil station nickels and dimes for Payday bars and two Pepsis. There wasn’t much in South Beach, but he walked close to the few buildings there were. After a while, with the sun coming up, he hit a longer stride, with some confidence that he could head for the bushes inland if a car broke towards him from the road.
Calmer, he tried to start thinking straight, now that panic had subsided. When he thought about the whole situation, he realized there was no reason for anyone to think he was headed out of town, on foot, at all, without trying to contact anybody in Newport. If they did guess that he was on the road, they’d have no reason to narrow their search to south, north, east up to Siletz or east towards Corvallis. Maybe west, who knows, I could just head due west, he thought, and got dangerously giggly.
An hour down the highway, with traffic becoming a little more frequent, he turned inland down a bulldozed road of sandy dirt and dirty sand, between low massed pines and then taller pines, the light fading around him even as the sky brightened. Nothing moved, nothing, and trees and distance diminished the sound of the sea and the highway, as the gap in the pines he’d come through behind him shrank to a point.
His Chucks crunching a little in sand were all that disturbed the quiet. Pines, nothing but pines, a straight strip of road for the anticipated traffic from some developer’s fever dream, eager buyers hoped for but never come. Indistinct tracks in the sand ahead, a road to no place in particular that could barely remember the reason for its own existence.
Then an intersection with a smaller dirt road, perfectly square with the road he was on. He turned left. Another five minutes, another intersection, a right, and a gap in the trees on the left. One house, one electric line in all of Beach Pines, the busted development, waiting on the future. One neat little white box with a new green peaked roof, a white Dodge pickup with smoked windows, backed in, its grille facing out.
“Gridley! Hey, Gridley!” Marcus called from twenty feet away.
Gridley came to the door. “Marcus?”
“Oh, Gridley, you won’t believe this crap.”
“Come on in, man. Come on in.”
Gridley backed into the light inside the room.
Gridley gave Marcus a glass of water and a peanut butter sandwich. Marcus told him of the insane events of the last twenty hours. Gridley was silent till Marcus wound down.
“So my house is burned. My folks are gone. Two big stupid goofs I never saw before chase me and shoot at me. Everything happened in like five minutes in the middle of the day in the middle of where everybody lives, and the cops and the fire trucks never showed up.”
Gridley grunted. “This is bad. Newport police are OK guys. They may be a little stupid but several of them are retired Guard. They are not goofs, they are not crooks. They are not part of an international conspiracy to burn houses and snatch parents. I do not understand this one bit.”
“Great,” said Marcus, morosely.
“Let’s go right now and check it out.”
It was strange going back into Newport, and Gridley agreed that going right by the Distelfink’s house would be a huge mistake. But they had to see, and so drove right by the Distelfink’s house. What they did was box it in a reverse search pattern, starting four blocks out and moving inward till they got a good look. Marcus sat low in the seat behind the smoked glass.
In the morning light, from two long blocks away, they could see two local cops standing by the cordoned-off shell of the A-frame, one cop casually talking to one of Marcus’ pursuers. Gridley slowly drove straight out of the neighborhood, Marcus’ teeth starting to chatter, Gridley unhappy that the other cop glanced briefly as they passed, at perhaps the only white first-generation D-series Dodge pickup in town with fully-tinted windows.
Gridley wanted to check at the library. “I can go in. Darlene at the desk knows me, and you can wait in the truck.” At the library, Gridley was in and out in a few minutes, with nothing. “It happened yesterday, the paper came out this morning, and there’s not one word about the fire. Scary, Marko.”
They drove over to Toledo for burgers. Toledo was more about logs than crabs, and Gridley didn’t have much to talk about with loggers and mill workers unless they were also regulars going out for salmon, so he didn’t get over to Toledo that often. Marcus ran in for the order. When he came back with a couple of sacks dripping grease and drinks, Gridley moved the truck over to the parking lot of the library, cut into the side of a hill and shadowed by pines, and they ate.
Marcus had a flash and went into the Toledo library and checked the Newport paper, the News, one more time. Same deal. Nothing again, but he thought that maybe they’d printed a trick paper or something and stuck it in the Newport library. Gridley shrugged it off and drove them out of Toledo.
“Gridley, wait a minute. Wait. I looked at the Newport paper. Does Toledo have a paper? I don’t even know. Let’s go back.” He could hear the excitement rising in his own voice, and he couldn’t help it. “What if there’s a dumb little Toledo paper that was too stupid to know it wasn’t supposed to print the whole story?”
Gridley got caught up in it, and actually came in to the library himself. The librarian looked up in shock, appeared ready to bolt for the back door, as the kid with wild eyes who had just left returned with a big guy without a face, neither of whom she’d ever seen before. There was a Toledo paper, a thin little rag with smudged type.
And on the second page of eight, at the bottom: “House Damaged in Newport.” A fire of unknown origin, damage not given, police and fire department were investigating. There was a credit line to the reporter for the Newport News who had written it, but had not seen it printed in Newport. Then, at the bottom: “The owners of the house, Chief Boatswain’s Mate (ret) Henry and Mrs. Burma Distelfink, were flown to Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis for observation.”
Oh, there it was! Marcus’s eyes filled with tears, and life returned to his heart. “Oh, man.” The librarian was looking at them with eyes like portholes from the far corner of the checkout counter. He looked at her and grinned, with wet eyes. “My mom’s all right. My dad’s all right.” She wanted to be frightened, but she wanted to believe that something really nice had happened, too, and her face was flicking on and off like somebody playing with a light switch. “It’s OK, ma’am. It’s really OK.” Finally, she smiled back, nervously. “That’s nice,” she said.
Gridley told him to stay put and he’d go do a little recon in town. It was now late morning, and Gridley wanted a full visual before calling anybody. In a town the size of Newport, locals’ cars were a fixed, known quantity, and tourists’ cars, with or without California gold-on-black plates, stood out as if they had flashers on the roof. Spotting two large younger men as described by Marcus shouldn’t be that difficult. Unfortunately, that applied to Gridley’s truck, too, might as well have his name printed in block letters on the doors. So Gridley said he’d go in alone, stop to buy bread and milk or something like that you’d routinely run out of.
Maybe a third of the Newport and Toledo cops were ex-Coasties, most having been in long enough to have gotten out with some kind of retirement pay. As Gridley told Marcus, it sat wrong that there were two guys running around at an emergency scene playing cowboy with loaded weapons, with no notice paid by police, maybe even cool with the police.
In Newport, bribes and buy-offs meant that a crabber would walk a couple of crates of bubbling, clacking and thoroughly upset Dungeness crab to the cook at the station, to make sure that everybody drinking coffee on the mess deck would remember who their buddy was the next dark and stormy night. Smugglers, criminals, secret agents, and foreign operatives dropping pouches of gold coins on scarred wooden desks and making anonymous deposits in offshore bank accounts were a whole different matter, not part of Lincoln County culture, certainly.
So, recon first. Before he left, Gridley handed Marcus two slim, hard cylinders with an outer layer of kraft paper, sealed at each end with a ring of tape, each the diameter of a Number One pencil and the length of a library card. “Those are two rolls of five fifties. Stick one in each shoe.”
Marcus watched the tailgate of the Dodge float off into the pine gloom. He went back in, locked the door, and watched Gridley’s little black-and-white TV for a while. He made a peanut butter sandwich, and another. Finally, on a full stomach, he was settled down enough to lie down. Marcus crashed hard.
When Marcus woke, the one window in the cabin was dark. He had no idea what time it was or what woke him up. He cleaned up and got dressed, and made a peanut butter sandwich. He went to the front door eating the sandwich to see if anything was going on.
He stepped out on the stoop and four headlights lit him up. Something hit him hard from the side and carried him off the stoop into gravel. Wordlessly, two big faceless shapes wrapped his wrists and ankles in duct tape and threw a loop around his mouth.
“Pat him down,” one said.
“Shut the fuck up, Dick Tracy,” said the other, annoyed, and patted him down. “Nothing.”
After a minute, the other came back out. “Oh, yeah. Two rifles, two pistols and a flare gun.”
“Leave ‘em. The Georgian’ll give us all the firepower we need.”
“Would you just shut the fuck up? Christ. Shell Scott with the cramps.”
The first guy grunted, still justified.
Marcus was quickly trussed further, with a double length of twisted duct tape running from his ankles to his wrists like a handle. They lifted him straight up and strolled over to a huge hulking Pontiac 2+2, with Marcus toted like a Parcel Post package. They threw him in the back, his nose jammed into the crack between the seat back and cushion, in a scatter of soda straw wrappers and pop tops. The driver, back behind the wheel, kicked the 421 into life. He came over the seatback and jammed a grim cold pistol that smelled of machine oil into Marcus’ ear. Over the deep bass burble of the exhausts he heard the passenger say calmly, “Tell him the truth, Boron.”
“Move and you die,” Boron said, and threw something like a blanket over him.
Boron blipped the throttle and lurched out the road through the pines in first gear. When he turned toward the beach he chunked the Hurst shifter into second, and when he turned left down 101 the blue vinyl-padded interior exploded. The noise of the exhaust and the howl of the Posi-Trac kept growing, from impressive to awesome to authentically frightening, and above his terror, Marcus wished he could get his face out of the pleated vinyl just to see the landscape whipping past.
The 2+2 jumped and lurched drunkenly as the driver banged the shifter from third into fourth, and then Boron really got on it, and the back end started to walk from side to side under the massive load of torque still left in top gear, Wide Oval tires crying angrily. Marcus heard a deep-throated “Ob-scene!” from the front seat, the roar leveled out, and they settled into a rough, rolling, one-car chase down the coast highway.
That was the end of it for two hours. The grumble of the monstrous 421 in the nose of the car swelled and retreated, swelled and retreated.
Tuesday, June 27
Somewhere down the road they stopped for gas, likely Coos Bay. Nobody peered in and rapped on the glass to inquire about the body in the back seat. Inside the car, no one spoke. When they could get it, the two thugs played music from the piss-ant stations on the coast, cursing at the country crap, limp pop, and Orben-book wit. At one point Marcus smelled sandwiches. After several hours, two gas stops, and no break for him, Marcus peed himself.
From time to time, Boron and the other guy, whom Boron had addressed as what sounded like “J. K.”, chunked an empty beer can off the back of his head. Between the noise and his slowly drying jeans and simple fear, Marcus stayed wide awake throughout the ride, and he really needed to sleep. His head hurt and buzzed.
J. K. and Boron didn’t say much. After interminable hours of driving, the car did stop, both doors opened and closed with a slam, and Marcus started to shake. His ears rang. J. K. assured somebody that, “I got it.” In a couple of minutes, the doors opened again and they took off. J. K. and Boron spent several miles discussing the whiz they’d just taken.
More hours of being transported like mail, half in and out of sleep now, and it came to Marcus that he could see. The geeks were silent, but there wasn’t any snoring, so both were apparently awake.
The Pontiac slammed to a stop and Boron shouted, “Goddammit! Missed the bastard!”
J. K. sounded deeply irritated: “You didn’t miss a fuckin’ thing. Keep going.”
“Fuck you.” And Boron backed up hard with everything in the suspension whining and clunking, and turned sharply, probably onto another highway, since he immediately was back to warp speed.
“Hey, numb nuts, you turned off our highway.”
“I did like hell. That Georgian asshole said he was on 1. We were on 101.”
“You’re fucked up. Not 1, 101, all the way into San Francisco then over to the beach.”
“It isn’t ‘One-oh-one, fartknocker. It’s ‘one.’ ‘One.’ See? ‘One.’” Marcus presumed he held up a finger. “One.” “Oh.” Made a zero? “One. One-oh-one. One’s skinny, one’s fat. J. H. Christ.”
In half a mile they crossed a bridge over a serious little river.
“See, nothing to it.”
In three miles the road doubled back on itself and started upward. And began to twist, as badly as before. Marcus had a vague babyhood memory of his grandma driving the edge of a shovel into a big black snake, right behind the head, making the snake’s hopelessly wounded body whip frantically, pinned remorselessly and thrashing hopelessly. The Pontiac felt like that.
He could sense Boron, unseen, working the gas pedal and the brake, making the tires squeal and the springs roll, and still they seemed to go side to side as much as they went forward. Boron sounded like he was being violated with a broom handle. J. K. told him repeatedly to cool it. Boron would respond that he should go fuck himself, the car would heave, and every few minutes Boron would emit another long string of violent obscenities, though he kept pushing on. Marcus could smell the funk rising from Boron’s exertion and anger.
They reached the ocean in less than half an hour. Running south, inland of the ocean a little way, the road stretched out, rose and fell less, but twisted almost as much. Boron began to curse again, earnestly, as the Pontiac, filling most of its lane, broke out to the edge of a cliff and now ran high and low, accompanied by the smell of salt water and damp blacktop, sometimes with guard rail and sometimes without. He was furious that in his line of sight across the right front fender, he couldn’t see anything except fog, right in his face, and glimpses of deep ocean—how the fuck was he supposed to keep this waddling piece of turkey shit on the fucking road and out of the fucking ocean if he fucking couldn’t see where the fucking blacktop stopped?
Occasionally they hit a patch that let J. K. speed up smoothly. Boron said less and less. He muttered, “Goddam fog,” at one point.
They stopped at Bodega Bay for gas, after a quick pull-over to throw Marcus in the back.
In the huge, black, loud cavern of the Pontiac’s trunk, dominated by the rubbery smell of the gigantic spare, it occurred to Marcus that he was extraordinarily ticked off. He needed to “deal with life,” as his father called it. He’d been strapped up for about eight hours with maybe four or five turns of duct tape around him, and now that he could operate with impunity, he flexed his hands to take up the slack. He brought his hands back together, and, yes, there was slack, and plenty of it.
“I can get out of this,” Marcus thought.
The geeks hadn’t bothered to search him, because they were idiots and probably because they had found plenty of weapons in Gridley’s little house and none obvious on him. In the bottom of the deep white cotton pockets of his jeans, tucked in the seam, he still had the slim, stainless-steel jackknife his father referred to as a castrating knife. And the two tight rolls of bills he’d gotten from the Gridley were still in his shoes.
The only thing in the entire universe that he had to occupy his time right now was to work more slack into the duct tape, and it helped that he was starting to sweat from the heat coming through the floor of the trunk.
The end of the ride from Newport came quickly. The Pontiac came to some town, slowed, stopped, slowed, stopped, turned, turned, and finally stopped with the engine stilled and ticking away heat. The trunk popped open and Marcus got what he wanted, a quick, clear look at the trunk mechanism. The goons hauled him out into foggy daylight and dropped him on his side, on a lush green lawn.
A medium-sized guy, kind of dark-skinned, with a pouchy face, sandy, curly hair and a big darker mustache, wearing a long-sleeve white shirt open to the second button, and comfortable-looking khaki pants, stood over him, looking glumly at this mess Boron and J. K. had dumped in his front yard.
“What the hell is this?” he said, almost under his breath.
The two jerks looked a little surprised. “It’s Distelfink’s kid.”
“Well, that means we’ve got his kid. So, like, we’ve got him in our pocket.”
“We already have him in our pocket,” the older man said. “Weight this down with something and throw it off the fucking bridge.” To Marcus’ surprise the man made eye contact with him. He might as well have been looking into the eyes of a bronze statue in the park.
“What bridge?” said J. K., with his palms up questioningly.
The man stared at him for a second, then pointed in some direction, whether north, south, or east unknowable to Marcus because the fog hid the sun. The man turned on his heel and walked back towards a modest white stucco house in the center of the lot, surrounded by bright green, impenetrable shrubbery. His head was slumped and his hands were in his pockets, all the weight of having to deal with a world full of simpletons, day after day after day, sitting on his shoulders, dragging him down.
Boron and J. K. looked at each other, then split for the garage to look for something heavy to tie to Marcus to ensure that he would quickly sink to the bottom of whatever it was they were going to throw him in. Marcus got a glancing look at two or three large guys standing quietly around the car.
Now the two geeks came back with a couple of twenty-five-pound iron weights from a barbell set and some line. When the large guys saw what they were carrying, two of them said, “Hey!” and stepped forward. J. K. stopped dead and looked at them. They backed off. Marcus wondered what Boron and J. K. were, knew, or had in their pockets to get away with that.
J. K. tied a weight to each of Marcus’ bound ankles with a round turn and two half-hitches. “Wrong knot, asshole,” he thought. Then they dumped him back in the trunk, the weights landed on Marcus’ legs, and he screamed behind the duct tape over his mouth.
Neither J. K. nor Boron seemed particularly upset that they’d driven all night to deliver an unwanted package. Probably it all paid the same. Marcus got the sense that there was some reason they hadn’t tried to call ahead. It also seemed that although the older guy, whom he assumed was “the Georgian,” said they’d wasted their time, that they had not, in his opinion, screwed up, and if anything he was grudgingly appreciative of their effort.
Without any farewells, they pulled out of the driveway and rumbled and lurched out of whatever town they’d come through. Boron opened it up, the exhaust boomed once again, and they drove hard into the still-foggy morning.
Marcus had no idea how far it was to “the bridge,” but he was going to be out of the trunk at the first opportunity. He worked his left hand free enough to get the castrating knife out, then quickly slit and shed the duct tape, cut the clothesline holding the weights, and felt around in the dark for the lock mechanism for the trunk.
The Pontiac climbed, they leaned left, right, back and forth and again, as they accelerated into a long snake of fast curves, and within minutes Boron pulled over hard to the right, off blacktop and skidding in dirt. He started yelling at J. K. “This is not fucking happening!” He jumped out, slamming the huge door, the bang accentuated by the slant of the car, from left down to right.
J. K. was out of the car, his door closing with little more than a click. “What is your major malfunction, moron? Let’s get the fuck out of here, lose the punk, and get back to civilization fast, for Christ’s sake!”
“No fucking way am I putting up with this horsecock again! I just spent twenty hours fighting this fruit scooter through sports-car jack-off heaven, and I don’t need five minutes more of this bullshit! Look at this. Goddamit! We’ve still got fog up the ass, no rail on my blind side again, no way to see the edge of the fucking road again, and now we’re not five hundred feet in the air, we’re five thousand feet in the air, and I’m supposed to keep this goddam dump truck on a road that’s slippery as fuck, with no kind of shoulder, or stripe, or jake squat! I call bull shit!”
J. K. told him again to calm down, for Christ’s sake, he sounded like a cat with its ass caught in a door.
Boron’s voice kept rising, and Marcus thought he sounded like this time he was really ready to go over the falls. “You like this chickenshit test-track masturbating-monkey bullshit so goddam much, you drive, dickface! That shithead Georgian knew about this and thought it was funny as fuck! That hairy faggot is standing there right now, laughing like fuck!”
J. K.‘s voice came in calmer and lower, by a significant margin. “You want to tell him that yourself? You want to tell him that, ass-eyes? He can probably hear us right now, stupid. We’re up in the air with nothing between him and us like a damn broadcast tower.”
J. K.‘s voice began to rise. “Say it louder. Honk the fucking horn, why don’t you? Flash the lights. You want to tell him when he comes driving up the hill with a couple of those Russian faggots along, to find out what’s going on?” He lowered his voice and hissed, “You think that creepy bastard can’t read fucking minds?”
To Marcus it sounded like they were moving a little further from the car. He couldn’t count on any better than this. If they were next to a cliff, he’d go over the side, the way he and Syl had done lots of times in Newport, sliding, skidding and jumping down to the water, counting on their skinny kid bodies to not fall too hard. If not, he was fully prepared to use the castrating knife to cut and strip the ignition wires and hot-wire the Pontiac, an important skill taught him by a New Jersey SN named Marchesini.
He quietly popped the trunk and climbed out in a full crouch, and closed it by leaning on it gently with his full weight, snick. Boron and J. K. were way over there, J. K. trying to get Boron to calm down enough to either get back in the car and drive, or let him drive, but for Christ’s sake stop shrieking like a little bitch.
Both driver’s side windows, front and back, were open, with no center post to get in the way. Marcus went in headfirst through the long, pillarless arch of the open window without opening the door. And Boron, he saw, had left the keys in the switch.
Precisely conscious of every minute movement he made, like everything was happening on a city sidewalk in bright sunlight at high noon, he barely nudged the throttle as he twisted the ignition key, because he wanted zero time elapsed to get rolling, but if he got nothing else he wanted ever for the rest of his life, he wanted to not, under any circumstances, panic, put his foot to the floor in his sincere desire to get the hell out of there, and have the beastlike torque of the 421 spinning him around in the sand on the edge of a thousand-foot cliff with no guardrail, with him sawing back and forth on to the skinny steering wheel, inviting death in so many different ways.
He focused hard out the windshield and saw the blind, boiling curtain of fog coming over the edge of the blacktop, and the way south diving off to the left from the pullout, and in a state of absolute fear and urgent need he eased forward, quick and slow at the same time. Boron and J. K. stood maybe two hundred feet away, at the foot of a dirt path going out on the promontory overlooking the Pacific where they’d stopped.
“Hey!” said Boron, head coming up like a startled ostrich, in the offended tone of an old guy watching a couple of kids strolling through his flower garden. “Hey!” J. K. broke towards the car and ran at top speed to intercept, but he overran his own feet in the sand and stumbled forward to his hands and knees. Boron just stood there, in towering disbelief at seeing what he could not possibly be seeing.
Marcus heard him yell again, fading quickly as the Pontiac reached blacktop, “Hey, goddam it, I said ‘Hey’!” and Marcus was gone. After his first spurt of good luck, he now lurched and braked, lurched and braked into the first curve inward to the cliff, trying in panic to learn how to keep the biggest and most bizarrely and uncontrollably powerful vehicle he’d ever even pretended to drive from going over the invisible edge, down to the rocks, or, maybe just as bad, into the narrow and deep trench of mud between the edge of the road and the cliff, to be irrecoverably immobilized.
He saw immediately what had been driving Boron to sulfurous vulgarity: the thrust of the sculptured right fender and the improbable meanness of his lane blinded him from any sense whatsoever of where his right wheel might possibly be relative to the edge of the cliff, a thousand feet of air above the rocks holding back the ocean. On the driver’s side, he could see his limits only too well. He kept wandering uncontrollably over the intermittent white stripe separating him from the safety, comfort, and beckoning acceptance of the lane against the cliff. All he could do was slow down to where he could keep glancing back and forth, going from looking straight down out of his window to keep the white line just visible, and quickly forward to keep the next curve in sight.
He knew that J. K. and Boron had at least one gun with them, and could absolutely be counted on to hijack the next vehicle that came up the slope to come after him, and that his five-to-ten-to-five-to-ten-mile-an-hour pace wasn’t going to cut it. His only source of hope was that when J. K. commandeered a ride, he would be as bad off as Marcus was, substituting anger for Marcus’ fear, and that in his rage he would lurch forward in a stolen, unfamiliar car in a red haze, panic as the right front tire bit the edge of the road, slam on the brakes, repeat, repeat, repeat, with Boron’s knuckles getting whiter and whiter. If guardian angels did exist, he could hope that his would whisper in Boron and J. K.‘s ears to wave over that first vehicle up the slope, whatever it might be, even if it were too big, too small, too decrepit, or too unfamiliar.
Now he came up on the first really deep dive into a ravine running down the cliff, and he sobbed for breath as he sped up down the short straight, snapped back out toward the cliff in the middle of the hairpin, and lost the back end. He was saved only because the tail slid into the other lane, downslope, into the safety of the crotch of the hairpin, but as he wrestled the Pontiac back into shape a Ford Consul, with the entire roof torched off and four startled-looking white people aboard, came popping over the crest of the next outside curve, and they yelled at him as he went past.
God, what was this road? He had never seen anything like it, insane, a pinball game, where the only moment of peace was when you came off a point and slid down into the inside corner, and the driver of every car coming the other way glared at you with icy fury for trying to take the whole lane. Oregon had beach cliffs and places where 101 ran along them, but this was nothing like those, this was outrageous, impossible, and Marcus could not believe that there were not dead hulks of unlucky kemps lining the base of the cliff along this entire stupid road.
But he had no alternatives, did he? Forward, and keep it moving.
Once he rode with his father (against all regulations, but who would complain?) in the thirty-six-footer, belted in with an aircraft harness and standing up behind the exposed wheel bulkhead, and he and his father and an EN3 went out to play in the surf. They cleared the bar and hooked south into the break, and the bow of the thirty-six-footer soared vertically as they rode up the face of a huge wave. His father slammed the box into reverse and full-throttled the patient little GM diesel to get them going backwards fast as they could, to let the wave crest pass under them, then full forward to ride gracefully on the gently curving back of the wave.
Three steps forward and two steps back, but his father kept the bow above water and maintained complete control of the boat. And that’s how you play in the surf. The initial lurch skyward was more frightening than anything Marcus had ever encountered, and more perfectly frightening than anything he had ever imagined, and as they rose and fell with every wave, the rocks of the jetty loomed directly to his left, infinitely threatening and unforgiving.
But after the fifth or sixth wave, Marcus went to a strange new place, where he knew with perfect certainty that he was going to die, however pleasantly his father and the EN might chat with each other, just loud enough to be heard over the surf and the diesel’s growl. That evolved quickly to a new recognition that, die or not, it was unquestionably true that he was going to be completely unable to do anything about the outcome.
Which left him curiously at peace with the universe. Fear and screaming and wetting his pants might well be understandable reactions to the events at hand, but they were also completely irrelevant to the outcome of the events at hand.
And that recognition gave birth to a new, almost pleasing thought: since he was going to either die or not die in the next few moments without any say in the matter, he could, without feeling foolish, go ahead and keep his eyes open, not shriek like a lumber mill saw, and check out the action.
Here on the cliff road, he had no real alternative to continuing as he was except suicide. Suicide could mean going over the cliff or it could mean letting himself be caught. His only other choice was to stay on the road and push the Pontiac as fast as he was able, to give him even a chance of not being overtaken, caught, and thrown off a bridge somewhere up the road, which he had come to suspect strongly was the Golden Gate.
So his eyes opened wide, his shoulders unknotted one notch, and his breathing actually slowed. His hands dried and he almost took pleasure in the rhythm of brake, clutch, downshift, slow, accelerate, brake, clutch, downshift, slow, accelerate, speeding up as he got better, each cycle more precise than the last time. When he finally broke free and shot inland, he was almost ready to try one more curve.
But not really.
Decades later, he came back and drove from San Francisco north to Stinson Beach, and was shocked to find that the endless twisting run along the cliffs was no more than five miles, and the easier descent ahead to what he discovered was Sausalito no more than another five.
Today, going the other way, he suddenly found himself transitioned quickly from tiptoeing along the edge of a cliff to speeding through a bunch of tired little houses. They looked like the shacky little beach cottages in Newport or Toledo, but gayer, painted in two dozen colors, with more paper carp and peace symbols, and much cooler vehicles parked out on the street. Coast 1 became a city street that twisted around pointlessly. Without warning, the road tee’d into another running along an inland body of water, with a sign pointing to San Francisco and a second sign that said he was going to intersect with Highway 101. He wanted absolutely nothing to do with Highway 101 or anything else called a highway. He wanted to stay on side roads and stay anonymous until he could ditch the Pontiac.
So he looked for any cutback, any escape route, any gap to dive into the briar patch, to defeat pursuit in some snarled wad of cramped residential streets where only an improbability of chance would bring him to face the geeks. He had a huge disadvantage in that he had no idea of what they’d be driving, while they knew exactly what he was driving; all he could do was watch drivers and passengers as cars passed by, and force himself to ignore grilles and sheet metal.
If he came on one long, straight shot of road, just five or ten miles to unleash the Pontiac would be all he’d need. He couldn’t imagine how fast this thing might go, but in a matter of minutes he would surely open an unpredictably large gap on his unseen pursuers. Wound out in fourth, they would have to have jacked up a Corvette, a Maserati, or an F-4B to have even a chance of catching him.
Right now, he was turned down an eccentric alley of lumpy blacktop, twisting chutes of stones marking the boundaries of tiny front yards with untrimmed bushes, and strange and wonderful vehicles parked wherever they might fit. He had no place to go except carefully forward, watching for kids. The two jerks could pop up in his rear view mirror at any moment with guns blazing, but the odds had to be better for him in a place like this, which didn’t go from anywhere to anywhere, than on the open highway.
The gas gauge was sinking under his nervous touch, and he was starving and smelled bad. So it was time to deal with life, again.
Marcus needed a map. He had plenty of cash for the first time in his life, and an insanely powerful new car. Under the circumstances it was a terrific start, so it was time to build on that.
He combed his hair with his fingers, straightened his reeking clothes, and looked for a gas station. He tried to guide on the sun and head as straight east as he could, although guiding on the sun and heading straight anywhere were both pretty meaningless concepts in Sausalito. He finally saw a Flying A station at an anonymous intersection, and told the aging teenager pumping gas to top it off with premium. He got a California map from the rack inside the front door, and let the pump jockey show him where they were on a big local map tacked on the wall. A plaster bank of the Flying A’s mascot basset hound stared at him from the counter.
The guy would have happily talked to him all afternoon to stay close to the Pontiac, having gotten the hood up almost before the car stopped rolling, ostensibly to check the oil but really to ogle the giant Tri-Power 421 as if it were life-threatening cleavage. Marcus finally broke loose and headed south towards what he now knew were the Golden Gate and San Francisco, having promised to return again and again for gas and oil and air for the tires and antifreeze and maps, and to give this Flying A station all his automotive custom forever and ever.
Best he could figure, he should get lost in San Francisco for a few days and then slip out by some side door to—what?
Marcus suddenly took the full weight of his impossibly scattered situation. He lost the head of steam he’d built up in escaping the jerks. He pulled over on the shoulder and just stopped. He was done. He got out and spread-eagled on his back on the hot hood.
Under his spine, the engine clicked and gurgled as it cooled. The sky was blue and foggy at the same time, and Marcus no longer cared if the geeks were right behind him, on their way to Vegas, or drowning in their own blood from punctured lungs, at the bottom of a cliff, with seawater rising in their car.
A shitbird wheeled over him and squawked. After a bit, a car pulled up behind him. It was a 1954 Plymouth Cranbrook four-door, once maroon, with several heads bobbing around inside. The doors all opened at once, and a straggle of younger teenagers climbed out. They looked around or straight out or down, some talking to each other, some just talking. Several looked at Marcus, then looked at the next thing they looked at.
They weren’t wearing the hippie clothes that had started showing up on teenagers in news stories Marcus has seen about San Francisco, but they weren’t dressed for school, either. Most of the boys’ hair was still relatively short, but combed forward. The girls’ hair was all straight and long.
They wore jeans, tees, varied attempts at randomness and resourcefulness and diverse invention. They wore buttons with things written on them, a short-lived artifact of this time. There were peace symbols in a dozen media, some of the group wore sandals, the boys still mostly wearing belts with shirts tucked in.
Now a greenish VW bus pulled up in front of the Pontiac. More people got out. More people looked at him, and looked, not really away, but further on. People from the Plymouth drifted towards people from the VW. Another two cars, one perhaps an Opel, perhaps a Vauxhall, pulled up behind the Plymouth.
Two girls from the bus wandered in his direction with a huge bag of potato chips, and Marcus was afraid he’d burst into tears. “Hi,” one said, not too sure of what Marcus’ expression meant. It was a nice afternoon and the sky was very high and open right above them, with a looming cliff of fog to the west. Marcus was completely lost and off home turf, desperately cut off from everything familiar, and somehow he felt safe and confident with these two girls he didn’t know. At minimum, he believed that they would not seize the first opportunity that presented itself to knock him down and throw him in the back of a fast car. Past that, there seemed the possibility that they might offer him potato chips.
His mouth opened, and he started saying things without thinking, which was nothing like his usual. He was terribly conscious of the fact that the front of his jeans was stiff with dried pee.
“I haven’t eaten anything in two days,” he said, to these two young girls he didn’t know. The taller, more mature-looking one said, kind of dubiously, that, well, that really sucked, she guessed. The shorter, rounder-faced one, who appeared no older than thirteen, looked stricken. She grabbed the chips and almost ran over to him.
Without preamble, she asked, “What’s the matter, really? It sounds like more than you’re hungry. And you’ve got a really cool car.” Holding it at the bottom, she shook the open bag at him, openly indicating he should take some chips. Her friend looked at her and nudged her admonishingly. “OK, the car’s kind of fascist.” But she looked back at her friend, waving her hand at the contoured sheet metal, and said, defiantly, “It’s nonlinear.”
“I’m getting hassled by two jocks,” said Marcus. “They’ve got guns.” That brought a huge frown from both girls. “They want to throw me off the Golden Gate Bridge. Really.” Through a mouthful of chips he said, “Thank you very much.”
That convinced the older girl that he was nice, as well as hungry, and a boy. So she told the younger, “Go get Burdon.” That one ran off like a little girl, arms pumping, the soles of her feet kicking up behind her almost to her waist, her head tossing from side to side.
She returned with a guy in his mid-twenties with long enough sandy, curly hair to show that he’d been growing it more than the month or two most of the other guys had been. He was short, but with a thick neck, small waist, and big hands. He was wary of Marcus and any game he might be running on the girls.
Marcus told him what he’d told the girls. Burdon wanted to know why he was being hassled by two jocks with guns. Marcus said, pointing behind him, “That’s their car. They threw me in the trunk to jack me around. I got out.” Burdon nodded, that being really as much as he needed to know. Liberating material things from oppressive jock asshole bullies was cool.
Marcus continued. “They tried to kill my family and burned down my house in Newport, in Oregon. They wrapped me in duct tape and threw me in the back of that tank, and drove me all the way down the coast. I cut myself loose and got away and stole their car while they were jerking each other off. Stupid fucks left the keys in the ignition.”
Marcus heard himself talking from a distance. He heard words coming straight out of his mouth, and language that sounded like he thought he was a senior on the football team. He sounded to himself like he didn’t care whether this guy Burdon believed him or not. He also had a powerful instinctive feeling that it would be best for him to continue to speak like this with Burdon at all times. Burdon would be scary to deal with if you tried to be slick with him, Marcus thought.
Burdon looked at him with understanding, psychotic eyes. “And you can’t call the pigs.”
“And I can’t call the pigs.”
Burdon broke into a conspiratorial grin. “Far fuckin’.” Marcus found that Burdon never finished the phrase, and said, “Far fuckin’,” a lot. Burdon spun ‘round and walked away, talking, giving instructions and marking out what was going to happen in the next few hours, not able to even consider the possibility that Marcus might not follow. He and Marcus joined the group.
Burdon’s crew was already fully encamped. They took a huge crock of warm cooked brown rice out of the van, wrapped in an old comforter. Within a short time, Marcus had a big bowl of brown rice, enough to stuff a floor pillow, and was now shot of his salt-and-urine-stained jeans and underwear, and sat with the bowl in his lap and a towel wrapped around his loins.
One of the girls rinsed the jeans out in a bucket of water and carefully hung them up on a piece of string inside the VW bus to dry, so that Marcus could give them, down the road, to somebody who needed them. His story had already gone around the now-mixed assemblage, and the entire group was intent on supporting Marcus in achieving a new identity. Having demonstrated his Buddha nature by not clinging to his possessions, or at least those the group knew of, he was freely given another pair of jeans, out of a communal pile, that was just a little big and had a beautiful cluster of brilliant red poppies embroidered on the left thigh, and a white T-shirt in pretty good shape that said, “MALONEY CEMENT” in blue block letters on the front.
Two of the girls had gotten locked into the words, “Maloney Cement” while sharing dope, and repeated, “Maloney Cement,” back and forth to each other, for twenty minutes in every possible variation of tone, tempo, and timbre.
That evening, Marcus passed every joint and pipe that had been handed him, still not willing to do get involved with anything that changed his head. Even with a little explanation about his Dad, there was a wash of light discomfort in the combined group from his hanging back. But his acceptance of everything around him without criticism was perceived as genuine, reinforced by his not bugging the girls and not staring at their boobs. The group found his story, as it came out piece by piece, believable and involving.
Two girls decided he was cute and needed to be fixed up, which was in total harmony with the group-mind’s support of Marcus; they were helping with his disguise to escape the pigs. So they played Ginny dolls with Marcus’ hair. He became a blond, with a headband and granny glasses.
One of the others came by, Maria, a crazy-eyed, dark-complected, sharp-faced woman with a huge mass of black glossy hair, black-soled bare feet, and ankle bracelets, who seemed to be Burdon’s traveling companion. Maria referred to herself in the first and third person as the Dancing Witch, and Marcus heard her through the evening tell her listeners how much she liked something by asserting that she would “suck cock” for it. She would suck cock for blond hash, she would suck cock for a cigarette, she would suck cock for an end to the Vietnam War. She seemed to prefer to talk to men.
When she left the company of the men for a moment, she stopped where Marcus was getting his hair done, and she softened a bit when she saw what they were about. She took time to tell a little story about her favorite stuffed animal when young, a big cartoony lion named Lioney, with a full, pretty mane. As a five-year-old, she’d taken a pair of snub-nosed paper scissors and happily trimmed Lioney’s mane into a wonderful new pixie hair style one afternoon. She said she’d cried horribly when her surprisingly non-critical parents had gently explained that Lioney’s mane wasn’t ever going to grow back like hers did. “I loved Lioney,” she told them. She teased Marcus and the girls by calling him Lioney and asking if they wanted her to go get her scissors.
Then Maria withdrew back into the persona of The Dancing Witch, and left them to return to the men.
Wednesday, June 28
For breakfast, they finished up the brown rice, with a little honey and not enough milk. The encampment settled on the plan for the day. Burdon approached Marcus about swapping the Pontiac for the VW bus, which was perfectly fine with Marcus. Burdon knew about the two jocks who were looking for the Pontiac, and that seemed to make him happier about the exchange; he acted like he enjoyed confrontation.
This morning, the now-blond Marcus wore a complete change of clothes, a headband and granny glasses, and would leave driving a 1962 VW van the color of a 7-Up bottle that had spent a couple months in the surf. Somehow he ended up as the sole occupant of the bus, which made no sense whatsoever in terms of rational resource utilization, but everyone else seemed happy about the rearrangement of bodies in vehicles. Several people moved from one vehicle to another. In the middle of the night, two guys joined the group in an old red MGA, and were the only ones who left in what they arrived in.
Marcus even had an additional roll of fives, tens, and twenties in one pocket. Burdon had just laid off a couple of bricks of low-grade boo to some friends on the beach, and was feeling exceptionally mellow, expansive, and in a sharing mood. He seemed eager to take command of the Pontiac, and he and his compadres were completely cool with shucking the hipness and practicality of the VW and throwing some cash Marcus’ way on top of it. Very quietly and privately, he asked Marcus how fast that thing really was.
“You will freak. You will literally freak,” he said.
Burdon grinned widely and cut his eyes to Marcus while remaining turned towards the Pontiac. “You wouldn’t jerk me around about that, right?”
“I only drove it about ten or fifteen miles, but it really feels like they kept that beast just perfect. What’s the fastest thing you’ve ever driven?”
Burdon thought about it. “Well, a buddy’s…” and Marcus interrupted, “This is faster than that.” They both laughed, but Marcus told him to run it to the end of the block if he doubted it. Burdon considered it long and hard, and then said, “Heh heh.” Marcus never heard anybody say that outside of a cartoon. He suspected that Burdon did believe him and didn’t want to draw any more attention than his little group already head. He also suspected Burdon was planning some event for which a vehicle with a top speed in excess of a hundred and thirty miles per hour would be useful. He wasn’t about to ask.
Burdon, two other guys, and Maria were now the four fastest hippies in the state of California, proud owners, or at least the uncontested occupants, of a Pontiac 2+2 with a Tri-Power 421, no hubcaps, and peace signs painted white on black on the wheels like imitation mags. They’d popped off all the Pontiac and 2+2 and 421 emblems and covered the holes with vinyl flower appliqués, and painted one perfectly sound fender in grey primer for camouflage. Maria painted the swirling legend, “The Crystal Ship,” in decently-done white psychedelic lettering across the rear quarter and over the trunk.
Burton’s story was that their plan was to blow through San Francisco and head for Monterey, for no reason they cared to share. Burdon did say that they would finance their wanderings by parking the Crystal Ship somewhere where tourists gathered, maybe Monterey Harbor, decorate it further, and then demand that straight people give them money to take its picture. Maria was prepared to do a hippie dance on the hood to enhance their prospects.
The Cranbrook, for some reason, ended up with six people inside, then seven, when they picked up a hitchhiker on their way out of the encampment. Completely without adornment, with weather-checked wide whitewalls and the original factory hubcaps, but it had a kind of attitude-free, sturdy, loyal-servant look and was pointed directly towards Haight Street. Not hip, but headed in the right direction, and ready to serve.
As the assemblage broke up, Marcus heard excited talk about what it would take to form a band or a commune, or a holistic vegetarian veterinary clinic, and all piled into their rides and went off together to seek their destinies.
So, hey, Marcus, back to the highway, throbbing along, alone in a Kombi. Per the map and common opinion within the gathering last night, Marcus just needed to head south. He could take 101 or 1 or whatever else presented itself, as long as he went south. Headed south, he could dive into San Francisco or keep on to Monterey or head for LA or lose himself in the whole rest of the world.
East was Sacramento, universally recognized within the group as a meritless destination, and if he continued east after making that mistake he would inevitably encounter the ball-busting Truckee grade, which, even if one’s ride survived, would put you in Reno. Reno, he learned, had nothing to offer except excitingly cheap breakfast buffets at the casinos. Then desert, endless desert. All agreed you could get your head together in the desert, but maybe it was smarter to get your head together in the desert in October or March than in mid-summer.
Going back north was an option as appealing to Marcus as driving straight west till the bus began to bob gently. One guy reported that if you did head north, there were surviving colonies of beatniks in Portland. Many present appreciated the warning.
Thus, south. And now if the two morons saw him, a blond kid with granny glasses in a hippie bus, so what? They might inquire if he were a boy or a girl, they might yell that he was a fag and wonder aloud if he wanted to suck their dicks, but no way would they recognize the guy they’d thrown in their back seat the night before last, unless and until they got closer than Marcus was likely to let them get.
The morning sun was at his back, the road sloped gently down to the sea in every direction in front of him, four finned, forged-alloy, tin-shrouded, Teutonic cylinders slapped lazily back and forth somewhere under the floor, and his pockets were full of money. The world looked bright and full of promise, at least for a moment or two. Soon enough, black reality would settle back to its perch, tuck its wings, and glare at him, but at that moment it was a nice morning.
One of the Coasties from the Midwest used to talk about any non-specific, ambivalent situation being at least better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Marcus now got that.
Other than its being a Volkswagen bus, his new Volkswagen bus was pretty conservative-looking. Some previous occupant had painted a peace sign in silver over the big VW emblem on the front, without actually removing the VW emblem, which was still painted the color of the body. Marcus liked his new disguise, but would have liked it better if he were even more invisible to the police, as well as to the thugs. He would have no way to explain to police either why he was driving a vehicle for which he had no papers, nor why he had a thick roll of cash on him. He retained his wallet with his dependent’s ID, for what that was worth. He intended to drive exactly at the speed limit and firmly apply his brakes at every yellow light he encountered.
He studied himself in the rear-view mirror, thought about it a bit, and stuck the headband under the driver’s seat. The granny-framed sunglasses would work to fool the two idiot pursuers and maybe not annoy cops too badly, but when combined with the headband, they begged for harassment. His haircut, less than a week old from the barber in Newport, plus the sunglasses would, he hoped, identify him to the police as one more short-haired yutz trying to get laid by presenting himself as a hippie by virtue of wearing a pair of cool sunglasses, kind of like presenting yourself as a cowboy because you had a shirt with pearl snaps for buttons.
He was weirded out by having to watch for cops. Coasties were kind of police, especially when tourists started showing up with bass boats loaded with friends, family and beer in which they intended to cross the bar and go into deep ocean hunting the wily salmon. Coasties handed out tickets, they turned people back, at some stations they pointed guns at bad people and took them into custody. And one of the classic retirement gigs for Coasties was to join a local police force somewhere on the coast.
So Marcus had no underlying problem with cops. But today, after one night of conversation around an invisible campfire, he was fully warned that the police were definitely Them, and contact with Them was to be avoided.
Less than a mile from the coast highway, where the houses and little stores started to cluster and thicken, J. K. and Boron came storming past him up the road in a dark green 1965 Falcon Sprint with what was apparently a cooking 289 under the hood, because they were wound out in second gear and pushing seventy miles an hour in the middle of town, as naturally as if they always did triple the posted limit through densely-populated residential areas.
He got just a flash of their two ugly faces, which bore really grim expressions. He wouldn’t have been sure it was them except that the weak morning sun was directly on them, like a flashbulb that somehow froze on for five seconds. They didn’t even glance in his direction.
Marcus squelched another unwelcome giggle-fit. He reminded himself that there was still an uncomfortably good chance that J. K. and Boron would run into the guys in the Pontiac somewhere down the road. Whatever had been done to it this morning, they couldn’t miss a Fontaine Blue 1967 Pontiac coupe otherwise identical to the one they’d been driving yesterday. Marcus suspected that Burdon would be able to manage the situation without bursting into tears, and even if he were inclined to betray Marcus, there wasn’t much he could give up.
Ultimately, it wasn’t really Marcus’ business any longer.
He hadn’t yet counted how much money he had on him, but it was at least three or four months’ comfortable living, maybe more, and eventually, if he couldn’t handle his inquiry by phone, he should be able to afford to circle back to Newport and find out what had happened to his parents. It was the only plan he could come up with.
So he breathed deeply and slowly through his nose with his lips pressed together. He did that a dozen times till his head cleared completely, and that drove off not only fear but thought. He gave over all volition to his hands and his feet, and watched from a slight remove as the bus beneath and behind him turned once and twice and then on to 101 and 1 South, towards and over the Golden Gate.
On the bridge, he saw the sea, the Bay, Alcatraz, and sailboats.
Past Lime Point, he found himself joined in a swelling stream of Biscaynes, Le Sabres, and Crestlines, and Kombis and vans and Beetles and Karmann-Ghias, a convertible with a surfboard stuck straight up in the air, old round-fendered Chryslers covered with plastic blossoms, Dauphines and Crestas and Wolseley Hornets, four varieties of MG; TR’s and Kapitans, Carryalls and Suburbans, so many with guitars and rolled tents and sleeping bags tied to roof racks, bumpers, and stuck out windows. Something was clearly going on to the south.
He heard music from cars, from storefronts, some without discernible source; now a song he’d heard before was repeated, and another. The VW had an earnest little Sapphire radio with one tinny speaker, and now that he was part of a flow rather than feeling like that rabbit in the middle of an airport runway anymore, he felt safe enough to turn it on.
At one intersection, half a dozen cars with their windows open were tuned to the same station, and he heard the opening licks of an anthem, and he asked the guys in the next car, “What station?” Joining them, he heard “Purple Haze” for the first time, and joined in when everybody started hitting the beat on their car horns, till the light changed and the music scattered.
Inevitably, the bus was sucked down into the vortex of Stanyan Street, and as he crossed Fell and Oak and Page, the crowds of people, like living confetti, thickened traffic to immobility at Haight Street. Giving himself all the time in the universe, he drifted like a chip in a river through the disorder. Lights changed, sometimes horns blew, fog hid and disclosed the sun.
There were people and more people, swarming like the crowd after a football game between opponents from different planets. Girls everywhere, dressed in layers of shirts and parts of old dresses, jackets and vests and miniskirts and boots and sandals and barefoot. Dogs. And guys dressed like the Beach Boys off an album cover, dressed like bootless General Custers, dressed in layers of military uniforms and dressed in ecstatic clothing like the girls’. Marcus put back on his headband.
He stayed with Stanyan till things thinned to where he could see an occasional opening at the curb. Marcus finally rolled through one intersection and lucked out on a car pulling out right in front of him, at the near corner. He slid gratefully into the space and shut off the thrub-thrub-thrub of the VW engine, and looked around. Even in the noise of traffic and the insane mix of music coming from cars, vans, shopfronts, and sidewalk players, the relative quiet gave him a moment of something like peace.
Inventory, then. The map was, for now, irrelevant. He liked where he was, still in chaos, but without threat or demand, so until something changed he could settle here and worry about escape after.
He wore all the clothes he owned: one complete change, consisting of embroidered jeans, Maloney Cement shirt, issue boxers and stripe-top white socks. He had the surprising rolls of bills from Gridley and Burdon tucked away. No food, no toothbrush.
Behind him somewhere, an indeterminate amount of gas sloshed around in the tank. The inside of the bus was actually clean, not even recent wrappers or empties from anything. There was a registration of some sort in a flexible frame held on the steering column by coiled springs. He really didn’t want to know who supposedly owned the bus or where they lived, so he didn’t look. He had no driver’s license, but his dependent’s ID was intact and secure in his wallet.
Two girls, close cousins to the two who first approached him in Sausalito, were drumming lightly with four little fists on the passenger’s door. It made a patter like a couple of overweight cats walking quickly down an uncarpeted hallway towards dinner. The shorter one asked if he was going to Oakland right now, because they needed a ride and had some gas money.
Marcus wanted to sit for a while, so said no, he was going to Sausalito. Both said, “OK cool,” and jumped in, looking past him for a good place to sit. He explained nicely as he could that that was going to be, like, in a couple of days, and he was going to camp here unless he got hassled by the pigs, a useful phrase he’d learned last night from Burdon.
One of the girls was fine with that, as well. She settled in to camp with him, and help out by keeping watch for pigs, while the other looked disappointed and jumped back to the curb. She turned to the first girl and whined, “Come on, Holly, don’t bring me down.” Marcus looked at the girl in the passenger’s seat, maybe a year younger than he, in a gold-flowers-on-brown cotton granny dress that went down to mid-shin, no shoes, her browning legs starting to fuzz up a little.
She had a remarkably unremarkable face except for her intense brown eyes, and said not much at all. They looked into each other’s eyes. He’d never looked into a girl’s eyes before. It became clear to him why that was considered so important. Her mom was a long, long ways away. Behind them, the quiet and privacy of the van stretched on forever.
Marcus took a deep breath and said that her friend didn’t look all that safe out there, and somebody might mess with her if she was by herself. The girl looked at him even more intensely for one more second, suddenly smiled with the corners of her mouth, said, “Yeah,” and jumped out.
Marcus squared around in the seat and found he was breathing strangely as he watched them walk off. He made himself stop thinking about brown legs and golden fuzz, and how this girl he didn’t know had looked right into his eyes and spoken to him like they were both thirty years old and sitting on a couch in her apartment with her roommate gone and a couple of glasses of wine on the coffee table.
He made himself think about the two jerks and how best to deal with his interrupted flight. It was like trying to drive out one song that wouldn’t go out of his head with another even more persistent. On that score, those two would find him only by complete accident among these millions of people and hundreds of miles of streets filled with thousands of cars, remembering that they had no idea what he was driving or even what he looked like right now. Seriously and realistically, he was safe as he could ask for, given the circumstances.
So things were finally turning around. Piece o’ cake. All he needed to do now was find out where his parents were, why they had been attacked, and why the Newport, Oregon police were involved on the side of two gun-toting jerks and a Russian thug from San Francisco. And who the guy in Stinson Beach actually was, not so he could take some sort of kung fu-jujitsu-ninja-karate revenge, but to get as far away from him and stay as far away from him as he possibly could for the rest of his life.
And what had happened to Gridley? Also, where was he going to go next, and where would he spend this night and the night after that?
Behind him was another VW bus, sitting stoically with its right turn signal feebly blinking and its backside sticking into traffic. It had apparently been drawn by his brake lights coming on when he’d stepped on his brake pedal while parked. Actually, Marcus was ready to move somewhere quieter now, so he started his bus, which surprised him by thumping into action on the first try, and pulled out slowly into traffic.
He looked back and made eye contact with the driver of the other bus, and he flashed the guy a grin. The other driver scowled and barked, “Asshole!” out the window, and squirted forward into the vacated space as soon as Marcus gave him the minimum possible clearance.
He wanted to just wander and not pretend he had a plan, and see what happened. He went a little further till he came to 17th Street, turned left because it seemed the right thing to do, and followed it into Market Street, which he’d heard of, and followed that downhill.
Now the green bus was swallowed by a much more serious and purpose-driven armada, of electric buses, real buses, big trucks, trolley cars, delivery trucks, cable cars, and weaving cabs. It was like a mixed cattle drive of longhorns and elephants, oxen and hippopotami, every open space between them filled by Volkswagens, motorcycles, and bicycles, all cut off by people wandering across the street in front of him seemingly at random.
Above and around, a pinball game of flashing, blinking, changing lights of a dozen shades of yellow, green, and red, the predictable basic colors shattered and shifted by time to a light in faded 1948 green competing with bright 1966 red for the affections of 1958 amber, flash flash freeze, cycle again and disappear behind. Underneath the VW’s rayon tires, the pavement turned to treaded metal, cut by grooves and diamonds and four different widths of slot.
There was a certain calming effect in it. Marcus sincerely had no idea where he was going. His bus was happiest moving in this traffic at about double walking speed, which gave him time to think and react. If Market Street had been a glass-like flow of flawless asphalt marked off in lines of angel-fire white, coursing towards the Bay at forty miles per hour, he would have had to break off to catch his breath, then wiggle through side streets.
He felt like one of the taller guys in a still-gathering crowd, jockeying for a good place to view a well-attended hanging. Everyone was kind of going towards the same goal, no one needed to be polite, but no one wanted to actually draw the attention of the Queen’s guards, either.
The buildings got taller. There were some cool-looking old-time movie theaters showing stroke movies and a lot of old movies he wished he could stop and see. He was kept busy driving through traffic that really wasn’t meant for civilians like him to be fooling around in.
Finally, he broke through to the Embarcadero in the watery Wednesday afternoon, and turned left into a space of more formal and focused enterprise and endeavor. Open parking spaces appeared at the curb. There were even open stretches of parking lot as he went further north, an actual vacant lot over across the street, and another. He dove in to one such, stopped the bus again, and finally got to get out and walk around the bus to stretch his legs.
He needed to eat and make plans for the night. No place nearby looked like it wanted to serve him cheap burgers, and it wasn’t nearly quiet enough for a sleep-over. But if a place to sleep was all he had to worry about, it occurred to him that, at least for the next few nights, it really wasn’t a problem, was it?
Because, one more time, he had cash, a lot of it. Not kid money, but enough to get a room in a motel without taking a whole lot of patronizing crap. And then he could go out and sit down in a restaurant and ask a waitress to bring him any food he felt like, and, if she was nice, leave her a tip. He smiled at the image. He liked being financially comfortable.
Wait a minute. He had his own empty VW bus now. He could sleep in that! He could luxe out and buy a sleeping bag for the price of one night in a motel. This whole deal would be really cool, if it wasn’t for the fact that it sucked.
Even here, out of the pulse of traffic, a quiescently-parked VW bus was a magnet to the wandering. Marcus was just getting deep into the important question whether he should go hunt down a burger versus a hot dog, or maybe a giant crab salad if you could get one in San Francisco someplace, when yet another VW bus, mustard-colored this time with a white roof, pulled in behind him.
In the City of God
Marcus watched as three young men and three young women decanted from the new arrival. The tallest young woman spotted him at the wheel and smiled openly, with her lips together. All stretched elaborately, as if they’d just crossed the continent. He popped his door open but stayed inside for the moment, reaching around for a water bottle.
Within only a minute or two, another bus-like vehicle pulled in. Whatever it was actually called, it looked like a cartoon rendition of Reg and Family’s Happy Hols Caravan, all red and cream, and windowed like a Swiss chalet. The driver, with a duck-faced smirk, circled the VW buses politely and halted at the apex of an equilateral triangle with the other two. The onlookers heard snaps unsnapping and catches unlatching within, and the whole misshapen roof creaked and rose an inch from the frame of metal surrounding the windows.
The crew came out, a marvelous stew of kids, a gorgeous blonde, a big surly hunk, the tall guy who was driving, two wild children, and an Afro-American in hippie buckskin. They freed the roof from bondage, and it rose and began to tilt. The two children ran around the bus and doors opened, windows opened, loading doors opened, and a silly hood that looked like the top on an ice chest popped up.
The tall guy bowed to all and the two little girls jumped and clapped. They seemed to have no motive but to celebrate the day, this is what we bring to the dance, what about you?
Marcus finally got out himself, the last to land. The vertically-extensible van drew him. “That’s really, really cool,” he told the tall guy, avoiding eye contact. Eventually he developed the identity of the van as a Bedford Dormobile Romany, from England by way of New York State.
The driver, whose name was Durr, said he’d acquired it in Reno from a Rochesterian couple. There was some complex exchange involving gambling, peace, an all-day breakfast buffet, drugs, and karma. He’d picked up five people on the way down from Reno, who, a little too cleverly, were calling themselves the crew of the HMS Bedford.
While they were all talking, they heard a shout, and two more guys strolled over from a green car, parked a little way away, which was emitting thin streams of grey, black, and white smoke and steam. They seemed friendly enough, and they didn’t act terribly upset about the unexplained little drama behind them.
The parking lot was tucked in a strange place between the Embarcadero, a warehouse, a low cliff, and an empty building of some kind. The sun was on the other side of the Peninsula; a mix of clouds or fog or some other damn thing involving water vapor and cold, wet air kept rolling back and forth overhead. They could see Oakland, for what that was worth.
Anywhere else, the dank, sunless little pocket would have been creepy and unpleasant, unless one had dreamed long of seeing Oakland plain from across the water. But this place where they all stood was San Francisco. And the police were incurious, no one seemed ready to contest their occupancy of the space, and there were fifteen wildly-assorted teenagers wandering about unconfined, with one common characteristic: all had come from hundreds and thousands of miles away, from many different origins, to arrive in San Francisco within minutes of each other. Except for the one too-good-looking guy who looked like he was perpetually catching a whiff of dead mouse, everybody seemed really cool.
Marcus was the only person in the group with a pressing agenda, as far as he could determine, other than getting to San Francisco. Since Marcus’ agenda was simple and defensive in nature, i.e., to not die at the hands of violent morons, it interfered little with the free movement of any of the rest. Thus all could engage in the sublime enterprise of checking each other out, and do that in a city alive with people their own age engaged in the grand adventure of reformulating the conduct of life itself. The sullen handsome guy, whose name turned out to be Tustin, was free to pursue his own goals.
Plans crystallized to travel as a group, and hunt for where the hippies lived.
Marcus and Durr talked of the Bedford. Durr gave him more back story. Marcus really needed to see how the goofy-looking hood arrangement worked to access the engine. They unbuttoned the bonnet, Marcus was properly impressed, and, while bent over the engine and under cover of the raised hood, he could check out the rest of the people milling around the parking lot.
Spider worked through the new people in the group, immediately recognizing that there was little talent and less boo on tap. Maybe the chunky sullen girl, just maybe, but her taller girlfriend was seriously riding the cotton pony. The really tall chick was occupied with Corduroy Boy, looked like their thing was something brand new. And Blondie, well, pretty girl, but she had a drawer full of cleaned and pressed space panties at home, could be no doubt in Spider’s mind.
Kind of strange that between his man Durr, and Dustin or Bustin or whatever the cocksman’s name was, they didn’t have one crooked little jay between them, but he also knew they were absolutely not holding out on him. Spider’s never-failing Reefer Radar told him there was no bud, no weed, no stem, no seed, so think about something else.
He was OK with it for the moment, since other than Stud Man, nobody was copping an attitude and, hey, it was the middle of the afternoon in the City; something good was going to come out of this little camp meeting, he just needed to hook up with the right people. They were mobbed up with transportation, so he could get a ride to wherever he wanted to go.
Durr, Bill and Berry and Larry and David, Ady and Clara and Clarissa and Mulberry Wing, Danielle and Gerald, Spider and the smiling Beanblossom, and Marcus, and, over there, Tustin, all gathered together and broke apart, and reformed and joined and scattered again, the youngest two impossibly happy at being an accepted part of a cadre of older people, most of the others having some sense that this is what they had left their homes for, a gathering of the tribes, the establishment of a generation, a randomly-selected concatenation of pretty cool people they hadn’t gone to high school with.
Mulberry Wing realized after a little while that she’d felt Tustin’s hand on her butt twice, casually seeing if there were anything under her shift worth pursuing. She felt her stomach flip and made sure she stayed backed up to Clarissa from then on.
Danielle found herself rubbing her chin and cheek and nose against Gerald, like her mom’s cat at home did with every doorway in the house. She knew she should be embarrassed about it.
Clara and Ady stayed close to each other. Every time they talked with Bill and Berry, then turned away, one would look at the other and say, “Hm?” with one lifted eyebrow and the other would say, “Hmph.” Then they would engage Larry and David, turn away, and say, “Hm?” and “Hmph.” This went on, back and forth. They snickered. Bill and Berry and Larry and David grew dizzy from the attention.
Berry kept fixing on Clara, who looked to be carrying some serious junk in her trunk. He liked the intense and focused look in her eyes, and couldn’t figure out whether that meant she was hunting dick or that she was just wacky. Of course, if she were both wacky and hunting dick, that was also A-OK with Berry. She didn’t talk much, which made it tough to figure what was going on in her head. Sometimes that was good, sometimes not.
Bill was gone forever from Medford in mind, body, and soul, gleefully lost in the company of cool people in a city that definitely did not suck. Everybody except the dickweed with the Harpo hair wanted to talk, and nobody wanted to talk about stuff that sucked. Even the cuter of the two midgets could talk your ears off, although in his estimation neither one could be more than maybe nine. He had socks in his gym locker older than those two. And he wished Berry would back away from the solid, womanly, very pretty girl in the flowered shift.
The idea of a band or a commune spontaneously forming right there in the parking lot suddenly seemed within the realm of the possible. Also, Berry desperately need to pee.
The gorgeous girl with straight blond hair down to her clavicles looked across two circles of conversation to catch his eye. She smiled broadly at him, and with a slightly raised voice said, “Behind the yellow bus!” as if she’d just read his mind, for God’s sake. He saw that the passenger’s side of the yellow bus did, in fact, face the windowless wall of a warehouse. Berry walked there quickly, saw a big pool of privacy even in the momentarily bright sunlight, and gratefully let fly. He came back around to the group, and one by one, the boys peeled off and took care of business.
Then Clarissa and Mulberry Wing, kind of getting what was happening, darted looks at Beanblossom, and Beanblossom held the palm of her hand up to them, like, “Hold on,” and smiled. She went into the Bedford and came out with a small box of expensive perfumed tissue, palmed against her side, which she passed off to Mulberry Wing, almost invisibly. The two younger girls flew off around the bus. The rest of the girls took their turns at intervals.
When all the women were back to the group, Marcus picked up the cue and ran with it. He moved the green bus to face outward to the Embarcadero, and the other two vans followed suit. They now had full deniability of the puddle and the little wads of tissue over there by the warehouse; must have been those hoodlums and their chicks on the motorcycles a while ago, officer, gross.
Conversation now raced forward, discussions were held, plans made. The masters of the three road-craft were clearly established: Durr, Marcus, and Bill-and-Berry. The destination was understood, the already-iconic Haight-Ashbury District, although only Ady had clear experience with San Francisco and a rough idea of the way there. Marcus had just driven through it, but couldn’t have retraced his steps on a bet.
Having dealt with an all-hands pee break, they could concentrate on other more complex group dynamics: who wanted to sit next to whom and in what vehicle, and, then, where to get something to drink, for God’s sake. Everybody was thirsty. It was noonish, so, eating would be cool, too.
Mulberry Wing, ever-sensitive to the spiritual, felt a deep, mysterious vibration within the gathering. Like a small green planet being drawn irresistibly towards a dark, larger body wandering into her home solar system, shrouded in vapor and mystery, she knew before even looking into his eyes that it must emanate from the handsome, reserved young Negro, their guide, whom they’d picked up in Alameda and who called himself Spider. “Spider”? Not worthy, a silly name for one so grave. Cloaked in buckskin and with a bead of gold at his ear, he must be D’Amico…no, d’Aamiquo, son of a son of a Moorish warrior-prince, captured and brought to court in the cold North to amuse the sovereign, challenge the men, and pique the ladies.
For his part, Spider still wished there was some boo going around.
Marcus took comfort in the safety of being in a crowd of mostly unrelated entities, and in his overall change of aspect. His thoughts always returned to what chain of mischance would be necessary to put the two goofs back on his tail; that hypothetical chain had gotten so long and so unlikely that he felt he could relax. One of the people here would have to be a spy with a two-way radio linked directly to Stinson Beach Central for him to have to worry about a big hand falling on his shoulder from behind.
He liked the white-blond girl. She moved well, she moved confidently. She smiled beautifully at him, as she did at everyone else.
When he and Durr decided that anyone going to the Haight needed to jump in one of the buses and make like a passenger, Clarissa and Mulberry Wing dove immediately into Marcus’ green VW. They had done the Bedford, exhausted its possibilities, and wanted to try out a real hippie van. Durr was fun and had acted like a cool big brother for the whole ride, but Mulberry Wing thought the quiet blond man driving the green bus was mysterious and deep. She was already over Spider, mostly.
Danielle thought Marcus looked like a smart choice as well, and Gerald would go where Danielle went. Nothing against Bill and Berry, but meeting new people was good. The louder of the two little girls had certainly come from a good home, and Danielle was curious as to how she and her friend had gotten loose from parental oversight. She, of course, felt protective of the two children, who, Summer of Love or not, had no business being out on their own. She’d already spotted the dreadful Tustin circling the one who called herself Mulberry Wing.
Beanblossom saw no reason to leave the comfort of her throne in the Bedford. Spider didn’t care.
Tustin was waiting for some chick to lead him, smiling, to a comfortable place where they could, like, you know, talk, heh. He was getting cranky about the lack of consideration and understanding being shown for his persistent boner.
Spider mostly sat and looked out the window, but kept close to Durr to keep them pointed in the right direction.
Larry and David boarded Durr’s traveling show bus. Durr was from Fort Smith, so he must necessarily understand the need to get out of the damn Ozarks. In Larry’s estimation, Durr was sharp enough and experienced enough to give them some insight into how you got along in the real world, meaning the world outside the damn Ozarks.
In a break in the conversation that afternoon, Larry and David agreed, in a private moment, that they were both having the same reaction to the City. For the first time since they’d left Springfield, they were immersed in a huge, wonderful place that was, without any argument possible, absolutely not Springfield, Missouri recast with a different mix of races, a new set of malls in the ‘burbs and a new set of faded office buildings downtown. The question they’d raised as they drove west was answered and put away: yes, there really was a point in leaving where you started and relocating your ass to new coordinates. Boss!
After all, they’d just spent a couple of hours talking deep jive with guys their own age whose goals went beyond having four matching tires on their pickups, and with girls their own age who might have the decency to put off a smug announcement of their impending pregnancy till at least the third date. Both had gotten involved in where-are-you-from conversations, each had offhandedly and automatically replied, “Springfield, Missouri,” and both had felt their balls retract and their stomachs jump at even the mention of the name. Thank God nobody had actually backed away in horror.
Life, confirmed. Larry and David looked each other straight in the eyes and did an elaborate business with their fists they had seen Negroes do on a TV cop show, an angled handshake segueing into bumping their fists together, front, top to bottom, and bottom to top. The world, the world, the world; it was real and they were in it and it waited on them.
It occurred to them, when the doors closed and the engine started, that all the girls except the blond queen were in the other vehicles, but, frankly, they were ready to travel to the heart of the city and see what the gathering of the tribes had to offer, and save socializing till later.
The drivers decided to just climb straight up the hill behind them. Durr, guided by Spider, turned onto Jackson Street, the yellow and green Kombis following. The little caravan found itself in a long trench of two-story-somethings, Marcus wasn’t sure what to call them. They were like two-story houses, but squashed flat against each other. They all seemed to have garage doors on the first floor, but cars were parked solid on both sides of the street. Not one of the garage doors was open. Weird.
No one was outside, although it was the middle of the week. They saw nothing exciting; throughout the train, there was a general air of light disappointment that there were no spontaneous celebrations visible of the oneness of the world family, kites being flown, nor big vats of dye boiling in the driveways to make tie-died garments or to craft batik. Clarissa and Mulberry Wing did spot a guy plunking a dulcimer on a doorstep in the wavering sunlight, and excitedly watched as they went by him, waiting for him to look up and smile encouragingly, throw them a peace sign, or something. He carried on plunking.
Quickly the world changed. Chinatown swallowed them alive. Somewhere a bell rang, a black-powder cannon went off, a calliope burst into, “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” and without question and without doubt they were really in San Francisco and not Corvallis or Provo, Sapulpa or Overland Park. Chinatown, my God!
An old Chinese man in a stunning dark blue satin chang pao, black slippers, white hose, white hair caught in a queue hanging down his back and a waist-length white beard jaywalked in front of Marcus. Then he cut down to his left along the line of tightly-parked cars and trotted briskly along until he found a gap in them, then dove back onto the sidewalk.
There, hanging from rollaway door frames: plucked ducks, flattened, smoked, every secret exposed and all dignity stripped. Doomed fish swam in grocers’ tanks; nightmarish skinned piglets, ready to feed a family or haunt your sleep, dangled even more repulsively than the ducks. Middle-aged Chinese men in snap-brim hats and buttoned overcoats glared at them as if these disrespectful young gwai lo might invade the men’s thoughts and steal the numbers of their bank accounts.
Firecrackers hung everywhere, strung together with their own twisted wicks and wrapped in waxy paper with labels and signs indicating destructive power of immoderate measure, as did paper lanterns, bright red tissue fringed in gold set to a thousand purposes. Firecracker factors, firecracker distributors, dealers in fine ceramics, fine hand-carved everything, finer clothing and questionable footwear. And restaurants. More restaurants. Other restaurants. Restaurant suppliers. Temples, banks, and in every direction tiny grandmothers clattering at each other in obscure mountain dialects, shaking their fists, engaged in the marvelously complex business of keeping families afloat, grandsons employed and granddaughters unsullied and earnest-looking, and thus marriageable.
Clarissa and Mulberry Wing rocketed back and forth from window across to window, helpless with wonder. As the crowd thickened, both stuck their arms out the windows and waved their hands back and forth like twirling amaryllis. One grandmother looked up in the right light and saw two round-eyed girl children whom she accepted as silly, but sweet and modest, laughing excitedly and without mockery, and bobbed her head at them and favored them with a smile. The girls shrieked and spun like cocker spaniels.
Inevitably, Berry, on confronting Chinatown, must necessarily turn up Grant, breaking from the middle of the line. Durr saw, and boxed the block, finally catching up with him at Sacramento Street, with Marcus having no idea what happened and getting back to Grant only by virtue of Danielle spotting the tail of the Bedford disappearing up Sacramento.
A young, bony Chinese hoodlum, with unimaginably black and glossy hair greased to a point in the back and a curl in the front, ran up to Durr at a stoplight and held up a bag of something grey-green and dried looking. He jerked it in the air at Durr. “Hah?” he said. Durr held up five fingers. The young hood made an awful face, as if he’d caught his scrotum in the zipper of his jeans. He held up five fingers four times. Durr flashed him five fingers twice, then grinned and held up two more. The young hood grinned back and they swapped. He looked both ways, then threw a half-used pack of papers into the Bedford as they pulled away. Spider watched him go and said, “Mr. Ching-ching just off the boat, tryin’ to make his way.”
Durr looked back from half a block away, and in his mirror saw the young man being run down by three deeply upset gang members, intent on punishing his intrusion into their territory, who dragged the enterprising dealer into an alley, while grandmothers put their heads down and hurried past. Durr blew the next light and wound out the bus in second, to cut right and then left on Grant, ending up behind Berry.
Marcus and Gerald were having a good time spotting cars. Danielle, half crouching behind Marcus and Gerald, with one hand kept flat on Gerald’s back, looked about her, sniffing the wind like a happy Lab. Gone forever, like the others, from her city of birth, she could not imagine leaving this glory, this cave of multicolored crystals, this wonderland without blondes on blondes on endless blondes, a showroom for every other variation of skin and air and speech from around the planet; my God, she thought, my God, it’s the kingdom of heaven hurrying along down the sidewalk.
The temples with giant gilt statues out front and incense floating, not sepulchral marble but glorious red and gold; the air with a carrier hum of speech that sang, and song of ordered discord; this was unbearably good, Life manifesting as endlessly-opening possibility, and opening Her arms to all God’s people, not life lived standing on the sidewalk watching theocrats trim up the fair-haired troops for a dutiful march to the temple. She was exhilarated that here, somehow, here she finally felt in her element, and now she felt God rising within her, after believing that all religious feeling had been driven out of her in Salt Lake.
Gerald pounded dash and gestured excitedly to Marcus as he spotted a Morgan, improbably yellow, parked, nose down a driveway, its wire-wheeled spare on the trunk like a radar dish. He was happy with finding the exotic on their journey solely in the cars of the street, ignoring all the other cultural improbabilities around them. Danielle should have found him foolish and shallow, for framing this adventure in how exciting it was to see one car and another, every one of which, as far as she could tell, had four wheels and headlights and a place to sit, much like all the cars in Utah and everywhere else.
But Gerald, about whom she knew nothing, really, was hers, and she his, and she knew that because when she bent low over her hand, which rested high on his back just below his neck, to see their course ahead, his scent pulled her lower and closer to him. His presence was essential to her life. All else was faded and weak. They had come together in the van with the satisfying little clunk of two flat toy magnets happily harmonizing their magnetic moments. That was enough.
Gerald turned directly towards her. “Are you cold?” he asked. Danielle couldn’t imagine what had made him turn and ask, which made her heart thump the louder. “No,” she said, with a happy smile. “That’s really great,” he replied, smiling as she did. He held her eyes for a second, then turned back to the hunt for cool cars with Marcus.
Danielle couldn’t breathe past the tightness in her throat. She began to well tears. This kind of happiness was what young women longed for when they clutched 45 RPM record sleeves to bathrobe-wrapped bosoms in their rooms, and sang along softly with gorpy love songs, burbled by other young women with stiff turbaned hair.
From Chinatown onward, San Francisco had shown itself to them to be a place of spiced air, the airspace over the streets laced with strange wires for electric buses and trolleys, the sidewalks crowded with unimaginable diversity. All that was as they would have guessed. But none would have guessed that it was no more than two stories high, a city’s-worth of workingman’s row houses. There must be more, there would be more. They would find the postcard spots, all the places they’d seen in the movies, and those would now be overlaid with the Summer of Love. They just needed to go further.
Even so, Danielle was already moved in, all that was left to do was pick a spot and call her mother for a check. But the presence of Gerald filled the greater part of her consciousness. “Are you cold?” he’d asked. “Are you cold?” Tears came again, more strongly. What beauty there was in the world.
Berry by his nature had to go jinking through side streets, ducking on and off Jackson. Berry was a decent driver, but his advantage in city traffic came from his ride’s being two-tone yellow and white, and two cars high. Growling around in second gear, even jaywalking grandmothers with multiple shopping bags jammed in wire roll-arounds couldn’t pretend the bus wasn’t there.
He saw the reality of the city as a unified whole, past even what Danielle saw. He monitored the constantly-morphing flow of data on the surface and the deep models and patterns beneath, the order and the logic underlying the chaos above. It had come to him first as they flew into the city on the bridge, but in Chinatown, the huge complexes of process and the little whirring constructs barnacled to them clicked massively into place, all the madness of Chinatown suddenly integrating into a structure of perfect logic, one big Mr. Machine, Mr. Chinatown, grinding down the hallway to frighten the family pets.
Now the world made complete sense, for the first time in his conscious life. His surroundings achieved critical mass, grew big enough to let him see how it all worked: the little shop with cheap plastic toys hung on a wooden framework at the entrance was a clockwork automaton set in side of the rigid building in which it was embedded, and that operated in a somber and semi-constant grid of agreements and restrictions of ownership and exchanges of money that repeated throughout the whole building, and that structure repeated half a dozen times down the block, and all that sat over the regularities of water pipes, electrical lines, all the other crap it took to run the place.
Berry saw immediately that each of the separate units operated by similar but not identical sets of rules, both the laws of the city and the laws of physics, and that it would be way cool to have a feel for those differences, because a guy could make a serious buck or two out of exploiting those differences, couldn't he? Damn! One little bitty out-of-balance flaw in a roulette wheel, make you rich. One tiny regularity in a lottery draw, you could buy you an island in the Bahamas. Well, gang, a single four-story property slipped through the gears of the real estate calculator of Doom, somehow priced out 15% under what all the orderly analysis said it ought to be, would do the exact same thing, and if you do that three or four times you're farting in silk, my man, farting in silk! Damn, damn, damn!
Now, zoom up and see the blocks and units and modules linked together in one building, and then all those set on one block, and see the blocks all whirring and clanking together into the mass of the city, and remember that every piece, every chunk, had multiple rigidities of protocol and regulation built in and interacting-easy enough, it was like every subset was a lump of clay and, say the occupancy code was a net of…
Christ, that damned taxi nearly collected his ass. Someone was screaming at him in a language he couldn’t even guess, looked like a white guy. Quit it, Berry, focus on the deal at hand.
He glanced back in the bus. Bill was looking at him weird. Clara and Ady were dead silent, their eyes the size of coasters. “Sorry,” Berry said. “Sorry.”
Anyway, he could explain this crap to a five-year-old. Once you got the joke, it was easy. Christ Jesus, algebra was hard, but this was like buttering toast. Everything worked if you let it. There weren’t any surprises, the whole city was as structured and predictable as a pool table, except for the little wobbles. There were no surprises on a pool table, just modest variations in results caused by tiny variations in inputs. Berry liked shooting pool almost as much as he liked girls’ butts; limited only by the necessity of coming up with enough quarters, he could have become one of the greats of the table, except that when it came to action, he was constitutionally confined to keeping within defined probabilities, taking no chances, entering no grey areas of his own free will. The glory of the city was that, if you stared at it long enough and saw the regularities, you’d immediately cop to those itty-bitty little wiggles in the trend line, that tiny vibration in the machine, and hope nobody else caught it.
He liked the city, oh, yeah.
The first outliers of the Haight and the Ashbury began to appear like the glyphed skulls on poles you saw in the movies when you entered Negrito country. Ojos and peace signs and ecstatically-painted 2CVs, trotting, cheerful-looking dogs in kerchiefs and boys and girls in Army jackets appeared, and appeared more frequently, as they approached the center of the world.
The crew of the Bedford and the yellow bus suddenly remembered together that Durr had a baggie of supercheese. In one telepathically-directed arc, the two vehicles swooped to the curb like Blue Angels, leaving a bewildered Marcus to circle the block and come on them from behind. Ady commandeered the drugs and paraphernalia, by her right as mistress of the green arts, and with a slightly bored air started cranking out marijuana cigarettes as tight and smooth as Kents, not even looking at the magic her long, slim fingers were working. All but Clara (seen that so many times!) looked on in disbelief.
Durr split the j’s she’d rolled among the two buses, stashed the rest of the dope in his pocket, then walked back to apologize to Marcus and the others about not including them; did Danielle and Gerald want to squeeze in to one of the other vehicles? It turned out that everyone was happy with the current arrangement, although Marcus noted that a shadow passed over Clarissa’s face.
So the Bedford and the yellow bus filled quickly with haze. Shortly they restarted and the caravan moved on. In the Bedford, Durr was now right at home, lacking only a beer to keep his throat wet. Beanblossom took polite noiseless sips, and the virgins Larry and David went through the usual hilarious, clichéd stages of coughing, holding their chests, dropping the spliff, and saying something like “Oh, wow!” when they took their first real rush. Tustin simply commandeered a joint and moved away from the rest; Spider was fulfilled and content.
Soon Larry succumbed completely, and saw ojos detach from dirty windows and float across Jackson, or so he claimed.
Beanblossom loosened up enough to tell the five others that one’s first pot high was like getting one’s boobs: it won’t happen, nothing’s happening, I’ll die before it ever happens, and suddenly, Oh, there! and it’s better than anyone told me.
She and Durr had a moment of real communication together; when she spoke of that first high, he cocked his head to one side and raised an eyebrow, to say, oh, really, O’Reilly? She looked at him like Marlene Dietrich looking at a burgher who wanted to buy her a drink at the cabaret, and said, “Oh, please, honey. My parents are both full professors in a university town in the middle of nowhere. Beer is so vulgar, wine stains your teeth.”
In the yellow van, Bill and Berry were the virgins, Clara and Ady the old salts. Bill and Berry had now achieved everything they had dreamed of in Medford: they were alone in their van in San Francisco with two great chicks they just met on a bright afternoon. The chicks weren’t wearing bras, and both might actually not be dating anybody. And they were getting stoned on free marijuana. They could hear psychedelic music through the open windows of the van, and both chicks were eagerly getting high and trying to ramp up the conversation at the same time.
Boy, was this major! The VW offered all the privacy they could ask for, and they could be having sex within the next hour! The best part was that both the chicks were also a huge hoot to talk to; if they didn’t pair off and have sex immediately, that was OK, too.
At one point Clara got up for no apparent reason and tried to see how far she could get her torso out of a window, resulting in a moment of vertigo when she thought she might fall out and a brief wash of pot-damped anger at making herself look foolish, although nobody inside seemed to notice. Ady switched back to Chesterfields and ended up in the passenger’s seat with Berry at the wheel, who was talking at light speed about why didn’t everything run on cables.
Berry’s mouth was actually on full automatic, because he had gotten an unexpected, clear, extended look at Clara’s butt when she was sticking out of the window. Oh, my God. He would take the vision of taut, swelling denim, modeled by the afternoon light of San Francisco, to his grave.
Settled back in the middle seat, Clara and Bill looked out the window together. When Bill pointed at something, Clara leaned on him, put her chin on his shoulder, and said, “Where was that?” so he could point again. She wanted to put her free hand around him and put it flat on his belly and press herself against his back.
Durr kept watching his mirrors to see if Marcus was staying with them, which he was. Marcus, for his part, was catching the rhythm of waddling a Volkswagen kombi through constricted city streets, and it was infectious. Plenty of guts down low, a soft, soft clutch, squishy but sure brakes. This was more city driving than he’d ever done at one time in his life, and the VW was too much like running a fishing boat to be funny: you sat up high, you had a big wheel to crank, you had no speed but a whole lot of gutty power at the bottom end. And waddle? Jeez, a straight course bordered on the miraculous.
And when you got a clear stretch, you got a wonderful noise when you could rev the engine a bit, and you got the brief illusion of shooting forward, like breaking into deep water from the bar. He was falling in love with the big, hollow, silly thing.
Gerald had moved further back with Danielle, and the two girls were slowing down a little. Clarissa jumped in the front passenger’s seat, and Mulberry Wing was trying to get Clarissa to scoot over and share the seat by swinging her butt at Clarissa like a rubber mallet. She snuck glances at Danielle and Gerald from time to time.
No one else rushed them at stops with outstretched baggies or matchboxes. The expedition found itself going up a long hill with tracks in the middle, surrounded by goofy-looking three-story row houses with squared-off bays on both floors sticking out over the sidewalk, like they were constructed so as to permit the occupants to conveniently drop things on passersby. This went on, on, on up the hill stretching before them, forever.
At Mason Street, another set of tracks intersected in the middle of the intersection, and there were yells from all of the vans at the bizarre crunch and clang as they hit the iron cross too fast. At Jones, the long hill finally crested, and the Bedford sighed in relief. Now the row houses got taller, three and a half and four stories, and sometimes paper fish and peace signs showed in windows, out of windows, and in doorways.
Marcus’ first reaction returned, creepily and exaggerated, that San Francisco was an endless forest of three-and four-story apartments, with people peering down at the sidewalk from their positions of advantage. No parks, no schools, no libraries, just a million people in the same block remade over and over, with no saving grace except some of the coolest cars imaginable lining the way. OK, plus Fisherman’s Wharf and a couple of bridges. And Chinatown. Otherwise people seemed to come here to tourist through endless streets of row houses, and then go down to beaches as cold and unswimmable as Oregon’s. And buy firecrackers, and take pictures of Alcatraz across the water.
Frankly, not as exciting as hoped. The bridges were nicer than Newport’s, though.
At Hyde Street, the tracks swung off to the right, the caravan bounced over some more iron tracks running crossways, and it suddenly dawned on Marcus and Durr that these were cable-car tracks, confirmed on Hyde by a cable car coming right at them. Berry figured this out almost at the start, hearing the rumble and rattle of the unseen cable, and was integrating the bizarre metallic geometry in his city model, no soft asphalt here, buddy, this was a hard steel matrix that told you where to go in no uncertain terms. It was much better driving on streets without the tracks, because the light front wheels of the VWs were more than happy to go anywhere the tracks went, and very resistant to swerving to avoid guys on bicycles and stupid dogs. They crossed Polk and Ady started yelling about The Bagel again, which was right up the street somewhere, but it was starting to get to be mid-afternoon, and the consensus was that they should get to the Haight and find something to eat there.
Past Polk, everything changed, and businesses replaced houses. They came to a long stoplight at a colossal six-lane street with a divider, like a superhighway right in the city, with serious, serious traffic. It was lined with giant auto showrooms, improbably housed in what looked like bank buildings with shop windows.
On the other side of the intersection, their street, which they’d finally figured out was called Jackson, widened and turned into two full lanes, and damn, started to climb again. This was different, though, and for the first time, to use one of Chief Distelfink’s expressions, you could “smell money.” Nothing outrageous, but the street widened, endless row houses were replaced by embassy-looking things, the hill flattened, and it turned into easy running.
But this was too much like wandering around. Even through the marijuana haze they wanted to stay focused on the mission: they wanted to see hippies, and maybe even be hippies. They pulled over to the curb and the three drivers conferred in the street with the engines running.
The stupid map was no help, because they’d gone outside the little inset for downtown San Francisco. Up ahead, though, something was certainly going on: the two purposeful wires that had appeared overhead in the last block down the middle of the street turned into a giant spider web at the next intersection. The buildings at the corner changed to big marble bank-looking things, too, and they rolled forward to check it out. The street was Fillmore, which rang a bell for Bill and Durr, and Marcus knew that they shouldn’t turn towards the water, so they went left towards the middle of the peninsula.
And suddenly there was the Fillmore Ballroom. Bill yelled, now remembering a picture he’d seen of it in a magazine, honked and pointed, and now they smelled the hay in the barn. Here, the people on the sidewalks were really cool, and the cars and vans were really cool, and the little stores along the way were cool, and it felt right. The boring three-story apartments with the bay windows started again, but now there were things hanging out of the windows and people on the street, and cars and trucks and people starting to block the sidewalks.
And something else clicked. The brilliant patches of color they’d started to see on light poles and in windows were posters for bands! Now recognized for what they were, the voyagers started looking for them, as the brilliant images began to thicken and cluster. They felt their first impulses to, perhaps, pull one or two down and take them along, hey, free publicity for the bands, man, nobody would mind.
There was a sense of increasing focus around them, a sharpening sense of something coming, something ahead worth jostling over. Cool guys who lived on the blocks they passed were threatening other cool guys, the ones who wanted to appropriate their driveways and their tiny patches of lawn to squat on; those who wanted to set up camp with school buses converted to communes; those who wanted to close every gap between every bumper along the curb and project backward into every intersection, as long as one foot of vehicle squeezed against the sidewalk.
People now veered off the sidewalks and walked in the street, across the street, sat along the street, set up shop along the street, danced with tambourines and flutes on the sidewalk in the hopes someone would press money on them to finance just a little brown rice, and a pot to cook it in, and, of course, something to cook it on.
With a fanfare of horns, they came upon Haight, and they turned right, into traffic so rapidly thickening that even Berry was intimidated, and the three vehicles drew closer together. At a long stop, with the way forward blocked by a stake bed truck with a generator, speakers and amps trying to back into a driveway, Marcus jumped out and checked with the other drivers and got a consensus vote that they should go on just till they could all find parking close together, then walk in.
By Buena Vista Park, things had slowed to a crawl, so they turned left and ascended into a chaotic snarl of streets laid out like cold spaghetti fallen on a tile floor. Time began to alter and distort. No turnoff looked fruitful, their only alternative looked more and more like retracing their steps, which would require them to turn around, and there was no place to do that.
The comforting grid on which they’d been traveling was gone. If you made a right, hoping to make another right and head back in the direction from which you’d come, you gave over your fate to the gods of fortune. They were no longer tumbling downhill to a bright promise ahead, they were out driving with the family on a Sunday, with Dad trying to find Uncle Henry’s house without stopping to ask for directions.
Nor could they just park and walk back the way they’d come. It was a Wednesday afternoon, for Godsake, and there were still not three, or even two, places to park within shouting distance of each other. Wisely, the three drivers passed on the idea of dropping out one by one into single slots, however loud the moaning grew. They would only stop when all could find haven together.
That didn’t happen till they got almost two miles into the Sunset District. And that required their being present at the fortuitous departure of five vehicles at once from the curb. A band, just that afternoon, had spontaneously formed in Golden Gate Park, and after hours of searching they’d finally located a tambourine player and a poster designer. So the new members, all together, in oil-spewing heavies and hearses, actual trucks and truckish vehicles, rose up like a flight of hammered condors, wheeling about into the wind and slowly building speed to lift off for Oakland and cheap rehearsal space.
The three vans slid gratefully into real parking spaces against real curbs, infringing on no one and with no wet-blanket warnings against parking here now, later, or ever growing from light poles like reflective fungi. The sun was at some indeterminate place behind the massing fog. They gathered on the sidewalk, Tustin’s face a cloud of anger against the ongoing injustice he endured, the rest gloriously ready to begin the new age, as soon as they got up the hill.
That took a while. Fortunately, they picked up Judah as they walked north and had enough sense of location to walk east. The novelty of the trolley tracks and the occasional trolley stamped the drudgery of the walk as adventure, the gathering fog and drift gave a sense of promise that there would be a revelation when they would finally come to the light.
Clarissa and Mulberry Wing were barefoot and wore nothing but their basic cotton shifts and step-ins, but seemed immune to the sinking damp. Beanblossom produced a kerchief from nowhere and bound her hair, and produced a light sweater from nowhere and drew it around her. She and Danielle conspired almost wordlessly to do something about the two young girls before much longer; this prancing around like lost children raised by forest creatures couldn’t go on. The rest wore Oregon clothes, Missouri clothes, and Utah clothes, which were fine, but failed to indicate to others an appropriately ecstatic mental state.
So they surged forward, full of the need for shopping, and ready for adventure and expanding cultural consciousness, until they hit the Street.