Trimmings

 

I’d been in love with Judy Clark since kindergarten, when we launched our relationship with exquisite naked-dancing in her mother’s bathroom, The Platters and The Penguins on the acid green transistor radio. Behind the button-locked door we felt for the first time the warm ease of skin across our flat chests, our round little child bellies, our inner arms and thighs. The part of me that was different from Judy remained in place, unnoticed, but our peach-fuzz stood on end as we tingled with delight.

It seems to me now that the most pleasant times of my childhood were spent in Judy’s room playing house. Mom was busy with my baby brother, and Judy’s mother had a sick husband and two toddlers to care for. We never quarreled or made noise, so they left us to ourselves. We played and talked and pretended. We came to know the rules. Our little dance was never spoken of.

For six years there were no other girls Judy’s age on our block. I had four or five boys to play with, but Judy was isolated. For her I was the next best thing to a best friend. But to me she was my future wife. We played and joked about “when we’re married.” I don’t think Judy ever believed it. I just assumed it.

As the training wheels came off my childhood, I played Little League and basketball and ran with the mob of boys on the block, but I continued to play with Judy. I always thought of Judy as “My Girlfriend,” because that was the label my parents used. Most kids—our brothers and sisters, other kids on the block—thought the opposite sex had cooties. But Judy and I were comfortable together, and when we showed off—holding hands, walking arm in arm—the adults loved it. I think now that the young parents of baby boomers had a lurking fear of their kids not “turning out right.”  Heaven forbid that we should be “fruitcakes” or “lezzies.” This unspeakable fear was dispelled every time they saw the miniature couple we knew by their every encouragement they wanted us to be.

Carla Bass moved in around the corner at the start of our sixth-grade year, about the same time Judy’s father died. Judy and I never talked about her father—sickness and death were far too scary.

Judy latched onto Carla immediately and they began spending most of their time together—time I would have spent with Judy. Whenever I was with them both, even just walking home from school, I felt like we were playing a game with rules only they understood. I was exhilarated, but confused. Too young to see what was happening, I floated along with my feelings, loving the way I felt when I was with either or both of them, no matter how uncomfortable or confused I was.

That 6th grade winter Judy and I played house a few more times, but it wasn’t the same. Judy’s smile seemed different. It gleamed like she knew a breathtaking secret. Each of those last few times we played in her room, she would strike up an argument on some pretense and we would end up play-fighting on her bed. We hadn’t been that physically close since our naked dances years before. I remember her smile—a smile of secret knowledge—all the while we pushed and rolled.

As our play changed, my feelings about Judy changed as well. I began to feel a need to state my intentions. I was unsure what they might be, but I knew they involved going steady, getting married, and something called sex.

I thought I should start by making our relationship official. 6th grade boys with paper routes are millionaires, so one spring afternoon, swept up by some kind of seasonal confidence, I took my wad of bills, floating on a pocket-full of silver coins chinking against my bike seat, down to the strip-mall jewelry store and bought Judy a stainless-steel steady-ring-on-a-chain just like the ones the high school girls wear. Trembling and breathless, I gave it to her one afternoon at the end of Easter vacation.

I pulled the weighty bauble from my pocket without preamble.

“Here.”

“Does this mean we’re going steady?”

“I guess so.”

Neither of us was ready to start kissing and I didn’t know what else to say, so I quickly suggested that we go outside with the other kids. Only then did it become real to me that everyone would see what had always been private. I wavered between being proud, wanting all the kids to see, and hoping she would keep her shiny new token hidden in her blouse with her training bra. But the uproar among the kids over Judy’s steady ring—which she ended up taking off and swinging around her finger like a sling—was no more than over somebody’s really cool aggie shooter. We heard a few of choruses of “Two Little Lovebirds…” then everything was back to normal. I played along, but I knew things had changed. I understood only later how the change involved the arrival of Carla Bass.

                       

Carla and Judy were opposites in many ways. Judy was round-faced and pink, the bangs of her bright blonde Dutch-boy cut straight above dark eyebrows and clear blue eyes. Carla’s skin was Hessian olive, her face long and lean, with lank ringlets of nut-brown hair falling about searching black eyes. They were a striking, mismatched pair.

I got my first fruitful erections thinking of Carla.

We began to talk on the phone—something Judy and I had never done.

Speaking into my ear as I curled on the floor in the dark kitchen while everyone else watched TV, Carla was not a disembodied voice. As she spoke, I could see her more clearly than I ever could when we were with Judy or other kids. On the phone we had privacy. Her froggy little voice spoke only to me, telling me about problems with the other girls, about her parents fighting, her brothers smoking and drinking. The things she told me frightened me some, but she seemed so cool and different and exciting. I would think of her long after we hung up. I would fall asleep thinking of how it would be to make her happy, to stroke her face, to touch her lips.

I began to write her love letters.

When Judy and I began as friends we hadn’t learned to write yet, so we never wrote notes to each other. It was different with Carla. By eleven years old I was literate enough to get myself into trouble. I spent one entire rainy afternoon with the only picture I had of Carla, in the school portrait of Mrs. Potts’ class sixth grade class, filling in every margin with tortured cursive purple prose. I hid it in the deepest recess of my closet.

I had just seen The Pride and the Passion for the third time that week on The Million Dollar Movie and I was moved. I identified with the Sophia Loren character, divided in her feelings between the long-beloved and admired Spanish revolutionary, played by Sinatra—the Pride—and the dashing Duke of Wellington, played by Cary Grant—the Passion. I wept throughout the final scene as the Duke carried the limp bodies, first of Sofia, then of Sinatra, back into their recaptured city. I was attracted to the idea of these different aspects of love. Love could feel many ways. I could be in love with two girls at the same time. I poured my passion out to Carla with my pen.

I never gave Carla the unedited versions of my letters. She got my feelings, watered down to the level of commercial Valentines, in the form of notes passed to her through the hands of other girls in class. At first it didn’t enter my mind that Judy would read the notes. After all, she was in a different room at school and the girls who passed the notes always promised not to read them. I assumed Carla would never share them with anyone. I didn’t want to think of what Judy’s reaction might be if she did read them. But when we talked on the phone, Carla pretended she hadn’t even read my notes. It was all too embarrassing to mention. And besides, in my pubescent mind my feelings about Carla were separate from what Judy and I were to each other—whatever that might have been.

In the midst of a hormone storm, I was in a warm bath of ignorance. The water would get cold quickly and soon.

But as spring approached that 6th grade year, some kind of awareness grew within me. It could have come from clues I picked up when I was with Judy and Carla together—the conspiratorial tittering, the under-current of whispers. Or I might have been starting the long haul to catch up with the girls’ march through puberty while slowly getting wise to the world in 1964, taking in the new ways by osmosis through the media. Whatever way awareness dawned, my reaction was to panic. Judy will be jealous. She’ll hate me. I’m too weird for Carla. She’ll drop me and I’ll lose them both.

I decided I had to stop thinking about Carla—stop writing dangerous notes to her anyway— and make a commitment to Judy. By giving Judy that ring and chain, I chose Pride over Passion. Judy and I were going steady.

                       

Only when Mr. Clark died did I understand how sick he had been, and why Judy’s mother was unhappy all the time. But soon after the funeral, Mrs. Clark seemed happier than ever. As the days grew warm, she cut and colored her dark, curly hair to a bouncy blonde halo, and she took to wearing short-shorts and halter tops. She would sun-bathe in a bikini in the middle of the back-yard lawn, smiling with cucumber slices on her eyes. In March, when Mrs. Clark’s Greek boyfriend, Ilia, moved in, it seemed as if they had known each other for a long time.

None of the other kids on the block liked Ilia much. He treated us like the nuisances we probably were. But he was a warm breeze to the Clarks. He rough-housed with the boys and, though he kept a certain distance from her, Judy bragged about Ilia’s worldly travels and really seemed to like him. I think she liked the way he made her mother laugh. Judy had never known what it was like to have a happy mother.

On the morning of the day my oblivion crumbled, I’d been mowing the Clarks’ lawn. A Southern California Saturday in May, the mingled odors of green grass and blue smoke, and the drone of lawnmower engines infused the endless suburban neighborhood. Ilia had been hollering at me about a patch of lawn that looked uncut no matter how many times I ran over it with the mower. I tried to explain that it was because the ground was uneven and there was nothing I could do. The second time I mowed it Ilia must have known I was right, but he made me do it a third time just to show me who was boss.

That afternoon we played in the water for the first time that season in Judy’s backyard. Judy and her brothers, and Carla and I, with two or three neighbor boys, gliding on the Slip-n-Slide and lying on beach towels sucking the juice out of late Valencias that were still falling off the Clarks’ tree, ripe and ready. Ilia rolled out the barbeque while Mrs. Clark, in a brand-new bikini, basked on a chaise lounge in the sun. I remember it as a kind of Eden.

I had gone into the utility room to dry off before going into the house to use the bathroom. Judy stepped out through the kitchen door at the same time Carla came in behind me from the yard.

“Come’ere, I want to show you something.”

Judy took me by the arm and turned me toward the adjoining garage. Carla was right behind me as we entered the dimly lit space. The odor of fresh-cut grass rose through the dusty air. Carla’s lips were so near my ear I felt her breath as she spoke.

“Do you know what pussy is?” Her whispered voice held back a squeal. I looked in panic from face to face, both smiling maliciously, eyes darting back and forth from each other to me.

“Sure I do.”

My mind scrambled to make sense of what they were doing, sifting my vague knowledge of sex gleaned from children’s apocrypha and sex-ed films. I knew that a pussy was the same as a vagina, but I had never said the word vagina out loud, and was sure I didn’t know how to pronounce it. I had no idea what Carla meant by the word without the article.

“It’s your… thing,” I said, “Where you pee.”

The girls were not yet old enough for bikinis themselves. Their wet swimsuits were modest, with skirty frills around their burgeoning hips, but their legs and arms glistened in the angled light from the utility room so that in the darkened garage we seemed to be in a silvery black-and-white photograph.

Judy stood next to the trash barrel that held the grass from the morning’s lawn job. Topping the full barrel was a newly deposited layer of paper trash from a bathroom wastebasket.

“Look at what we found.”

Judy picked up an envelope from the trash and offered it to me. Taut with nerves without knowing why, I recoiled into Carla. She was ready for just such a response. Her hands were up, pushing me back toward Judy and the envelope. I had no choice but to take it.

It was not like any envelope I had ever seen. It was small and square, and even in the dim light I could see it wasn’t white, but purple or pink. Between my fingers the envelope made a kind of crunching sound. It was not sealed. When I lifted the flap, instead of the nasty note I was sure they would force me to read aloud, I felt some kind of dry, springy substance lining the bottom of the envelope.

“Did you know it was hairy?” said Judy with wicked delight.

I slowly withdrew my fingers from the envelope, trying not to betray my confusion. Carla’s chin was at my shoulder, a giggle beginning to bubble in her throat.

“Yeah, sure I did,” I lied.

With a clench of my stomach it came to me that somehow this was Mrs. Clark’s pubic hair. It was something adults had. I’d seen the illustrations and heard about “body changes” in that infamous film at school. I remembered catching glimpses of it on my mom at awkward moments in the past. How and why Mrs. Clark’s pubic hair came to be in that envelope and what Judy and Carla expected me to do with it were too much for me to consider at the time.

My forehead burned. I could feel the water that was dripping off my trunks as it splashed on the hard, cool floor and onto my feet. Standing in a little puddle of my own making, I started to shiver, though the garage was hot and stuffy. My bladder ached as Judy stepped closer.

“Look at it. It’s my mom’s.”

I almost knocked Carla down when I dropped the envelope and ran.

                       

Judy kept the ring. It was never spoken of. I spent the summer developing a passion for baseball. At the beginning of seventh grade Judy moved to Anaheim.

I saw Carla only at school and, later, through the windows of older guys’ cars. I know she saw me but our eyes never met.

I tried once more with Judy just after seventh grade. I called her on the telephone one lonely night. I don’t remember asking her “Read any good books lately?” nearly as well as I remember the lengthy silence that followed the question, and the sick feeling it gave me.

Somehow I convinced her to go on a movie date with me—an Elvis double feature. My mom drove us to the Brookhurst. Judy was wearing strange new clothes—a short skirt with giant cartoon flowers and a clingy sweater that showed off her newly acquired breasts. I wore what I considered dress-up clothes—a white dress shirt tucked in to a pair of black slacks. All her new friends were there at the matinee—the girls in similar skirts and sweaters, the boys in jeans and tee shirts. Before Kissin’ Cousins and during intermission, Judy would sit with me for a minute or two while she looked around, then jump up and return a few seconds later with someone else to show me off to as her old boyfriend. During the movies we didn’t talk or touch. At times during Harum Scarum I wasn’t sure if she was sitting next to me at all. I didn’t look.

                                   

The Sentence

 

No, Melanie’s silk underwear did not mean that she was saying yes, or even wanting to be asked. Silk like water through my fingers, pooling in my palms, cool, then warm, then cool again, alive with color and fluid movement; a perfect pairing with the strength and beauty it enclosed. It made no other statement than itself and held no meaning not taken on like body heat from Melanie. No Andalusian rose to draw me down, her silken works of art were for herself.

                       

 

A few years before I met Melanie, I was an organizer for a democratic socialist fringe group. I’d been a straight-up Trotskyite when Nixon was in. Back then, dialectical materialism was the order of reality. Bourgeois relationships and sentimental attachments were decadent and reactionary. But my stridency faded with my liability for the draft, and when the Democrats got the White House in ‘76, it seemed to make more sense to go with electoral politics. The group I caught on with was led by a big movie star and her radical pol husband. It was a lot more fun than being in the Spartacus League.

At the beginning of a big voter registration drive in Orange County, they threw a party for the workers. There were twenty or thirty of us at a mansion in La Habra Heights, all hoping the movie star wife would put in an appearance. As soon as Mr. Counterculture Hero arrived, his people cut the music and herded us into the biggest dining room I’d ever seen to hear him speak. Sitting in a pool of overhead light at the end of a long, dark table, he extended his arms, palms down, and leaned forward with his chin almost touching the table. He looked around at us like he was about to tell a solemn secret, making eye contact with each one of us, so we’d know he was serious.

He began barely above a whisper. “The work you are doing is very important,” he said. “But I know most of you are here for another reason. And I want you to know that it’s OK.” There was a noticeable shuffle in the room. We angled forward to hear if he really knew what we were there for.

“I know that most of you are here to find someone and get laid.” Everyone in the room seemed to silently hiccough at the same time. Looks of shock were all around and a few chuckles began, but his unmoved face silenced us as he continued. “As long as getting the job done is at least your number two concern, we’ll do just fine.”

So, the night I met Melanie, the volunteer work I was doing at KPFA was priority number two.

                       

 

We were on the phones, drumming up money from subscribers before the big pledge drive. We sat at adjoining desks for a couple of hours, giving the same scripted spiel over and over. I worked the list down from Abbot while she was coming up from Zymechus.

I’d tried to catch her eye when we were introduced, but she showed no interest. While we worked, she didn’t look in my direction. That gave me a chance to look at her without the usual pseudo-casual eye-darting men do when they are checking out a woman they suspect wouldn’t appreciate it.

I figured her to be about ten years older than me—pushing hard on forty. Her face was plain and strong, round and scrubbed a glowing pink. Cropped and shiny black hair curled in toward large, dark eyes, giving her the old-timey look of a flapper. Her face seemed sad, but settled and knowing—accepting, though with a reserve of hope so deep and quiet that it must have had its roots in faith. I didn’t know the meaning of any of this when I first saw it in her eyes. Much about Melanie I only understood years later.

She continued avoiding my gaze, so my attention drifted back to the series of short, almost identical phone calls that were ostensibly why I was at the station that night. At one point I realized we were making our pitches in unison. We had both paused for the same few seconds listening to a response and said, ”Uh-huh.” Melanie looked up at me and smiled. In the next moment, we were quoting the same catch line from the list of prompts, in sync and with the same inflection: “Any additional amount will help.” It was too much and we started to laugh. Our hand-sets hit the cradles at the same time and she turned toward me for the first time. “One of us better change the tape,” she said, “or we’ll both be wasting our time.” Her voice was high and warm like a kiss on the forehead.

The evening took off from there. As each of my calls ended, I would cheer her on with a smile and a nod. She began to do the same.

I hadn’t shared a bed with anyone for longer than one night in over a year. For the last three months I’d been subsisting solely on the five sisters. That in itself was enough to sharpen my interest in Melanie, but she was also just my type.

She seemed like a woman who would be flattered by careful romantic attention. She was older and a little heavy, by the ridiculous standards of the day. She seemed at home with her body—bralessness was a Berkeley standard she seemed comfortable with—but I was sure that like most women she was not satisfied with the way she looked. She looked beautiful to me. Big-boned, but soft-fleshed, the muscular roundness of her upper arms plumping out slightly from the constriction of her short sleeves, her modest breasts rounded the fabric above the high waist of a floral cotton dress that spread to below her knees around generous, patient hips. She wore no wedding ring. I guessed that she was an old-school feminist, fundamentally suspicious of marriage, but that her commitment to being single was more a reaction to believing that she would never find an acceptable partner.

I had dated younger versions of Melanie before. They were so much easier to take than many of the so-called beautiful women I’d known, who played hard-to-get and militant with their boots and lipstick-butch attitudes, all the while looking for a macho stud with the right philosophical rap and a source of money. Yeah, I was bitter.

For all their feminist rhetoric, the Movement people I knew—both women and men—still clung to a hierarchy based on beauty. I don’t know what combination of radical-chic, pop-commercial, Euro-art culture informed the aesthetic, but it was rigidly enforced by those who accepted its subjugation. A straight woman who stuck to her guns as far as sexual politics was concerned could easily end up middle-aged, single, and celibate not by choice.

I sought out women like that—like Melanie, as I’d hoped for her to be. I was their male reflection—the slightly unacceptable partner. I wasn’t able, so I pretended I didn’t choose, to make the grade in the competition for women: money, good looks, self-assured and capable, yet sensitive and caring (don’t forget sensitive and caring). I was an average guy with sub-par looks at best, and believing I wasn’t good enough to be wanted by attractive women at all, and not by any woman for long, I had developed a calculating sexual desperation.

                       

 

“Where do you work?” Melanie asked.

We had been walking aimlessly around downtown Berkeley for an hour swapping rumors and gossip about station politics. The revolutionary ’70s had given way to the see-what-happens early ’80s. The AIDS acronym had not yet been forged—the party was still raging, but it was more manic, less interpersonal, with no sense of movement, like a collectively held breath. There was already a sense of social downturn on the Left Coast. We’d seen what Reagan could do.

Now we were eating falafels in a tiny shop on Telegraph Avenue.

“County Social Welfare. Adoption case worker,” the jargon drum-rolled from my mouth. It cannot be overstated what a great come-on line that was for me among women in political groups—even before it was actually true.

“Oh, really? MSW?”

“No, not yet. Still an intern.” I tried not to sound as deflated as admitting that made me feel.

Strolling side by side, talking about other people, we had kept a certain distance. Her eyes met mine politely at the right moments in the conversation, but were evasive. Now, as we spoke about ourselves across the table, she faced me with a steady, assessing gaze that challenged me with its honesty.

“So, where do you work?” I asked.

“At home,” she said.

“OK… so… do you mean you’re… a housewife?” I said with overstated irony.

This seemed especially funny to her. “No,” she said and laughed. The high, sweet clarity touched me again in a way I did not understand. “No way. Never been married.” She smiled intently at the pita bread she held in her hands as if it were an amusing book. She seemed to be waiting for me to ask the right question.

“OK, so what do you do… at home?”

“I sew.” I felt like she was holding back a punch line. Her pursed mouth held a smile like a secret.

“Oh, you’ve got a little sweatshop going.” I glanced about in mock suspicion. “INS trouble?”

“No, it’s just me. Solemente.”

My next question was just a puzzled look.

“Actually, I make my own designs and sell them.”

“Wow.” I was impressed, but by the way she sucked her breath in around her teeth I knew there was something more. “But what kind of stuff do you do that you can make a living at it?”

“I work exclusively with silk.”

“Silk?”

“Yes, it brings a good price because, well, it’s silk—it’s hard to work with, you know—you need special machines and most people don’t know how to do it right.” Her pride was obvious even as she tried to hide it. “I’ve actually gotten really good. I started out doing a lot of resewing for people salvaging imports that were coming apart, but now I do my own designs, and they sell about as fast as I can make them.” She gave up trying to hide her pride, settling back in her seat with a self-satisfied smile and a bit of a blush.

“The dress you’re wearing now is cotton, though, right? Do you make, like, super fancy stuff that you’d never wear yourself?”

“No, well, yes, it is pretty fancy, I am wearing one of my pieces, but, you know, it’s all underwear.” Her cheeks darkened a shade.

In the span of a breath I read her blush and knew that Melanie was not thinking of me as a co-worker or a client—with whom I know she could have talked underwear without a blush for hours. “Oh. Yeah. Very cool,” I crooned.

We talked of other things for a while, pretending I was not interested in her underwear and that she had not been blushing. As we talked our eyes stopped playing contact tag. There was a moment when our eyes met and we held them in silence for seconds that seemed like minutes. We were both startled by this and began to eat in earnest, our foreheads nearly touching as we leaned over paper plates on the tiny table between us to bite our dripping pitas.

She trusted me enough to let me walk her home. Enough to invite me in. I drew her trust along by seeing her only to the front door of the subdivided Victorian where she lived. I suggested a time and place for us to meet the next day. She trusted me enough to agree.

                       

 

When we got to her flat the next night, the first thing she wanted me to see was her work.

“Well, this is my little sweatshop,” she said, switching on a blare of work lights as I emerged from the top of the pull-down attic stairs. With a stoic crew of dress dummies and mannequins crowded around long, wide work tables piled with shining fabric, it did have the look of a busy workshop in still-life. Melanie alone animated this world.

She must have been used to people being dumb-struck when first seeing her attic. My mouth formed a continuous “Wow” as she intoned in a tour-guide voice the name of each strange-looking sewing machine and pointed out the finished products that adorned the mannequins: bras and panties, camisoles and tap pants—from the lightest pinks to the deepest purples and black. I could not have imagined that silk could look so many different ways.

“In the last couple of years I’ve gotten ahead enough to invest in top-of-the-line equipment and material. Now I can pretty much make anything I can design—and fast enough to make it worth the effort.” She stood before me, awaiting my reaction.

The musky scent of the silk, or of Melanie, the intimacy of the narrow spaces between the tables in the dormer attic, the new, searching look on her face, the suggestion of the silken shapes, the effect of my own loneliness—all combined to excite me in a way I could not hide. I wondered at feeling the need to do so.

“Melanie, Melanie, this is so…cool,” was all I could croak.

It may have been the look on my face, something in my voice, or she may have noticed the erection pressing the crotch of my jeans, but she abruptly ended the tour. I never went into her attic again.

                       

 

Over the next few weeks we spent many evenings together, in her “parlor,” as she liked to call her living room. We listened to old Bob Dylan records over and over—Freewheelin’, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde—I Shall Be Released, Sweet Jane, Positively 4th Street—songs, we discovered, that had filled both of our lives. Neither of us much liked the newer stuff.

We talked politics and told our stories.

My story was a drug-induced epic of road trips and street life. Our hero survives the post-Viet Nam collapse of phony hippie idealism and emerges as a neo-progressive spiritual feminist, ready to fight the good fight but no longer willing to go to the barricades. She was interested and empathetic.

Her story was of her father fighting in Spain with the Lincoln brigade, of being raised in a community of card-carrying communists, of the political and personal rebuilding required of them as they came to grips with the reality of Stalinism. She told me about Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, about trips to the south with SNCC, and of starting a commune in Sonoma, of farming and textile art. I was enthralled.

I did not speak of my creeping cynicism, the bitterness I was only vaguely aware of at the time, the emotional dishonesty that led to my loneliness.

She did not tell the more personal stories that I imagined had led to her solitary life—of struggling with the male domination of the movement, of fights with former lovers, and of breakups.

Every evening when the Dylan and the talking stopped, we sat on her couch listening to KJAZ, getting closer in the quiet of the music.

There are times when everything happens with the first touch—when both people know from the start that the preliminaries are just building up the potential they know will explode on contact—when the car, the hall, or the kitchen floor will become the scene of mindless consummation. But I could tell that Melanie needed me to court her.

We went from listening to snuggling within a few nights, but we never moved on to kissing. I saw in her face a reflection of the anxiety I was feeling. Who would take the lead? Would our intensity match, or would one of us be embarrassed, disappointed and guilty, while the other felt distant, stingy, and guilty? We avoided the problem without words by going directly to giving each other massages. Using back rubs and foot massages, we danced around the edges of sex. We became intimate without a commitment beyond the massage itself, keeping an emotional distance. Both of us were aroused, but neither wanted it to be obvious—I because I was cultivating her trust, and she because she was taking care of herself by testing me.

We did not speak while we touched, using only our hands and the movements of our bodies, moving wider and deeper, releasing the will of the muscles, the tension of fear. Each night around midnight, as we made plans for the next evening and said our reserved good-byes, our faces were nearer, our pauses longer.

As Melanie became more trusting, we shed more of our clothes for our massage sessions. Within a week we were down to our underwear. I stripped to my boxers at Melanie’s first indication, but it was a slower process for her—the slipping down of a cotton shoulder here, the drawing up of a hem there, some unbuttoning and unzipping now and then—every step taken with silent request and approval. Beneath Melanie’s simple dresses were the camisoles and tap pants I had seen in the attic. But no mannequin wore them now, and the liquid silk, black one night, red the next, tickled my eyes and the backs my hands, my palms and finger tips absorbing her warmth, and more than once conspired to give away the excitement I concealed.

I was confused by my willingness and ability to be so patient. In the midst of client home visits and intake interviews I found myself yearning for our time together, planning on it as with a lover. But what was going on? We weren’t even sleeping together, and I was beginning to think we probably never would. I had never spent this much time with a woman without a sexual payoff. That’s what I had been thinking of with Melanie at first, but my feelings changed. I found myself thinking that if we started having sex, she would soon become wise to me and discover that sex was all I really wanted in the first place—that that was all I ever aspired to in a relationship—that the rest was just a ruse.

This way of thinking about women had never troubled me before—I was just trying to get laid, after all—playing the game in what I thought was an ethical way. But there was something about the way I felt when I was with Melanie that made me want things to be different this time. So, I didn’t press the issue as I always had in the past. I’d been pressing the issue since I was fifteen years old. I never thought of doing things any differently. That’s just the way men are, right? Advise and hope for consent. But, now, I thought somehow things could be different. Maybe Melanie and I would work out in a way I had always thought could never be.

The last evening of our ease and comfort together was the Sunday night before I was to attend a staff retreat in Monterey. She massaged me first, as I lay stretched out on a quilt on the floor of her parlor. A blissful half hour later she was warm from the exertion as I began on her.  A bloom of sweat dampened the wisps of hair on the nape of her neck and moistened my hands as I worked her back beneath her camisole. She relaxed nearly to the point of sleep.

When I moved down and began to massage her thighs she seemed to enliven, moving her legs and raising her hips slightly in a way she never had before. She lay with her eyes closed as usual, her cheek against the back of her hand. Her mouth softened and her nostrils widened as she took long, slow breaths, sighing deeply. The sweetness of her breath reached my face, mint tea mingling with the body warmth that enveloped us both. Hips angled still higher, she seemed to draw my hand toward the space between the purple silk and the ivory-pink of her skin. I became aware of the scent of her sex. I held my breath and entered. With closing eyes and the memory in my fingertips I found the edges of her vulva and the pulpit of her clitoris. With her wordless guidance I followed the motion of her body in an easy, quickening rhythm until she came with moist tremors in my hand. Silently elated, I finished the massage by stroking her from head to foot while she drifted in and out of sleep.

That night at the door before I left, we kissed for the first time—a lingering kiss, our lips slightly parted, a beginning exploration without intrusion or urgency. We spoke briefly about where and when we would meet when I returned from Monterey on Friday, then we held each other quietly for a few last moments.

At the retreat I met Julie, the woman I would live with for the next four years. It was classic. We met at the reception and moved quickly from casual conversation to flirting, a couple of drinks, and straight to her room. We blew off as much of the retreat as we could, fucking whenever we got the chance.

                       

 

I had been pacing while I told Melanie of my misdeed.

I didn’t feel guilty about having had sex with another woman while I was seeing Melanie, but I knew that if I wasn’t honest and open about it I would feel guilty about that, and fuck guilt! I felt like I had done nothing wrong, but that lying—even by omission—would have made me feel like I was in the wrong. Without awkward details, I told her exactly what had happened at the conference.

She did not speak or react in any way. She simply sat on the arm of the couch eyeing me with the same sad, knowing look I had noticed but not understood when we’d met. I still did not understand. When she left abruptly and went downstairs to the flat below, I thought for the first time of her having an emotional ally, a friend at hand. “Just a minute,” was all she said.

Deflated of the righteous energy of my honesty, I slumped to the floor in front of the couch. I stared at the ceiling, my mind playing a game of strategic ambivalence. I did not consider leaving. On one hand, hanging in there and allowing Melanie to ream me before she told me she never wanted to see me again was cleansing penance. In fact, the more anger she showed, the sooner I would feel better about having betrayed her. In that case I would be calling Julie when I left. But I also had hope that she would forgive me. After all, jealousy was a bourgeois affect—a remnant of patriarchy. As long as I came clean, we could pick up where we left off, right?

Melanie was gone long enough for me to slide into a dreamless sleep. Into the blank of my mind as I awakened, the old self-loathing oozed like puss from an infection. I was just reorganizing my defensive rationalizations when Melanie returned.

“I wasn’t at the station that night to ‘meet someone.’ You were an accident.” She was standing over me, speaking in a firm, matter-of-fact voice. Her face was red and her eyes were puffy, but she was not about to show me her tears.

I started to get up, relieved that I was about to be permanently dismissed, but she thrust her hand out above my forehead in a gesture like a shove. “Stay here. I’m going to read you something before you go.” She turned and went down the hall to her bedroom—a room she had never invited me into, and one that I would never see.

                       

 

I had heard of it long before I ever read any of it, or even knew what it was. It was something for the record books, like antidisestablishmentarianism—a curio, a road side attraction: World’s Longest. At thirteen I thought Ulysses was The Odyssey. I imagined Kirk Douglas battling a black-and-white Cyclops in a movie I’d seen on television. Joyce was an older girl who lived down the block. Even that last night in Melanie’s flat I was ignorant of Stephen Daedalus and Molly Bloom.

The book was small, but thick, with a dark green cover on which I could see no writing. She held it just below her breasts with two hands, her elbows at her sides. She began somewhere near the end, a place at which the book fell open out of habit.

“…well I suppose he won’t find many like me where softly sighs of love the light guitar…” she began. I did not know what I was hearing, but her surging, releasing tone enveloped me.

“… those fine young men I could see down in Margate strand bathing place from the side of the rock standing up in the sun naked like a God or something and then plunging into the sea…” Now Melanie paced the room, not looking down at me, but hovering in an arc with me at its apex.

At first, I dutifully listened, but could not make sense of it. When I stopped trying to make it make sense, the words became clearer, began to join and move into and between one another—each reacting with the others like colors. With my forehead resting on my arms across my knees, the back of my head began to fall asleep, crawling with tiny ants, as it sometimes had at an interesting lecture that was just beyond my grasp, but that I knew was true and important.   “…theres real beauty and poetry for you I often felt I wanted to kiss him all over also his lovely young cock there so simple…” As Melanie intoned the unending series of interconnected sounds and phrases, places and scenes unfolded, people came and went, strange but familiar lives came into view and disappeared, while the heavy-yet-spongy feeling expanded across my scalp. When the sensation reached my downturned eyes, it was as if the top of my head opened up and my senses filled the room along with Melanie’s words and the many possible meanings they carried. The shelves of books, the turntable and the rack of albums, the armchairs and end-table, the high ceiling and the space it enclosed—all vibrated with the rhythm of Melanie’s ringing voice, splashing the dim room with pictures.

“…If he thinks all women are the same and I can teach him the other part Ill make him feel all over him till he half faints under me…” The rhythm of the words expanded to rolling waves of figures in motion, the words becoming people, faces, the sentence a surging crowd of humanity. The words, bodies, faces, times, places, overlapped and interwove, entering me to mingle with unbidden memories. “…no thats no way for him he has no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature slapping us behind like that on my bottom…” The room became every room I had ever been in, the dark Persian rug before me a world that stretched to the sky. I dove into the nighscape seeking refuge, but the sound and words moved out over all.

“…so plump and tempting in my short petticoat…” In a dream without time, Melanie’s singing of this stranger’s mind drew me through a cascade of overlapping déjà vus. “…of course a woman wants to be embraced 20 times a day…” Scenes and feelings surfaced and receded, riding the power of the unfolding tapestry that filled the room. “…I dont care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it…” A montage of previous transgressions, moments of decision, error, and shame streamed by like a highlight reel of moral bloopers, each one accompanied by its own echoing excuses and compensating lies. “…still its a lovely hour so silent I used to love coming home after dances the air of the night they have friends they can talk to…” I was a child stealing from my brother, reading my sister’s diary, vandalizing a school room, raiding my mother’s purse.

“… or if the woman was going her rounds with the watercress and something nice and tasty…” Scenes from our brief time together were immediately intruded upon by memories of girls and woman I had pushed, prodded, pressured into compromise. “…I can accompany him first I must clean the keys of the piano with milk whatll I wear shall I wear a white rose…” I was the older boy, luring freshman girls, supplying the liquor, feigning love for the night. Cheating on my girlfriend and crying only for my own loss when she broke with me, never considering her pain.

“…O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets…” Melanie got quieter, yet her energy rose, following me as I crawled toward a light, “…and the figtrees in the alameda gardens yes…” through a room full of sleeping bags, “…and geraniums and cactuses and Gibralter as a girl…” ignoring the protests of a younger girl who trusted me, “…where I was a Flower of the mountain yes…” slipping into her bag, hearing her whisper No, no, no, into my ear and not caring as I came in spite of her pleas, feeling the sickness in my heart that would overtake my life only after rolling off and turning my back to her quiet sobs in the dark.

“…when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used…” Curled up on the kitchen floor, the sound of a bird calling from far away became my own convulsive keening. “…and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another…” Melanie leaned over me, close to my snotty face, and with a low, measured voice, the book now pressed against her chest, she delivered the final blows. “…and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes…” Is this life only about me, mine, self-pity—envy and lust my only feelings? Where is she? How can I reach her, stand beside her without shame, “…and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower…” she who rises above me, an avenging angel wielding words from the scabbard at her breast, she who was an object of desire, not my lover, and to whom I was never a friend? “…and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down…” How can I hope to earn something other than her pity and her scorn? “…so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad…” How can I be other than pretender, vulture, usurper? How can I be the man a woman in full could love? “…and yes I said yes I will Yes…”

                       

 

I saw Melanie walking toward me on the street the other day. I hid from her as though from a vengeful enemy, though I know she isn’t the kind of person who seeks revenge. Through the years she probably hadn’t given me more than a passing thought. But I’d thought of her every day as I struggled—to rededicate myself to my work, to be a good partner to Julie, and to reading voraciously—to overcome the things she helped me see were true about myself.

Now, seeing her again, it was as if I’d seen my light come shining.

I watched through a café window as she passed. She was with two men and a woman. Possibly couples, I’ll never know. She strolled by no more than a few feet from me in a vintage summer dress that made the sidewalk glow. The man behind her spoke into her ear. She stopped and laughed out loud, hands on hips, mouth open to the sky. They embraced and the four disappeared around the corner. Gratitude swelled within me like laughter. Then something else stilled the world around me for a beat and drew my breath—something that I now believe was grace.

                                               

Leveling the Flow

 

“Come on you guys, we gotta get gas!”

        “Fuckin’ shit, man!”

        Alex is awakened by the voices of his friends.

        “I’m outta here in five minutes, with you guys or not, so get your asses outta bed!”

        The room comes into focus. Cindy Marshall’s bedroom. It still doesn’t feel like his. He used to love this room when he shared it with Cindy on the sly—sneaking in together after midnight, quietly fucking in Cindy’s single bed until dawn, hiding alone in the closet from her father’s morning good-byes, Cindy cutting school, sleeping in and playing house all afternoon together. But since Cindy went away to school in San Francisco last fall, this has just been the place he keeps his stuff and sleeps.

        An alluring dream draws him deep into his pillow for a moment. A second later he panics. Fear and adrenaline force his stinging eyes into the light. He absolutely cannot miss another day at work. He thinks, Get up you fucking asshole. “Now!” he bellows as he rolls onto the floor and pushes himself to up on his ass. Forearms on his knees, his head begins to droop, thundering like a crashing reverb box. Jesus, it feels like I just went to sleep. Palms to his temples, elbows extended, he squeezes his skull, trying to still the roar. He draws a long slow breath trying to bring himself back to life. He doesn’t have to recall the music from the night before—just a few hours ago—because it’s still playing in his throbbing ears. Did we really sound that good?  Will it sound that good when we listen to the tape tonight?  Or were we just so fucked up we thought we sounded good?

        “Fucking shit, I hate this job,” he groans. But he doesn’t really hate his job. In fact, in the brief working life of his twenty-three years, he’s never really cared about and enjoyed a job the way he does this one. Alex Conrad is the flow-solder man. The entire computer factory runs through him: that huge over-lit workroom full of Asian and Latin girls, stuffing circuit boards as fast as their skinny little fingers can move, racking and stacking and lining them up for his flow-solder machine, and all those techies and ties in the testing department waiting for the clean, solid boards that only he can send them. Even Joe-boy and Eddie in chassis and harness go into a holding pattern when the flow solder machine goes down. No, he may not ever say it, and he resists the idea on principle, but he really does love this job. He just hates going to work on three hours of sleep.

        Alex hears Joe-boy in the kitchen turning up the volume on his daily frenzy. He’s usually the quintessential laid-back bass player—too cool to hiss more than two words unless he’s talking about music. But he hates to wait and he hates to be late. Since he’s the one with a car, Joe-boy has taken on the job of getting everyone to work on time. “I’m goin’ out to warm up the car.” His voice glissandos up in a reasoned threat that echoes down the empty hall outside the south bedrooms. “You guys better get out there.”

        “Hey, man, I been up for an hour, so shut the fuck up!” Alex hears Dave blast in from the studio they’d constructed in the garage.

        “What?” Joe-boy says, “You been listening to the tapes?”

        Silence. Dave is fucking with him. Alex forgets his aching head and listens, eager to hear what Dave thinks of last night’s session.

        “And? And?”

        Dave lets him hang a moment more before exploding, “Pretty fuckin’ good, man!”

        “Aw right!” says Joe-boy and Alex can hear the patter of the little dance he’s seen Dave go into when super excited, playing Andy-boy’s shoulders and head like timbales. In the pause that follows, Alex’s eyes drift to a distant focus, and he wishes again as he does every day, as he knows Dave and Andy-boy are wishing, the same unsayable wish.

        The urgency of the moment intrudes. “I gotta go warm up the car. You better get those guys up—if we don’t get some gas before work we’re screwed ‘cuz there’s not gonna be enough to get home.”

        Dave is pounding the walls in the hall. “OK, OK, I’m up, I’m up!” Alex croaks. A wave of nausea and dizziness stops him. He leans on his knees a moment, then straightening up, he yawns and stretches to fight it off. Trying to rouse his still-sleeping mind, he surveys the trash and possessions that clutter the room: piles of clean and dirty clothes, beer bottles and candy wrappers, an alto recorder and some bongos, an eight-track car stereo complete with naked oval speakers, a jungle of African violets in the window on the chest of drawers he stole from his father’s sister. Behind him is the mattress he stole from an aunt on his mother’s side.

            He’s still wearing last night’s clothes. He thinks about changing, but hears the front door slam and let’s it go. I just got time to piss.

        The pressure in his bladder is becoming painful. Bursting into the hall he hears the bathroom door slam. “Shit!”  Eddie always beats him to it. The other bathrooms are with the other bedrooms on the far side of the sprawling ranch-style house.  So, clutching his early morning erection through his jeans, hunched and shuffling like Quasimodo, he busts down the hall, crashing into Dave. “Sorry, man, I gotta piss.” Nearly pulling the slider off its track, he stumbles onto the barren concrete patio and scuttles to the edge of a backyard wild with fennel and thistle.

        Ripping down his fly, he thrusts his hips and throws his upper body back, relaxing to the verge of falling over. As his erection subsides, the relieving flow begins and he drains himself into a star thistle. Pungent steam rises in the cool morning air, blending with the sweet scent of fennel.

        He remembers this yard from years ago when it was a construction site. The house was built and the quarter acre yard was graded and ready for topsoil and landscaping. That was as far as it got. Like the inside of the Marshalls’ house, it was never finished. But while the floors and the walls remained bare all these years as the Marshall family fell apart, the backyard grew up and filled out on its own terms, like the three Marshall girls, wild and thorny, fragrant, green.

        He wags his dick and flips it loose into his jeans. The Volvo’s horn is blaring. Turning to the house while buttoning his fly, Alex wonders at the ease with which even a drunk can button up his 501’s, and why he is having so much trouble. Working his jeans with one hand and pulling the slider closed with the other, the heavy glass door derails with a thud against the jamb. “Shit!” he spits, and bends to fix it, but the sound of the horn spins him back toward the kitchen, still buttoning up.

        In the kitchen he splashes water on his face and swishes out his mouth. He tries to run his fingers through his matted hair and pull it into some kind of order behind his ears and down his back. The horn sounds again and now Joe-boy is racing the engine. “This is getting serious man. I have got to brush this shit pretty soon.” His face still dripping, he checks his wallet, pulls a hair tie from his pocket and races to the door.

        The white ‘65 Volvo station wagon is lurching and halting in the street like a dragster at the line. Alex is pulling his hair into a painful ponytail as he runs down the driveway. Music is pouring from the Volvo along with the morning smoke. The vocals are muffled but it’s a tune they’ve covered. Alex knows the lyrics:

I’ll be the roundabout…

The words will make you out-and-out…

He’s never been sure what they mean, but he isn’t thinking about them now: he’s thinking about getting stoned.

        Eddie is hanging out the backseat window in a cloud of smoke, bellowing, “You better run, man, ‘cuz he’s pissed. He’s taking off.” As the last one out, Alex knows they’ll make him go around and sit behind the driver’s seat and he also knows that Joe-boy will gun it just as he reaches for the door. He does. Peals of laughter pierce the music. The Volvo jolts to a stop a car-length ahead. On cue, Eddie kicks the door open, “Well… come on… get in,” they chorus.

        Of course, Joe-boy isn’t really pissed at all. He’s laughing, stoned and jammin’ with his air-bass to the tape. A glance at the watch glued to the dashboard shows that Joe-boy cracked the whip fifteen minutes early. If the gas line isn’t too bad they may get to work with enough time for doughnuts in the parking lot. Air-bass solo concluded, Joe-boy pops the clutch.

        “Here, Con-man, I think it’s dusted.” Eddie hands Alex a black plastic film can and a pipe made of brass fittings wrapped at the elbow with adhesive tape, now blackened and shiny with wear. The familiar warmth and heaviness of the old pipe is reassuring as he weighs it in his palm. Con-man glances up at Eddie and Dave, checking his audience, and carefully fills the pipe with loose flakes from the bottom of the can. Eddie notices Alex using only the shake and calls him on it. “Come on, man—whose money you tryin’ to save. Bust off a good piece and get some real smoke goin’!”

        The Con-man theory is that if you just use the shake and never actually break the buds you’ll never run out. “Don’t you want it to last?” he asks.

        “Man, that only works with hash,” says Eddie

        “Well, anyway,” Con-man says, biting the shrink-wrapped stem of the pipe and grinning like a hirsute Douglas Mac Arthur, “It’s full, so fire me up!”

        Alex is suddenly serious, even solemn, as the flame in Eddy’s hand descends upon the bowl of herb. He exhales through his nose and seals his lips around the stem, preparing for the blast of heat and pleasure—the first hit of the day.

        When the coughing subsides and dope is again cushioning his brain, Alex rests his head against the window, gazing through the freeway cars and trucks on the 405 coming into Irvine, and thinks of Cindy. She hung up on him last night. It had felt so good talking to her in the dark, in bed, instead of from a phone booth. He’d known he would be waking her in the middle of the night, but at first she’d sounded warm and soft, like she loved him and she missed him—like she’d been dreaming of him. Until she woke up a little more and started to think.

        “Are you at the house, Alex?”  The question was an accusation.

        “Where do you think I’d be at 2:30?”

        “Well, who’s paying for this call?  Are you using one of those phone card numbers?”

        “No, baby, no. I can cover the phone bill.”  He knew she’d assume he was lying.

        “No you can’t—you guys never pay your fucking bills.” She paused to hear him lie again and when he started to mumble she reamed his ear. “Listen, Alex, the phone guys have already been here asking me about calls on stolen credit numbers. This is not news to you. I mean, I can keep playing ‘em off, but if you’re not using a pay phone they’re gonna know right where you are and we’re both gonna get popped.” She paused for a breath and he thought she might be softening, but she was just gathering for her next attack. “How can you be so dumb?  They’re probably listening to us right now!”

    “No they’re not. They got better things to do than stay up all night trying to catch some two-bit long-distance thieves. They published those numbers in the Free Press for Chrise sake. We don’t have to be that paranoid.”

        “You’re the one who made me paranoid about it in the first place! And they were interested enough to come by and hassle me.” There was a breath or two of silence while the truth of what Cindy was saying settled in. “I don’t know Alex. This thing just isn’t working.”

        He sighed. He didn’t know either. He searched for something else to say—to make “this thing” between them work like it always had before. “I was tired of talking to you from a phone booth, Cindy. I miss you. I love you baby. I just had to talk to you—here, you know—before I went to sleep. I knew you’d be in bed. I want to be there with you, baby. I wanted to hear your voice…”

        “OK, OK, you heard my voice.” She was still irritated—his long-distance pillow talk hadn’t had its usual effect. “What, did you think maybe I wasn’t alone?”  This was new territory. How did she know what he was thinking?

        “No, that’s not it. I just…”

        She cut him off, “Just quit using those numbers, Alex. I can’t take the stress. Now go to sleep.”  And she hung up. Just like that. She’d never done that before. They sometimes take ten minutes just to say good-bye. He almost called her back, but instead he lay awake wondering if maybe she did have another guy up there in San Francisco. It would serve him right for not going with her.

        But he didn’t think he’d really had a choice.

                    

        Con-man and his band had been moving in on the Marshall house like squatters for years. By the time Cindy went to college they were the only ones left living there. Alex had to stay with the band when Cindy left: it was his band—he was the front man, the singer, the song writer—but also it was part of the deal Cindy cut with her mother to get Cindy to college and away from the band.

        The Marshall house had always been the cool place to hang out for the kids in the neighborhood because the parents were never home. Ellie Marshall, the Finnish ice queen mom, was out seven days a week in her Caddie with a fifth of Cutty in the trunk, buying and selling Orange County by the standard lot. She was never home before 2:00 AM and was gone again by 8:00 the next morning. She’d worked her way up from subdivisions to malls and hotels by the time she quit coming home all together. Bob Marshall, Mad Man Marsh, was an aerospace engineer and a right-wing hard-ass to be avoided if possible. That became easier and easier as “overtime” evolved into living on his boat with his girlfriend.

        Every guy in the band had gone out with at least one of the Marshall girls. Alex started with freshman fantasies of the oldest one, Margaret, but she turned out to be a chip off the old ice queen. Amy, the middle sister, was Alex’s age, but she hung around with the band for more than a year before she got around to Con-man. Though Alex didn’t like the fact that he was the last one she tried, he didn’t mind at all when she finally led him back to her room. But by then he had his eye on Cindy.

        Even when she was a freshman and Alex was a senior with a pick-up truck and a rock-n-roll band, Cindy had seemed like too much woman for him. She was big and loud and tough. She didn’t hang around with her sisters or with the band. In fact, nobody seemed to know where she was most of the time. “Out with her biker friends,” was all her sisters knew. People worried about her. One afternoon Alex saw her climb off the back of a Harley in front of the house. Purple hip-huggers tucked into knee-high boots, braless in a see-through halter, a wild blond halo of wind-blown hair—she was magnificent. The guy on the bike was about the most dangerous looking freak Alex had ever seen, but she was laughing and punching his arm. And when she kissed him on the cheek and shouted, “See he later man,” he seemed to shrink. She was totally in charge. She was like no girl Alex had ever seen—or even known about. He didn’t worry about her after that. He just wanted her to notice him.

        It was Joe-boy who brought her to the band. They were at school together after Alex graduated. Once Joe-boy and Cindy were a couple, the band started practicing in the Marshall’s garage. When Cindy chose Alex over Joe-boy a few months later, there was nothing either life-long friend could do about it. Joe-boy spent some time sulking and jealous but the band was bigger than any of that. They were turning the garage into a studio. It was important to keep Cindy happy. Her mother was a little harder to please.

        Ellie and Marsh had been too self-absorbed to see that the band was taking over their house. By the time they did, it was just another piece of property in a very complicated divorce. Margaret and Amy were out of the house and Cindy was a high school senior riding the crest of a teenage dream: on her own, in her own home, with her own live-in rock-n-roll band. As her part of the divorce process Ellie made one last show of maternal interest. She wanted Cindy away from the evil influence of “all those hippie boys.”  She threatened them with the police, but Cindy told her mother, “If the band goes, I go with them.” So, Ellie tried bribery and Cindy made a deal with her. She would quit living with the band if her mother would put her up in an apartment in San Francisco and pay her way through college. The band would stay and “house sit” since there was no way they could sell or rent out the unfinished luxury slum that the place had become. Ellie probably figured she could sell it out from under them after the divorce settled. Cindy knew the band was relocating to the Bay Area eventually anyway.

        But eventually can seem like a long time.

        Everyone was happy but the Con-man.

                    

Lady finger, dipped it moonlight,

Writing ”What For?” across the morning sky…

        Grateful Dead. Saint Stephen. Cindy’s song. Alex doesn’t remember hearing it begin. He doesn’t know where they are.

        Joe-boy passes the end of the long line of cars before he realizes it—a block from the “camel stop,” as he calls it. “Shit!” he says, pounding the steering wheel, “It’s never been this long!”

        “Forget it man,” Dave cautions as he sees Joe-boy scanning for a chance to cut into the line of edgy drivers.

        “Yeah,” says Eddie, “we’ll all get fired if we sit in that line and come in two hours late. Let’s just borrow some gas from Marvin and go fishin’ tonight…or we could all get up a little earlier tomorrow.”

        The last comment is directed at Alex, but he’s looking at the phone booth he had planned to use while Joe-boy gassed up. His face is flushed. He’s sure Cindy is getting up this morning with another guy. He won’t be able to call her until break. Hunger and nausea combine and he almost screams for Joe-boy to stop the car. I’ll quit my job. I’ll quit the band. I’ve just got to get out of this goddamn car and call Cindy.

        But he doesn’t do a thing. His feelings fade to depression and self-loathing. You’re so fucking weak. No wonder she’s got another guy. The Volvo feels like a hearse the rest of the way to work. He takes no part in the fishing plans to siphon gas out of parked cars later that night.

                   

        The car is booming with the epileptic boogie of The Eleven when Alex rises to the surface and begins to hear the music again. They’re just turning into the parking lot of Computer Automation, Inc.

        “That’s what I like about Pete—he’s the first drummer we’ve had that can do 5’s and 7’s smooth. He knows where the one is without poundin’ on it.” Dave is obsessing again about the new direction—the new wave of jazz/rock fusion they all hope to ride to fame and fortune.

        “Yeah, well, sometimes I wish he would pound the one a little more so I’d know where it was,” says Eddie.

        “You don’t really gotta hit the top of the measure when you’re playin’ sax,” says Joe-boy. “You just follow me and Pete.” He pauses for the music. “Listen how Lesh brings these guys back to the four beat.”

        Talk is suspended as they listen for the eleven-beat jam to change back to four/four.

        “I tell you, man,” says Joe-boy in hushed reverence, “that’s about the greatest moment in rock-n-roll so far.” Just as Eddie and Dave begin to loll with the music and the dope, Joe-boy punches out the cassette and yanks open the door, “I gotta go to the lumber truck and get some dough. I haven’t had anything to eat since that pizza last night.” There’s general serious agreement and everyone but Alex flops out of the Volvo. Even in the silence of the empty car he hears the next two lines of the song:

Without a warning, you broke my heart.

Taken it baby, torn it apart

Lyrics Con-man and Pigpen can both understand. He rolls out of the backseat and walks toward the opening in the side of the huge concrete box that is the computer plant, waiting just outside for his crew.

        “What’s the matter with you, Alex?” says Dave as he reaches the entrance ahead of the others. Dave is the only one besides Cindy who still calls him Alex. He’s known Alex since long before he became the Con-man.

        “I don’t know, man, I can’t take this grind anymore.”

        “You mean work?”

        “Yeah, I guess.”

        “This is the best work we ever had, Alex. We’re all at the same place, on the same shift, making good money, we’re practicing more than ever and sounding good—hey, we got it made here.”

        “Yeah? What about some regular paying gigs?  Is this how we thought it was gonna be?  We only really work a couple times a month. We had more gigs back in high school.”

        “There was no disco in high school. We were a top 40 band in high school. Is that what you want to do?” He knows the answer and continues, “Look, we’re doing it right. This disco thing is gonna fade. You had the right idea in the first place when you started us off in this direction.”

        “Yeah, right, you guys hardly even need a singer anymore—pretty soon there’s gonna be no vocals at all.” Alex is surprised at the sound of his own self-pity.

        Taking him by the upper arm, Dave turns Alex aside and presses him against the wall next to the entrance. “Listen Alex, you know that’s not true—and besides, it’s not about any of that shit is it?  This is about Cindy.” He turns his head, looking a little disgusted, and takes a quick breath, gathering steam. “Man, you gotta get over it. She used us. We used her. Everything worked out fine. Whatever happens next has got to be about us, not her. It’s not like you guys were gonna get married or something.”

        Alex stares at the asphalt and sighs. He can’t look Dave in the face because he’s afraid Dave is right and he doesn’t know what to say.

        “Look, Alex,” says Dave, softening his approach. “We’re not ready to go to San Francisco yet. And I’m not ready to give up on L.A. yet either. Cindy’s not going anywhere.” He moves in closer to Alex’s down turned face, trying to make some eye contact. “And even if she was, you know what the guys’d say—you can’t break up the band for pussy.” He follows up quickly to reassure his friend. “That’s not how I’d put it, but that’s how it gets said.”

        Alex is laughing and mad at the same time, “Oh, yeah, right,” playfully punching Dave’s arm, relieving tension, “Yeah that’s all Cindy is, motherfucker, nothin’ but pussy, sure.”

        “Naw…but you know what I mean,” says Dave, giving in but holding out.

        “Yeah, well, you know, man, I’ll never run out on you guys.” They are close to hugging when Joe-boy and Eddie walk up laden with coffee and doughnuts from The Orange County Lumber Truck. They join the listless stream of young people filing in to begin another day of work.

                     

        “It’s the happy hipsters!  The hippie hapsters!  Whad-id-is, bruthahs?  Whad-id-is?” As soon as they hit the cool, dry air of the plant, Marvin Lewis, the floor manager is coming at them like a smiling predator. His big perfect teeth reflect the brilliance of the florescent lights that give the vast interior space a surreal, brighter-than-daylight quality.

        Eddie addresses him with bored sarcasm, “Yeah, what is it, Marvin?” Eddie usually takes the lead in the group’s dealings with Marvin because Eddie is Latino and Marvin seems to go easier on them when Eddie does the talking. Marvin actually likes his hippie bruthahs. He considers hippies to be part of The Movement. They’re the only whites who have the slightest understanding of what he has to go through being the only black man in management. The Con-man and his boys are the only ones he jives with. He speaks school English to nearly everyone else in the plant. But his bait and cut style leaves the happy hipsters feeling manipulated: he chums the water, then reels them in without a fight, since their freedom to rip back on him is severely restricted by the fact that he is essentially their boss.

        “Well, well, well,” he sings, “you got the dough… you got the jo… you boys look like you’re all ready to go.” Marvin is a real performer—a carefully constructed parody of what he thinks white people expect a hip urban black man to be like. He’s got his captive audience laughing so hard they’re spilling their coffee. Now he’s completely got the drop on them from a management point of view. He singles out Dave first. “Well, Mr. D. you can start by goin’ in there and talkin’ to Freeman in sales. He wants last week’s data and I think he’s got some new tests he wants you to run.” The look on Marvin’s face tells them their work day has begun. Dave walks away without a word.

        Marvin steps deftly between Joe-boy and Eddie. Putting his arms around their shoulders, he speaks to them conspiratorially. “Foreman says you guys are gonna have a couple-a light days—you must-a been kickin’ some butt last week—so later on I’m gonna pull you off the line for a little while—there’s some stuff in shipping I need you to do.”  He propels them gently by the backs of their necks toward the chassis and harness department, his voice rising, “I’ll see-y’all at break about it.” Eddie and Joe-boy slump away shaking their heads. Marvin turns around to Alex, leaning against a chain-link divider—exhausted at just the thought of the next eight hours. “Come on, Con-man, let’s go see how it’s flowin’.”

        They walk on shiny industrial concrete down the wide center aisle of the plant.

        Alex has heard about “The Plant” since before he can remember. This same sort of floor—the glacier polish of a million tons of forklift and work shoes—is his earliest memory of visits to the bindery where his parents worked. As a kid the cold concrete, the size, the noise, and the seeming importance of the work, had impressed him with a sense of awe, like the feeling he had in church. But with three shifts going day and night and his parents working 48-hour weeks, the plant was more present in his life than any religion.

        Computer Automation is smaller and quieter, but the reverence is still there when he sees the concrete and feels it pound his heels. The ominous scent of ozone has replaced the forklift exhaust and rather than the metallic din of heavy industry, a murmur of voices can be heard above an electronic buzz. But the same impression of urgency and importance is here each morning as he walks to his machine.

        On his left are the blue-collar benches of the chassis and harness line—rows of work benches cluttered with tools and the hollow brown husks of sheet metal that are the exoskeletons of pre-natal computers. Silent men on stools with nut drivers and solder guns hunch like industrial monks over the precise routines of their work, ignoring the threat of the overburdened shelves above them that groan with future tasks: multicolored bouquets of wire, tubes and sockets, metal flats and hardware—the parts and pieces of their jobs.

        To the right is the white-collar world of the testing department. To secure against theft, it is completely enclosed by a six-foot chain-link fence that gives it the look of a refugee camp. Seen through the fence and dressed alike, the techies lose their personalities. The moving light from the diodes and screens reflecting on their white shirts and eyeglasses is more distinct than their faces. Their hushed voices blend with the hum of hundreds of tiny fans.

        They walk on toward the flow solder machine, smoking and groaning at the end of the aisle. Beside it, a huge square opens in the high concrete wall where the stuffing room seems to have been added on. The warm yellow light of the room is bright yet diffuse, allowing no shadows and flattening its features so that it appears as an unreal glow, like a movie projected on the wall, that darkens the rest of the plant by contrast. Though the overall impression is of frenzied activity, no one in particular seems to be moving. There is the musical tinkle of female conversation, but the work is fast and close and no heads turn as they speak among themselves. The tableau of stuffer girls vibrates with the work of their hands and their eyes at a frequency that generates rack upon rack of printed circuit boards, crowded with components ready for tinning.

        “The girls are lookin’ good this morning. Had most of a full crew here two hours ago, so they’re about three racks ahead of you.” Marvin is giving Alex the run-down. The flow solder machine is really Marvin’s baby. He takes it apart and puts it back together every few weeks. But it was his skill with the stuffing department got him promoted off the machine to floor manager. Somehow the ladies don’t mind being told about their mistakes the way Marvin tells them.

        “Put any fresh bars in yet?” Alex asks, starting to let the job take over.

        “Oh, yeah. Check it out. It’s topped off and smooth.” Standing next to the machine now, they look in silent fascination down into the caldron of roiling liquid metal. Alex and Marvin share a moment of admiration for the simple power of this machine. But Marvin is soon back to business. “You’re gonna have to adjust the fountain your self—I’m can’t do everything for you.”

        “I know, man. I can handle it.”

        “Yeah, well I wish you guys were doin’ bennies in the mornin’ instead of smokin’ weed.”  He’s jabbing, but Marvin is cool. He’s partied with the band before. He just prefers benzedrine.

        “Man, Marvin, you know we just take like one hit to get right.”  Marvin grins and starts to walk away. Alex knows Marvin could really get his goat if he wanted to and he’s glad to be let off the hook, but he tags Marvin one time as he leaves: “Go jack up your stuffers, man, ‘cuz I’m gonna be caught up with ‘em by break.”  He’s pleased with Marvin’s confidence in him and with his own confidence in running the machine. He will be caught up by break if the de-ionized water holds out. He shouts to Marvin before he disappears into the stuffing room, “How much DI we got?”

        “Culligan man was just here,” Marvin shouts back. “You got all you need for days.” De-ionized water is used by the board washer. Not only flux and oil must be scrubbed from the boards before they go to testing, but even excess electrons. Only de-ionized water can do the job.

        The rolling racks of boards look like cooling trays at a doughnut shop, waiting for the glaze. Alex selects a board from the nearest rack. If he’s careful he will only ruin a couple boards leveling the flow. If he’s lucky—and good—it’ll only take one.

        The excitement he feels as he starts the work is the same that he feels before he performs with the band. He breathes deeper and faster, his heart pounds, but he’s focused and steady, anxious to put his rising energy to work.

        The flow solder machine is shaped like a huge, doorless refrigerator on its back. The solder fountain at the center is formed by a rectangular frame of sheet metal called the collar that extends from below the surface of the pool of melted solder to a few inches above it. The operator controls pumps that force the molten metal up through the collar. The solder surges from below, bulging over the top of the constricting frame, but the heavy liquid resists the upward push and pours over the edges of the collar, back down into the surrounding caldron. When the pumps are adjusted correctly, the solder welling up through the collar forms a smooth crest of hot moving mirror over which the boards are slowly drawn by conveyor chains that run the length of the machine. When the fountain is level only the undersides of the boards touch the ridge of sticking liquid, fusing the board’s connectors with the wire legs of the components.

        A thin layer of motor oil smokes on the undulating surface of the melt, tinting the silvery sheen. Flamelessly burning away, it must be replenished hourly to prevent a layer of sludge from forming on the molten mass. A hood and fan cover the machine like a floating gazebo roof, but Alex still hacks up a brown remnant of the smoke each day after work. Even though he knows it’s poison, he secretly likes the smell of the scorching oil.

        He concentrates intensely on the test board. Leveling the top of the fountain sets up his whole day. Too low and some components will remain loose and be lost in the washer—too high and the solder will flood the top of the board and all the components will be ruined.  Once the fountain is level it will only need periodic adjustment when new bars of solder are added. Most of his day will be spent mounting boards on the conveyor chain, watching them as slip through the flux and hit the solder, then moving the warm, solid boards to the washer, and stacking them to dry for testing—fast, rhythmic work that allows him time to think.

        Alex’s mind is engaged with the machine. His hands are on the pump controls, crouching slightly, eyes level with the top of the fountain, as the first board moves across the foaming mass of purple flux at one end of the machine and approaches the wave of solder. He starts the solder lower than it needs to be and raises it slowly, his hands moving among three large knobs at his waist. Leaning into the warm weight of the machine with his face as close as possible to the stinging heat, he grins at the sizzle of the flux, like water on a hot skillet, as the leading edge of the board touches the solder.

        He’s there. The center pump is perfect. Luck is with him. Just the slightest torque on the outside pumps and the top of the fountain is a smooth, straight edge of silver. One board is all it will take today.

        When the next board comes through perfect, he starts his run—going into a kind of frenzied trance. In his two years of factory work, Alex has discovered a mental zone that keeps the work and the clock moving quickly without noticing the effort, but leaves him long stretches of uninterrupted thought. He’s written some of his best songs during these times. But today he’s worrying about Cindy and the boyfriend he’s sure she’s got and the phone police and the bills. Even so, the work trance is so effective he’s turning out solid boards faster than they can be stuffed. He’s ahead of the girls ten minutes before the break.

        The deionized water is in a pressurized tank on the other side of the wall. The washer whines, and he knows it’s time to open the input valve and fill the reservoir.

        When everyone else heads to the Lumber Truck for coffee and sugar at break, Alex runs straight to the phone by the jon. He can’t go the whole day with Cindy’s disapproval in his ear.

        This time he calls collect, but it’s busy. Still busy. And busy, again. Sounds like the same operator over and over. He feels like an idiot. Who the fuck could she be talking to at nine-thirty on a Monday morning? He realizes that he knows nothing about her life in San Francisco. Why would she even think about him anymore?

        On the fifth try it rings. She sounds reluctant to accept any charges from Alex Conrad.

        “Cindy?  How are ya, baby?” Afraid of silence, he goes on. “Don’t be mad about the phone thing, Cin, I won’t use it anymore and they won’t bust us for that one call.” The silence he dreads is aching. “Cindy?”

        “OK, Alex, I’m not mad. But I gotta go.”

        “I love you, Cindy,” sounding like a question.

        “I love you, too, Alex, but we gotta talk and I don’t have time right now. I’d call you tonight, but you guys never hear the phone when you’re practicing.”

        We gotta talk?

        The ominous words. “Whadaya mean we gotta talk? We talk all the time.”

        “Oh, Alex… What?” She’s talking to someone else, the mouthpiece muffled.

        “Look, Alex, I really gotta go.”

        “Who’s that with you?”

        “It’s just my ride and he’s gonna leave without me if I don’t get off, so…”

        He!

        Panic. Fear. Nausea. “Who is your ride? What’s his name?” He tries to sound casual, but emotion thickens his voice.

        “Jeff, Alex. His name is Jeff and I gotta go. I’ll try to catch you around five—so be there, OK?  I gotta go now.”

        “Cindy?” Nothing. Hung up on twice in twenty-four hours.

        He steals an extra ten minutes of break hiding in the corner stall, waiting for tears that do not come.

        Alex knows that something is wrong as soon as he comes onto the floor. Everyone from chassis is over by the solder machine. They’re mopping. Marvin is conferring with a group of ties. Though silhouetted by the glow from the stuffing room, he can tell they are all looking at him as he appears at the end of the main aisle. The aisle is running like a creek with hundreds of dollars of DI water that spilled from the washer when he left the valve open and ran to the phone. Much worse than the cost of the water, it’s also at least a full day of down time.

        He leans against a bench, dazed. He hears his own moaning lament, “Oh fuck… oh, shit… oh, fuck… oh, shit…”

        On Marvin’s signal, Eddie tiptoes through the water to where Alex stands immobilized. “You fucked up, man, but I don’t think they’re gonna fire you. He wants you to go to his office so he can yell at you in private.”

        “He doesn’t want me to help clean up?”

        Eddie shakes his head half smiling, “Naw, man, he doesn’t want you anywhere near that machine anymore. He’s takin’ it kinda personal. Says he’s gonna train me on it and put you back in chassis.”

                    

        Joe-boy’s car is rigged with a hidden button to start without a key.

        He had to get away from their faces. Marvin. The guys. Everybody.  Looking at him. He didn’t really think about what he was doing or where he was going. He just had to get away and the car was where he went. After a couple of consoling hits, it seemed to make sense to reach under the dash board, start the car and drive in the general direction of home.

        He remembers the gas when the Volvo dies on the 405.

        The place he leaves the car on the freeway is close enough to the Marshall house for him to walk. Pocketing the pipe and cleaning the dope out of the car as best he can, he hops the fence into the neighborhood. The angry curses spitting from his mouth keep his other feelings from surfacing, but he thinks vaguely of the phone cops and paranoia breaks through. The contraband in his pocket becomes a lump of evil obvious to anyone who looked at him. Suddenly everyone in this neighborhood of stay-home moms and housekeepers is looking at the freak with all the hair. He has to get off the street. Cutting through a neighbor’s back yard, he comes down to the Marshall house from behind.

        The fennel is warm and oily in the high sun. The pleasure of its aroma lifts his head as he slides down the slope at the back of the lot. The fragrant shade at the bottom is familiar. Along its edge winter runoff from the hill has left a swath of soft, sandy soil where Cindy had planted a patch of lawn, a private place between the fennel and the hill. He can feel her here, and smell her. This is where they first made love. Falling down upon it now he grasps in desperation to hold it still—to keep the moving earth from turning. The unwatered blades tear from the ground, chaff scattering in the warm breeze.

We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall

Keepin’ us tied and true, no…

        He feels the tears escape his eyes. They fall into the dying grass.

        Thumbing through Los Angeles takes the rest of the day, working his way north. By midnight he is sleeping in the sand at Zuma Beach.

                                   

Gusty Winds Below the Canyons

 

We went to UCLA to trip, climb the oak trees in the Santa Ana winds, and do a dope deal.

We were just coming on as we blinked our way through the lights of Westwood Village. Arriving at the quad, the quiet darkness of the campus on a Sunday night released us and we flopped on the open lawn. The black shapes around us began to hiss, then moan, creak, and scream as the warm, down-sloping wind increased. Like the reeds of some tremendous instrument, the bellows of the high desert blew the thickening autumn air toward the sea, forcing it down between the hills above campus and through the quad. The trees shook with a violence that made the surrounding bricks resound, doubling their fury, our freely firing synapses doubling it again.

Soon the three of us had scooched and crab-walked, eyes ever up on the trees and the crystal evening sky beyond, until our heads nearly touched.

To my left, Spud’s shout, “I’m coming on so intense,” was folded into the chorus of the wind in the trees.

“This is really, eh… good stuff,” I said, starting loud, but trailing off. Everyone had known for months how good this acid was, but I kept announcing the obvious and immediately feeling stupid.

“Gee, Bobo, do you really think so this time?” said Shiner, over-enunciating, his George-to-Lenny aping thick with irony, “I mean, it could be laced with strychnine, dude, ya never know.”

Spud giggled, “Speed, too, probably.” They both began to spit and roll with laughter—which can be dangerous when you’re tripping. Starting over little or nothing, the hilarity can go on for hours, but then you end up trailing with a sore face and stomach, feeling weak.

“Awright, awright, I know, I know.” I’m not sure what I meant, but what I thought I knew was why they called me Bobo. I reached across the grassy spaces between us on either side and the laughing fit subsided. Touch always works. I remember feeling how much I loved these guys.

Bigger gusts came on like ever-larger waves before a storm. I let the wind and sound wash over me, gaping at the stars and their synaptic reverberations as they flashed, brightened, prismed, and flared in the space between the eyes of my brain and the universal darkness, all the while losing the tactile line between my back and the ground, becoming the ground. Palms down at my side, I lightly stroked the quivering grass as if it were my own skin, feeling its titillation.

The joke was that this LSD we had stumbled on to was pure and consistent. We all knew it, but I just couldn’t get over it, having had a few bad experiences with stepped-on shit. It was called windowpane. Each hit was a tiny speck of transparent gelatin, a few millimeters square. There was no room for adulteration in something so small and clear, but plenty of room for exactly 250 micro-grams of LSD. It was sometimes called ever-clear or white lighting, but I’d heard those names for other kinds of dope. Windowpane is windowpane. It was the best our little band of hippies ever had and we had what seemed to be an unlimited supply.

Ram Das said in Be Here Now that the highly-advanced yogis didn’t even react when given massive doses of acid. They just asked Prof. Alpert what the big deal was and resumed their meditation. They were supposedly already there. But I was just a nineteen-year-old hippy kid in 1971 and no matter how deep my groove, I always got restless pretty fast. A yogi I was not.

“I’m gonna climb one of these fucking trees, man!” I proclaimed as if it hadn’t been the plan all along. Thinking of Bruce Lee, I leapt to my feet and assumed the pose. More stupidity; the next gust knocked me down. This time the laughter completely overtook us and we rolled around on each other until we were breathless.

“OK, let’s get organized!” I gasped. Another thing I would often say that would start everyone laughing at me, the least organized person any of us knew. But this time I took the lead—something else that usually worked for me—and ran to the nearest oak.

These trees were easy climbers. They were too girthy to wrap your arms around and shimmy up, but their bark was gnarly, studded with holds and, once you scrambled to a low branch, it was like climbing a ladder. But that night only a few thick limbs and even my tripped-out mind could tell that climbing higher would be truly stupid.

Standing on a mighty horizontal arm, the vertical trunk-branch I was not holding tightly enough twisted suddenly in my arms, and for a second I remember as both tantalizing and frightening, I was in a floating free fall. Only the whipping wind itself brought the giant limb and me together again—hard in the face. I hugged the tree, digging fingernails into its bark. “Fucking Shit!” the deep, survival-based part of my brain growled through my diaphragm and throat. “OK, get a grip and stay right here for a while.” Shocked by the smack to my cheek and jaw, I knew it hurt—I imagined a bloom of hamburger from a swollen bruise—but vitamin L can let you dissociate from unpleasant things if you know there is nothing you can do about them. Your internal trip-master just chalks it up as something to take care of later and you go on as if it had never happened. Or it doesn’t and you don’t, and you obsess and hallucinate about your situation and spin out into a bad trip, like improvising in the wrong key. I’d seen it happen. Thankfully, never to me.

At some point during most trips you start to do a thing, just because it has taken you to do it, and then you keep doing it for most of the trip. If you think about time at all, you think you are just going to do this thing right here right now. Then the thing becomes everything and right now continues for unnoticed hours. So, I don’t exactly know what I did in that tree except be in it in the wind for several hours. The memory effects of tripping are the opposite of those for alcohol—not being able to remember things that happened. It all seems to be there in your mind—vivid images that years later don’t even seem like memories, more like mental movies with the power to put you there all over again—but sequence and significance within this extended moment are condensed into a single experience. Like a geode, each crystal shines on its own but you appreciate it as a whole. I know I held on to that branch for a long time right where I was. I know later I was a lizard for a while, crawling along the branches down to a low one that felt comfortable to straddle. I know that I rode that limb as it groaned and bucked like a tortured animal. I know I was many people—for a time everyone in the world, holding the world together against a cataclysm. And I know that I loved that tree, sometimes whooping, sometimes weeping, as the storm of dry air spent itself into the coastal night.

Another thing that often happens when you trip with other people is that, as you expand to the peak, you get detached from those around you—even in the same room. Then, when each has had their peak experience, you come back together and notice that all of you have been crying—weeping, sobbing, snotty, red-faced. Sometimes it’s acknowledged and spoken of, but everyone knows it’s beyond words. There are a lot of knowing smiles and nods, deep eye-searching and hugs. It’s become an ironic-if-still-heartfelt joke and a pop culture meme, but that’s when my buddies and I started saying, “Love you, man!” I swear that’s how it started. But the nature of gender and affection? Friendship, love, and sex? It was all way more complicated than even our expanded minds could wrap themselves around.

It was at this post-peak point in a trip about a year later when Spud and I, along with Shiner and his girlfriend, Polly, got into an intellectually-charged argument about sex. She had noticed the physical affection that was showing at this point in the trip and her assertion was that we men were hung up—that there was no such thing as heterosexuality—that everyone was multi-sexual, omnisexual, and that we were culturally oppressed into heterosexuality by ridged, fear-imposed homophobia. What appeared to be heterosexual orientation was really what was left of male sexuality after our homophobia and sex guilt stripped it down. She was close to the truth as I see it now in this age of gender fluidity, but the irony lost on us at the time was that our maleness, as we understood it, demanded that we prove her wrong by showing her that we were not homophobic. Machismo disproving our machismo.

Spud and I had that deep eye contact thing going and we were thinking along the same lines. Each of us leaned into the other and we began to kiss. Within a few moments it was deep tongue exploration and we were rolling around on the living room floor, making out like it was prom night. I don’t close my eyes when I’m kissing—I think most guys don’t. I noticed Spud’s eyes noticing my eyes. We could easily have started laughing, but we had a point to prove. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Shiner looking on in astonishment, big beard to his chest, and Polly watching with increasing interest, a surprised grin on her face. What I remember more clearly over time than any other part of this was the taste of Spud’s mouth. We’d been roommates and travel buddies for a couple of years—even sharing a sleeping bag a time or two—so I was quite familiar with the cigarette-tainted odor of his body and felt kind of homey about it. The taste of his mouth, the metallic no-taste-at-all acid tang, the sharp oiliness remaining from his last cigarette, and the pure human mix of savor and scent as we breathed into each other was basic sex—indistinguishable from similar experiences with women. But it didn’t stir my loins. It felt good to be close and I began to think we were going to lose the argument, but despite feeling so warm and happy rolling in Spud’s arms, something basic was missing. I was not getting an erection. I was feeling him up and down, but the hardness of his swimmer’s chest did not inspire exploration, and reaching down to rub his crotch, where I felt no hard-on, was like feeling myself up: it might work out if I kept at it and used my imagination.

Things might have turned out differently if Polly had joined in, but despite her ardent feminism she was all about monogamy. Shiner actually was hung up—he hid in the kitchen. Polly studied us like an anthropologist. I think she was trying to detect if we were faking it somehow. We weren’t. And that really was the point we were trying to make: Spud and I did love one another, but we were not sexually attracted to each other. I mean, I understood that he was a beautiful man, but I didn’t fantasize about men when I masturbated and, as it turned out (I hadn’t really known), neither did Spud.

 

After my extended moment in the tree, I drifted around the quad wondering what it would be like to attend such a big, beautiful school, knowing it would never happen. We gravitated toward our original flop site and had that silent after-peak recognition and reconnection. In the low angle of the ambient public lighting I could see the glow of emotional aftermath on Spud’s and Shiner’s faces. “Jeeesus! What happened to your fucking face,” said Spud when he finally noticed mine.

“What?” I said. Touching my cheek and feeling crusted blood, I lost my acid anesthesia and suddenly the whole left side of my face was stinging and throbbing. “Oh, yeah, I got smacked by a tree,” I said, a little ashamed, it sounded so lame.

Shiner said, “It doesn’t look that bad. Well, no, I mean, it looks really fucked up, but it’s not bleeding anymore. You can clean it up when we get to the dorm. We really gotta go. There’s dope to be scored.”

The Santa Ana winds were dying down, but it was still so warm we could have trailed on the lawn all night in just our jeans and t-shirts. It felt good to roll slowly on the cool, tickling grass in the warm, dry air, but the draw of the dope pulled us out of dreamland as soon as Shiner mentioned it. We staggered to our feet and started across the lawn in the direction of the dorm on a hill west of campus.

We had all the acid we ever wanted, but we were in need of more mundane, day-to-day kind of dope—hash—and Shiner’s roommate supposedly had some of the best ever. Just in from India. Shiner hadn’t stopped raving about his roommate since freshman year began. It had been Hank this and Hank that for the past month, all of it over the top. I’d stopped listening. Part of me wanted Hank to be a big myth, ugly, dumb, and uncool, but another part of me was hoping his hash was as good as advertised.

Being subject to the draft as soon as we graduated high school had made us all politically opinionated, and though we lacked knowledge of the actual nuts and bolts of politics and government, we all hated Nixon. We had watched the Chicago police riot at the ’68 convention on TV. Mai Lai, the Cambodian “incursion,” the Christmas bombing—the relentless evil of Vietnam was known to us. But we had become Leary drop-outs at least to the degree that none of us watched TV anymore, and we didn’t live the kind of settled lifestyles that led to reading the newspaper every day. We’d read the LA Free Press, college papers, or the Socialist Worker’s Party rag, but mostly we just listened to music. We were sorely uninformed. Hating Nixon was a membership requirement of Hippiedom, a kind of pledge of no allegiance, but Watergate had not happened and we certainly didn’t know the names of the people who worked in the White House.

“OK, I didn’t want to tell you guys about this before, but Hank’s dad works for Nixon,” said Shiner as the massive building loomed above us, striated by the lights of Sunday night crammers and stoners.

I thought, Great. Hank’s not perfect, but I said, “Yeah, well, my dad voted for Wallace and I’m not a Nazi.”

After a load of faux-doubt was voiced about that wide-opener, Shiner had to make his point.

“No, he didn’t just work for Nixon in the election, he works in the fucking White House. Like, now. He’s Nixon’s fucking Chief of Staff. Like his right-hand man.”

This knowledge must have set off a cascade of acid reverberations in our trailing minds because we didn’t say a word as we wound our way up slopes and stairs to the first floor of the mega-dorm. For my part, hearing about Hank’s connection with power started a downward spiral of doubt and self-pity. Everybody has a cooler, bigger, better life than mine! I tried to inoculate my sickly ego against meeting Superstar Hank by drilling for vitriol to use against this guy whom I had never met, but of whom I was already jealous. Fucking Nixon! This Hank dude’s gotta be a Young Republican if his dad is Nixon’s henchman! This better not be some kinda set-up. Fuck! Shiner’s gotta be smarter than that! But what’s a guy from a family like that doing living in the dorms? This situation is fucked up! I’m gonna ask him straight up if he’s a narc!

I had never been in a big dorm like that—ten stories of cement, steel, and glass. Built in the late ’50s, it was a marvel of Cold War power architecture. To a suburban kid who barely made it through the first year of junior college, the glassed-in lobby was impressive—like a nice hotel. I was stoked to be going up to the eighth floor in an elevator. In the suburban enclave I grew up in there were zero elevators, so it was already cool enough, but elevators are especially interesting when you’re tripping. We spent some time going randomly from floor to floor, looking at each little elevator lobby as a framed 3-D image. They were basically identical, but the students had customized each and we wanted to see them all. The doors would part and we’d stare for the few seconds they stayed open, then hit another button and repeat, noting the differences like psychedelic art critics. We’d seen most of the floors when the doors opened to a guy standing there in shorts and a t-shirt. We jumped a little expecting to see a subtler variation on the theme. “I’m going down,” he said. We didn’t know or care which way we were going as we stared at him with our dilated eyes, not moving aside, unsure of what he was talking about. We must have freaked him out because he was stepping slowly back as the doors closed again.

That broke whatever stoned spell had taken us. Shiner spoke. “Let’s get this thing done. Hank said he’d be up till midnight, but I don’t know what time it is, so we better get going.”We made a point of not wearing watches and avoiding clocks when we tripped.

“It’s gotta be at least midnight by now,” I said, completely guessing, pushing the 8 on the panel.

Losing our urgency again, as trailers are wont to do, we wandered in a great, rectangular circle, further losing track of time, uncaring of which dorm room was our destination, swiveling our heads down long halls lined with florid, overflowing bulletin boards and tacked-up posters. Every third or fourth door was open and I was surprised by the tiny size and splendid squalor of the actual quarters within the monumental apartment block. For someone living in a shed behind his parent’s house, it seemed like a great place to live. It smelled of weed and clandestine cooking, the open rooms emanating the drowsy scent of unwashed clothes. Though turned way down for the wee small hours, the cells hummed with sound: Beatles and Stones predominated, but we heard snatches of Hendrix, Dylan, and Zeppelin, of arguing, snoring, and fucking.

“It’s 832 you guys.” said Shiner. “We passed it twice.”

Spud and I stared dumbly at Shiner, unclear for a second the significance of the number. “Oh, that’s right,” I said, “We’re on a mission. We better get organized.” Having set up a laugh, I waited, but none came as we followed Shiner to the door. I was a little disappointed.

Hank Haldeman was curled up on a trundle bed reading a small, hardbound book in the circle of light from a tiny lamp clamped to a low headboard. He looked up slowly when we entered, unhurried and unstartled, though we’d fairly burst through the door, as if he knew when we would be there long before we arrived. He seemed so mellow. In my still-tripping thoughts he seemed to represent calm, settled order. The word beatified came to my mind as he uncoiled his long, lean limbs and rose to greet us, a slight smile on his perfectly shaved face, shining as it emerged from between smooth curtains of straight dark hair that draped his shoulders. Shiner flipped a switch and the light behind the Indian print that tented down from the ceiling filled the tiny room with a red-orange glow.

With a soft exclamation Hank said, “Hey, it’s good to see you, Eliot.” Spud and I glanced at each other skeptically. We hadn’t called Eliot Scheinert anything but Shiner since little league. Shiner didn’t seem to think anything of it. I was struck by the genuineness in Hank’s voice. He’d probably been waiting for hours and his words could have been ironic or impatient, but it was clear that he really was glad to see his roommate. He stepped toward Shiner for a soul-shake and a hippie-hug.

“Yeah, Hank. Hope you had a great break,” said Shiner, sounding strangely formal.

“Yeah, Mexico was nice,” said Hank. Then, stepping back to look at Spud and me, he drew himself up slightly, his palms toward us at his sides. I thought he was going to pull us both in for a hug as well, but it was to make a pronouncement. “Bo? Spud?” he said turning one to the other and lifting his hands ceremoniously, “Welcome to Dykstra Hall. And, before you ask, yes, it’s true: it is co-ed.”

“Yeah, we heard. Pretty cool,” said Spud. There was the beginning of an awkward pause, so I jumped in. “I’m Bo, he’s Spud.” All we got was the soul-shake.

“Well, it’s good to see you guys. Shiner has spoken a lot about the two of you.”

“Raggin’ on about us, eh, Shiner?” said Spud.

“Au contraire, nothing but the best.” Hank did not seem to take notice of the humor, and I remember thinking that I had never heard anybody say au contraire for real. This guy really was different. “Shiner’s told me lots of stories. You guys have had some amazing exploits. It really is good to finally meet you. Come on into our little den of iniquity. Emphasis on little.” he said, turning and waving his hands toward the other trundle bed and the two chairs between the built-in desks that completed their furniture ensemble.

Shiner sprawled on his bed while Spud and I moved to take the chairs. Before sitting down I was drawn to the window. It was large, sealed, and institutional with sliding slot vents along the bottom. Suicide proof. Placing my hands on the frames on either side, I brought my nose to the glass as if to penetrate like Alice at a looking glass this black shining surface and enter the endless, glittering city of light beyond. I don’t know how long my fellow tripsters were patient with my flight of wonder before it ended with my breath putting a fog upon LA. I drew the letter ‘L’ in the patch and turned to sit. Hank sat on the edge of his bed, leaning into us, elbows on knees.

“So, you guys seem pretty tripped out. When did you drop?”

“In the car driving into Westwood.” I said.

“We were just going past the Brew 102 sign when the sun went down,” added Shiner.

Hank glanced at a large stainless steel watch on his left wrist that seemed incongruous to his laid-back charm. “Oh, so you’re already trailing. Did you have a good one? What did you do? And Bo, what happened to you?”

“Oh, yeah, I got run over by a tree.” This got just the right amount of laughter to lubricate the moment.

Hank’s genuine interest was disarming. We started to give him a guided tour of our collective and individual trips, but we were only minutes in when he interrupted us. “Hey, I’m sorry, but, Bo, we’ve got to take care of that scrape—it’s starting to bleed.” He spoke softly and sounded truly concerned as he reached over and squeezed my forearm gently, then, letting go, he sprang to his feet saying with a chuckle, “Hey, you’re going to get blood all over the place. Come on, I’ll show you the porcelain palace.” I rose without a word, feeling like I was being led by a benevolent caregiver to a place of healing. He nearly took my arm again as he pantomimed ushering me out with mock formality.

Mirrors and florescent lights are really interesting even on the downside of a trip, but both together and overdone, they can be unnerving, even when straight. The porcelain palace, this mass washroom, toilet, and shower, was more like unhinging. I stopped and began to back away as opposing mirrors sent endless images of my florescing face and torso off to the edges of my visual cortex. Hank put an arm around my shoulder and into my ear crooned, “Just look down. I’ve got you. We’re just going over to the sink. You’ll be fine.” And like magic, I was.

Back in the room, a wet washcloth pressed to my cheek, our acid trips, road trips, and other psychedelic lore spun like tie-dyed yarn into the night. Helped along by that Indian hash that was even better than advertised.

Hank had gotten right into it when we came back from the palace. He stored it not in one of those ubiquitous plastic 35mm canisters, but in the metal film can itself with its end pried off. I remember that hash as being like none I’d ever seen, and I haven’t seen any like it since. It was dull green, hard, and coarsely textured in uneven clumps. The thing that was unique, that made me think it was going to be low-grade hash, was that you could see pieces of stem and seed imbedded in it. But one toke from Hank’s little water-pipe and I knew it was anything but low-grade.

“Blow it out the vent, guys.” said Hank. “I don’t want to have to bribe anybody.” I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not. He didn’t sound like he was.

Smoking cannabis when you’re trailing, even into the next morning, can bring you nearly back to that peak experience. Not so much the physical and emotional transcendence or the meta-cognitive hallucinations, but the immediate tactile and visual highlighting of everything around you. You get the tracers and the auras back, you get the sound acuity and reverberation back, and everything feels delicious, but you are mentally and physically relaxed and have an urge and an ability to talk that just isn’t possible when you’re peaking. So tall tales flew, believed only by the fool telling them.

Spud was telling a Joshua Tree rock climbing story I’d heard too many times before. Staring at Hank’s dimpled chin, his chiseled jaw, his high, ruddy cheeks and the sincere interest in his eyes, I found myself wondering, Who is this guy?—tripping on Hank’s dad being such a top dog and how that must have been for Hank growing up, but how rich they probably were, and wondering if he was just a “fashion hippie” with his long hair and his Indian hash—He must have gone to private school to have his hair so long by freshman year—remembering guys being hauled in to the office because their hair touched their collars—when something occurred to me and I blurted, “Hey, Hank, how come you’re folks don’t kick down for an apartment? How come you gotta live in the dorms?”

“What the fuck, Bobo? Don’t be an asshole,” said Shiner.

“No, it’s cool,” said Hank. “I’ve got a place in Balboa, too, but I didn’t want to give it up to move to Westwood, and I thought the dorm life would help keep me going to class. All bets are off with my dad if I don’t get good grades. He wanted me to go to GW, but, you know, I’ve got things going on here that I couldn’t just leave.” We were all nodding through knit brows with pursed lips, trying in vain to imagine the kind of life he was hinting at. “Hey,” he added, “there is no Venice Beach on the least coast.”

We concurred uproariously and the stoned-out stories continued.

Before long, Hank was presiding over wrung-out hash-addled crash puppies. He took action. Rising and lifting his hand, rippling the cotton above, rioting the light in the room, he said in a louder voice than I had heard from him before, “OK, I guess you guys like the hash, but Shiner and I have got to get some sleep and you’ve got to get over to Tiny Naylor’s for some coffee so you can get back to Anaheim. So we need to do this deal right now.”

Opening a drawer in his desk, Hank produced a canvas satchel with a huge copper zipper and a key lock like a bank deposit bag. It was olive drab with “U.S. St. Dept.” stenciled on both sides. We were beyond fascinated. Shiner said, “I told you guys. It’s like government hash.”

“Yeah, but I thought you meant it was stamped or something like that Afghani stuff we got last year.” said Spud, eyes popping, “Not, like, from the government. Our government.”

“Did the hash really come in that bag, Hank?” I asked.

“Yeah, cool, huh? It’s a diplomatic pouch,” said Hank, clearly pleased with himself. “I know a guy at the embassy in Delhi. A ton of stuff gets moved around this way for security. To avoid taxes and customs snoops. Stuff like this has to be even more secret, though. That’s why my friend packages it in these film cans.” He unzipped the already unlocked bag to reveal dozens of familiar red and yellow Kodak 35mm film cans. “If anyone in the chain did open it up they could say all they saw was undeveloped film. And nobody’s going to open up one of these and ruin the film. Or see something they didn’t want to see. Plausible deniability they call it.”

“Yeah, but it sure smells like hash,” said Spud.

“Well, truth is,” Hank said with conspiratorial glances, “nobody actually cares as long as you follow certain protocols. Everybody’s smuggling something.”

I tried to let that thought sink in a minute, but there’s was no way it actually could until years later.

Hank broke into a slight game-show host voice. “OK, so show me some of this famous windowpane and lets make a deal!”

 

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I don’t really trust him either. But jeeze, Nick, I really wanted that hash!” Spud only called me Nick when he was pissed at me. “We could sell that shit fast and easy, make some money—not like this acid, which, as great as it is, doesn’t sell that easy. How many times have you had to hang around with somebody while they tried it? And then that turns out to be the only hit they wanna buy. I mean, shit, we could be running some kind of acid trip guide service for a fucking fee, but I’m just trying to sell some drugs!” He was winding down from his final run at a topic even he was tired of. “And plus-which,”—an odd term he always used to punch home a final argument—”there’s only so much acid most people can do.” He reached for his coffee with both hands. “So,” he intoned, muffled down into his throat, eyes intent on pulling the steaming Tiny Naylor’s cup to his face. “So, OK, we drive back in here next weekend, so we do the deal then. So, OK.” He was done. He enjoyed his coffee.

Back at the dorm I had reached into my pocket and pulled out a roll of cellophane tape. The first few inches of the roll had been peeled off and a single gelatin square had been placed on the sticky side every half inch. We would carefully roll the tape back onto the roll and pull out the number of hits needed. This is how we packaged windowpane for retail sale. Hank was looking for a wholesale deal. I had sort of known this. And Shiner and Spud had sort of told me to be ready for a stash-busting deal. And I had sort of decided to keep my own counsel as usual and leave the actual decision up to me and up to the last minute.

“What the fuck, Bo,” said Shiner, clearly annoyed, “I told you Hank wants whole links.”

“No, it’s OK, this is cool though,” soothed Hank. “So, this is how you sell it, like, on the street?”

“Yeah, right,” I said, then hawked, “Getcher acid right here, folks, I gotta dispenser!” I wanted to take the heat off the situation I knew was about to arise.

“We’re not street pushers, man,” Spud said to Hank, excusing my sarcasm.

“No, OK,” I explained to Hank, “I get the stuff in a length of plastic tubing, hot-crimped every couple inches to create these, like, bubbles—we call ’em links cuz they’re, you know, like sausages in a long rope—with a hundred hits in each link.” I was expanding the story, stalling.

“Oh my god,” said Hank.

“Yeah, so you’ve got to be careful when you open one up. Even breathe on ’em and they’re all over the place at like five bucks a hit, so you gotta use a needle to stick them in place on the tape. Then you can handle them one or two at a time or rip off a hundred and you don’t have to worry about losing any.”

“Well, what? Do people just…”

“Yeah, you just eat the tape,” said Shiner, “I like to cut off as much as I can, or put it in a Coke. Either way, it works! So, show him some links, Bo. How many did you bring?”

I knew I was about to throw a stink bomb and everybody would be pissed.

“This is all I’ve got with me,” I said, feebly holding up the strip of tape.

“Is it in the car?” they said at once.

“Eh, no,” decision made. “I left ’em at home.” Then, to preempt their questions, “I was gonna leave it in the car, but I didn’t. I was late picking you guys up and I just ran out. I know exactly where I left ’em in my room.” I shrugged as if to say, Just a silly error—not my fault, though I knew it was.

When I told them I didn’t have the whole stash with me—that instead of hundreds hits of acid hermetically sealed in plastic packets to trade for dozens of grams of hash, the best we could do was ten hits for half a gram—I played it off like I was just being my same old Bobo, but really I had thought it all through. In the first place, I didn’t like the idea of tripping while holding so much stuff. So I thought if I left it in the car and everything went well with Hank—he seemed OK, the situation seemed safe, the hash was good—that we, or I, could walk back and get it when we were no longer tripping and were sure things were cool. I was the one who had the connection for this stuff in Laguna Beach. I fronted the money for the first buy. I held the stash. I let them think I had fucked up as a means of holding onto control.

In the end, I lied to all three of them to maintain control. I didn’t think about it that way at the time. I didn’t think about it at all, really, just going on gut. I did not want to do the deal and I wasn’t sure why. It was like I didn’t want this guy to have my acid. That seemed so stupid. There had to be more to my doubts about the deal, and about Hank. I didn’t second-guess myself at the time—I was going on impulse power—but after Spud reamed me all the way to the car and I showed him that the acid actually was in the car, we had to start talking about why neither of us trusted Hank.

So there we were at Tiny’s at three in the morning.

 

Four weeks went by. My bloody cheek had healed to a faint, dark scar. It was Christmas break before we had another time and place for the deal. Just as Spud said, the acid was not moving. We needed to convert it into something that would. I told Shiner to tell Hank that we would trade four hundred hits for twenty grams. If Hank could get five bucks a hit he’d clear two thousand dollars and if we could get a hundred a gram—which we were sure we could because this stuff was so good all we’d have to do was blow some samples and people would throw their money down—we’d clear the same, less our cost, which was, incredibly, under fifty cents a hit. By the time we finally got it set up, back and forth through a series of calls, it seemed like the rest was going to be easy. It was certainly going to be easy to sell the hash. But I remember wondering, What’s Hank gonna do with all that acid? I don’t think he needs the money. If he did, he’d sell the hash, and thinking later, Maybe he doesn’t get that you can’t just unload acid for a quick profit. Should I tell him?, and eventually just thinking, Fuck it! He knows what he’s doing and we gotta unload this stuff! (It was a real Bobo move in the first place to buy fourteen-hundred hits of acid. But, at only two hundred each between the three of us, we couldn’t say no.) The more I argued with myself, the more the whole thing seemed wrong somehow. That old paranoia that goes with every dope deal began to feel justified. And that was before things started going wrong.

We were supposed to meet Hank at his place on Balboa Island at 4:00, first Saturday of Christmas vacation. Shiner was going to meet us at the Balboa Ferry. He knew the way to Hank’s place. Spud and I would have the whole day to hang out at The Wedge—maybe do some body surfing if it wasn’t too big or too cold. Another Santa Ana wind was predicted—gusty winds below the canyons, was the clue from the weatherman—so it would be warm enough if we started early. The offshore breeze would set up the waves to be more than either of us could handle, but we could get in a few sets farther down the beach near the pier, and it would be fun to watch the experts risk their necks.

The night before, I was out with my girlfriend, but I caught Shiner’s call on my parents’ phone just before I left. He wouldn’t be there tomorrow. He and Spud and I had known from the start that his parents were going to make him go to his grandparents’ house in Phoenix, but we all went along with the charade that he was going to stand up to them like he always said he was going to do. It was at times like this that I was glad my parents were essentially broke. I wasn’t driving one of their cars and they weren’t paying for college to keep me out of the draft. Even though I lived in my parents’ backyard, I had lucked out with a high lottery number, I worked almost full-time, and I was free to come and go. My parents had no hold over me like Shiner and Spud’s parents had over them.

But OK, no problem, we could find the place from the address. The island wasn’t that big.

I was sleeping in on Saturday morning when the bang, bang, bang on my door made me leap for my stash. I don’t know what I was going to do with it if it had been the cops, but it’s what you do. All my friends knew not to fuck around like that. “Who is it?” I growled, crouching in my boxers behind the door.

“It’s me. Ricky,” came the familiar voice of Spud’s younger brother.

“What the fuck, man!” I bellowed, unlocking and pushing the door open in a single motion, hoping maybe to catch him a little with it. He was too fast. “Why you banging on my door so early, ya little punk!” I had known Ricky forever. I played the mean big brother to his pesky sidekick.

“It’s Randy, Nick,” he said with tears in his eyes. Ricky never called his brother Spud. He looked toward my parents’ back door and lowered his voice. “He got busted last night!”

I pulled him through the door and he told me what he knew.

Spud had been in Laguna Beach for the last couple of nights trying to get with Brook, a girl he’d known in high school. The pretense was some kind of ceramics show that Brook and her high school art teacher were putting on. Everybody thought—and Spud had been especially disappointed—that they were lesbians, but Spud had it on the solid authority of an ex-boyfriend that, in fact, Brook was straight. So Spud developed an interest in helping with the ceramics show. He was such an art lover.

Back in 1968, an ambitious Laguna Beach cop named Neil Purcell made his career by busting Timothy Leary for a couple keys of weed and hash. He’d eventually become Laguna’s chief of fucking police. Back in the day, we all knew who the guy was and that he and the Laguna cops were out to get the hippies. He was legendary for stalking the hangouts and busting people basically for how they looked, dropping shit on them if they weren’t holding, just to make the bust and rid his part of the world of The Scourge. Years later it makes a good story to have been busted by such an illustrious Drug Warrior, but for Spud at the time it was a year of expensive hell. He was really gonna be under his parents’ thumb now!

He and Brook and a couple of other pot-smoking potters went to the beach Friday night to smoke some dope. A typical Laguna Beach activity. Any given night there were people going down from the cheap motels and hangouts to the comparative safety of the beach to get high. As Randy was telling me the tale, I knew the ending and started imagining those fucking narc cops sitting around at the doughnut shop, rousing and stretching and deciding, Well, I guess we better get down to the beach and ruin some people’s lives. I remembered the time I got rousted on that very beach. I’d seen a cop’s hat shield glimmer in the moonlight above the rocks and had enough time to toss my meager stash to the wind. After they searched me and knew they weren’t going to arrest me, one of them got right in my face, the plastic brim of his little military hat creasing my forehead, and said in a low, angry voice, “Do you people think you can just come down to our beaches and smoke your dope and act like animals and we’ll just stand by and let it happen? Tell your drug-addict friends to stay out of our city!” I was thinking, But this is the best place in Southern California to score dope, you fucking asshole, but I kept it together and just said, “No, sir…uh, yes, sir.”

Purcell only got Spud. He tossed the joint they were smoking and nobody else was holding, but he forgot about the Indian hash in his pocket. Concentrate. A worse bust than just weed. His dad was down there bailing him out, but it didn’t look like he would be coming along on any dope deals for a while. It was gonna be just me and Hank.

I parked next to the dumpster behind the pizza joint on Edgewater, near the ferry. It’s a tow-away zone, but I know a guy there and they only tow if your car’s in the way when they empty the dumpster, which wasn’t going to be until Sunday morning. I wasn’t interested in bodysurfing alone, so I didn’t get there until 3:00. I felt like blowing the whole thing off, but wasn’t sure why. Spud and Shiner expected me to get it done. I walked to the end of the pier and back, slower and slower as I mulled. By the time I was standing like George Washington at the front of that funky little car ferry to Balboa Island, acid in my pocket and the Santa Ana wind in my face, I was feeling better about the deal. I figured it was safe enough and I didn’t have to care if Hank could sell the acid. I wouldn’t even ask him about it. I was still reserving final judgment. I could bail anytime, but I was feeling OK.

I used to love going to the island with my family as a kid. It only cost a buck to float your car over and my dad would take us whenever we went to Newport. Sitting in our Chevy while bouncing across the harbor was high times at ten years old. We’d just drive around looking at the weird little houses while my mom made crazy plans to maybe rent one some summer. It’s almost impossible to park, so we never got out of the car. We’d just cruise bumper to bumper with the other tourists and go back to the ferry.

So, when I got off the ferry and walked toward the end of Park Avenue it was the first time I’d ever walked on the island. It was different than I remembered it. I noticed that there weren’t just miniature beach houses and tourist shops. Some of the houses were miniature mansions. And the farther along Park I walked the less miniature they were. As it turned out, Hank’s place wasn’t even on Balboa Island itself. Park went over a little bridge to a separate tiny island. “Collins Island,” as the sign at the foot of the bridge read, consisted of eight mansions that weren’t miniature in any way. The address of “Hank’s house” was single digits. Now I understood how truly exclusive this address was.

Coming down the arch of the bridge, the obvious presence of a private cop watching me from his private cop car sent my paranoia perception into full alert. The sudden awareness of how my ponytail, bellbottoms, and slightly psychedelic tee shirt must look to the guard added to my rising heart rate. But he just watched as I gathered my courage and stepped up to number six, a modern, white edifice that looked like one of the houses on Blue Jay Way in the Hollywood Hills. I pushed a big gold button next to double front doors that were twelve feet high and reminded me of the gates of Emerald City.

Psht. Hey, Bo. Up here.” I stepped back from the door and looked up to see Hank hanging out a window at the corner of the building, pointing down. “Come in the gate. It’s unlocked. Use the stairs.” His hushed tones added to the paranoid vibe. As I moved toward the “gate” that was also a twelve-foot-high white door between this house and the even larger house next door, I glanced up and saw Hank wave slightly to the security guard who had now stepped outside his car. This was both reassuring and troubling in a way that I didn’t understand.

Hank was living in the servant’s quarters of his parent’s summer house. I went in the servant’s entrance, up some stairs, and into his room. It was not much different than his dorm room, only bigger. Indian tapestries, tenting and draping, Cape Code trundle bed, built-in shelves and drawers, but with a kitchen, dining area, and its own private porcelain palace. He was burning incense and playing a raga on his impressive stereo. I think he was studying to be the consummate Hippie.

“Shiner just called me. Pretty fucked up about Spud.” He lowered his shaking head as if someone had died. It was pretty bad, but Spud was going to be all right. It tended to make me angry rather than sad.

“Yeah, fucking Purcell, man. Somebody needs to take him out,” I said, trying to put a different spin on it. Hank just stared at me like he didn’t know what I could possibly mean by that. “Nice place,” I ventured to break the awkward silence.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool. My parents live in DC and Hawaii mostly, so I get this place by myself, but they don’t want me in the main part of the house because other people use it.” He was talking in this hushed, conspiratorial tone. I started to be slightly alarmed.

“Anybody here right now?” I said.

“No, no, I can give you a tour, come on.” He again ushered me out of a room, this time through another door and onto a balcony overlooking a large, tiled living room bathed in late winter light through two-story glass windows. The white-themed furnishings, walls, and tile glowed a yellow red.

We walked the length of the balcony along a row of bedroom doors to spiraling stairs that brought us to the far end of the living room. The offshore winds had blown the day’s pollution to sea. Below the reddened glare of the sun as it settled into the smogbank, I saw the bow and bridge of a large yacht, looking as though it about to sail into the room. Moored to the private dock outside, its prow and sprit ascended toward the peak of the mansion’s roof, itself designed to mimic a ship. I felt an involuntary sense of reverence. I said, “Jesus. Fuck,” in a full exhalation of my breath, looking around at this unbelievable opulence, stepping back, almost recoiling.

“Yeah, pretty nice, huh? That’s Jerry Lewis’s house on that side and John Wayne lives next door on the other side.” Hank was still speaking in oddly hushed tones. They intruded on my rush.

“Why are you doing that?” I must have sounded a little exasperated, because Hank seemed taken aback.

“What do you mean? What am I doing?”

“You’re talking like there might be someone listening or something. Like when you’re talking about dope in your room and your parents are home. I thought there was nobody else here.”

“Oh, yeah, you know, no, there’s nobody else really here, but…” He was trying to sound normal, but it didn’t sound natural. He did not sound the same as he had in his dorm room. I began to scan around for any sign that we were not alone.

“But what?” I said.

“There are people, like, who work here, for my dad.”

“Like the security guard?”

“No, he works for the association, but you know, like the guys who take care of the boat, some of them are probably on the boat right now, and you know, there’re gofers, and maintenance guys, and gardeners, and, you know, I got into the habit over the years of just keeping it down when I’m around here, you know…” I interrupted.

“No, I don’t know. Are we supposed to do this deal,” here even I got quiet under the circumstances, “like…” looking around again, “in public or something?” I was reaching for some sarcasm, but actually I was getting pissed at Hank, and with myself for having gotten into such a weird situation.

“OK,” Hank said in a loud, I-don’t-give-a-fuck voice. “Nobody’s listening or anything. Nobody’s here except maybe a couple of guys on the boat, and they never come in the house. But if we’re gonna do a drug deal,” he got louder to make sure I understood there was nothing to fear, actually doing a fairly good impression of my voice, “I’d like to do it in my room. Come on.” And then he was leading me once again. This time through the kitchen to a door that adjoined the stairs back up to his room.

“OK, I’ll get us a couple of beers and we can smoke some of that hash.” He was being solicitous, trying again to use a normal voice. I started to feel a little sorry for him as I realized that keeping his voice down was a habit he had to consciously suppress. Loud and unself-conscious was a way of life in my family.

“They’re katabatic.” Getting up to fill the bong, Hank had pushed the corner window open and a warm breeze had blown some papers off the table where we sat. We were halfway through our Beck’s, lost in Ravi Shankar’s spell. Hank was at the sink. “Katabatic winds blow downhill. Any fluid going downhill is katabatic and warms up as the elevation decreases. The air in the desert today was cold, but the wind is warm by the time it gets here. It’s gravity and air pressure and friction.”

“I don’t think of air as being a fluid,” I said. “But I guess it is,” remembering my high school science. I loved those Santa Ana winds. It was cool to hear what caused them.

“Oh, yeah, well, it’s this meteorology class I’m taking. Easy way to get my science credits, but it’s actually pretty interesting.” He returned to the table and we each took a couple hits off the bong. Hank modeled blowing the smoke out the open window—another built-in paranoia habit. I followed his lead, but the wind made our attempts a joke as the smoke blew right back in. It was stupid funny. We laughed and smoked and coughed and hit the bong and laughed and coughed again and sipped our beers.

“Hey, why do they call you Bo, uh…Bo?” Hank said as a round of laughter faded. The way he said it got us laughing again, but then we got just serious enough for me to think of an answer.

“Oh, jeeze, well, it goes way back to elementary school. It’s kind of a Little League thing to shorten everybody’s last name, so Bolin became Bo. Then there was this pro wrestler named Bobo Brazil everybody liked and they called me Bobo for a while. That kinda died out until the Zap Comix character Bobo Bolinsky came out, and they started calling me Bobo again. I don’t expect everybody to start calling me Nick or anything. Bo’s OK. I just don’t like Bobo for obvious reasons.” I shrugged. “What can you do? The best thing is to not make a big deal about it and it’ll go back to being just Bo eventually. Unless I keep pulling Bobo moves like forgetting to bring the acid.” I don’t know why I was being so confessional. Hank seemed to have that effect on me. “But I got the stuff right here this time,” I said, patting my pocket, feeling the bulge of the links. I started to reach in to pull them out when Hank’s tone changed.

“No, you better leave them in your pocket,” he said with a hands-down gesture.

That made no sense, so I ignored it and pulled out the crimped plastic tube. “Why? Don’t you want to see ’em?” As I said this the paranoia that had faded returned. I looked around suspiciously. “We’re cool in here, right?”

“Oh, no, don’t worry. Yeah, let me see them.” He was sounding fake-casual again. He took the short length of crimped tubing gingerly in both hands as if he were handling a snake, turned it slowly and watched the slight tumbling and kaleidoscoping of the tiny squares within each link as he leaned toward the window to get a good look. It was like a clinical examination. Then he handed it back to me, with a slight shake of his head. “Yeah… nice… but, eh… I don’t have the hash anymore. The stuff in that can is all I’ve really got.”

This also made no sense for a second. When the cognitive dissonance cleared, I unloaded on him. “What the fuck, dude! What am I even doing here, then? Where’d the hash go?”

“I, uh, sold it the other day to a guy for cash.” Seeing how stunned I was, he scrambled. “I started to think how hard it would be to sell so much acid, and I needed the money.” My silence must have seemed like disbelief. He flailed on. “By the time the guy showed up with the money, this was all set up and I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. I thought you guys could still come over and, you know, we could have a good time. I didn’t try any of the acid yet, with school and all, so I thought maybe we could all drop together. This would be a great place to trip. Then Eliot went to Phoenix, and who knew Spud would get busted, and I didn’t have your number anyway, so… ”

“Wait,” I interrupted, “You needed the money?” I gestured toward the rest of the house. More cognitive dissonance. As if on cue, the last raga on the record ended with a characteristic sitar flourish.

“Oh, you don’t understand,” he said, beginning to pace. “My dad keeps tight tabs on all my money. I can’t spend it on anything without him knowing about it! I mostly just have a credit card! You just don’t know my father.” I was surprised to see tears in his eyes when he talked about his father, but I was pissed.

“A credit card?!” This was too much for me. I had never even considered the possibility of ever having a credit card. “You can fucking buy anything with a credit card!”

“You can’t buy pot. Or acid,” he said, turning toward me, palms up, pleading a case that made no sense.

“But you had both!” I shouted. I wasn’t getting this. He was squirming.

“OK, OK,” he reverted to full-on hush-tone, “but… I like to spend money on girls and my dad just can’t know about that. I have to have money off the books. Like a slush fund.”

This came in from completely outside my world and it took a moment to compute. He’s talking about fucking prostitutes! I had nothing to say at that point. Neither did Hank. I was the one squirming now. “Sorry about the hash,” he whispered.

“Oh, it’s OK,” I said, as if everything was cleared up. “Uh, I guess I’ll just split then,” I said and started to look around the room as if scanning for where I’d put the coat and hat I hadn’t brought. I headed for the door.

“Wait. Don’t you want to stay? I’ve got a couple of Thai sticks, and I thought we could still drop. I know you’ve had a lot of experience and I was hoping you’d sort of, you know, guide me.”

I couldn’t believe it was going to be one of those again. After all our hopes for a big-time deal. All that great hash. This guy just wants to be friends. He was pathetic, and I felt for him in a way, but I thought about where I was and who he was and I just couldn’t sustain it. “No, man. I gotta go.”

He walked me down to the gate with more mumbled apologies. At the gate he turned and I got the soul shake and this time the full, heartfelt hippie hug.

“You know, Nick,” he said, holding me there with his hand on the latch, sounding more like he had in the dorm, “It was really cool what you said about tripping in that tree on the quad.” Calling me Nick brought me up a little short. What? What the fuck did I say? I repeated as much to Hank.

“Oh, I don’t know, just, your feelings about the tree, about life and death. It was… moving.”

“Yeah, it was a good trip. Thanks, I guess.”

“No, thank you. I hope we can get together again sometime. Maybe drop some acid.” One more awkward silence. I gestured at the gate and he turned and let me out. It was nearly dark on that side of the house. I could see the security guard illuminated by his dome light. I looked back as Hank closed the gate. I couldn’t tell if he was waving at me or the guard.

Coming across the harbor with the wind at my back, the lights on the peninsula were just coming up—the carousel, the restaurants, the headlights, the homes, just taking over from the deep red sky. I wasn’t sure what to make of what had happened, but I knew I wanted to stay clear of Hank in the future. I couldn’t imagine tripping with him. A paranoid trip for sure. I thought about Spud and how he must be feeling right now. I made up my mind to drive straight to his house. Maybe bring some pizza. If Ernie was working he’d give me a deal. I checked my wallet for the tenner I kept stashed deep. OK, I’ll figure out how to unload this shit. I’ll have to do it on my own, though. Spud’s dad has some legal connections. Maybe he won’t have to do any time, but he’ll be out of action for a while.

Off the ferry, I went right into the pizza joint. Ernie wasn’t working, but I got a medium sausage and onion for just under ten dollars. I ended up eating the whole thing myself waiting for a ride. My car had been towed.

Crossing the Main Line

 

From my bedroom as a child I heard the diesel whistle, a song a mile of suburban streets away. Distilled by distance in the quiet of the night, the roar beneath the whistled air was a harmony denatured of its mechanical violence: the fundamental pulse of the undercarriage on the ballast, the full-throttled baritone of the engine, the tenor of the groaning timbers, the contralto of the clanging cars, and the ringing clear soprano of the steel wheels shearing at the rail’s endless edge.

Those countless childhood nights the trains would come to me from places unknown, arriving at the threshold of my hearing, their rising music sounding across the known world of my home town, diminishing to extinction at the edge of my imaginings of the further unknown places they would go. And I would wish to be on those trains—not in the sense of being a passenger, but to ride them like a living thing, from the unremembered past through now into the future—to straddle them, alive and rolling forward to that time and place unknown.

Four or five times on hot and sleepless nights the song would reach me as a train passed through. I came to know each chorus for the street where it sounded. As I listened to the growing accompaniment between the whistle blasts, I would whisper the names: Dale and Gilbert Avenues, from the west, Euclid and Richmond Streets from the east. As the choruses reached their peak, the longest and closest whistle sounded just behind my school where the single track Union Pacific connector crossed the main line.

                       

The deep alluvial plain that became Orange County California was for thousands of years veined with seasonal creeks that streamed into broad sandy beds of rivers that could only be recognized as such during winter rains, when, bursting from canyons in the chaparral hills in torrents of brown aqueous earth, they scoured their beds and slipped easily over their banks. Then, losing the force born of their constraint, they spread wide and flat the fresh deposit of their sediment. Defused as they were by the coastal plain, the floods were never deep or strong, but when new people arrived determined to make the land give up its wealth, they had to be controlled. So farmers funneled the water into ditches, then builders channeled it in concrete. The living creeks that had for so long pulsed with the seasons became concrete ravines, the barrancas. Barrancas, thirty feet wide and twenty feet deep to hold the winter flood, divided neighborhoods and required bridges, though most of the year they held only a pitiful trickle from the neighborhoods’ gutters, the street run-off of lawn sprinklers and car washing, water piped in through the surrounding desert to keep the suburban sprawl alive.

Just across the barranca that ran behind my baby boom elementary school, the Southern Pacific main line out of L.A. ran east through the last generation of orange groves, now subdivided, cut and gone. In my primary years I only heard the trains through the trees. But the orange grove was torn out one summer and I remember at the beginning of third grade seeing them for the first time scream across the ditch-dug waste of former orchard that would soon become the sculpture-gardened headquarters of Hunt Foods, Inc.

My father used to tease me about how afraid I was of trains. My sisters and cousins would scream with delight when my dad idled the car as close as possible to the choo-choo train at a crossing. But I would cry and hide on the floor of the back seat. I remember because my dad would never let me forget it. I suppose that’s part of the reason I later took on the challenge of getting as close to the trains as possible. Fear and love together can create a strong attraction.

And now as I find the same love and fear alive within me some thirty years later, it becomes clear that the challenge was to prove that I could mount the train, but would not die—doing what risk-taking adolescents do: testing the metaphors of life against my own mortality, as if the world and my very life were merely metaphors.

Until the fifth grade the trains and the tracks remained a distant part of my life. I could see them from the school yard every day, the gleaming silver Santa Fe and the long rush of the freights. I often saw switch engines fetching cars from the side spurs. And on several well-remembered occasions, I saw a dark blue Union Pacific switcher that was not reversing and hitching like the other small engines, but lumbering slowly—sometimes east bound sometimes west—taking its time with its short train of cars, crossing and re-crossing the main line.

Perhaps because I saw them from afar, and perhaps because I was able to actually see them, the trains from the school yard weren’t the same engines of my imagination that they became in the stillness of the night. Though I wanted to get closer—to really know the trains—as a younger kid I just didn’t think it was possible. But I was getting older and more mobile, and right beside the tracks behind the school they were building the Hunt Branch of the Fullerton Public Library. The footbridge over the barranca to the library was my passage to a larger world, a destination and departure point, the beginning, and nearly the end.

At first I was content to just observe the trains from the top of the juniper-covered earthen berm that was raised between the library and the tracks. Up close the main line trains were frighteningly violent, their graded gravel domain eerily forbidding to me even when silent because I knew the heedless steel could be on top of me in an instant. I went to the library as often as I could, and half the time I was outside, twenty feet above the back windows, in a juniper bush watching the trains. It was the perfect place for a cautious kid to become familiar with the life of the rails.

                       

I’ve come back to the library beside the tracks this day in the middle of my life to see a train wreck. In my first thirty-eight years I haven’t seen a train wreck, and I figure I won’t get another chance to see one in my next thirty-eight, so when I read about the derailment in the morning paper it was an easy decision to blow off my conference schedule for the day. I chose the conference at Cal State Fullerton as an excuse to visit my home town, and when I saw the library and the tracks and the school across the barranca I realized that the train wreck was also an excuse—to come back to this particular crossing of rails.

Just to the west on the far side of the tracks, the largest tomato processing plant in the world is still employing three shifts a day. Memories of my youth are permeated with the smell of stewed tomatoes. Waves of that over-ripe odor wash me into visceral memories as I walk from my car through the lawns of the garden toward the library.

In the cool morning quiet before the library opens the same feeling of reverence comes over me that I felt in the midst of these spacious lawns as a ten year old. Each quarter-acre plot is embellished with carefully maintained hedges, small trees, and flowering plants and surrounded by massive black stone walk-ways, wide enough for a car but raised a full two feet above the lawns. At the focal point of each frame of green is a large bronze statue. My favorites from the collection surrounding Norton Simon’s headquarters were Rodin’s Walking Man and a pubescent Diana, naked except for a quiver and gauntlet. Now, as then, I see them silently holding forth amid the green. I think of how the walker watched as I stroked the hunter’s bronze vulva and felt her cold new breasts. But again now, as then, I am drawn in the other direction toward the tracks that I know are just behind the low hill of junipers at the north edge of the lawns. Jumping from the formal path, I jog across the still-wet grass and, gulping the nostalgic scent of juniper, hurdle to the top of the berm and breathlessly survey the wreckage.

It’s really just a derailment—hardly a wreak at all. But having never seen boxcars on their sides, it is an impressive sight. According to the paper, the engineer had taken the curve across the main line too fast and had lost his last five cars. The car that lead the rebellion came to rest upright but blocking main east bound line. Removed before dawn to allow normal traffic to resume, it rests on a spur with the crane car that moved it. There is no other heavy work going on. Railroad people move unhurriedly about the sight inspecting and measuring like cops after a car crash. The four other derailed cars had all rolled off the roadbed and accordioned into one another. The last of them seems to have come directly down the gravel bank and plowed into the earthen berm directly behind the library, just below me. I understand now another purpose of the berms.

After gawking mindlessly for nearly an hour I walk over to the library and settle myself into the reference section again for the first time in twenty years to flesh-in these recollections with paper and ink. I soon find myself waiting for the next train to go by. I realize that this is not a very good place to have put a library. That professionally planted ridge of earth works like a levy to protect the building, and blocks the sight of the trains from the library, but it cannot dampen the cacophony of a seventy-mile-an-hour diesel locomotive.

I look around at the people in the library and smile to myself as I hear, then feel, what I guess is a west bound freight. As familiar as a recurring dream, the noise and the shaking are upon us and all activity in the library pauses: the librarian’s serious whisper, her mouth half open; the giggling and poking of the children, now wide-eyed and listening; the seniors’ magazine browsing, their thumbs at the lick; even reading itself—all stop in a collectively held breath for a power too great to be resisted. The roaring engine, whistle blaring, Doplars up and through the building, rattling its steel and glass and shaking every tome and pamphlet. Then, as the forte recedes, thoughts and actions resume to the contrapuntal clanging of the following cars. The decrescendo leaves a startling quiet. The quality of sound and silence in that library is unlike any I have ever known. Each period of quiet is ominously tense—as if the building and the shelves and the books themselves know that each silence has its own indeterminate life which will inevitably end in sudden, violent death.

                       

Over the months and years of my early adolescence, my caution stubbornly gave in to my growing excitement and curiosity. From my perch I would venture up the shoulder of the gravel bed and onto the tracks themselves. I warily investigated the creosote and oil stained minutia of the right-of-way. All the while an eye and an ear scanned the vanishing point for the first hint of an approaching train which would send me scrambling for the safety of the bushes.

During the summer before high school I started going to the tracks with neighborhood friends. Fear engendered courage. Embarrassed by my panic, and more afraid of embarrassment than of the trains, I retreated less and less. Soon I could hold my ground, taking the noise and the shaking and the blast of heated wind full in the face from the very edge of the ballast grade. I discovered true exhilaration and soon wanted more. We dared one another to get as close as we could.

The signal stanchions were as close as anything to the speeders—just a foot away. The trains never touched them, so we figured if we wrapped our arms around them and held on literally for dear life that we could get the full explosion without being knocked down by the rush of air and sucked under the train. We didn’t know if that was what would really happen, but that’s what we imagined. Holding tight to the stanchion before the train arrived was the only way to get that close without being overwhelmed by fear. I remember the feeling of energy up my spine like the top of my head was coming off. I remember screaming my throat raw and not hearing it.

But even with all of this new train excitement, I knew when I heard the whistle blow across my room at night that it was not really what I had wanted. The main line trains were untouchable monsters. It was exciting feeding on their power and on my own adrenaline, but that was all there was and I didn’t know how to get more. When I started high school I found new friends from other neighborhoods who showed me the way.

Like a geo-social cliché, Fullerton was divided by the railroad line: working-class flat-land grid to the south, wooded hills of luxury homes to the north. The single Union Pacific track that dove across the main line behind the library snaked north through the hills, skirting the grounds of the finest homes in town. The rails had been there since it was all avocado and lemon orchards. The sight of the Union blue switch engine with its dozen cars plodding through the hills beside lawns, fairways, and equestrian trails was an odd anomaly: hot, greasy industrial labor steeling its way through the cool, green serenity of leisure.

The nightly north-bound groaned up the dark residential valleys around ten-o-clock each night, the carbon-arc head lamp momentarily freezing each stark tableau of landscaping. We would hide from the light in a culvert beside the tracks on the outside of a long curve. The curve was sharp enough to slow the engine down and put it out of sight of the caboose coming around from behind. As the engine disappeared around the curve ahead, we scrambled from the culvert and ran beside the train without fear of detection by the engineer or brakeman, assaulting the cars like a horseless James Gang. The path had been worn smooth along that curve by other wide-eyed boys long before the night I took my first grab at the side ladder of a boxcar.

The speed of the train was just less than a fifteen year old boy could run. As the ladder slowed and came to me, the train changed from a moving shadow into something that I could see clearly for the first time. I had climbed on boxcars parked on sidings before, but what I saw in the moonlight that first night was not the same object at all. Those other cars had been facsimiles—like something dead, stuffed. Seeing a moving train as if it were not moving was like being face to face with a wild animal. The train seemed to be alive as it rolled beside me at a run.

I was intimately close—the thick chipped paint of the ladder, applied over thick chipped paint over steel, the stenciled routing codes on the car, the rows of rivets on the edges, the dents, the smears of grease—each detail standing out like the features of a face. A deep blackness yawned between the cars where the couplings screeched and strained against each other while the bushes and trees on the other side of the tracks flickered by like a silent movie.

Running beside the boxcar, I could not see the wheels below. I could hear and feel their crushing ring, but it was different than I’d heard before. I had never heard a moving train that was neither coming nor going. It was as if I held that sound between my ears that had always been so far away and moving. I heard sounds that I had not known were there—the countless little sounds, the overtones, the individual vibrations that make the whole. It was a sound that I had loved for so long, and for the first time it was close and did not move away.

With the car so still and clear, and with a rush of selfish discovery, I might have run to the end of the path and fallen off the shoulder of the grade, but the voices of my friends pierced my running reverie with shouts of, “Grab on! Grab on!”

I reached across my body with my right hand and up with my left to the rung at eye level. I gripped the pale steel and pulled it toward me. I had not been aware of my feet and legs as I ran, but as they lifted from the path I felt them searching for new purchase. That sickening moment of dangling caused an adrenaline jolt that gave me the strength and presence of mind to pull my feet up to the bottom rung. I hugged the ladder and tried to catch my breath. When the sensation of movement returned, it was not the train or me, but the rest of the world that was flying by! I had hopped the train. I was riding it.

I got very good at hopping those trains. I rode as often as I could that summer, through the school year and into the following summer. It was some of the greatest fun of my life, but it never got me anywhere. There was no destination except the pleasure of the ride. And though the pleasure is intense on the top catwalk of a tank car with good friends rolling under summer stars into the cooling warmth of a stiff Santa Ana that snaps your clothes and dries your grinning teeth as it whips your face with a sense of speed and freedom, there was always the problem of jumping off the train and hitch-hiking home.

Hitching was no problem in those days, but jumping off a moving train is always dangerous. We chose a soft grassy slope in The City of Industry, easy hitching distance from Fullerton. I was always anxious before I jumped, but nobody ever suffered more than a few scratches.

                       

Just as it had that night twenty years ago, another passing freight train rocks my recollecting and sets me in motion. What was I thinking that night? I was in the library until it closed at 9:00 that late spring night. Instead of the studying I was supposed to be doing I had been reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception and Baba Ram Das’ Be Here Now. I remember thinking bitterly how it was easy for Ram Das to just be here now—he’d gone somewhere and been somebody already. My there and then seemed to be nowhere, ever. My high school friends were all headed for universities. But my future looked like it would soon include a trip to Viet Nam. Dropping out and blowing the hinges off my doors of perception was looking like the best way to deal with not dealing with my future.

I retrace my steps out the back door and up along the top of the berm. I was planning on already being on the train when my buddies hopped on three miles up the line. I was so full of myself that night—grinning like the fool I was. The mindlessness of my vain pride is too clear to me now even to allow a smile as I reach the east end of the berm where I had waited for the northbound switcher.

I look east down the Union line as I had that night. It parallels the main line, keeping forty yards south on its own right-of-way elevated above a drainage ditch. It runs straight through town to this point below me where it starts a wide right turn. It takes a severe angle across the double main line with its many sidings and then continues turning to the north on the other side. In the hazy noon sun I can see all the way down the line to where it seems to merge with the main line in the distance. That night I stared at the same spot, but into darkness where the headlight of the switcher would appear.

I squint through the smoggy haze to the east at the spot my eyes were fixed upon that night so long ago.

                       

When I saw the Union headlight it felt as if I had willed it to appear. Whooping and clapping in gleeful anticipation, I staggered down through the juniper. It would be more than a minute before the train arrived and I wanted to gather my muscles and wind for the run, so I lay face down on the gravel slope, breathing in the musk of creosote, and waited. I felt the individual point of each rock that pressed the skin of my forehead and cheeks, the rest of the gravel a coarse texture against the length of my body, muffled by my tee-shirt and jeans to a single sensation into which I ground my chest, my hips, my thighs to form a hollow that would hold me. I dug in with my feet at the bottom, my arms outstretched above, my hands flat on the edge of the level top of the roadbed, and waited with mounting pleasure as the gravel and the air began to vibrate with the coming of the train.

Just as the pleasure of the moment began to sap my strength and will, the monotone blare of the switcher’s horn punched me back to my purpose. Recoiled at the sound, I began to slide down the embankment, then, coming up on all fours, I looked up to see the engine burst by like a shadowy building in motion.

Spraying rocks and scraping knuckles, I scrambled directly toward it. As I got to the top of the road bed, the engine was past me, into the turn and blasting its horn in preparation for crossing the main line. I turned to my left as the end of the first car flew by just a foot from my right shoulder. The sound of the diesel engine ahead of me bellowed and swelled with increasing intensity. I know I heard that engine, but the meaning of its rising roar was lost to me as I noticed how much narrower this gravel shoulder was than the path I was used to. But as I began to run the curve it widened a little and I opened up my stride and began looking for a ladder to grab.

The boxcar on my right moved steadily ahead even as I ran my hardest. The loose gravel gave way slightly under every step and, as in a dream when you run and run but can’t get going, I was running faster but seemed to be slowing down. I could see the dull glimmer of the main line tracks looming ever closer on my left. I couldn’t see them around the curve directly ahead, but I knew I would be out of running room suddenly and soon. I still don’t know why I was so determined to get on that train that night, why it seemed so important that I not lose that chance to ride, but when the end of the boxcar came up from behind I set my jaw and lunged with both hands at the rung just above my head.

I felt my arms and shoulders jerk taut and my feet left the ground. The locomotive growled. My arms pulled, but they weren’t above me, they were ahead of me. The horizontal rung felt like a vertical pole that was slowly sliding through my hands. I wasn’t dangling down from the ladder, but was being pulled along, flapping like a flag, nearly parallel to the ground. I heard the engine roar again and felt the acceleration. I finally knew what was happening but it was too late to let go.

From somewhere below I heard the staccato percussion of the wheels striking the crossing rails. I looked down over my shoulder and saw the steel and ties of the main line flickering by. The thought of death blew through my entire body at once like a convulsion. I coiled around my middle, trying to bring my knees up. When I did, I realized that I was bent at the waist with my legs around the back of the car. In that position I would fall down between the cars when I lost my grip. I began to scream. I let my body go and my hands slipped from the rung.

I would have fallen between the cars except that the train continued its turn to the north just before I fell, flinging me off a little to the side. I landed on my back, spinning and tumbling beside the train. My legs flew forward and out, forcing my head and shoulders in toward the tracks. For an instant I was looking at the spacious underside of a boxcar, the rail just inches away, the wheels rolling toward me. Time seemed to pause just then and it was silent under the car. I must have thought I was going to die because I felt so detached and could see so clearly—the connecting rods and hydraulic lines framing the nightscape beyond that faded to the east into the silhouettes of trees and houses, black against the glow of city lights on the horizon—I accepted it all as some final image. I came to rest with my face to the stars, the wall of indifferent boxcars still lumbering by. I gasped to pull the air back into my lungs, unable to move until the last wheels had passed, inches away.

Stumbling and crawling in the dark, feeling sorry for myself and more injured than I really was, I made my way toward the lights of the library grounds. I found myself leaning against the Walking Man, thinking about Diana and wondering what to do. The mile walk home seemed impossible, but I wasn’t about to crawl to a pay phone. Ashamed of my failure, I wanted no one to know.

Standing on the footbridge above the barranca I took stock of the damage. I was covered with cuts and scrapes, my back was sticky with blood and the pain in my shoulders wouldn’t let me raise my arms. I hung my head over the railing of the bridge. Glowing like granite, the sides of the concrete ravine starkly framed the black ribbon of water in which a shimmering line of silver reflected the half moon that I hadn’t noticed before. I pulled in deep shuddering breaths, wet with the dankness of drainage and resignation.

I think now of my mother and a poem that she loved and had recited to me often,

“Blessings on thee, little man,

Barefoot boy with cheek of tan.”

It ended,

“Ah, that thou couldst know thy joy,

Ere it passes, barefoot boy!”

I did not know I would not go to Vietnam, that I would ride the main line far and wide, finish college, find love and have a family. I did not know I would go where I have been and do what I have done. I did not know I would be happy with my life. I could not know my joy for fear of losing it.

With my parents asleep in front of the TV set it was always easy to slip in—no questions asked. After a stinging shower I lay on my bed in the dark trying to find a position that didn’t hurt.

On a cool breeze through the window came the song again. I didn’t hear it slowly come and go because as the first strains echoed off my walls I felt a tightness in my throat that I had not known was there give way to pressure in my gut and I was wracked with unexpected sobs I neither understood nor questioned.

When exhaustion and relief had stopped my crying, I stretched my ears to listen once again. The suburban night was layered with soft sounds: the surrounding deep white rumble of city, the closer sounds of neighbors, crickets in the yard, the murmur of TV, my breathing, and the beating of my heart. But I was listening for a whistle—trying to stay awake to hear it one more time. And when it came, that steel whispered promise in the wind, I gratefully crossed over into sleep.

                                   

Alto Rhapsody

 

Like an unbelievable promise, the desert town ahead was the only thing in Doreen’s vision not still in the grip of the sweltering day. From the top of the grade, the early evening lights appeared cupped in a hollow hand of shade extending from low bluffs that rose behind the distant buildings, while a deepening red held claim on the land for the unseen sun. The rocks and sand that blurred past Doreen’s tinted windows burned with scarlet remains of daylight. As she raised the visor and removed her sunglasses, Doreen could feel the heat in her steering wheel and see it in the red-washed leather of the empty seat beside her, urging her eyes to the soft lights in the shadows ahead.

Doreen drove the 200 miles to Barstow every few weeks to spend time with her friends, Connie and Charlie and their boys. She needed to get away from Las Vegas and the people there who thought they knew her—to be where she felt at home, with people who felt like family. Connie had married Doreen’s oldest brother, David, when Doreen was sixteen, a year before David drowned in the surf at Redondo Beach. An ex-sister-in-law was as close as Doreen got to family anymore. When she left home during her senior year of high school, Doreen went straight to Connie’s house. Ten years on, she knew she would always be welcome there.

With Connie and Charlie, Doreen could shed for a time the personality she’d constructed over the years. Doreen had never been happy with the professional persona she’d assumed, though it had served her well in Vegas. Her part-time job as a dancer had turned into a lucrative career, she owned her own home up a quiet arroyo outside of town, and she finally had a car with enough head room—a Mercedes SUV, no less. She was financially secure at the age of twenty-eight. She had won.

She accepted the cycle of depression that drove her to seek refuge in Barstow twice a month as part of the price she paid for the safety that she’d thought of as success.

Ten years ago, when Doreen O’Sullivan began changing into Dory Blair, any price would have seemed like a bargain.

                       

 

After a series of army bases and volleys of infidelities in both directions, Doreen’s parents had divorced when she was twelve. Her father signed on for duty in Thailand and she ended up sharing a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and Kenny, the younger of her two older brothers. Her few friends from junior high were assigned to a nearby high school while Doreen and her brother, snagged in a narrow spike of political boundary thrust into their low-rent neighborhood, were bussed to a preppy school in the Palos Verde hills. Doreen didn’t know anyone at Golden Hills High and felt completely out of place—wrong clothes, wrong hair, no boyfriend. She was desperate for friends, but ones who had nothing to do with her lowlife brother Kenny. She already saw too much of him and his drugged-out accomplices.

Cheerleading never entered Doreen’s thoughts until freshman year, when she was chosen by a popular junior named Becky to be her sidekick. Such an honor for a lowly scrub could not be refused. Cheerleading was assumed to be part of the job. In exchange for a peer group, dance lessons, parties, and rides to The Strip on the weekends, Doreen became a cheerleader and played the foil Becky needed. It was more than she could have hoped for. Even by her family, Doreen had never been considered cute. At thirteen her long face had not yet broadened and softened into the features that would make her a beautiful woman. Her mother told her cheerleading would help her gain confidence in her body and cultivate some poise, but Doreen knew her mom would be happy to have her away from the apartment afternoons and evenings so she could pursue the full-time job of finding a new husband. Doreen, at five feet eleven inches and growing, was just hoping to find a tall boyfriend.

By the time she became aware of the thick layers of phoniness in the clique culture of the school, Doreen was stuck in a web of unsatisfying relationships that were nonetheless the only ones she had. She took comfort in believing that she wasn’t as shallow as those around her. After all, she was serious about her work—even cheerleading. She enjoyed the hard work of the dance routines, and she was becoming an excellent dancer. But every day she felt the pain of having to fund her emotional credits with the same deflated currencies used by her peers: half-truths and denial, fair-weather loyalties, gossip and backstabbing.

It was music that really kept Doreen going, and the joy she felt in singing. She’d always loved singing, but it had always been strictly for the shower until Becky heard her singing along with the dance routine music and told her she could pick up a guaranteed ‘A’ by taking choir.

The first time Norton Welty heard Doreen’s big contralto, a wedge of fermenting ambition ripened in the frustrated opera singer. Ever since he’d given up the struggle to succeed as a performer and accepted a teaching job, Norton had hoped to find his greatness through a student. When Doreen auditioned for his choir at the beginning of ninth grade she looked to him like any other young girl—unusually tall perhaps, but just a gangly kid.

“Why is a basketball player like you auditioning for my choir?”

“I hate basketball,” she averred with a well-practiced eye-roll.

When Mr. Welty heard her audition that morning, he botched his scales staring at her. She made the most womanly sound he’d ever heard from a student. The excitement he forced himself to hide that day was almost erotic. Over the next three and a half years, as Doreen’s body grew to match her voice, his excitement grew and he hid it less and less.

Mr. Welty groomed Doreen to be his featured soloist. Golden Hill’s a cappella choir would become her backup singers. By junior year Becky was gone and Doreen was being treated like a star athlete. She quit cheerleading, but Mr. Welty insisted that she continue taking dance classes—even offering to help her mother pay for them. She received music lessons and academic tutoring that her mother could never have afforded. Missing homework was mysteriously excused. Deadlines became flexible. Her teachers seemed to grade her on a different scale. She maintained A’s and B’s, while doing less and less regular schoolwork.

Doreen’s life began to revolve around Mr. Welty. He drove her to madrigal choir before school and to performances at night. Charging nothing, he gave Doreen all the coaching and extra practice she needed to perform the demanding music he selected. Doreen was flattered. He urged her to strive for the aesthetic experience. She was entranced. Ours is a special, once-in-a-lifetime relationship. She was in love. Exactly at what point Mr. Welty’s close attention became physically intimate, Doreen could hardly tell—she had been deeply penetrated emotionally long before.

                       

 

When she pulled off Interstate 15 at Scenic Vista 32, Doreen was glad to see the parking lot empty. She loved it when her schedule and the season came together like this, putting her at the top of the rise, knocked out by a big-show sunset.

She slid from the arid cool of her car into the scented heat of the evening. Rising through the windless dusk, the warmth filled her sleeveless shift. There is a moment at the end of every desert summer day when the heat radiating from the land overtakes the thinning warmth of the air no longer infused with sunlight. Doreen was always unconsciously uplifted by that moment, the easy heat drifting from the ground without interference from wind and sun, leavened by the fragrances of creosote and sage.

Doreen breathed more deeply than she had in weeks.

In many ways she still enjoyed her job. Dancing, even in the overblown Vegas productions in which she starred, gave her a kind of satisfaction that would be hard to replace. But the bullshit was endless. The constant negotiating with the casinos, the managers, even with her own agent. The competition between her and other girls and her general lack of trust in anyone made it hard to have friends. Worst of all was the hustling and cruising. Hit on and propositioned several times a day, she never let her guard down.

In a gem of silence between the howling of cars and trucks, Doreen began to sing.

Out of the fullness of love?

The Brahms. The Alto Rhapsody she never got to perform. She thought of Mr. Welty. All those months of rehearsal, and then he was gone. She controlled her memories of Mr. Welty with discipline, remembering him only in connection with the music. Her ritual, when she was truly alone, was to sing as he had taught her, as if she were performing, as if he had not destroyed her life.

He furtively consumes his own merit…

Her notes were sure and full, her voice like an organ pipe viola. She felt especially good here, her voice echoing, then escaping into the stillness—as if she could feel through her closed eyes the shape of the silence around her by touching it with her voice.

In unsatisfying egoism.

She could see Mr. Welty leading the boys of the choir as she soared with the chorus that followed.

Open his clouded gaze… To the thousand springs… Next to the thirsting one… In the desert.

As the sunset died, she turned her attention to the town below, lights wavering through the heat like reflections in deep, rippled water. Beyond the glimmer, the sharp daylight clarity of the mountains along the horizon had become an indistinct mass of indigo, the last trace of day a jagged line of blood that faded at its ends to starry darkness.

A meadowlark appeared on the cattle fence that separated the interstate from the desert. He trilled his obbligato, cocked his head, and hopped along over the barbs, then flitted into the brush. Doreen heard the crackle of her sandals on the gravel as she turned, the ticking of her cooling engine, and the muffled pleading of her cell phone.

                       

 

The best part of the sunset was over by the time Ray geared his rig to the top of the last hill. He was disappointed, but he’d scared himself twice in the last hour shaking off sleep, so seeing Barstow in the distance was better than a sunset. He clutched up a notch for the compression run down Interstate 40 into town.

Minutes later a sudden echo from a road cut amplified the machine-gunning of the jake brake, startling Ray out of another dangerous lull. He thought about the useless hitchhikers asleep in his bunk.

 

Ray’s policy on hitchhikers had changed over the years. When he first got his rig, he’d pick up anybody he didn’t have to pull over for—at truck stops and diners. He completely swore them off when he got married, but he didn’t actually quit picking them up until Ruthie was born. Since the divorce he’d started doing it again sometimes. He always kept an eye out for guitars.

Mike and Carol had been stuck at the inspection station long enough to look hopeless, but Ray thought they were too young to really be as desperate as they appeared. He told himself he could use the company to help him stay awake, but he was looking at the well-traveled guitar case. He felt foolish trying to size up a player just by his case, but he couldn’t help it. He did it every time.

Carol had leapt by Ray so fast on her way up into the sleeper that later he would be unable to describe her clearly. But from a flash of face he knew that she was angry. Mike took shotgun, hugging the guitar case stiffly. Ray decided he didn’t look settled with that guitar and probably hadn’t been playing long, but he’d been wrong before—maybe there’d be a little jam before he hit the sack.

After a few minutes of small talk, Ray got around to guitars. “So, what you got in the case?”

“Oh, you know, just an old travel guitar,” said Mike, shrugging. Then, his voice rising as if to tease out a secret, “What kind of guitar do you have?”

“It’s a pretty good ol’ Martin dreadnaught.”

“Hmm…” Mike hummed. Sliding lower in the seat, arms wrapped around the neck of his case, he stared at the headliner and smiling slightly. Without a glance at Ray, he adding, “Nice. I’d like to see it.”

Annoyed with Mike’s non-engagement, Ray got to the point. “OK, well, what do you like to play? I got my guitar with me, maybe we can heat ’em up a little when we get to Barstow.”

This did not seem to register with Mike, who said nothing.

Ray’s impatience, fatigue, and adrenaline pushed him forward. “Yeah, well, I’m going to get some shut-eye in Barstow but I like to play for a while before I try to go to sleep ‘cuz, you know, no matter how cold-cocked you are at the wheel you gotta unwind a little or you hit the sack all tired-n-wired.” Ray huffed a laugh and checked for some response. He felt like a jerk rattling on with Mike so distant, but he could feel the lack of sleep in the twitching muscles of his face. He wanted to get Mike going, get him talking. Mike looked like he was doing algebra in his head, so Ray went on, “We don’t have to sit up in the truck and play. This friend of mine owns the motel at the truck stop and he’s got this room out back…”

Mike interrupted, straightening up a bit, his energy level spiking, “You mean you’re not going straight through to LA tonight?”

“No, man, I been going since Albuquerque this morning. I’m pretty wiped out. Get to Barstow I’m gonna get me a beer, play a little and crash.”

            “Hmm… yeah,” Mike said, slipping back into a laconic haze. “Well, I guess we’ll get a ride with somebody in Barstow…”

Ray thought, These guys aren’t hooking on with anybody tonight. Nobody’s going to want to get to LA in the middle of the night—especially when Connie’s having a party. But he said nothing.

After twenty miles of silence, Ray began asking Mike about music and guitars again, trying to tell if he was enough of a player to make it worth getting Charlie’s room for them to play in. Mike talked about life as a street musician and Ray started figuring on putting them up and taking them into LA with him the morning when he heard Carol’s voice for the first time.

“You are so full of shit, Mike.” Ray pushed on the steering wheel with both hands, snapping himself upright. He’d forgotten she was back there.

“Shut up, Carol.” said Mike. He lowered his head and sent an angry look sidelong into the sleeper at Carol. Ray could sense his rage.

Carol sneered, “You bullshit everybody, about everything, and I’m the one who’s always got to hear it. You gonna tell him the story about why we had to get out of Phoenix so fast?”

Mike brought his head still lower, eyes slits, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and you don’t know what you’re talking about either, so just shut the fuck up.”

“Why did we have to sneak off so early this morning, huh? You never get up that early without a good reason.” Ray could hear the taunt in her voice.

Now Mike turned toward Carol, curled up in the back corner of the sleeper directly behind Ray. He looked calm and spoke softly and slowly, from his throat, through grinding teeth. Over the noise of the engine Ray barely heard Mike say, “Shut up, Carol,” but he felt Carol fling herself onto the thin cushion of the sleeper. Mike’s steely glare was chilling. Ray did not hear Carol’s voice again.

                       

 

“Hello.”

“Doreen! You coming or not?”

“Connie, Connie, I’m sorry.” Doreen gathered herself back to the present. “I’m already here.” She turned the key and put the Mercedes into motion. The highway was nearly deserted. A faint trace of tail lights, accented by the occasional northbound glare of high-beams, was all that showed the way down to the splatter of lights that was Barstow.

“Where?”

“Up on the pass, at the turnout.”

“Jeez, you are here already. What are you pulled over there for? You all right? Why din-choo call me?” Hearing Connie, her hardened r’s, her words sliding together, always made Doreen feel like she was home.

“Oh, you know how I get on a roll and forget. I’m just up here looking at the sunset.”

“Sunset? It’s dark already. You should-a called me, Dory.”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry, but you knew I was coming and I never know when I’m going to be able to get away from that place, so… you know, but hey, are you really having a party?”

“I always have a party when you come and Charlie and the twins are gone.” Connie dropped the critical tone. All was forgiven.

“You always say you’re going to have a party but luckily nothing ever comes of it.” She accelerated past a Winnebago. Flecks of neon were becoming distinguishable within the bloom of lights at the edge of town.

“Oh, it’s happening this time for sure. And not just the truck stop crew either. Lots of people know about this party. It’s gonna be famous!” Doreen could hear Connie’s toothy smile through the phone. She knew this time Connie wasn’t kidding.

“What did you do, pass out flyers?”

“Nothing that bad, just a few signs in the right places.”

Doreen pushed out a full-bodied sigh. “Oh, god, Connie, what are you up to? You know I’d rather stay home with you—or go out to the roadhouse.”

“Well tonight we’re going out and staying home at the same time.” Doreen loved Connie. She sensed the older sister tone in her voice and didn’t argue.

“OK. Who’s coming?”

                       

 

Ray shook himself and jolted upright. He couldn’t recall turning on the radio and Mike was climbing back into the seat beside him, but Ray didn’t remember him going into the sleeper. It was a long, straight roll down the hill to the town. He’d been drifting again.

Mike croaked, “You got a cigarette, man? Is that Barstow?” He sounded as sleepy as Ray felt.

“That’s it.” Some right-wing demagogue was retching on the over-cranked radio. Ray turned it off. Mike stared at him expectantly. Ray shook his head, a little bewildered, “Oh, no, don’t use ‘em.”

“Where do you think’s the best place to catch another ride?”

“I’ll take you where the trucks are.”

Ray liked to get off at East Main and take old 66 through town to the truck stop—while it was still legal to take a big-rig through town. Moths and June bugs formed swarming hemispheres of specks around the streetlights and neon. People appeared in slow motion on the sidewalks, still-life in the panes of window light. On all those trips to Kansas, with his mom and sisters sleeping in the camper, Ray riding shotgun with his dad, they always stopped in Barstow just at dawn for breakfast. As phony as the downtown nostalgia was, it could still put a lump in Ray’s throat if the right song was on the radio. But tonight, he only felt Mike and Carol’s tense silence. He was looking forward to unloading his unhappy passengers and had decided to sleep in the cab. He’d known all along he wouldn’t actually go to Connie’s party. All he wanted to do was get some sleep.

                       

 

Doreen avoided going through town by staying on the interstate past the junction and getting off at Avenue H. The small-town glitz on 66 was depressing. What she liked about Barstow was Connie and Charlie and their boys—and the anonymity it gave her. When she and Connie did go out, it was always to the roadhouse up on 58. Not being known by anyone felt so delicious. Doreen had been visiting Connie for the past ten years, but the only people she knew in Barstow worked at the truck stop diner Connie managed. Now Connie was finally having the party she’d threatened to have for so long. So much for anonymity.

They had been arguing about it since Charlie first got Doreen a job in Las Vegas: Connie wanting Doreen to settle down and get married, Doreen wanting to stay detached, keep her professional life protected and her personal life free of commitments. They both knew Doreen had arranged her life to be a kind of scab, though Doreen refused to admit it and Connie didn’t press. Connie felt the wound had healed enough, but Doreen was too afraid to look.

Connie met Charlie ten years ago at a casino where he gambled for the house. She was trying to get over losing David, and Charlie was looking for a good reason to get out of Las Vegas. After a month of lost weekends, they got married. With his winnings and her insurance money they bought a motel in Barstow with an old farmhouse in back. Within a year, Charlie was managing the truck stop next door while Connie ran the diner for the same absentee owners. Connie and Charlie formed a good working partnership. They took to the hard work and to each other with similar passion. Connie thought Doreen just needed to find a Charlie of her own and she’d be fine.

Doreen picked up her cell phone again as she neared Connie and Charlie’s restored Victorian on the street behind the motel.

“Connie?”

“Dory? I thought you were just about here.”

Doreen heard Freddie Fender in the background. Instead of turning it down to talk, Connie walked out to the porch. When Doreen heard the screen-door slam her stomach tightened. Connie really was having a party.

Connie and Charlie’s was the only house in an area of warehouses and scrapyards. Making the familiar right turn, Doreen was shocked to see the usually-deserted street lined with cars. She felt a flush of panic and drove right past Connie’s house.

“I am here—I mean, I just drove by.”

Connie, party-ready in silver and turquoise, jangled down the porch steps toward the street. “What? Where? I don’t see you.”

“Well, actually I’m just going around the corner by the motel.”

“What are you doing? Come on back and come in.”

“I’m tired, Connie.” She realized as she spoke that she was lying. “I’m just going to get some dinner and go to sleep in Charlie’s room. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Connie wouldn’t hear of it. She walked out to the street toward the diner, determined to change Doreen’s mind. Doreen continued to drive around the big industrial block fending off Connie’s persuasions. Wracked with indecision, Doreen drove past the truck stop and came back around the block. Connie was standing in the middle of the street. Still arguing into her cell phone, she climbed into the Mercedes. Neither of them wanting to give in, they would not look at each other and for a moment they continued talking through their phones. But in an instant of recognition they giggled like sisters and embraced.

They drove eight more times around the block.

Ever since their big falling-out toward the end of high school, Doreen’s only contact with her mother had been through Connie. The second time past the truck stop Connie asserted her big sister status. “It’s not about the party, Doreen. It’s about your life.”

“I’m doing pretty well,” said Doreen. She tried to sound indignant, but her lack of conviction betrayed her and she sounded pathetic instead.

“Oh, sure, you’re rolling in dough, but that’s not real life, Dory.”

Doreen was surprised that Connie was bringing up issues they’d both stepped lightly around for years. Connie could see that she was speechless and pressed her advantage. “No matter how busy you keep yourself or how much money you pile up, you know you’re not happy with what you’re doing. Loneliness can tear you up inside, Dory. I know, I been there. Pretty soon there’s nothing left. You’re just empty. You’re going to regret it big-time later if you don’t do something about it pretty soon.”

The fourth time around the block Doreen started to defend herself. “I’m not that bad off, Connie. I’ve got a new agent, and I’m doing more singing than I’ve done in years—she might even get me hooked up with another tour.”

“Yeah, great you go ahead and be another back-up singer for another country-western asshole.”

That road trip had been the longest three months of her life. The memories were too painful to continue arguing in that direction. She fell into whining. “Come on, Connie, I come down here a couple of times a month to take it easy and I just don’t feel like going to a party when I’m here—parties are too much like Vegas.”

“Oh, but you don’t mind going to the roadhouse every time you get itchy—that’s not too Vegas for you, no—you haul some cowboy back to the motel and I end up going home alone.”

Doreen winced, then jabbed back. “That’s really unfair, Connie. I’m entitled to have a sex life and it’s none of your business.”

“It is when I feel like your pimp.”

Half a block of silence passed with Connie looking out the window, feeling sorry, Doreen fighting tears. A strangled, “Fuck you, Connie,” was all Doreen could muster. She could feel the truth in Connie’s words but she resisted.

Another turn around the block and Connie was pulling family rank on her again. “You cut yourself off from your mom and your brother, Dory, and I’m tired of being the go-between.”

When Doreen seemed beaten, Connie softened. “OK, OK… but you’re not gonna find a husband that way.”

Doreen repeated the ready response that was less convincing every year, “Maybe I don’t want a husband.”

“I know better, Dory. You think you fixed yourself up all on your own, but I was there when you were right on the edge and I know you need other people—you’re just scared to let anybody get close. I know why. I understand. But you got to move on Doreen.” Connie sensed her opportunity. “Come on, Dory. There’s nothing to be scared of. Verdina and Holly’ll be there and Manny and Jose are coming over after their shift. Everybody who’s coming are good people. You won’t have to put on a show for nobody. You’ll have a good time.” She smiled broadly and lightly punched Doreen’s shoulder. “And I got some good news I’m going to tell everybody.”

Doreen perked up slightly. “Yeah?”

“I’m pregnant again.”

Doreen turned toward her friend and fairly squealed, “Oh, Connie, that’s so great!”

Connie was coming out of her seat with excitement. “Yeah, I’m already three months along, so it’s really going to take this time—and Dory, I got ultrasound pictures and it looks like it’s gonna be a girl!”

As Doreen made another right turn in front of the motel, her body seemed to give way inside. She was numb. She had saved her own life, but now it felt like someone else’s—living out a script in Las Vegas, with a cast of familiar strangers, playing a part she was made for, in a show that never ended.

She wrapped her arms around the steering wheel and hugged it, chin resting on the top. Glancing at her friend several times as tears began to fall, she wanted to stop the car and hug Connie, cry on her shoulder, thank her for being alive. But she forced her focus to the right turn past the truck stop, back to Connie’s house.

“Dory, wait, look, something’s happening. Turn in.”

                       

 

On the west side of town, the storefronts and clutter of old structures opened up to the desert again. From the cooling bottom of the wide arroyo ahead Ray smelled the ghost of the winter river through the creosote and diesel of the railyard. On the south side of West Main, humming and blinking like a respirator, the Heartland Truck Stop and Motel was keeping the old highway alive where it cut across the dry flats above the riverbed full of boxcars.

Ray angled his set of doubles across the empty eastbound lane of 66 and eased it to a halt in his usual spot between the diner and the motel. Basking for a moment in the glow of the diner’s window, he shut her down for the first time all day. As the familiar noises of the truck stop replaced the dull roar in his ears, Ray felt as close to being home as he ever did anymore. He stretched his tired arms and let them dangle. Muscles relaxed that he had not known were taut, and he was left with the pressure in his bladder and bowels.

Mike had gone back into the sleeper as they were getting off the interstate. Ray called to the strained whispers and rustling in the dark bunk, “I can see about getting you guys another ride, but you got to pack up. I’ll be back in a minute.”

When he got out of the restroom ten minutes later, Ray was wishing for a shower. He knew the emergency number above the pay phone would dial up Charlie and Connie’s place behind the motel. The motel was full, but Ray and Charlie went back to Ray’s first day in a truck and Ray knew he could stay in the room Charlie kept for poker games and friends. If there was a party at the house, that meant Charlie was out of town and he’d have to talk to Connie about the room. He hoped she hadn’t promised it to someone else. Ray felt bad about begging off on Connie’s party and then asking her for Charlie’s room, so he started thinking maybe he’d put in an appearance at the party just to get the key. He’d call her up and play it by ear.

As Ray reached for the phone, Gino, the night mechanic, ripped open the door of the diner and ran in. “Ray! There’s some kind of fight going on in your truck, man, you better get out there.”

Ray was through the door before Gino finished.

                       

 

Doreen turned off the highway and pulled up short. Everyone at the truck stop was running toward a semi-truck parked next to the motel. There was already a small crowd of truckers below the open door of the cab.

“Oh, Jeez,” said Connie. She sprang from the car and ran to the diner.

Doreen edged forward. She wanted to see what was happening, but she did not want to give up the safety of her vehicle. Her headlights glanced off the jeans at the fringe of the crowd and she stopped. When the men noticed her lights, she saw a shuffling of Levis and Wranglers as they organized an opening in the crowd and waved her forward to light the scene.

                       

 

Mike hit the asphalt just as Ray burst from the diner. Ray heard a thud and looked in time to see him bounce and jerk. He did not see Mike move again.

The Mike’s guitar case had crashed down with him and sprung open. The sickening, musical clatter of Ray’s Martin skittering on the asphalt lingered as Ray froze for an instant, realizing what had happened. As he ran toward Mike’s prone body, Ray’s anger took a twist, seeing he’d been stabbed: the Korean bayonet Ray kept in a saddlebag behind his seat protruded from Mike’s stomach.

Hesitating for an instant before crouching down, Ray glanced up into the dark cab and thought about Carol. In that moment he knew what she had done and thought he understood why. He wanted to climb up there and tell her something important, but as he tried to think of what it was, he saw Mike bleeding at his feet and tried instead to remember his Red Cross training.

“Mike! Mike! Can you hear me?” Ray shouted. Mike’s face was lifeless, but he was surely still alive the way blood was coursing from him, black as crude in the shadows of the gathering crowd. It had soaked his t-shirt and already begun to pool beneath him.

“Verdie, call 911,” Gino screamed toward the diner, then knelt beside Ray wheezing, “What should I do?”

“Check his breathing and see if you can you find a pulse. I’ll try to stop the bleeding.”

The bayonet was leaning out of Mike obliquely, like a dead tree with roots in a mudslide. Ray figured pulling out the blade would make the bleeding worse. So, with his eyes to the stars, feeling for what he could not see, Ray began groping in the warm blackness for the source of the blood. He hoped Mike’s heart would keep beating.

The truckers in the crowd shouted advice.

“Pull the fuckin’ thing out,”

“No, don’t do that, it’ll kill him,”

“I think the guy who stabbed him is still in the truck.”

Some of them deputized themselves and cordoned off the assailant’s escape routes. Sirens sounded in the distance.

With his hand on Mike’s throat and his ear to Mike’s nose, Gino shouted, “His heart’s beating, but, Jesus, Ray, I don’t think he’s breathing.”

“Well, if I can get a hold of this hole and steady the knife you can do CPR or something.”

Mike’s stomach and shirt looked like a black, gaping hole. Running the fingers of his left hand down the shaft, even the bayonet felt like a sticky liquid. But beneath the warm wet shirt, Ray felt the puckered lips of the entry wound around the blade. He pressed on either side just firmly enough to staunch the bleeding. He felt as though his hand might slip through the torn flesh if he pushed any harder. As he steadied the handle of the bayonet with his picking hand, he had the odd sensation of playing the guitar. In a flash of panic, he feared he would start laughing and rip Mike’s stomach open, but the crowd around him shifted and he refocused in the light of a pair of headlights that turned the scene a lurid red.

                       

 

When the blue jeans parted in the reach of Doreen’s headlights, she gasped at what she saw. Two men knelt over a third who was covered with blood, a large knife protruding from his stomach. One man she recognized as Gino was bent down administering to the bleeding man’s head. The other man was an angular-looking trucker like so many who frequented the diner and the roadhouse. She knew she had seen him before but couldn’t think where. One of his hands gripped the knife as if he’d had perpetrated the stabbing, but she noticed with relief that he was putting pressure on the wound with the other.

Doreen had never seen that much blood in her life. A wave of fear started in her skin and knotted in the pit of her stomach. But then, as she shivered around a core of tension, she was surprised to feel herself detach and begin to observe: three men, one of them probably dying, Gino breathing into his mouth, and the trucker holding him together with his hands. Who is he? Looking off, away from the glare of the headlights, he appeared to be lost in some distant thought while he held his arms and body firm.

Just as her memories began to emerge, they were drowned by sirens converging from all directions.

                       

 

The blast of light and the rush of red hit Ray like a wave of nausea. Overwhelmed by fatigue and trying to keep calm, he concentrated on holding his hand firmly against the soft warm hole, hoping to stem the ooze of Mike’s life. His thoughts began to blur with the swirl of action around him. He was aware of Gino working beside him and of the agitated crowd. He thought of his boss and wondered how this load of furniture was going to get to LA. He thought of Carol and of the kind of person Mike must be to have driven her to this. He thought of his guitar and wanted to twist the blade. And he thought of his father and his father’s bayonet. For protection, his father had said. You can do this one thing for your mother and me, Ray. Ray had always thought of the bayonet as his dad’s way of having the last word in an old argument.

Ray was grateful to the point of tears when he realized that the rising wail he had thought was a panic alarm in his mind was actually outside his head. The ambulance and cops had arrived.

                       

 

Men in uniforms swarmed into Doreen’s headlit tableau. With the crowd shouting and pointing at the cab, police surrounded the truck. One of them approached the open door with a hand on his holstered gun and appeared to speak with someone in the sleeping compartment. An older officer who seemed to be in charge crouched beside the familiar-looking trucker as the paramedics rushed in with their gear to take over. The trucker looked dazed and exhausted, but calm. A name began to surface in Doreen’s mind. Waving back the crowd, the officer brought Gino and the trucker over to the diner where Connie, Verdina, and Jose stood watching.

On a signal from the negotiator, the police converged on the truck. Two cops sprang into the cab. A moment later they seemed to be lowering a body out the door. “Oh my god!” Doreen’s exclamation faded into thought: it’s a woman. They cuffed her as she lay motionless on the asphalt. She seemed to be drugged. Doreen had expected that a man had committed this crime, but when she saw that it was a woman her feelings changed and she found herself suspicious of the victim. She wanted to believe the woman they were carrying to the squad car had her reasons.

                       

 

Ray, Connie, and Gino were conferring with Sargent Dobbs when Carol was lowered from the cab. She had gone into a kind of swoon, like a non-violent protester. Two young cops laid her on the ground, cuffed her and carried her to the cruiser parked in front of the diner. As they manipulated her torpid body into the back seat, her long, straight hair fell away from her face for a moment and, in the midst of her limpness, she turned her head toward Ray and distinctly, to him, with bloody, swollen lips, she mouthed, I’m sorry.

                       

 

Doreen watched the paramedics strap the bloody body onto a stretcher and load it into the ambulance. The one holding the bayonet climbed in back with the stretcher. The driver slammed the door and raced to the front seat.

As the ambulance screamed away, Ray went into the diner to clean up. When he came out, Gino told him his guitar had been taken to the police station.

Doreen saw Connie and Ray talking outside the diner. She remembered him quite well now. Connie gestured and Ray looked toward Doreen. She glanced away and felt herself sink a bit in her seat, but a smile crossed her lips.

Connie was in a hurry to get back to her party. She told Ray he could get a ride to the police station with her friend, Dory, in the SUV. Ray had heard of Dory Blair from Charlie. Some of the guys had seen her in one of those big shows when they’d gone to Vegas with their wives. She was supposed to be quite a babe, but Ray had never seen her. He stayed out of Vegas if he could.

“Connie volunteered you to drive me over to the police station. Do you mind?” He continued to ask the question for a second with his eyes. When she opened her mouth but no words came out, he turned and walked around the Benz, opened the passenger door and leaned into the interior. “Seems like I’m the proud owner of a crime scene and a murder weapon,” he said. Emotionally exhausted from her talk with Connie and now with the shock of all this blood, Doreen continued to stare blankly.

As he often did, Ray made a gut-check decision, hopped in, and closed the door. He had borrowed a clean shirt, but the dark blotches on his jeans she knew were blood. “Quite a rig you got here. My name’s Ray.” He extended his hand and Doreen was hit with a rush of male sweat and soap from the diner restroom.

“Oh… yeah, thanks, Ray… eh, I’m Doreen.” She reached out and her long, cool fingers meeting his warm strength. His calluses scored the softness of her palm, giving him a twinge of self-consciousness and her a hint of pleasure. He would like to have held her hand for hours, but she abruptly pulled away, trying to straighten out her thoughts.

“You sure this is OK? I didn’t really want to go in a cop car.”

“Sure. No problem. Let’s go.” Slightly confused, but oddly excited, she steered through the still-buzzing truck stop and onto the highway into town.

While her eyes were busy, Ray took the opportunity to look at Doreen in a way that was usually not possible between two people just meeting. She was regal, filling the space beside him with long, fluid movements. Legs and body, arms and neck and head—some thinly veiled in white cotton, some warmly shining in the flesh, animating the cold florescence of passing lights.

“So, what happened?” she said as she settled into her lane. “Are you all right?” Ray assured her that he was fine and recited what he knew of the ballad of Mike and Carol while they drove across town to the police station.

 

“Is your guitar OK? Where’s the case?” Doreen asked when Ray came out of the station and maneuvered into the Mercedes with his scratched and naked guitar.

“Well, not that great, but fixable. That was Mike’s case. My case is still in my truck.” Pivoting in his seat, Ray carefully place his vintage Martin in the back seat. As he pulled the seatbelt across his exhausted body he began to sag, his chin almost to his chest. Then, with a self-conscious glance at Doreen, he snapped himself upright. “OK, let’s go over to the hospital and see how Mike is.” It surprised them both that he even cared.

“What do you think’s going to happen to Carol?” she asked, merging into the light traffic on East Main.

“Dobbs thinks she’s going to claim Mike kidnapped her or something, I don’t know. But he told me if there’s a trial, I’ll probably have to testify in San Berdo.” so I’m not supposed to go on any long vacations.” He shook his head and chuckled softly to himself.

“Where do you live?”

“Oh, over by Riverside. You know where Forest Falls is out on the far end of Baseline?”

“Sort of—I think we went to the snow there once when I was little.”

Ray looked her up and down for a second and couldn’t help but say, “You don’t look like you were ever little.” He could taste his foot in his mouth as soon as he said it.

Doreen had heard comments about her height for years—most of them far less innocent. She thought nothing of it, but a practiced look of disapproval still seeped into the corners of her mouth—enough for Ray to notice. She sensed Ray’s awareness of his faux pas and found it sweet. She smiled broadly at him and he laughed, “Yeah, well, I got a little place up there.” Then, with a sly smile he let go: “Well, now that I brought it up anyway, how tall are you?”

For some reason that tired question sounded different this time. “Six feet four and a quarter, and, no, I don’t play basketball,” she said, still smiling. It felt good to be telling him something personal.

“OK, I’m six-two, and I do play the guitar,” he said, nodding his head at the fairness of their official exchange of particulars.

 

At the hospital, they found out that Mike had not bled to death but had broken his neck falling from the truck. He was expected to live, but the nurse at the desk confided in them that in cases like these, paralysis was common.

They walked out of the hospital in silence, Ray thinking about his father’s bayonet (Why did I let him talk me into it?), Doreen thinking about a younger Ray (He doesn’t remember me at all.) When they got to the car, Doreen looked at the neon sign across the street and said, “Come on, let’s get a drink.”

They stood before the door of The All-Nighter for a few moments, looking at the glowing haze of grease on the window crowded with beer signs. They turned toward one another and both said, “Let’s walk.”

A side street led to the riverbed. They lifted their faces to the hint of moisture on the breeze, as cool as warm skin. Leaning against a stucco wall beside the railroad tracks, they talked. He began his stock story of buying the truck with inheritance money from his grandmother.

“Weren’t you supposed to go to business school or something?” she said, suppressing a smile.

“That’s right,” he said, a little surprised. “They were going to send me to Wharton.”

“I know, your dad wanted you to take over the family business, and when you ran off to be a trucker, he disowned you, right?” She could no longer hide that she was teasing him.

“Well, he didn’t disown me exactly, but, hey, how much has Connie filled you in on me?”

“Connie? Not a bit. But I do know you had a really good band at one time. What made you quit playing music?” She rolled onto one shoulder against the wall, turning an open smile toward him.

“Who says I quit playing? One of the reasons I started trucking was so I could play what I wanted to play. I never was much into doing top 40 crap so people could dance. I just wanted to play the guitar, you know? But hey, how do you know so much about me?” He turned his head to study her face under the shadowy street light.

“You really don’t remember me at all, do you?” Having the advantage pleased her.

“Now wait a minute, lemme see… who did you used to be?” Ray crossed his arms and, pressing his back into the wall, searching the stars for lost memories.

She saw he was drawing a blank. “You and your band played all the time at Golden Hills High about ten years ago.”

“Yeah, now…” He turned, squinty-eyed and purse-lipped, pointing a finger at her midsection. “Dory Blair’s not your real name, right?”

“Well, back that one time when we got drunk at a party together, I was Doreen O’Sullivan.”

Ray jumped and clapped his hands. “Dave! You’re Dave’s little sister!” A look of panic crossed his face. “Shit, I hope I wasn’t an asshole with you or anything. I got so wasted so many times back then. There’s a lot of nights I don’t remember. That’s another reason I got out of the business. Is it too late to apologize?”

She laughed as she realized that this quiet, apologetic man, who hadn’t hesitated to save another man’s life, was the real person beneath the long hair and leather she’d been so smitten with. He may have thought of it as top 40 crap, but Doreen remembered with pure delight dancing in the gym while Ray whipped his band and the crowd to a frenzy with his guitar. She’d been a starry-eyed groupie that one drunken night she’d tagged along with her brother to party with the band. She’d had her hopes up for something, and was disappointed when nothing happened. “Don’t worry, Ray, you were a perfect gentleman.”

Heaving a sigh of relief, Ray, too, rolled onto one shoulder against the wall to face her fully. Each held the other’s gaze and wondered which of them would speak. A low growl began that grew to a rumble, causing them both to turn and search for its source. The blast of the diesel engine’s horn echoed first off the warehouse across the street and then burst upon them, blaring just beyond the corner of the building where they stood.

After two startled leaps and comical looks of panic, they nearly fell over laughing into each other’s arms.

                       

 

A salsa beat was pouring from Connie’s house when they got to the street in back of the motel. Doreen had been telling Ray about her work in Las Vegas.

“But you were a singer back in high school, weren’t you?” Ray asked at one point. “I mean, I know you were—I remember hearing you my senior year. You were just a freshman, but you could really belt out that classical stuff. You really got some pipes.”

“Well, the short version is that there’s no money in singing—especially classical.”

“So, you’re dancing just for the money?” he asked incredulously.

“It’s really good money. I’m a lead dancer and I get as much work as I want. It’s hard to say no to it.” Her words sounded as hollow as she knew them to be. She didn’t have to take off her G-string and dance with a pole, but it still felt like she was prostituting herself. And what of it if she was? She wanted to tell him what she thought of her work so he could know who she was and just not care—maybe think all the more of her for being a survivor. She wanted to tell him who she really was so she could be sure of who he really was.

Ray only knew that he wanted to see her again when he wasn’t so damn tired—maybe play a little, hear her sing, find the harmonies.

They’d driven the last few blocks in silence. Ray’s breathing had become so even and deep that Doreen thought maybe he’d fallen asleep. After their walk, remembering who she was and how much he’d liked her, enjoying just hearing the sound of her voice, his exhaustion had broken through to some kind of high. Now, parked behind the motel in front of Charlie’s room, with the music drifting across the street from Connie’s house, he looked strangely satisfied as he turned toward her and assessed her questioning face through puffy, heavily lidded eyes.

“Do you want to go around to the diner and get something to eat?” she asked him.

“I’m too tired to eat,” he said, and sighed, “And I really can’t deal with that party. He stretched his arms and pulled his shoulders back, straightening himself. “But they won’t let me sleep in ‘the crime scene’ and I forgot to get the key from Connie, so I guess I gotta go in there and get it. You going in?”

“I didn’t want to before, but I think now maybe I will.” She paused, her mind spinning with indecision. “I’ve got a key to Charlie’s room if that’s what you need,” she felt herself reflexively deploy the wide eyes, slight nod to the left, and rising shoulders of her go-to come-on look. Instant memories of roadhouse regret made her wish to take it back. She relaxed to a neutral gaze and struggled to hold it.

Ray’s insides took a spin, but he settled himself quickly. “Do you now?” He gave her the purse-lipped, arched eyes of pseudo-surprise. “I figured you’d be staying at Connie’s.”

“I am, I mean, I do, but, you know, I’ve got my own key because I, you know—use the room sometimes,” she spluttered, all semblance of cool breaking down.

She felt a blush begin and tried to scramble clear. “You know, for privacy,” she said, and let it go at that. But the blush deepened as Ray unbuckled his seat belt and leaned in, his face inches from her shoulder. Doreen smiled as the cab light showed a slight thinning of light brown hair at the top of his head. He looked up and smiled warmly.

“Well then, can I borrow that key from you, ma’am?” he crooned in his best cowboy voice. “You know—for a little privacy?”

                       

 

Doreen approached the top of the pass, again at the perfect moment. But the sky would not be red this time. Unlike last night’s gaudy sunset in the western sky thick with coastal moisture and city fumes, the sun would rise in the clear, dry air to the east. Blue on blue, above a radiant rim of gold, the sky would brighten, in brilliant anticipation of the dawn.

She was happy she had gone to Connie’s party after all. She was surprised to find herself having so much easy fun dancing and chatting with the crew from the diner. Connie’s friends were good people. Every so often she thought of Ray asleep in Charlie’s room and a peaceful excitement had enveloped her. Though she joined her pregnant sister-in-law in not drinking, they still laughed as they never had before. Around 3:00 AM they scrambled eggs for everyone, and when Connie started cleaning up, Doreen used the SUV to shuttle home those too drunk and sleepy to drive.

After dropping off her last passenger, Doreen had driven back to the interstate. Where she was going and why became clearer the farther into the predawn night she drove.

Singing to herself every song that came to mind, she thought of Mr. Welty in ways she had long avoided, and she thought of her mother in ways she never had. As she sang, she forced to the surface memories of herself and Mr. Welty and of her mother and Mr. Welty together. Then she held these memories firmly until they were solid and heavy, like a stone in her chest. She took the stone from her chest and held it in her hands like a steering wheel. She imagined tossing it out the window, and her lips tightened to a determined grimace. There would be a time for crying later.

Now the sunrise filled her car with amber. The rear-view mirror played the flashing fire into her eyes like a spotlight as she reached the summit of Cajon Pass.

Ahead the sleeping valleys to the west were filled with misty purple—rivers of cool air converging on the dark, hazy basin she knew to be Los Angeles. Doreen was headed for the polluted heart of that haze.

But she would take the side roads, snug with the base of the mountains that dwarfed the beaded threads of highway, and eat breakfast on her own in Riverside.