NOVEL EXCERPT from EINSTEIN TIME

J. Spru

1967

 

The voices were like yeast.  They pervaded my whole universe the way yeast pervades a loaf of bread.  Sometimes God spoke to me directly, sometimes it was Satan, Lucifer, the Devil.  If they told me there’d be a plane crash there was, an earthquake, yes, and if they told me to cut myself, I did.  I think if they told me to kill someone, I’d have to do it.  Once, for almost a month, I heard the voice of Albert Einstein, mumbling day and night, numbers I couldn’t understand—signs, cosigns, shit like that—and I thought it was the end of the world.  Two weeks later I got drafted.

My draft notice came to the Seattle Post Office, University Branch, where the lines were always long, and silly-looking students milled around laughing and jabbering about their next party or complaining about their grades.  You hate lines.  I was living with my guitar at “no permanent address,” under a plastic tarp among the rhododendrons in Ravenna Park, so I picked up my mail at general delivery.  Today the lines were especially long, and it was pouring, a fall thundershower in the warmest November anyone could remember.  Shit!   You don’t have time for this.  I snapped a string of water beads off my watch cap—at least the post office is dry—and sniffed the air like a rabbit.  Electricity hummed through the room like a hawk.  Worn out fluorescent tubes flickered off the high ceiling, stained with mildew and years of cigarette smoke, and I felt trapped by memories of things that never happened to me, of all the bad news anyone had ever gotten in this post office.  This was Einstein time.  Dim, fuzzy, terrifying.  Customers talked about me—Look at that longhaired asshole in the Army jacket—as they snaked along the counter and the wall of small brass post office boxes and stood at chest-high tables in the middle of the room, robot-like, addressing envelopes, licking stamps and filling out forms. I smoothed down my hair and put my watch cap back on. I could hear their robot gears grinding and squeaking under their metallic skin.  My own skin was soaking wet and felt like raw chicken when I touched it. Featherless, fatherless and purple as the Pope’s nose.

As I got closer to the front of the line time slowed down, and suspended animation set in.  You never knew what time it would be next.  Sometimes the minutes were like flypaper, and everything stuck to them, making them seem like hours.  Sometimes time sped up.  That was the problem; it was never the same.  If I didn’t pay attention it got away from me—whole blocks disappeared and scared the shit out of me.  Say I’m in the Post Office, I look up at the wall, and the clock says 11:15.  I look again five minutes later, and it’s 12:00 noon or 3:00pm, and I don’t know where it went or if I have to make up for it, go back and finish all the things I should have done during those hours, or if everything I did was irreversible and final.

My feet were cold and numb, and my worn out sneakers made squishing sounds on the terrazzo floor, like someone reciting poetry with a lisp.  I closed in on a kid my age wearing a blue windbreaker and a button-down shirt, carrying an umbrella and a monogrammed briefcase.  Finance major, Poli-Sci, fancy car, parents with “HIS” and “HERS” license plates, tennis every Saturday, hasn’t missed Sunday brunch at the country club in five years.  He had that look.  Well-connected, aggressively snobbish.  Expensive haircut, leather briefcase, new shoes and his teeth…his teeth, white and straight as a picket fence on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens.  Teeth and hair, like a box and its lid, separated by a fateful, pink face that might perhaps one day run the world.  I’d had good teeth, too, when my parents were alive.

I had had braces when I was eight.  One day I’m stuffing my mouth with caramels and chomping down on popcorn at Disney’s Peter Pan in Cinemascope and Todd-A-O; the next day I’m spitting blood and attaching little blue rubber bands to newly installed wire hooks in the back of my mouth.  Kirsten, my mother, was uncompromising when it came to brushing after every meal, and then came flossing, a new idea back then, which I hated and refused to do more than once a day.  Dental floss disgusted me.  I never understood pretty, young college girls who unspooled strips of floss after a snack in the student union and went to work on their teeth in front of everyone as if they were smoothing out a wrinkle in a dress.  “Beautiful teeth open doors,” my mother said.  “They should be perfect.”

“I know you got a dollar, babe,” I told the kid, pawing the floor with my muddy shoes, fast and furious, like a cat in a litter box.  “But I only need a quarter.”  It surprised me how much authority I had around campus.  Here I was face to face with the future Pres. of BOEING or IBM, and he looked as if a badger had cornered him in the Post Office in broad daylight, fixing to chew off his ankles or argue about Existentialism and free love, and he didn’t have a clue what to do.  It was the times, I think, and my on-the-road, logger-poet look of a Kerouac, Snyder or Ginsberg.  They were all big with college kids in those days.  It gave me an edge, that and my DOCTOR STAT walk.  The student handed me a dollar.

“God bless you, man,” I said and stepped ahead of him in line, third from the front.

It was painfully slow.  Now everyone was in suspended animation.  A blind man came in with a seeing-eye dog, and the guy in front of me let him cut in.  The postal clerk, who had a shiny steel pincher for a hand, took his time, as if he was trying to piss people off, and when he went to the back room to get a registered letter for a longhaired boy at the counter who looked like me, he was gone for ten minutes.  The boy had St. Vitus dance or something because his hands and feet wouldn’t stop jumping.  He was an average sized youth, except for a bit of a spare tire around his waist—probably from sitting around smoking pot and eating M&Ms—dressed in a ragged safari vest, worn-out cowboy boots and a leather pouch hanging off his belt, where he kept his I.D. and his stash.  When he saw the envelope, his shakes got worse.  Finally, he looked me straight in the eye, and I looked at the floor.  He turned around as if searching for someone to help him, but no one was there.

“Looks like Uncle Sam wants you, kid,” the postal clerk said with a grin, snapping his ugly, steel pincher under the kid’s nose and handing him an official-looking envelope with his other hand.  The boy didn’t answer; he just took the letter and walked away.

The blind man stepped up to the counter and mumbled a long name, something like “Freddy Diddle Christian Holmes.” What kind of name is that?  And people think my name, “Seeger,” is weird.   What kind of mail does a blind man get, anyway?  Braille?  The clerk gave the dog a dirty look, then handed the man a small package, about the size of a box of bank checks, wrapped in pink butcher paper and taped over six or seven times.  Dope. No doubt. I knew dope when I saw it.  Blind my ass.

The next person in line, the Good Samaritan, was a stamp collector. He wanted to haggle over the price of “first day issues,” as if he could talk the clerk down on a Davy Crocket, a Gemini Space Capsule, or a twenty-cent Audubon Airmail, three of the stamps I learned about while they bickered.  The Good Samaritan finally walked away with a roll of American flags, five onionskin mailers, and a “first day cover” commemorating Urban Planning.

“I.D.,” the clerk said when I stepped up.  Your papers, Bitte!  I was a regular. He knew who I was. He often had my mail waiting for me, as if I were a customer at a neighborhood bar who always ordered “the usual,” but he now he made believe he’d never seen me.

“I don’t have any,” I said.

“Sign here.”  He shoved a card across the counter, and pointed to the bottom line.

Das ist nicht wichtig—not important!  I never argued about signatures because I never used the same one twice.

Meredith, the charge nurse who had checked me into the hospital a year earlier, had accused me of forgery for writing “Jerry Garcia” on my admission form, even though she’d never heard of Jerry Garcia.  I just looked at her like she was nuts.

I made an illegible mark on the card with a dramatic flourish of my arm, concluding with a snap in the air like a lion tamer with a whip.  The clerk rolled his eyes.  I held out the card, waving it back and forth like a freshly minted hundred-dollar bill, and then handed it back to him.  The clerk handed me a No. 10 business envelope with “The White House” embossed on the back in the return-address space.  There was only one thing that came in an envelope from the White House to a guy like me in 1967. A ticket to Vietnam. Now I tried to refuse the letter, but the clerk wouldn’t take it back.

“You’ve already signed.”

“But that’s wrong. That’s not my signature. I just made it up.”

“Looks good to me . . . Next!”

 

I could have made a scene at the window and prove right then and there that I wasn’t fit for the draft—or any other job—but the clerk would have called the cops and would bring down a load of shit on my head; they’d throw me in the drunk tank, and somebody at the jail would figure out I was a patient from the State Hospital, and before I knew it I’d be signing Mick Jagger or John Lennon on another form and choking down a handful of pills.

I stuck the letter in a cargo pocket of my Army surplus jacket and turned to follow the blind man, but the clerk called me back.  He held up his steel pincher with a couple of smaller envelopes in it that looked like a greeting cards.  “Don’t forget these,” he said.

It was my nineteenth birthday.

Time and tide, little man.  Time and tide…

Kirsten used to say that …time and tide wait for no one.

 

Outside the Post Office, the rain had stopped, and the sun was shining, and it felt like the middle of summer. A group of Hari Krishnas in orange robes, with shaved heads and drums, were assembled on the sidewalk out front.  I liked the rhythm of their chants and how they looked off into the sky as they bopped up and down like Indians around a campfire.  Most people thought the Hari Krishnas were knuckleheads and made fun of them for begging in airports, spinning around on street corners in a trance, scalp locks sprouting from the backs of their heads like hair growing out of a wall, but I thought they had something.  I was thinking about joining.  “Hari Kishna, Hari, Hari . . .”  They looked imperturbable, almost like dead people who’d finally found peace by dancing.  “Hari Rama, Hari Rama . . .”  Some of them carried sticks of burning incense that left tiny fragrant contrails in the air as they swirled around with arms overhead.  I considered signing up on the spot, but I hadn’t read my mail yet. I imagined I would have to give up reading mail—probably reading anything at all—and simply drop off the face of the earth like Amelia Earhart, so I wandered over to the University of Washington campus to spend my dollar on coffee and donuts.

Hari, Hari . . .  Rama, Rama . . .  Hari Rama, Hari Rama.  I walked down 15th Avenue NE chanting to myself. I chanted against the war. I chanted for freedom and justice. I chanted for Jimi Hendrix. I chanted to be in love again, to overcome loneliness, which was the thing I feared most in my life. Hari Rama, Hari Rama. The rain had stopped; up ahead, more students.

Suddenly a bell rang, and throngs of them poured out of buildings between classes, lighting up cigarettes, putting on Foster Grant sunglasses, chattering to each other like sparrows and chipmunks, books slung over their shoulders in drawstring bags and knapsacks. Couples walked hand in hand on the sidewalk, not in any particular hurry, while others overflowed onto the grass and sat down, finding dry spots here and there under the trees. A group of four or five formed a loose circle, as if they were about to have a picnic, and one of them lit up a joint and started passing it around. A gangly young man and a short, freckly-faced girl stood under another tree making out like they wanted to eat each other up, like it was their last kiss before the boy went off to war knowing she’d be married to his best friend when he returned, her swearing up and down she’d never look at another. I had to stare, I couldn’t help it.

Someone laughed, a huge, loud laugh behind me and jarred me out of my fugue. Then the bells rang again, and everyone walked or ran into the buildings, including the two kissing birds, who went their separate ways. I went on chanting. I chanted for the nation, for the world. Hari Krishna, Hari Rama. There was a spell on the world. The Pope had no sooner proclaimed World Peace Day when the Six Day War broke out in the Middle East.  Westmoreland said he was winning in Vietnam but needed more men.  There was a spell on the nation. Everyone was singing, “We Shall Overcome,” the Human Be-In had been held in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and Jimi Hendrix started playing electric guitar with his teeth.  Lester Maddox, the ax-handle segregationist, was governor of Georgia, Thurgood Marshall was the first black Justice of the Supreme Court, and Muhammad Ali refused to go into the Army.  “Evel” Knievel jumped over sixteen cars on his motorcycle, and JFK was dead.  John Lennon sang, “All You Need Is Love,” and everybody believed it. Bob Dylan said something was happening . . . Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.  Little girls with holes in their ears stopped you on the street to give you flowers and their mothers asked if you wanted to make love not war.  Somebody slips you a joint, and someone else pours chocolate chips into your pocket.  Everything is free and everyone is cool. Hari Rama, Hari Rama. I danced through a campus gate near the Henry Art Gallery. Just inside the gate, someone handed me a quarter.

Time stops while I try to get a read on the universe.

 

Occasionally, instead of voices, I get smells.  Some are sweet, like flowers or classical guitar music or the color orange—odd as that sounds—but some are like hot tar or smudge pots on a road job, or worse, like burning flesh—evil, awful.  Today they are good.  It’s the middle of November, and we’re in a warm spell, a record breaker, almost like summer, except kids are back in school, and the upcoming football game between the Huskies and the WSU Cougars is the talk of the campus.  If there was anything I hated worse than snobbish, future CEOs with perfect teeth, hippies who thought they were truly hip, and the war in Vietnam, it was foolsball.  Fucking foolsball!  But nothing could dampen this weather, not even foolsball or a letter from the President.  The air was delicious with magnolia blossoms and honeysuckle, as if the wind had gathered them up last spring and saved them just for today.  After the rain, walking across campus in the sunshine was like strolling through the “Lowland Tropics” at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, where I had walked as a kid. Steam hovered over red and yellow maple leaves pasted to the sidewalk, and the grass on the Quad glistened blue-green with dew.  Walk me out in the mornin’ dew, my honey.  I sang.  Walk me out in the mornin’ dew today.   Puddles thinned out on parking lots and terraces, giving themselves up to the light, and lingering raindrops let go of trees and fell around me like glass.  For a few moments the sugary atmosphere, in fact all of life, was almost sexual.  A sweet-faced girl with cherry-red cheeks and baby-smooth skin walked by and smiled at me, and I started to get a hard-on.  I smiled back and took in a quick close-up of her breasts sliding against her silky top.  She looked like my ex-girlfriend, Abby.

 

2

 

I had hooked up with Abby in the summer of ’66, a little over a year earlier.  Michel and I were getting blasted at the Century Tavern, a place where the Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard crowd met Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead freaks, all brought together (and brought to their knees) by two great equalizers, hard drink and women.  I was playing my twelve-string guitar and singing at an open mic for drinks.  Nobody was listening.  When someone plugged a quarter in the jukebox and punched “Summer in the City,” I tried to sing along, but Michel grabbed my arm and yanked me off the stool.

“What the fuck, man?  I wasn’t done.”

“You’ve got to meet this chick,” he said.  “She’ll change your life.”

I saw her on the other side of the room, a fiery little bombshell with flying hair and a scandalously innocent—she was only eighteen—cherubic face, dancing some kind of new dance, like a Mexican jumping bean on speed.  Michel ordered a bottle of Dos Eqis and held it over his head until he caught her eye and motioned her over.  She nodded to Michel and shot him the peace sign, only sideways, like a pair of scissors.

“This is Abby,” he said when he introduced us.  “She’ll change your life.”

And she did.  Oh Abby . . .

“Hey, babe,” she said when I held out my hand.  No one could say Hey babe like Abby, and she didn’t have to touch me to give me an itchy palm.  She didn’t shake my hand.  She kissed me instead.  On the lips. Then she gave me a look I can’t really describe to this day—not the kind of don’t-I-know-you look I suspected Michel’s friends got from the ladies all the time, but more of a we’ve-got-some-heavy-karma-to-wrap-up-in-this-lifetime-sweet-daddy-so-we’d-better-have-at-it face that sent a shiver up my spine and made me think this wasn’t going to be quick or easy.

“Don’t take it personally,” Michel said.  “She kisses everybody.”

Abby was a fisherman’s daughter who’d come down from Alaska to go to college, and she was . . . well, Michel called her “yummy.”  My God, she was yummy.  She was only five-foot one or two, though she had a generous body, in fact was a little pudgy—voluptuous was the word that went with yummy—but she turned me on immediately.  There was a delicious little scar on the upper part of her right breast that looked like a flower or a butterfly, and she wore her hair in a pony tail that seemed to be always flying out behind her, her lips were full, and she had a fabulous smile.  Her face was so beautiful I cried the first time I woke up next to her in bed.  Her eyes were brown, like the eyes of a small pony.

We were like two people in a war—a real war—like lovers in London during the Blitz or Dresden in the firestorm.  Within a week we were spending every night in her apartment, smoking joints, eating Haagen-Dazs ice cream, and drinking wine before fucking our brains out until dawn poured in through the bamboo blinds of her bedroom windows and her dog, Banjo, came in and licked us in the face (or sometimes in the ass).  She fed me breakfasts of oatmeal, Canadian bacon and tea before she went off to school, and I went off to collect bouquets of poppies from strangers’ gardens and pretty things to leave on her bed with poetry I’d written to her during the day.  Abby seemed free of moral baggage and was so at home in her tight little body that I lost myself in her—her lips, her eyes, her hips and the taste of salt on her skin, her thrusting pelvis and her teeth on my shoulder.  I couldn’t tell where I left off and she began.

“You’re a slave to your senses,” she whispered, and I was.

She told me I could use her toothbrush after our first night together, and no one had ever done that before.  I don’t think I ever loved her more.

I never had to convince her to go along with any of my crazy shit.  She liked the club scene: dancing, drinking, a little weed, a lot of sex.  “Once you pop, you just can’t stop,” she said about surrendering her virginity.  But it didn’t stop there.  She was up for anything.  The problem was her father, Nikolai.  When he found out she’d hopped a freight train with me out of Seattle to pick apples in Wenatchee, he banned her from seeing me.  He cursed us and threatened to cut off her funds . . . and cut off my balls.

“I don’t need his money,” she said.

I was too dangerous for her, he argued, and if she saw me again, he’d yank her back to Alaska so fast the wind would blow the hair right off her head.  She basically told him to go to hell, but when he said he was on his way down to get her and teach me the kind of lesson he’d taught her fifth grade teacher, she made up her mind to get me out of her life.

We argued, I pleaded, she cried, I reasoned with her.  “We’ll just call the cops if he shows up.”  I considered the irony of this, seeing as how we had dope stashed all over the apartment and a pot plant growing in the window.  “What can he do to us, really?”

 

Nikolai Porshenokov had blundered into the fishing business—longlining for halibut—through a hunting accident that killed his Russian father.  His mother was a full-blooded Aluet from the Pribolof Islands and her people taught him the old ways—what old ways were left—of hunting and fishing on the Bering Sea. He was like most other Native boys in his village, except he was a foot taller and he spoke Russian, English, and something called Unangam Tunuu.  The language of his ancestors, Abby said.  Some people said he could speak with seals and whales and would grow up to be a shaman.  A white man—a lawyer man—came to the village one day and handed Nikolai the keys to a boat and the deed to a house on the Kenai Peninsula and then disappeared.  With a crew of one, George Paul, a Carrier Indian from Yellowknife, he had fished for halibut on Kachemak Bay and the Gulf of Alaska since Abby was a girl, and she helped him during school vacations.  Halibut fishing was an elite career, and most of the men on the boats were white and came from pioneer stock.  Homesteaders, prospectors, speculators.  Nikolai was a crossbreed in a world of non-Native do-gooders, who came to Alaska from the Lower Forty-eight to “save” the Native people, and entrepreneurs who resented the Russians, tolerated Aleuts, and hated mixed races.

“Mongrels!” they said, and turned up their noses as if the air was fouled, spit on the ground where they walked and left shit on their doorsteps.  “Worthless!  They smell like fish whether they’re fishing or not, and they’re all drunks.”  They had a special hatred for Nikolai because he had prospered so well in the fishing business and was one of the richest men in town, next to the cannery owners.

“That poor girl,” they said of Abby, and they let her be because she was so white. 

Poor Daddy, Abby thought when she overheard this talk.

All Nikolai had ever wanted when he started out was enough money to buy a sewing machine

for his wife (who died of a fever when Abby was born), sweets for his baby girl and a sea-worthy boat.  Now he had more money than he would ever need, yet he had no wife, and his daughter was growing up too fast. 

“Are you happy, Dad?” she asked him once.  She was thirteen, old enough to wish her

mother were there to help her understand what was happening to her body and young enough to think that Nikolai was still the finest man in Alaska, the only man for her.

 “I’m always happy, little Raven,” he said, in his flat, atonal voice that distinguished the Red people of the arctic, but enunciating every syllable—not slurring or spitting like his cousins and uncles—so that Abby would be well-spoken.  “As long as I have you, I’m happy.”

“Stop it, Dad.”

 

Who knew how much rage this gentle Red Man had swallowed?  What would it take to unleash it?  He wanted her to be happy of course, and to marry, but he wasn’t about to let her choose a reckless mate, and he would kill any man who took advantage of her or put her in danger . . . even if it was her idea.  When he heard about the train ride, he went berserk.

“I’m not afraid of him,” I told Abby.  “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she said.  “If you only knew.”  She turned on some music, Fats Domino, and asked me to dance with her— “Walkin’ to New Orleans”—but I wouldn’t.  Oh God, if I could only go back for one more dance.

“So what about this teacher?” I asked.

 

When Abby was in fifth grade, a new teacher in town, with help from the cannery nurse, who provided the only medical care on the peninsula, tried to take Abby away from Nikolai—at least during halibut season when fishing bled into the school year, and he kept her out to help with the catch.  But Nikolai quit the sea when he caught wind of their scheme and put his boat up for sale.  Ironically, it was Abby who convinced him not to do it, but he was younger then, and he couldn’t contain his rage and his savagery. 

With two flensing knives strapped to his side, a bear rifle slung across his back and a twelve-gauge shotgun at his waist, he walked into the mountains and disappeared for three days.  People said he had killed a bear, gutted it like a fish and crawled inside, where he ate the heart and then went to sleep.  When he returned it was with two wolves, male and female—muzzled, badly mutilated by his knives, but walking and snarling, thrusting their damaged bodies against the taut ropes around their necks—and delivered them to the quaint little log bungalow on the hillside overlooking the bay.  He left them in the kitchen while the teacher was at school.

 

I couldn’t forget our last pitiful night together.  It started out good, like all tragedies.  Taj Mahal was playing at the Blue Moon, a club on 45th Street, and Abby told me to go on ahead of her and meet her out front.  She paid for our tickets and all the beer we could drink.  The air was hot, and we danced until we were red in the face and slippery all over.  Taj was as fine and mellow as ever, oblivious to the heat, and when he sang “She Caught The Katie” we danced some more and felt cool.  Then she took my hand and led me out to the alley.  We smoked a joint, and she unbuttoned her jeans right there under the streetlight, removed one of her smooth, golden legs and propped it up on a bike rack outside the back door.  A trickle of sweat ran down the inside of her thigh.  I unbuckled and let my jeans fall where I stood.

It was beyond sex.  This was sacred.  There’s that ineffable moment in every new love—there is for me anyway—when I slide ever so slowly into someone like Abby for the first time, when she loosens her legs and lets her wetness wash over me, or she eases onto to me from above and brings so much heat with her that we break into a sweat and are out of breath before we even begin to move, and my entire body feels her sweet insides.   It was like that.  It was like our first night.

For all of her sassiness and untamed passion for everything fun, she wasn’t a screamer.  It was that shy thing she did that drove me wild, the way she would look down or a little to the left or flip her hair back and come at me sideways when she told me what turned her on in bed or how (in detail) she liked to get herself off in the shower.  Though when she was hot, she was like she was on the dance floor—you couldn’t tell the dancer from the dance.  There was a line of moisture on her upper lip, like a shiny little moustache, and her sweaty hair stuck to the sides of her face.  She had torn a couple of buttons off her shirt, and her loose chemise hung off her shoulder.   She wrapped her arms around my neck, and started to climb me like a tree until she straddled me with her legs.

“I love you,” I whispered, and it was like a prayer.  “I love you, I love you, I love you”—I couldn’t say it enough.  I had never felt so in love, and I was sure she felt that way, too.  She breathed into my mouth, and I breathed into hers, as if we were giving each other life, and even though we could hear music and voices coming from the bar, we were wrapped in our own reality.  As we drew apart, and I looked down at the shiny slickness between us, it was as if I’d found my way back home after being lost for a long time.  As we got back into our clothes I knew we’d be together forever. Nikolai was like a native myth to me.

On the way to her apartment we stopped under another streetlight, and I tried to gaze into her eyes, to tell her I loved her again, but she looked away.  I thought it was shyness, that same shyness as when we were new, so sweet, so fresh.  But when she wouldn’t open her mouth for our kisses, I felt something lurch.  Like that feeling you get at the bottom of a stairway when you think you have one more step, and you come down hard on solid ground.  It was as if she was afraid of my germs, when just a few weeks earlier coming down with the same cold or flu only proved how close we were.  If Abby was sick, I wanted to be sick, too, and vice versa.  Later, when we got back to her house, my rucksack, my books and my poncho were on the front porch, and she told me I couldn’t come in.

“It’s over,” she said.

“You’re drunk,” I argued, but she wasn’t.  I put on a silly smile, like it was a joke, but she looked away again.

“I have to go in.”

It can’t be true.  It was a mistake.  What did I do?  If we hadn’t drunk so much, if we hadn’t gotten stoned, if we hadn’t screwed in the alley, if we hadn’t gone to the Blue Moon . . .  it didn’t make sense.  A string of apparently unrelated events had conspired to ruin my life.  If only I’d seen them coalescing, swarming like ants on a dying beetle, and sensed trouble in advance as I usually did, I could have stopped her.  Love had dulled my mind.  I stood on the porch trying to catch my breath.  The screen door slapped shut behind her, a summery sound, and a soft brown moth fluttered around the porch light until Abby turned it off and closed the inside door.

That’s when I first heard the voices.  I bought some bubblegum at the University Book Store, because bubblegum always made me think of Abby, the way she liked to chew out all the sugar, work it into a soft ball and blow bubbles into my mouth.  I handed the checkout girl a nickel, and like a cricket in the dark when you turn your back, I heard her.  We’re all strangers here, eating up time like pigs, and what’s time to a pig? she sang without moving her lips, but you got lips, like it’s on our hips, like it’s infinity.  I ran out like the cops were chasing me, and I finally collapsed on the lawn of Blessed Sacrament Church, a block from Abby’s house, and a young priest came out and took me inside.  Then I smelled the weird smells—fish, coffee grounds, cheese—and four days later I was a patient at Morgan State Hospital.


3

 

I wanted to run after the girl on the path, tell her about Abby and about the air, fat with magnolias, tell her not to knuckle under, to stay free, but instead I plucked a can of Copenhagen from my back pocket and popped in a large pinch behind my lower lip.  I stopped at the Henry Gallery to visit Michel’s new exhibit, called “Babies Leaving the Woods.”  It was a series of sculptures that got progressively larger and more realistic as they went from “Babies #1” to “Babies #26.”  They were mounted on square, clear, acrylic blocks.  They started with rows of tiny bronze babies, the size of Cracker Jack prizes, crawling out of bronze forests of mushroom-like trees in perfect formation, leaving miniature footprints behind on a bronze road. Each successive contingent was larger and more lifelike than the last, until the final burnished babies were bigger than life-sized and the forest filled practically an entire room in the East Wing.  The base was six feet high and weighed as much as an armored car.  Howard Hughes could have rolled a million-dollar bill into a coke straw and hidden it in the middle, where it would have been perfectly safe from thieves and germs.  Bamboo ladders were set up on three sides so spectators could actually climb up on the sculpture and walk around in the forest amid the giant babies.  Whereas most galleries had signs saying “Do Not Touch the Art,” Michel posted handbills saying, “Please Caress the Art.  Our Babies Need Love.”

When the exhibit first opened somebody snuck in after hours and placed dead squids from a fish market on the small and medium sized blocks and wrapped their tentacles around the babies.  They put up signs that read, “20,000 Babies Under the Sea.”  There were so many babies under attack that the exhibit had to close for a week because of the smell.  Critics had a field day writing it off with clever headlines such as, “Dubois Exhibit at the Henry Stinks.”  Some people thought Michel did the squid thing himself—a publicity stunt—but I never believed it.

I dropped in on the University every day as I made my rounds.  I dug the atmosphere and went there to read lost books and write poetry.  Sometimes I went to the Student Union, bummed a cup of coffee and consulted the I Ching, which I carried in my rucksack—a little divination before breakfast to find out what was doing with the universe for the day.  Part of me wanted to be a student at the University, but another part of me was proud of not being one—I didn’t need to go to college to learn how to write poetry or any other important lessons in life.  I never had to buy writing supplies either, because I scrounged what I needed from the library, Student Union and backs of lecture halls.  People were always leaving pencils and pens and half filled notebooks, and if I needed an envelope for a letter I could usually score one from a librarian, along with a stamp.

The Law Library was a somber place that made me feel reverent, and I always sat at a long table that had a high wooden panel right down the middle, separating me from the budding lawyers on the other side.  I read books by Kafka, Steinbeck, Hemingway—students’ books I picked up off benches and tables in the student union.  I felt protected by the heavy law books that surrounded me and by the dependable brass banker’s lamps with muted yellow shades, which cast a golden glow on my work.  Beams of dusty light poured through the windows on sunny days and accented the marble floor, and the stained glass and ancient vaulted ceilings made me think that I’d been a monk in another life at a medieval abbey in Europe or a monastery in the Himalayas.  The smell of the library, old and musty but sweet with furniture polish and floor wax, reminded me of my boyhood days backstage in the theater with my parents.

When everything was ready—envelopes, stamps, paper, and the rich golden light—I took out my unopened letter from The White House.  I had to get ready, and that took time.  I spent my whole life getting ready, in rehearsal, full of ideas of great accomplishments, which never happened because I used up all my time getting ready.  I wanted to be another Bob Dylan, a wandering genius who didn’t think twice and never looked back, answering only to his vision, indifferent to audiences and pundits, and creating masterpieces of music and poetry that spoke for a whole generation . . . yet when asked if he was a spokesman for his generation, he always said, “I’m just a song and dance man.”  I could have been like him, or like Hemingway, or Bobby Kennedy, if only I knew how to finish getting ready.

I stared at the letter from all sides, front to back, back to front, holding it up to my nose, and then slowly opened the envelope.  I unfolded the extravagant, presidential stationery, smoothed it out on the table and meditated on it for a few minutes.  Papers rustled in the background, and people whispered on the other side of the room they’re talking about me.  An old man toddled across the floor tapping his cane, and a woman coughed.  I ran my finger over the Presidential Seal, a ring of nubbly little stars around the familiar American Eagle, and then read, “Greetings from the President of the United States.”

Every male in the Country between eighteen and twenty-six knew what it meant to get a letter from the White House.  “Uncle Sam Wants You” was written all over it.  That bearded old man in the red, white and blue suit, the tall stovepipe hat and the long, pointy finger jumped right off the page.  “Uncle Sam Wants You.”  For an uneducated nineteen-year-old with no wife, no children, no job and no connections, the Army was a ticket straight to Vietnam.  This was where being a student would have come in handy.  The letter read:

Greetings from the President of the United States,

You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of The United States, and to report at 1601 Armory Way in Seattle, Washington on Dec 5 1967 at 8:30 AM for forwarding to an Armed Forces induction station.

Shit!

No “Dear Mr. Black,” no “Best Wishes, Sincerely or Regards”—no nothing.  Some fat-assed politico might as well have walked up to me in the library and handed me an M-16.  I felt as if I’d swallowed a red-hot iron ball and couldn’t puke it up, like the time I got busted for pot or realized I’d almost killed one of my mother’s cats by dropping it off a third-floor fire escape to see if it would land on its feet, and then peed in my pants before it hit the ground.  Feet first.

Shit!

Part of me wanted to cry, but part of me was so relieved I started to laugh.  The librarian gave me another of the nasty looks she so often lavished on me—we don’t laugh out loud in the Law Library—but I couldn’t help it.  My unconscious wish to get drafted, to get it over with, to move on to some other worry had come to pass, and now I was giddy with relief.  Maybe I’d be a Green Beret, just to show the bastards.  Dead-eye-Black, they’d call me, Diablo de Conqueroo.  I was free, more or less white and, well . . . nineteen.  I had no commitments, and I assumed I had street smarts that would be invaluable in Saigon, and even though I thought the war was bullshit, I didn’t have anything better to do.  It might be a rush.  How many other soldiers felt that way?  How many dead ones?

Then again, hadn’t I suffered enough?  “Take life as it comes,” Kirsten would have said.  “Play the hand you’re dealt.”  But she died and left me when I was fifteen, the most gruesome death anyone could imagine.  What the fuck kind of a hand is that?  And Abby.  I tried not to think about her, but I couldn’t help it.  I wasn’t about to make the best of anything, and I was way too defiant to give up the road, to say nothing of getting high, getting laid, and rockin’ out.  Too liberated.  I was a slave to my senses.  Abby had said so, and she was right.  If it wasn’t my dick, it was my tongue or my fingertips, starved for her mouth and her fine, smooth skin, my stomach growling for munchies or my brain screaming for the next high.

But something else was eating me that day, a shaky feeling, like the time I took too many APC tablets for a bad hangover and ended up in the emergency room with a panic attack from the caffeine.  Once I let a bug of some kind lay a row of eggs under my skin because I was so afraid of bugs I thought that if I swatted it, it would bite me, and I screamed for help until Jonathan came and shooed it away . . . and then gave me hell for not doing it myself.  Thank God the eggs never hatched.  I thought about how I had looked down at the floor in the post office when the longhaired kid with St. Vitus Dance pleaded with his eyes for someone to see him.  I was a coward.  Deep down I knew it.  You’re a coward.

Besides, you’re too fat.

I was too fat.  It was those psycho-pills and starchy meals at the State Hospital, or the day-old donuts from the Greek’s bakery and throwaway chicken from Jack In The Box, or maybe it was the beer I guzzled every night at the Century Tavern, where I could always come up with a little bread by selling my food stamps, running errands for drug dealers, or panhandling outside the front door.  I lived on donuts, beer and Jack In the Box chicken.

I was thinking about my next meal when the smells hit.  All of a sudden, rotten lettuce from behind the stacks, coffee grounds and slimy fish heads, like the backside of the Seattle Public Market, or worse—like the squid at Michel’s art show.  Then through an open window came the slaughterhouse.  I knew that one, no question.  My old high school friend, Big Rick “Bat” Masterson, worked on the killing floor, where he stunned terrified cows by smashing them in the center of their foreheads day in and day out with a 40 oz. baseball bat, and he always had that smell on him.  That killer smell.  The smell of death.  I was too young to vote, too young to drink (a minor technicality) but old enough to kill.  Y’all go kill us some Commies, boy—lawmakers had jobs for youths like me.  If we weren’t in school, married with kids, crippled or blind, they put us to work.  Unemployment was at an all-time low.

Maybe I’d be a conscientious objector.  A pacifist.  Fuck ‘em all.

Then I saw myself smashing a politician’s face with Big Rick’s bat, some dickhead like the Secretary of Defense, who would never send his son to Vietnam.  I read the letter again and threw it in the wastebasket.

 

It took twenty minutes, by the clock, glaring at it, hot-faced, hyperventilating, as if time was the source of all my problems, to cool down (the librarian kept her hand on the phone), but then I remembered my birthday cards.  One was from Abby, postmarked Seldovia, Alaska.  She must have gone wild with some other fool after she left me and got herself yanked back up there.  I had to wonder about the man’s balls, whoever he was, and how he stood up to Nikolai the Terrible.  But talk about balls, Abby’s card had a full-frontal photo of a Kodiak bear standing a good twelve feet on his hind legs.  It was one of those cards that are blank on the inside, and she’d written, “Come up and see me.  We’ll shoot a bear—Happy Birthday.”

I started to put the card back in the envelope, and something fell out, a tiny amulet, a purple candy heart with “Be Mine,” printed on it in green letters.  I cradled it in the palm of my hand and rolled it around with my finger, not sure what to do.

Go ahead.  Eat it.

I gazed at it for a minute—

Probably laced with acid

—then tossed it in my mouth, sucked on it for a while, and chewed it up.  The librarian watched me from her desk.

 

 

 

 

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