Copyright 2010 by Ron Sanders
cover art by the author
“Shit, I seen eunuchs got more balls than you got.” –Nefertiti
BLEAK NEWS FROM THE GENE POOL
The Itch Of Being
In the beginning there was a burst of energy.
To the disillusioned it was the sweet flowering of the human spirit, the blossoming of man.
We were shell-shocked—a charismatic young president was in the ground. Smog was in our lungs, mercury in our fish, acid in our rain. And every night the tube laid it out straight for us: the sky was falling, ghettos were ablaze, drought-stricken countries were somehow producing starving children even faster than their desperately concerned parents could frantically copulate. Amazing. And, still playing King of the Mountain, the goliaths were scrapping over some festering wound in Southeast Asia. But that was all just news and nonsense—more emphatically than all these crises combined, the Bomb made it plain. We were doomed.
The blossom emerged Underground, with roots in British rock, Mexican hemp, Indian mysticism, American pharmaceuticals. Suddenly there was a beat in the air. We became light-headed and gender-fuzzy, politically hip and vagabond-chic. Rather than bear arms, we bore daisies. Instead of seeking enlistment, we sought to bedevil our senses. It was our world now, and we were going to fix it; with smiles, with slogans, with symbols and songs. At the very brink of perdition we stood, synchronizing our auras to chant the Devil down.
It would take time. But we were young and strong and many. We had all this energy.
Enough to galvanize even the witless and despondent. Enough to give the staunchest of doomsayers pause. Enough to, for a stutter in time, make a difference.
And that burgeoning energy was Love, flinging its seeds and budding anew, fitting piece by piece each anomalous member of the stubborn human puzzle.
To our fathers, however, the choreographer’s hand was unmistakable. All this business about peace and love could only be the usual commie line, designed to seduce and regiment the usual parade of whining followers. And the parade grated. After Normandy, after Inch’on, after all the lost lives and limbs—that we hairy young hedonists should spew a single syllable concerning policy riled even the most moderate of conservatives. We’d turned their Beaver Cleaver streets into psychedelic playgrounds, muddied the mat of every Judeo-Christian value—but pacifism under fire was the final straw. They raged and appealed, threatened and condemned, hurled accusations of everything from homosexuality to treason. Almost overnight “peace” became a dirty word, and any mention of spiritual flowering made palms itch for the rough kiss of a trusty scythe.
Eventually the blossom shriveled. We grew bored with it all, became pragmatic, and, to our everlasting and unforgivable shame, adopted typically pedestrian lives of dollar-based drudgery, bald-faced brown-nosing, and soulless confrontation.
Now the Revolution is little more than a doddering irrelevancy. Yet there are those who still believe the corpse can be resuscitated, the rush reproduced. They’ll bend your ear if you let them. They’ll hound you with tales of an age gone by, when freedom grew wild in the Pollyanna Spring. Be gentle with them, and never broach that lesson every generation learns way too late: that all that energy—all that optimism, enthusiasm, and potential—was vested in, of course, the impetuous hands of youth.
joon 28 1967
man hav i gawt nooz 4 yoo
dig this i finule tawkd mi old man in2 ltn me rid up 2 frisko with ed an mik
i thenk i wood hav split newa evn if he kp saen no bcuz i kant
stumak stommukstan thu thawt uv hangen urown this dump awl sumr
4 1 theng mi mawmz rele bin awn thu rag L8Le she keps thrtnen 2 grown me or snd me 2 sumr skool so its u good thng im gtn owt yl thu gtnz good
4 unuthr theng thu vibz mi old man poots owt wood kut throo stil
sumtimz he triz 2 ak lik he kaerz but i bt hez ltn me go jus 2 gt rid uv me
thu giz u rel dinusor jime awl he duz iz sit urown hawlren an gripn an guzlen ber lik thaerz no 2mro
he wont lt me gt uwa with nethen
but thats kool he duzn no it but 4 3 wex now iv bin shaken kwrtrz owt uv that sprklts bawtl he throz hiz chanj in iv gawt ovr 20 bux 4 thu trip
stil b4 i go id lik 2 tl him hez jus u wrthlus old frt drenken hiz lif uwa
but i thenk hed kil me
newa i lookd in thu fre prs an fown owt thu big goldn g8 prk konsrts stil awn
thaerz goen 2 b so mne fr owt bichn sooprhv groops it jus bloz mi min 2 thenk ubowt it jfrsun aerplan kand het an thu gr8fl dd 4 shr
wut u gas
2 bad yoo had 2 go an bus yr lag but il b ritn an il lt yoo no wuts hapunen ech groov stond mil uv thu wa
wl i gs thats awl 4 now im rd 2 jam
jime im so xsitd i cood flip owt thenk uv it thu hol sumr awf an her im awn mi wa 2 thu sit
mab il ml yoo sum pawt bkuz i no wel b gtn hi up thaer
wl thats awl iv gawt 2 rit 4 now im awn mi wa
bi thu tim yoo gt this ltr il prawble b gtn it awn with sum groopz or rapn with hendrix az we pas u joent
don b srprizd if i gt 2 yootopu an dsid 2 nvr cum bak thaerz nuthen down her evn wrth remmbren
xsp 4 awl mi sooprtit frnz uv kors
wl i gs thats awl jime so b kool an sta hi
Kevin ran his eyes down the letter lustily, nodding with savage glee. The thing was a bombshell, all right; just the kind of brutally crafted, carefully polished communication he needed. A sprinkle of subtle allusions, a dash of trenchant wit. Something to play cat and mouse with the imagination. Jimmy’s frustration would be calamitous, and this missive would lodge, hopefully, at the very root of the hobbled boy’s misery, remaining to fester all summer long while Kevin, hundreds of miles up the coast, tapped salt in the wound with further letters exaggerating his own good fortune.
Now Kevin dropped the sheet of paper and wrung his hands, visualizing Jimmy, confined to his room in Long Beach, receiving an endless stream of mail postmarked an instant before arrival. This letter would be the first irritation—the first indication of the itch that couldn’t be scratched. Kevin could just picture Jimmy’s face contorting, the paper in his trembling hands smoldering with tales of high adventure and lush conquest. Kevin clenched his fists with the image, pounded his big paws together and nodded harder. For the briefest moment—so brief he wasn’t sure it had really occurred—the boy’s mind went utterly blank, like the switching-off and immediate switching-on of a hall lamp. This instant of blackness was accompanied by a sick pain behind the eyes, of such brief duration it, too, was questionable.
That had been happening a lot lately. Or had it? He felt anxiety coil in his chest and pass. Stranger still. There wasn’t any reason to be anxious, was there? Things couldn’t be more bitchen.
Outside his bedroom rose a thundering, heart-stopping bellow of absolutely mindless passion, finally punctuated by a tremendous two-footed stamping that rattled the windows and shook the door. A string of black obscenities, another bellow, and a long groan followed by a truncated curse. Kevin, so accustomed to these outbursts he hardly noticed, folded the letter and slid it into an envelope. Before repetition could sour the image of Jimmy’s frustration, he licked the envelope’s gummed edge and sealed it, trapping the image inside. But while laboriously centering Jimmy’s address in thick block print he felt his enthusiasm slip away, almost as if it were leaking out the pen’s felt tip. It was an old problem, this relentless sinking of spirit, connected, in some way, to the effort expended in concentration.
At least he was pretty sure it was an old problem.
Hadn’t he just, only seconds before, been thrilled, awed, or expectant about some notion, conviction, or gambit related in some way to some plan or other? He wished he could put his finger on it, and wished, too, that he could include in his letter some reference to this problem—if there really was a problem—and maybe get his friend Jimmy’s advice. But it was too late, the envelope was sealed, and besides, Jimmy really wasn’t that close a friend. In fact, Jimmy wasn’t much of a friend at all, the prick. When he had moved to Long Beach there had been no goodbye for Kevin, no acknowledging the big shy boy as a human being worth remembering. Kevin had procured Jimmy’s new address from an acquaintance in common, and had continued the charade of having a pen pal (even though he’d never received a note in return) only because he so desperately needed friends. His emotional turmoil had not diminished with time. But Jimmy would be sorry now. He sure as hell would. Kevin looked around for some assurance, for some kind of tangible evidence to support his excitement, and saw nothing but the dirty, cracker-thin walls of his bedroom, coldly returning his stare. He tore through the clutter on his desk, found a clipping scissored from the Free Press, held it up to his eyes as if it were pornography:
HAIGHT-ASHBURY—Now that the long-awaited and much-ballyhooed Summer Solstice Festival is history, the Hashbury flower children are clamoring for more. And apparently their very vocal reactions to the Festival, a disappointing assemblage of less than 5,000 on Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadows, have inspired several hip organizers to rally freaks statewide for a comeback which, in concert promoter Bill Graham’s opinion, will be a tribal gathering to dwarf even January’s highly-publicized Human Be-in. And so—in effect—this new festival will simply be an extension of the big July 6 concert announced in the Freep’s May 7 issue. Since the date for the festival coincides with what is expected to be the peak of Hashbury’s Summer of Love invasion, San Franciscan officialdom is doing some pretty tough talking. By now, however, it must be obvious even to the hard-hearted civic council that any effort to halt an enterprise involving such a multitude of freaks would only exacerbate the situation. After endless bullying and cajoling, the Freep was granted an interview with Mayor John Shelley Himself, whose outlook on the festival was something less than positive.
“It’s a disgrace,” the mayor stated. “It’s an outrage! You people think you can exploit the common goodwill . . .”
(and here Kevin skipped down the column impatiently)
“. . . latent communists . . . swinish habits . . . hotbed of drug users and runaways . . . Haight Ashbury district . . . reputation as a haven . . . rebellious types . . . indications of this cancer spreading to the park proper . . . over three hundred men covering the park, and drugs will not, repeat will not be tolerated!”
Then some obviously inflated figures dealing with current Park Station manpower, followed by one of Shelley’s stock got-it-covered speeches. Kevin frowned smugly and read on:
The mayor’s precautions, however, are bound to prove embarrassing. Reports from The Berkeley Barb—and rumors substantiated by reliable underground sources—indicate an expected crowd of some 30,000 freaks from Marin, San Mateo, Contra, and Alameda counties, and a possible influx of up to 20,000 from other parts of the state.
Kevin dropped his arm and let the lost smile slowly reform. Although he’d read the clipping a hundred times, the joy he now felt came as something new and refreshing. Oddly, the repeated readings hadn’t improved his spelling and punctuation comprehension a whit. He was one of those essentially lazy individuals who absorb the world selectively. If it required any work, any application that did not result in instant gratification, it was far too abstruse for Kevin. But he carefully folded the clipping and filed it in one of the flimsy plastic windows in his wallet, where he could always reach it and, like a fresh convert riffling Bible pages, search it for those familiar words so vital to his ambition: flower children, Summer of Love, drug users, runaways. A haven. A hotbed. Freaks, underground sources.
It was way too good to be real.
Just emancipated from high school and one week into a promising summer—a summer that had, only two weeks ago, presented all the horrors-to-be of a long and depressing three months divided into neat halves: six weeks of summer classes, followed by six weeks of stewing around the house dreading each confrontation with his parents. That this prospect was no less unappealing to the parents had been revealed by the father’s uncharacteristically quick compliance. Big, tough, irascible Joe—who wouldn’t let no goddamn punk kid of his get away with doing any goddamn thing he wanted t’do, and just who the hell d’you think wears the goddamn pants in this goddamn family—big, booming, diehard Joe had, for some obscure reason, readily acquiesced to his son’s desperate request. And Kevin, always forced to remain in the neighborhood, had felt new wind under rusty wings. Unaccustomed to independent thought, his mind was suddenly teeming with plans. And slowly an idea had taken shape, at last solidifying to become The Secret: Kevin had no intention of returning to this zoo—ever. But The Secret had to remain a secret. If Big Joe found out his son had pulled one over on him he would kill the boy, slowly and exquisitely, with his bare hands. Even Eddie, who had initiated Kevin into marijuana smoking and to the vague principles of the youth revolution that cold rainy night last November—even loyal revolutionary Eddie could not know The Secret. Not yet.
From the front room came muffled television sounds, a whine from his mother, another bellowed curse from his father. Joe was in a particularly bad mood, and getting out of the house without facing him would be impossible. Still, Kevin wasn’t about to be intimidated by the old man, not today. He tucked the letter into the pocket of his checked Pendleton shirt, stood and crossed the room determinedly. But he made sure to open his bedroom door quietly, and to close it with care.
In the hall the composite blast of television and squabbling parents was overwhelming. Kevin slipped into the bathroom and eased shut the door.
The bathroom (ceiling sagging with the weight of the avocado’s boughs, floor tilted by the tree’s humongous roots) was forever in gloom, the air thick and sour. The ghetto-like clutter and heavy stench had always dispirited Kevin, and today his conviction firmed as he disgustedly looked around.
Nobody deserved this hell.
Paint was peeling from the walls in limp sticky leaves, damp and discolored. On the bathtub’s rusted curtain rod hung a dismal still life: the enormous, billowed balloons of his father’s jockey shorts, the ancient drooping cups of his mother’s brassieres, an old throw rug spotted with blood and grease. This whole side of the room stank the musty stench of broom closets. The sink’s drain was clogged, its basin filled to the brim with dark filmy water for long as Kevin could remember, corpses of cockroaches and flies blemishing the surface like tiny tankers at anchor. Empty and near-empty prescription bottles were scattered behind the faucet handles and atop the commode tank, with labels reading mysolin, chloromycetin, compazine, methotrexate, lasix. The steel-reinforced toilet’s extra large bowl was streaked with black, the throne’s high-impact custom seat veined with cracks.
Now, Kevin had spent a good deal of his young life creating fantasies to blot out the assorted horrors of living in this house, and so it was that, paradoxically, he could at times dredge glamour from unutterable foulness. This bathroom could be a Shanghai back alley or a tenement in Delhi, and he a dark secret agent, or a nameless footsore Hero of the Common People on some unclear mission of goodness and selflessness.
Standing in front of the sink, his back to the mirror, Kevin assumed an expression of coolness and sensitive macho charm. He abruptly whirled to face this tough, virile paladin.
A fat, brooding boy of sixteen blinked back from behind the glass, the eyes dejected, the lips moping. He wore, because his parents insisted he wear, large, conspicuous horn-rimmed spectacles that were forever sagging on his nose. Almost every part of Kevin sagged. He stood just over a ponderous six feet, sulking and hulking, his slumping shoulders burdened by a cumbersome adolescent despondency. His face bore out this slumping; the expression hangdog, the flesh drooping at the cheeks and underchin. Only the great tumbleweed of uncontrollable frizzy brown hair countered this overall collapsed effect, radiating from his scalp like a frayed clump of fine wires. There was nothing you could do with this rowdy growth. You couldn’t part it or style it in any way. Those hairs were tensile as steel wool.
The tough, virile paladin dissolved as Kevin stared, exited sneering at his inquietude. For the thousandth time the boy tugged irritably at random clumps of hair with a huge stubby hand, as though to inspire straighter growth. He could almost hear the clumps scream in protest as they were released to bunch closer to the scalp.
Wagging his head, he stepped aside to confront the commode. All was quiet for a while. With eyes squeezed shut and forehead resting against the wall, Kevin was at last granted a trickling emission. San Francisco, he thought, grunting. Frisco. A whole city run by refugees from the plastic whirlpool; by liberated souls tuning in to life and reality, turning on to faith and love. And the chicks! Free Love. The trill of his waning stream churning water in the toilet bowl accompanied him now, as he for the thousandth time visualized himself grandly arriving in the legendary city on his derailleur, all his fat turned to lean muscle from the exertion of riding. He saw his torso sun-baked a golden brown, saw his hair streaming down straight with sweat. There would be a virginal covey lined up to greet him, attired in the scantiest of scanties, or (according to some of the juicier rumors) in the altogether.
The excitement welled up again, grew intense and uncomfortable. He shook his head to clear it. Again that instant of blankness, again that sense of having just been robbed of a second’s thought. He zipped up quickly, remembered to flush the goddamn toilet, and snuck back to his bedroom.
This room was Kevin’s sanctum, and the one thing he’d never be able to replace. Within these four stained, ratty walls cowered all the sanity the house could claim: there were posters and colored lights, record albums and comic books, piles of collected junk—all to be abandoned, he reminded himself, as the debris of a former incarnation. Most of the junk was of a psychedelic nature—mind toys and smoking contraptions mass-produced by enterprising young companies making a killing off the hippie phenomenon. Kevin had worried sorely over his property. He knew he couldn’t take it with him, although he’d entertained various ideas and alternatives—even, in one desperate moment, a mad notion of building a trailer to haul it all nearly four hundred miles up the coast. Lacking money and specific destination, he couldn’t have it shipped by air or rail, and he couldn’t trust his parents to ship it after he’d arrived. And there was something about giving it away to his few ungrateful “friends” that caused him to swell with a fierce sense of ownership. Selling it all would somehow be just as bad; like prostituting his personality. In the end the only thing to do was leave it. His parents would hopefully expect him to return if they saw his treasures still piled high. Leave it. That was it. Leave it and let his memory haunt them evermore.
And, leaning gracefully against the wall opposite the door, was Kevin’s pride and joy: his sleek Peugeot ten-speed derailleur. The bicycle was only half a year old, bought by Joe to keep his son busy and elsewhere, an arrangement which suited them both. The custom paint job was Kevin’s own; an enthusiastic work of smeared greens and oranges, with current “camp” slogans painted in mustard yellow and dayglo purple. The pedals were swathed in pile carpet for barefoot riding, and strategic spokes had been blacked to make huge peace symbols of the wheels. Scrawled on the beige plastic tape covering the handlebars rode the words pedal power in India ink. Kevin’s khaki-colored double sleeping bag, strapped to the rack behind the bike’s seat, was lined with an authentic, if soiled, American flag.
The boy said his farewells to the room with feelings of regret and relief. He quietly walked his bicycle into the front room, his breath held.
Once again that suffocating depression took him, and Kevin had to slow at the sight of grimy carpet, of piled-up magazines and starved, cringing houseplants. The room was dusty and shaded, ransacked of cheer and the fragile, priceless personal touches that make a house a home. There were no memorabilia nostalgically preserved, no grinning family portraits proudly displayed. A petty neurosis lurked in every corner, ready to pounce the instant the thundering, throbbing television was switched off. Tears were perfunctory here, and laughter, when it came, was a nerve-shredding howl that teetered on the verge of hysteria. Kevin despised the room as he despised the two absurd, self-destructive people responsible for its oppressiveness. The fact that these two rude people just happened to be his parents didn’t dampen his hatred a bit.
His father—seven hundred and ninety-six pounds of ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, intractable Pole—sat stuffed into a split, legless loveseat, guzzling beer and muttering obscenities at the picture tube. The man was immense; a harrowing, towering mountain heaped with layer upon layer of drooping glaciers of fat. On even the coolest days he perspired around the clock, wheezing and hollering, verbally abusing anything that would hold still long enough to receive the withering brunt of his wrath, sucking down six-pack after six-pack of Eastside beer in the eye of his own progressively darkening storm. An ex-trucker forced to retire due to gross obesity, frequent roaring tantrums, and an absolutely stupefying flatulence condition, he remained indoors day and night, seldom leaving the terribly distended loveseat. Utterly unabashed, he was never to be seen wearing other than discolored jockey shorts and a moth-eaten T-shirt, both marinated in his own sweat and worn like a sticky thin second skin.
Jozef Mikolajczyk, vile and tyrannical, was given to flaring, unprovoked fits of murderous fury. He’d proven himself both provider and protector, but in Kevin’s eyes only a malicious Fate would have kept Big Joe from his coffin all these years. By all rights he had it coming; an opinion confirmed frankly by each consulted, insulted, revolted professional. Each had mentally written Joe off, and each had stringently warned him to control his purple rages. It’s said that your heart is about as big as your fist—if that’s so, Joe’s heart was the size of an overripe honeydew.
Footage of January’s Rose Bowl game was being aired for the daily Sports On The Line feature, commentary by one of the receivers blaring from the set’s single, ruptured speaker. The film clip was half a year old, yet Joe had every sense—every pleading, hating, raging bit of his attention—bent on wracking his brain for a winning countermove in a game he already knew had been lost.
“I was lookin’ to be tagged on this one,” the set blasted, rattling the windows, “an’ I figgered he’d be lookin’ fer me.” The explosive roar of a crowd, an avalanche chuckle from the receiver. “But I gotta hand it to that line. They got on him so fast he didn’t know what hit him.”
Kevin watched his father lean forward as the quarterback arced back his arm for a pass. The boy snuck a peek at the set, saw the quarterback get mauled.
His father lurched to his feet. “GODDAMN YOU STUPID SON OF A BITCH! Throw the fucking ball! Don’t hold it, throw it!” He hurled the empty beer can across the room to illustrate. Deeply red in the face, he collapsed with a gravelly gasp on the loveseat. Fresh lines of sweat broke out on his cheeks and forehead, his heart bucking almost audibly. “Jesus,” he rumbled, sucking down quarts of dusty air. “Jesus, what a ball team.”
Kevin’s mother, stout, stunted and curlered, waddled in from the kitchen, clucking and feebly reprimanding in her raspy, warbling voice; wearing a limp terrycloth bathrobe, her chipped rhinestone spectacles, and an expression of weary, bewildered hypochondria. She was a wretched creature; squat and chicken-skinned at forty-five, forever cowering indoors. Hair sparse and fried, forehead deeply pinched and wizened. Rotting teeth, dumpy legs intricately marbled by purplish varicose veins. Her eyes were buggy with hyperthyroidism, her nerves shot to pieces by a lifetime of harried ineptitude.
The woman’s list of ailments was staggering: rheumatoid arthritis, bronchial asthma, hyperalgesic whatchamacosis, indigenous culture shock, acute choreatic distress syndrome. Heart failure twice, cirrhosis, glaucoma, gout. She suffered the painful swelling of hemorrhoids, the heartbreak of psoriasis, the drip, drip, drip of acid indigestion. Heat prostration in summer, pneumonia come winter. Insomnia year round. Cancer of the uterus, the larynx, the breasts, and, through a freak of either nature or radiology, the prostate. The poor woman had been abducted, analyzed, ridiculed, and released by too many uppity extraterrestrials to remember, lost countless nonexistent relatives in tragedies too horrific to convey, had been cheated of stardom by shortsighted talent agencies, of riches by the Mob, and somehow lost at least three Gothic masterpieces in the mail. Self-pity and overexposure to the corrosive vehemence of Big Joe’s pointless rages had mottled her perception of reality, and now disenchantment was evident in her every move as she bent grotesquely to pick up the can her husband had thrown and, straightening arthritically, froze in a paleoanthropic stoop when she noticed her son standing sheepishly across the room. Her harassed expression quickly changed to one of harsh reproval.
“Kevin! How many times do I have to tell you to carry your bike out? You know your tires dirty the carpet.”
“Don’t shout!” his father shouted. He turned and scowled at his son. “Keep the goddamn tires off the carpet!”
Kevin cleared his throat. “I’m—I’m going now.”
They stared at him with glassy eyes and slack barracuda jaws. From the television came a strafing of cheers.
Joe grunted. “Ellie, turn down the TV.” When she began to object he grimaced and said, “Just turn down the goddamn TV,” gesticulating downward with his huge arm. The room plunged into an eerie, electric silence. Joe looked wetly at Kevin, smiled. “C’m’ere, son.”
Kevin leaned the bicycle on its kickstand. He walked over warily, stood grudgingly before his father, tensed. “Sir?”
Joe beamed over his shoulder. “I like that. My son respects his old man, calls him ‘sir’.” He looked back at Kevin and sighed fondly, gently nodding his small, nearly spherical head. Kevin, irritated by this sham of paternal pride, wondered what his father was getting at. As Joe seemed reluctant to elaborate, the boy repeated himself.
“Son,” said his father, “I know you must think your Pa is just a worthless old fart drinking his life away, and that neither one of us gives a good long crap about anybody but ourselves. But the truth is, well, your goddamn mother and me, we care a hell of a lot for you around here, boy.”
Kevin clenched his fists, his palms suddenly moist. “No sir,” he said cautiously. “I don’t think that at all.”
His father chuckled. “Well, the point is, son, we want you to have a good time, but we want you to take care of yourself.” Now the muscles holding the great masses of fat in an insincere sunburst smile collapsed. Big Joe’s expression underwent an instantaneous inversion: from relaxed and chummy to righteously stern. The huge saddlebag jowls trembled. Fat drops of perspiration popped from his pores and rolled ponderously over his cheeks. “Now you listen to your old man. I hear a lot about all them hippies up in San Francisco. You think your Pa don’t know shit about what’s going on in the world; you dumb kids think you know everything nowadays, but me,” and he poked a thumb the size of a mango at his chest, “I know. I watch the TV. I seen about all them goddamn protestors taking all their goddamn dope and I seen the goddamn cops busting their goddamn frigging heads in. Now you hear me, boy. I want you to steer clear of them freaks, right?”
“Yes sir,” Kevin lied.
His mother squinted in his face, smiling hideously. “Your father knows what’s best, dear. You just do what he says and have a good time.” She winced and forced a hand to the back of her neck.
“Yes ma’am. Well, can I go now?”
“Hang on a sec’,” Joe said. “I know you been shaking quarters outta my change bottle for three weeks now, kid, but I figger it’s already been spent on whatnot. You don’t gotta pull that crap. You ask.” Grunting and groaning, he reached to the floor, picked up his trousers, found the left rear pocket and pulled out a patent leather billfold flattened and molded to the curvature of his elephantine behind. “Joe Mikolajczyk takes care of his son,” he wheezed, and began thumbing through the bills. “Now, here’s three hundred dollars for your trip, and I don’t want you spending it on no dope, hear?”
Kevin’s jaw dropped. This sudden, unaccountable generosity astonished him; it was radically out of character. He looked at his mother, smiling kindly—also very much out of character. She gave her face an extra crinkle, said, “Go ahead, dear. Take it.”
Kevin held out his hand. As Joe placed the money on the boy’s palm he gripped it firmly, almost painfully. “What I said I meant, Kevin. You keep your ass out of trouble.” He belched. “Now go on, get the hell out of here. And have a good time.”
His mother clamped his head in her hands and gave him a sloppy hyperopic kiss. “Now don’t forget to write, dear. I would’ve packed you a nice lunch of cheese and salami sandwiches, but my back is so sore and I can’t get around like I used to.” Her expression became resentful. “And you know salami makes me break out!” She showed him a trembling claw, the digits twisted and rigid. “See my hand, how it shakes? That’s because we’re worried about you, dear. You don’t think we worry about you, sweetheart, but if you only knew of the migraines your poor mother’s developed from worrying about you. All the time. Night and day I worry and I worry and I worry until I think it’s going to kill me!”
“Aw, g’wan, leave him alone,” Joe mumbled. He grunted and shifted with a strong blast of rectal wind. “Get out of here, kid. Beat it.”
Kevin’s mother pawed at his hair, trying to put it in order, but he pulled away. “Have a good time, dear!” she called, though he was standing right next to her. “Send us a postcard!”
Kevin nodded, walked to the front door and opened it gratefully. “Thanks,” he said. “I will.” He carried his bike out. As he gripped the doorknob a jangling thrill raced up his arm. With the closing of this door he would be shutting away all the pressures, all the domestic minutiae that made his life unbearable. He closed the door firmly, and the electricity stopped. From inside, muted by the door, came the sound of a long gargling belch, followed by a sour, drawn-out report from Joe’s posterior. There was an explosion of raging exclamations, a whimpered objection from his mother, then Joe’s voice, booming like God Almighty, “Goddamn it woman! Just turn up the goddamn TV!” Immediately a crowd roared and the windows shook. The madness was drowned out. Kevin trembled and stuffed the bills in his wallet. There was no getting around it now: he was gone. One hundred percent officially free.
He mounted and rode down the walkway as fast as he could. For a moment he was certain he heard his mother open the door and call after him, but he closed his mind to it, veered onto the sidewalk and thence into the street. He tossed the letter into the first mailbox he encountered.
According to plan, Kevin and Eddie were to rendezvous at Mike’s house, and Kevin was preparing to turn onto a street that would lead him there when he remembered the money he’d crammed in his cheap plastic wallet. He pulled to the curb and stopped, shook his head unbelievingly. Three hundred dollars! That was a great deal more money than he’d ever dreamed of possessing at one time. He wanted to pull the bills out and count them over and over, but that would be foolish in broad daylight. The world was crawling with people who would cut your throat without hesitation for such a sum. Three hundred dollars . . .
And suddenly, disgustedly, he thought of one crucial item overlooked in the haste of preparation: unless he was severely mistaken, he and his buddies didn’t have a single joint between them. Kevin shook his head, marveling his own absent-mindedness. What was the point of their pilgrimage, if not to keep their minds defiantly fogged in the name of the Revolution? The problem had always been one of money, but with his new small fortune Kevin could easily afford an ounce of the best marijuana around and hardly dent his capital. And hadn’t Perky, a senior at Kevin’s high school, told him in the hall to come by if he wanted any grass? That had been a week ago, just before school let out, and Kevin had seen Perky—who had been on his way to the principal’s office to be expelled for lewd and rowdy conduct—only in passing, Perky giving his message without slowing his insolent gait. Kevin didn’t know him well; Perky was way too hip to publicly acknowledge the existence of a boy as shy and uncool as Kevin, and, if it hadn’t been for the slight elevation in popularity Kevin had gained by turning-on with Eddie that cold November night in the Mikolajczyks’ garage loft, his status might well have remained a miserable zero. As it stood, he now knew a few students previously scornful of his society, and, by extension, of Perky’s trafficking in marijuana. Of course, in a week’s time it was entirely possible Perky was already dry. That gamble would just have to be taken. Kevin knew no other dealers. But he knew where Perky’s house was, as did anybody in school who was anybody, or aspired to be Somebody. Perky was the only kid from Santa Monica High to have attained the supreme status of tenant. His parents—one chronic whore and one terminal alcoholic—shared the school board’s disgust of their incorrigible son, and were more than glad to let him move out on his own. Legend had it that Perky, obstreperous insider that he was, had traveled and partied with some of the most outrageous freaks imaginable, and could actually knock back a whole pint of tequila without barfing.
So Kevin found himself pedaling hard, up and down the little maddeningly neat avenues, till at last he stood panting across the street from Perky’s house.
It was an old, decrepit structure, all rotted lath and crumbling plaster. The yard was in an agony of neglect; overgrown with weeds, choking with refuse. Very little of the original paint remained at the time of Perky’s occupancy, so he and his wild friends had (according to legend) thrown a terrific three-day party; a party replete with every drug known, with fell motorcyclists and hot-blooded girls.
There on the opposing sidewalk, Kevin stood and admired their handiwork; the fruit of three days’ mind-blown labor.
Each windowsill was painted a different hideous color, and on most Kevin could see how the paint had oozed from the sills to dry on the walls or wretched hedges beneath. The tongue-and-groove sides of the house were a continuous painted mural; some portions ridiculously childish, some not so bad. Each side of the sharply angled roof bore a huge peace symbol in off-white paint, presumably for view by air. Kevin’s father, who had read about Perky’s house in the offended local newspaper in a famous article dealing with bizarre lifestyles, had often wondered aloud why the goddamn police didn’t come and raid the goddamn place, why the Air Force didn’t bomb it all to hell. Apparently the owner, who lived in Nevada and received his ill-gotten rent by money order, didn’t know or just didn’t care.
Kevin, having waited for a break in traffic, now pedaled across the street, up the drive’s curb outlet and along the oil-marred driveway to the front porch. An amazingly old Airedale drew itself up on spindly legs at his approach, disturbing a cloud of flies. The dog woofed a half-hearted, perfunctory warning, gave it up and crumpled back down, the cloud descending with him. “Nice doggie,” Kevin said, looping his lock and chain through the bike’s spokes and around the frame. He snapped shut the combination lock, turned and confronted the front door. The door’s window was smashed; a tie-dyed rag of a curtain fluttered behind the knives of splintered glass. This would be the door leading into the famed anteroom, the purported scene of so many lecherous parties. The house proper was built back of this narrow anteroom, so that the room itself poked out like an add-on, which it probably was.
Kevin could hear familiar music blasting inside the house. Moving his lips to the lyrics he realized it was The Doors, and that that was Morrison barking out Back Door Man. The music emboldened him. Kevin, front door man, stepped up and rapped three times on the scarred, splintering wood.
At once there was a sound of stumbling, of a scrambling body knocking over a piece of light furniture. Then an abrupt tapering in volume as the music ground to a halt. The house seemed to grow cold in the new silence, seemed to draw into itself. Kevin heard what might have been voices in distant parts of the house, but with all the air and street traffic he couldn’t be sure. Then came a quick pattering of bare feet on creaking floorboards. More silence. Kevin had, after half a minute of this silence, an odd feeling he was being watched. He turned his head and could have sworn he’d peripherally glimpsed a dark, intense face watching him from between parted newspaper curtains. But the newspaper curtains were closed. There was no face. He turned back to the door, thought for sure the corner of a curtain behind another window had just ruffled shut. The house was obviously occupied; why wouldn’t he/they answer? He knocked again, harder, small chips of the door’s smashed window tinkling at his feet. This time there was the sound of heavy furniture crashing on the floor, followed by a quickly muffled breaking of, perhaps, crockery. Thumping footsteps. Quick whispering. The music wound up to its former ear-splitting volume like an air raid siren. Clearly the plug had been pulled at his first knock, and just now reinserted. Uneasily, Kevin locked on the footsteps booming to the door.
The door was wrenched open and Perky squinted out, long tufts of dirty black hair disturbed by his quick movements. From the heavy footfalls, one would have expected a person at least the height and weight of Kevin, but Perky was a little guy, who couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds. Though Perky’s startling face inevitably brought on unintended stares, any initial interest was quickly replaced by a kind of morbid thanksgiving. Perky had lived a rough, cheap life on the streets. At some time during his violent childhood some rival or other had secured the weapon and opportunity to smash little Perky’s nose so badly as to make it, in profile, virtually unrecognizable as a nose at all. Perky’s forehead was quite broad, which in a way bore out the flattened nose and lent his face some congruity. But the bones making up the lower half of his face were thin and brittle and looked, except for a haze of black stubble and patchy acne, almost effeminate. A fractional harelip gave his mouth a permanent snarl, and when he spoke one couldn’t help but notice that all his front teeth, save a lonely incisor on the bottom gum, were missing. The consequential awkwardness with consonants caused him to snap and grimace when he spoke, which only made him seem meaner than the frightened and frustrated survivor he was. His skin was the color of tallow, his eyes—with whites visible all around—the color of lead. Of course he was a most touchy and cynical young man, yet, in all Santa Monica, his reputation as generous host was without parallel. His alarming eyes narrowed now as they looked straight into the eyes of Kevin, two steps down. He edged out, partly closing the door to block the music roaring out like floodwater.
Kevin smiled crookedly. “What’s happening, Perky? ’Member me? Kevin Mikolajczyk. You told me last week at school you had lids for sale. Hope I’m not too late.”
Perky sneered. “Hate to have to bum you out, man, but I sold all that pot the same night. I got some more yesterday but it was a burn; all full of parsley and crap. That’s all right, though; partner of mine’s got a sawed-off .44. Tonight we’re gonna pay the dude who ripped me off a visit, blow off his balls and screw his old lady.”
“Wow!” Kevin said, jolted by the graphic mental image of Perky and his friends kicking in the door of a rip-off’s pad and exacting their rough street justice. Then he remembered his own tough luck and frowned wryly.
“Sorry to hear about you getting burned, Perky. I was really hoping you had some lids for sale, ’cause me and a coupla partners are jamming up to the City to catch the big concert, and it would sure be a drag to go dry. Do you,” he wondered unwisely, “know anywhere else I can score?”
Perky considered. “Yeah, well maybe I can do you right. Buddy of mine couple streets over’s got some lids. Really righteous shit. I gotta go rap with him about something anyway. Come on in.”
Kevin stepped up and inside. As Perky slammed the door there came another smash and stumbling of feet. They were now standing in the well of the anteroom. An old gravy-spattered tablecloth concealed most of the room, while to their left upon entering were three wood steps leading up, then the doorway into the front room, which, though narrow, extended the width of the house. Kevin followed Perky up the steps and his pupils quickly dilated. The front room was all in gloom; scarcely a ray of light could squeeze beneath the mangled curtains or through interstices in the grime on the windows. All the furniture and appliances looked like junk thrown out of Salvation Army shops as beyond repair, or pilfered from Goodwill boxes in the dead of night. The carpet was a mishmash of oily, jagged scraps, nailed indiscriminately wherever most convenient for the drunken decorators. Walls were riddled with holes and smudged with the acne of puerile graffiti. Wherever possible those holes had been covered with loud and outrageous posters depicting feverish rock stars. There were coffee tables scarred by cigarette burns, broken lamps with boxer shorts for shades. On the floor a child’s phonograph, hooked up to a bulky amplifier and public address loudspeaker, shrieked, crackled, skipped and sputtered through a very scratchy copy of The Doors’ first album. Perky knelt and turned the volume down to a tolerable level as Kevin shook his head in fascinated approval, a thin smile on his fat lips. This place was a revolutionary’s dream; the atmosphere positively reeked of freedom and good times—of drugs, booze, and wild parties unhampered by the gross, antiquated antics of embarrassingly naïve parents. Kevin’s eyes, wide with wonder, continued their sweeping appraisal. Several brassieres were nailed triumphantly to the ceiling, their straps hanging in yellow withered surrender, like crepe streamers. A few badly-torn easy chairs hugged the walls, each with a single rusty spring poking up as a bitter unidigital comment on the state of its surroundings. It didn’t take much imagination to visualize those chairs occupied by bearded revolutionaries and sneering motorcycle outlaws, all engaged in the wholly laudable business of headlong whoopee-making.
Then the boy’s eyes grew wide and his smile crumbled. For he saw—thanks to the dull glint of a brass earring—a strange little man standing tensely in the corner. The man was lamentably scrawny and small, wearing a gray cut-off sweatshirt and baggy Levis, grungy sneakers. His hair was a riot of long black tangles shot with white, and amid that mess his tiny eyes were in constant flashing motion: from Kevin to Perky to the anteroom doorway, from Kevin to Perky and back to Kevin. He was apparently frozen with apprehension, and this motionlessness, the poor visibility, and the stranger’s congruity with the gaudy and wasted face of the room, had initially fooled Kevin into believing he was alone with Perky. Now the guy glared rabidly at Kevin, radiating an instantly infectious paranoia. He looked starved and punished, dogged and discombobulated by some utterly absurd vision.
“Hey, man, it’s cool,” Perky said, metronomically rocking an arm back and forth before the wildman, whose irises appeared to follow the motion while the orbs remained fixed. “This guy’s a friend,” Perky went on hypnotically, “a friend.” He turned to Kevin, indicating the quiet guy approvingly with a thumb, “He’s been stoked on speed for three days now without crashing. He can get you and your partners some righteous crystal for your trip if you want.”
Kevin looked at the quiet guy, feeling haunted, and shook his head.
“Whatever,” Perky said.
“How is this pot?” Kevin asked, feeling the quiet guy’s eyes scrambling across the back of his neck like tiny tarantulas.
“Like I said, man, it’s really good shit. That’s why it goes for fifteen dollars. It’s from Lebanon, man, way over by China. Lebanese Lavender. You know.”
“Sure,” Kevin said. “Right.” He’d never heard of any such strain of marijuana, was reasonably certain this would be just so-so local stuff. But Perky’s transparent assurance was not entirely unexpected. In the groggy dawn of the age of Aquarius it was rare to score without complications or deception. He was also sure that this ounce didn’t really sell for fifteen dollars, that Perky would pocket the extra five. That, too, was to be expected, was part of the game.