Does a Reading Room Need Wheels?

Exactly one week ago was my last day working for the company I had been with for more than 37 years. To put that in some perspective, I was hired when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Ronald Reagan was the President-Elect, and Donald Trump was a local New York joke. As much as I would like to blame the current White House resident for my being laid off, it had much more to do with other disruptive factors in the publishing industry which predate his arrival. More important than not being in an office for eight hours a day is the fact that I am not commuting for four hours a day.  I used to joke with my ex-wife back in the 1980s and 1990s that if I ever lost my job, I would want to keep my monthly train ticket; those hours on the train were the only time I found to read and write without interruption. Even when I finally succumbed to the pressure to carry a cell phone, I would turn it off when I was on the train so that I could read in peace. As I had often feared, I’m finding it harder to find time to read without interruptions now that I’m not in a seat between strangers in a passenger car on a Metro-North or New Jersey Transit train. Right now, typing this, I can get up and walk around, go outside and pull some weeds, wash the dishes in the sink, take a drive or a walk, put some music on the stereo, feed my self-diagnosed Trump Anxiety Disorder with a quick trip around the internet, pick up a guitar, or even (gasp!) turn on the television. How do I carve out dedicated and concentrated reading and writing time? How do you?IMG_1341

People at both ends of my long commute used to ask all the time about how I spent so many hours traveling, but I loved that time. I was reminded of how much I miss my train ride today when I came across this February 2015 piece from The Atlantic, “The Best Sentence in Atlantic History?” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was writing about his 1862 trip to the Antietam battlefield to find his son (who was shot through the neck and left for dead, but survived to fight on and then become the Supreme Court’s “Great Dissenter,” long before the Notorious RBG took over that role). The 1862 sentence that stood out to Jennie Rothenberg Gritz in 2015 as possibly the best sentence in Atlantic history was this arrangement of 198 words about traveling on the southbound train from Massachusetts to Maryland.

Many times, when I have got upon the cars, expecting to be magnetized into an hour or two of blissful reverie, my thoughts shaken up by the vibrations into all sorts of new and pleasing patterns, arranging themselves in curves and nodal points, like the grains of sand in Chladni’s famous experiment,—fresh ideas coming up to the surface, as the kernels do when a measure of corn is jolted in a farmer’s wagon,—all this without volition, the mechanical impulse alone keeping the thoughts in motion, as the mere act of carrying certain watches in the pocket keeps them wound up,—many times, I say, just as my brain was beginning to creep and hum with this delicious locomotive intoxication, some dear detestable friend, cordial, intelligent, social, radiant, has come up and sat down by me and opened a conversation which has broken my day-dream, unharnessed the flying horses that were whirling along my fancies and hitched on the old weary omnibus-team of every-day associations, fatigued my hearing and attention, exhausted my voice, and milked the breasts of my thought dry during the hour when they should have been filling themselves full of fresh juices.

I feel sorry for Holmes; is there anything worse than those occasions when someone, even a “dear detestable friend,” tries to speak to you on a train or a plane when you just want to concentrate on a page or the window? Where will I find my train car to work its daily magic? Right now it’s a screen porch with Glenn Gould playing Beethoven’s Pastoral. But how do I make this a habit without the confinement of a train car and the white noise of a crowd? And even if I find a good substitute for that reading room on steel wheels in the coming days and weeks, will any of us ever regain the pace needed to read, write, and appreciate leisurely looping 198-word-long sentences again?

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Time for Me to Put Up or Shut Up

Writers are supposed to avoid clichés, but “put up or shut up” seems appropriate to my current situation. August 15 will be my last day of working at the employer I’ve been with since late 1980. The date of my upcoming corporate redundancy wasn’t chosen by me, but it seems appropriate. I discovered last year when retyping my very first novel on this site, that its action took place on August 15 and 16, 1975, and I began writing it on August 16, during what would be the last extended period (four months) with neither school nor work in my adult life. I have written in the years while I was working full time and even had a few things published, but most of my projects have been either unpublished or unfinished.

As I prepare for this period of post-corporate time ahead of me, I need to get serious.  This post is my public announcement that I’m committing myself to writing as my full-time job beginning on August 16, 2018, 43 years to the day after I started writing my first book. If I could successfully commit myself to monthly, quarterly, and annual goals and deadlines for over three decades in an office, I should be able to find a way to do the same for my own goals starting next month.

I also had almost no distractions in 1975. No television, no stereo, and obviously no internet; I had books, notebooks, pens, and an acoustic guitar to entertain myself. In 2018, I’m going to have to work harder to avoid distractions. I’ve started by canceling all but the most basic over-the-air TV. If I were home during the day in this period of history with access to 24-hour news stations, I might be too tempted to turn on MSNBC or CNN; I don’t think network soap operas will present the same temptation. I’ll also need to make myself a schedule; if I could leave for a job at 5:30 every morning, I can follow a writing and exercise schedule for myself.

I may go back to work for someone else in a few months, but while I have the luxury of being able to spend the fall and winter of 2018 doing what I want, what I want to do is write. There will be updates here, but I hope to focus most of my words on projects longer than blog posts.

Reading Myself in Exile (3.4 & 3.5) — THE END

What happens when the clichéd “novel left in a drawer” is exhumed and exposed to light?

I have been finding out and sharing the results as I rekeyed the only typewritten copy of my 1970’s novel Exile, posting chapters in serial form as soon as I got them onto a computer. The final chapters — the twenty-first and twenty-second —  follow, but click here to begin with chapter one. Unlike all the other installments, I’m not going to follow the end of the book with a postscript. However, I would love to hear comments from any readers who may have read all the way through.

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4

Artie’s face was cleaner than usual. John used to kid him about the grease stains which always covered him from working on his van. His brow was often wrinkled in thought and worry, but tonight it was as smooth and placid as a beauty queen’s ass. His week’s growth of brown mountain beard was gone too.

“That’s not Art.” John’s words were choked, not spoken, as he fought back tears. “That’s not Artie!” his voice became louder with each breath.

Artie was exposed from the shoulders up in a mahogany casket with silver handles which his parents had paid dearly for. Flowers were everywhere. Flowers – red flowers, dark wood, and a wax model of Artie’s face were the only images that crossed John’s mind that night. And Artie’s mother – that woman was so strong. She tried so hard not to cry, but talking with John they both broke down and shared their sorrows in a communion of tears.

John didn’t cry when he first heard the news. He hopped into his roommate’s Volkswagen and started driving down to San Diego without saying a word to anyone. Two days after their trip, Kathy had called and cried over the phone, “Artie was killed in an accident with an oil truck along the coast. His van was totaled…” John didn’t hear much after that. His mind was exploding with thoughts and images. Images of his past, present, and future bled together at the announcement of the death. The broken bloody wing of a screaming seagull he had found at the beach…snakes, grey wooden crucifixes and the blood and tears of a red-haired friend, Chris – Chris Salmatone – he hadn’t thought of that go-kart accident in years. He experienced sharp images of a cousin he hardly knew who was filled with dirt and shrapnel at Khe Sanh – images of metal replacing blood and flesh. He felt sick. He expected Artie to reflect these images. He was surprised to see a wax face. No terror, no death, no life, just make-up. His mind focused on everything except the simple fact that Artie was dead. Artie was dead.

John saw an oil truck on his way down the coast and he wished that his car was a little bigger so he could send himself and the truck up in a burst of flame. That’d be the perfect revenge. He wouldn’t even mind spending a good portion of his life in jail if he could blow up an oil refinery and cause some executive to choke on his filet mignon at the thought of lost profits.

John saw an oil truck on the way down the coast and he broke into tears at the thought of Artie’s body becoming one with the van and engine that he loved so much. He pulled off onto the shoulder and leaned his head up against the horn until a highway patrolman pulled up and asked, “What’s the problem?”

“The problem is that the best friend I had in this whole fuckin’ world just got his guts smashed against a steering wheel, you pig!”

John was hoping he’d get arrested. Anything – anything to relieve the feelings of helplessness and loss.

The patrolman didn’t oblige him. He saw the red eyes and cheeks glistening with tears and he felt the same helplessness. The power of the dead. What could he say? “Don’t lean on your horn. You’re disturbing the peace.”?

He just drove away.

***

Tears still streaked John’s nose and cheeks as Artie’s face faded from his mind’s eye. The fat Italian woman sitting across from his wasn’t staring anymore. She was making a conscious effort to avoid all eye contact with him, as though his sadness was contagious. The other passengers all politely hid their eyes too as he glanced around the compartment. Their opinions didn’t matter. There was only one other person’s opinion that mattered to John. That person was dead. A thought crept into his consciousness which must have been known somewhere for a long time. Every day since Artie’s death was leading to this day. Fragments of Stalden and the snake and Artie popped into his dreams almost every night.

Every night he found himself sitting in front of the same wooden shed as he watched the same snake pull itself up and over the same ridge and start its descent down towards him. He always awoke at that point. Robin awoke him from his dream that morning in Paris. (Was that the same day? It seemed like years had passed.) He was mad at Robin for awakening him even though it wasn’t his fault. Like Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” his dream was destined to remain unfinished until today. He wasn’t even sure that this trip would be so special when he first spent his four hundred dollars to fly over. The day before had convinced him. The fact that Robin had been there to give him directions to the place of his dreams and that he had actually caught a glimpse of the snake for the first time since Artie’s death had cancelled all his doubts about the reality of his dreams.

He didn’t know how to occupy his mind in the time before he got to Stalden. So many images had been flashing through his mind and now it was blank – the calm before the storm. He looked around the compartment again and caught a couple of people casting surreptitious glances at him. They were waiting for him to break down in tears again. He wished he could just sleep and fall into his dream. He was too wound up for that. They zipped past an isolated switchman in his glass booth and John kept his eyes outside. He was aware of the stares on his back and head. He was tired all of a sudden. His joints felt stiff and his eyes were tired of staring and moving along with every object outside his window. He let the world fade into a blur for the short ride left to Brig.

The train pulled into Brig about 6:30 and feelings of déjà vu and confusion overpowered him. He walked straight over to the ticket window and bought a ticket to Stalden (“Yes, I want to go to Stalden, not Zermatt.”), so he wouldn’t miss his train and be left sitting in the train station longer than he had planned on. The station wasn’t only familiar because he had been there with Artie three years earlier. The people were familiar too.

This was the beginning of his dream.

He saw the same people standing and sitting in the same places every night. It was almost laughable after a little while. He knew exactly when certain people would get up from their benches to go relieve themselves. He could even predict when the lady to his right in the yellow skirt would sneeze. The whole moment became much too intense and John was glad when his train pulled into the station on time. He got in through the door that he always got in and he sat down next to the man with the rucksack and the knee-length pants whom he was destined to sit next to.

John found his tiredness gone as he anticipated the end of his dream. There could be no doubt left in his mind that he was going to meet the snake again as his dream unfolded before his eyes. He predicted when the conductor would push open the sliding door in front of him and ask for his ticket. He knew that a little boy would bounce through the same door and trip and fall and call for his mother. He would’ve liked to have been able to stop the fall, but he felt like a spectator in a theatre, watching a movie he already knew by heart. Stopping the boy’s fall was as possible as changing the course of the tornado which took Dorothy and Toto toward their adventures. He was awestruck by everything as the train continued. In one supreme effort, he managed to say, “Gesundheit,” right before the man sitting next to him sneezed. John expected the man to be amazed. He didn’t even seem to notice.

When the train stopped in Stalden, John was the only one who got off. He walked down a flight of stairs leading to the men’s room under the train station and took his sole hit of windowpane acid, because that was what the moment called on him to do. This feeling of living out a dream was a good one. He didn’t feel a stitch of apprehension about tripping alone in a strange place. His memory told him how to follow the road up to the high bridge above the town. He would hike down through the woods to a lower, small wooden bridge, below the level of the town but still high above a rocky Alpine stream. He made it to the lower bridge without much trouble even though the effects of the LSD were confusing him a little. He sat down on some stones in front of an old grey wooden shed with some old grey wooden crosses and crucifixes tacked onto it. Although it was almost nine p.m., the air seemed alive with pale blue energy. The town faded as the night progressed; the pale blue sky didn’t fade at all. John knew that when the town, including the shacks behind him, faded almost completely, he would be able to look out over his right shoulder and see the snake coming over the hills and down across a high green slope. The snake was there at the appointed time and place and he started inching down towards John. This is where the dream was usually interrupted.

John didn’t wake up.

The clarity of the scene made John feel as if he’d been looking at the world through the imperceptible haze of an organdy curtain for his whole life. There was no haze now. The sky was pulsing neon blue, and the green underneath the snake was exactly the same intensity. A razor-thin line at the top of the hills separated the two colors surgically. The snake itself moved slowly and steadily towards John. As it drew nearer, John could see blood pulsing past the snake’s anointed, translucent – almost transparent – scales and fragile skeleton. The blood was pumped quickly and precisely through large streams and thin liquid arabesques. The snake’s breathing made John apprehensive. Every time the snake exhaled, the whole world pulsed and John felt his own chest and abdomen expand.

The snake pulled itself alongside John. It stopped moving and only its shallow breathing and steady blood flow broke the stillness and silence of the countryside. John was waiting for the climactic moment of his voyage – of his life – and he was left with no more than a feeling of uneasy stillness. Almost for a lack of anything better to do with his hands, John reached up and touched the glowing white underbelly of the snake. The circle was completed in the paroxysm of emotion which followed that contact. His first sensation was unexplainable. For that fraction of a moment, he could’ve sown that he was touching Caroline’s soft breast or thigh, and then his mind exploded. He relived all the exuberance of this life in the moments that followed. The smell of salt water and Sue and Kathy and musical labyrinths pulsing before his eyes…His body expanding with the ecstasy of a fulfilled phallus before being thrust against the snake’s soft scales. Women, waves, friends and mountains filled his mind, and through it all was Artie’s face – not a wax face, but a windburnt, unshaven smile. A spontaneous burst of laughter split the air and the vision was gone.

John’s mind spun as he found himself in the dark, facing the fading glow of a snake and the sound of a rushing stream. He had found the snake of Eden. He fell back onto some rocks and burning vines. His back cracked against a shed and an old wooden crucifix cracked and dug into his shoulder. He couldn’t let the moment end. He’d give anything to make it last. That must be an idle thought which crosses many minds during moments of ecstasy; John wasn’t satisfied with just the thought. One question crossed his mind twice as the bright sky faded into crepuscular hues. “If a simple distortion of my senses has brought me this far, what will their destruction bring?” Before his impulsiveness allowed him to think any deeper, he had thrust himself through the glaring residue of the snake suspended before him. He found himself hanging high in the air above a dark, swift Alpine stream. He experienced a flash of regret which manifested itself as a scream.

The scream awoke a few people of Stalden. Some people rolled over and incorporated the scream into their nightmares.

John felt cold as his body stiffened with pain against the rocks and gleaming whiteness of the shallow stream. The pain left his body as quickly as it had entered along with his life blood.

 

 

5

Robin awoke much like every morning. He arrived at the railroad station in Geneva 45 minutes before his train was scheduled to leave for Zermatt and the Matterhorn. He wrote a little bit in his journal about the fireworks show he saw the night before and how he was looking forward to seeing the Alps. He thought a little bit about his uneventful visit with Anne before the train pulled in. He tried to sleep during most of the trip to Brig. He opened his eyes a few times to catch glimpses of Lake Geneva or the Valaisian Alps.

BRIG – he read the town name on the railroad station sign as he disembarked, looking for his connection to Zermatt.  Brig – a name, a name that had never entered his mind until today. Today he repeated it over and over as he rode in the train so he could make sure that he wouldn’t miss it (imagine the embarrassment that would cause). “Anne” was another name he often repeated. Anne..Anne, the name often repeating itself beyond his control. What did he know of her? A 5’4″, 110 lb. body he fantasized about. Body topped with an Irish nose, hypnotic star blue sapphire eyes and a long trail of light brown hair which blew soft and full forever in a romantic wind which was seen – never felt. (anneanne.) Robin Jackson was his name. He had no part in its selection. It was the name of a small bird followed by the name of a town in Mississippi. Black college students had been murdered by police in that town in Mississippi on the same day that thousands of Asians were being bombed by the U.S. Air Force and four white students were killed by part-time soldiers in Ohio. Robin’s high school went on strike in support of those white students. Robin, a freshman then, had participated and invoked his parents scorn – arguing with them about parallels to the Boston Massacre and the First American Revolution.

He was excited by his memories as he boarded the train which would take him to Zermatt. The small, red private railroad cars were crowded with tourists as they inched their way up through the mountain pass. The snake was lying on its favorite ridge, totally oblivious to the surrounding world. A drooling baby on her way to see the Matterhorn looked up towards the ridge and wailed. “Was ist los?” the baby’s mother asked in a soft voice as she gingerly felt the child’s crotch. It took the baby close to five minutes to quiet down, even with the help of a pacifier and a mother’s gentle comforting.

Robin glanced to the same ridge (he had been told what to look for), but he was blinded by the sun.blinded by the sun

Reading Myself in Exile (3.3)

What happens when the clichéd “novel left in a drawer” is exhumed and exposed to light?

I’m finding out and sharing the results as I rekey the only typewritten copy of my 1970’s novel Exile in serial form, posting chapters as soon as I get them onto a computer. The twentieth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the third chapter in Part Three.

nearing the end of ExileOne of the major advantages of books on paper over books on screen is that the reader always has a physical sense of how close she or he is to the end of the story. The photo above shows you where you will stand after you finish reading chapter 3.3; there will only be two short chapters to go. When I began retyping chapter 1.1 at the end of August, I really didn’t know if I would make it to the end of this process or if I would lose interest a few chapters in. I cannot tell you how much I’ve enjoyed remeeting a 19-year-old novelist working 42 years ago, and I hope that a few other readers have been enjoying this journey too.

3

John woke up alone and pulled the zipper tight around his neck. It took a little courage to finally expose his naked body to the cold air and get dressed. He started a fire right away and lit a cigarette in the flames. He hadn’t brought enough matches for five days either. He warmed up fast after he pulled on his long underwear and jumped around a little. John sensed the ceiling above him creaking rhythmically again. Artie climbed downstairs after about fifteen minutes and found John engaged in watching the flames jumping and licking around the split logs.

“I promised to fix breakfast for Kathy,” Artie said with a spring in his voice.

“Okey-dokey.” John mimicked Artie’s mood as his broke his pyromaniacal trance.

“How’d you sleep down here?”

“Fine. I slept and dreamt soundly.”

“What’d you dream about?”

“Nothing too unusual. I think I was with Sue, or maybe someone else, on some kind of slick metal that was tilted at a 45 degree angle. We just kept on slipping and sliding all over each other. We didn’t really do or say anything. I think that the snake was in it too, but I’m not really sure how he fit in.”

They paused for a few long seconds. John lit another cigarette. Artie started mixing some powdered eggs as he prepared to speak.

“Y’know, I’ve been thinking a lot about that snake and I don’t see how it can be real. I mean we were tripping when we were up in the Alps. We can’t be held responsible for what we thought we saw there.”

“There’s a simple reason why you don’t believe in the snake right now. It’s because of Kathy. I’ve only been able to see the snake when my connections to this reality were at their lowest. I saw the snake during the summer after my breakup with Caroline and I saw it last summer in Stalden right after my breakup with Sue. Everyone uses something to anchor their view of reality on. For some people it’s their job or money and for others it’s their home and family. For me it was just a girl and a little sex which kept my mind bound to this world.

“I have a feeling that my mind has never been too tightly bound. It took intense attachments to other people to keep my mind from looking beyond its blinders. When those attachments broke, so did the straps which were binding my mind.”

Artie listened intently, but he didn’t answer. John saw his worry – his worry that both he and John were going out of their wretched little minds.

John tried to sooth his anxiety. “What we’re going through is too real to be limited to just you and me. I think that this knowledge must be pretty widespread and people are just afraid to admit it. They’re like us. Alone and fearful of their knowledge…Only society calls it madness.”

The mention of madness didn’t sooth any anxieties.

“You explained why you saw the snake. Why did I see it last summer?”

“I think acid must be a catalyst for the mind to throw off some of its restrictions. Don’t worry about why you saw it – okay – just be glad you did. I don’t know why I saw the snake when we were in boy scouts either. It drove me crazy at the time, but I’ve accepted it totally now. There are certain things you just have to have faith in.”

“Now you sound like my mother trying to drag me to church,” Artie laughed.

“I’m not even that far out. I’m not telling you to believe what’s printed in a little black book which is only given validity through tradition. I’m just asking you to accept what you’ve seen with your own eyes. You saw it. You can never deny that to yourself.”

“But how come…um, y’know?”

“How come not everyone can see it?” John asked after divining Artie’s thoughts.

“Yeah.”

“That’s probably the question that bothers me the most, but I think it all has to do with the relativity of sizes. I’d guess that we’re about the same size in relation to the snake as ants are to us. If ants were constantly aware of a human presence they’d probably live their lives in a constant fear of being stepped on. Their ignorance is their only defense. When a human steps on one of their anthills and kills a few of them they can call it an act of God. Humans have the same defense – the same ignorance against things as large as the snake, or the universe. Once you get started thinking about this relativity of sizes, the snake seems tame. I mean, did you ever stop to think that the model of an atom is very close to the model of our solar system. Maybe our galaxy is a molecule of water in some unbelievably gigantic world and that everything we call a molecule is a galaxy in some other universe. Then you can picture a chain of larger and larger and smaller and smaller universes stretching out infinitely. Why not? Human science will never have the tools to prove it right or wrong. The human mind has to be stretched close to its breaking point to acknowledge anything larger than itself. Some drugs can help us with that.”

John very seldom spoke for so long, but little ideas which had been left unexpressed for a long time kept on popping into his head. “Maybe the narrowness of our minds prevents us from sensing small things too. I heard once that schizophrenics can feel insects crawling around under their skin…Remember that really good acid we had in Europe?”

“How could I forget?”

“Yeah, well I’ve also heard that LSD can simulate schizophrenia, so I shut off all the lights in my dorm room and just took a hit to feel the bugs crawling around under my skin. It didn’t work, because my visual hallucinations were too strong. Y’know, but the point is that I don’t live my life in fear of going crazy. If I’m afraid of anything, it’s just that I’m missing something.”

Artie didn’t answer. He didn’t know how to answer. He wasn’t really sure about what he thought. He finished cooking the scrambled eggs and pretended to give them all his attention. “Do you want some of these, John?” Artie asked while rubbing his ankles together and yawning. “I have to take a serving up for Kathy. I promised to serve her breakfast in bed.”

“I’m coming down!” Kathy yelled.

“Well get you cute little ass shaking before your eggs get cold!” John yelled back. His monologue didn’t upset him half as much as it seemed to upset Artie. The ideas weren’t new to him.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve to talk to me like that,” Kathy said as she lowered herself down the ladder drowsily. “Aw, that fire’s nice,” she purred, looking to Artie.

The glow in her cheeks from the fire and her soft voice, lowered an octave by sleep, definitely turned John on. He was willing to let her continue talking just so he could appreciate the timbre of her voice. “What were you two guys talking about so early in the morning? Especially you John? Your voice was going non-stop,” she asked with a yawn.

“We were talking about giant snakes and bugs under the skin.”

“That’s horrible,” she laughed.

Artie experienced a moment of anxiety as he thought that Kathy might believe what she had just been told. Letting your girlfriend know that you’re on the road to insanity isn’t exactly the best way to keep her love. He saw from her genuine resonant laugh that she had accepted what had been said as one of those funny little remarks which John often made. John often made statement which people mistook for jokes, but he couldn’t remember ever telling a lie to one of his friends.

John wished at that moment that he could speak seriously with Kathy too (with the whole world!). His inability to see others (especially women) as equal participants in his thoughts was one fault which he often reproached himself for.

“Well, if you lady and gentleman will excuse me,” John ventured with mock propriety, “I’d like to step outside and take a piss.”

John laced up his boots, stepped outside, and Artie made a smart remark about Niagara Falls.

That day in the mountains was fun. They built a snowman, they had a snowball fight, John continued with his flirting, they walked a little higher to a couple of summits for the view, they ate lunch and dinner, Art and Kathy made love and fell asleep with a glow, John stayed awake with thought for an hour or so and then he fell into a shallow sleep where he dreamed nothing but disconnected, disturbing images. There was one thing missing from the routine of his day. Besides being how on food and matches, they didn’t have any drugs. John had been to the Berkeley apartment of his local supplier, Hubbard, two days before the trip.

“Boys,” Hubbard had announced solemnly to John and his roommate, “there have been times in the past when it has been dry, but that only meant it was expensive. When I tell you that it is dry today, I’m telling you that there is no acid in Northern California. I haven’t even seen a full ounce of marijuana in three days.”

The gloom that had fallen over them was similar to the gloom that funeral parlors work so hard to cultivate. Silence.

 

John had become so embroiled in the details of his memories that he almost totally forgot that he was on a train between Geneva and the Alps. A fat, serious-faced Italian woman had taken the place of Amy Beth Wilkinson directly across from him. He acknowledged her stares by smiling in her direction. He wondered for a second where his eyes had been focused when his mind had left the train. He really didn’t want to return to his memories. He already knew their conclusion. He searched for distractions both inside and outside the train, but none were sufficient. They passed a glass booth along the side of the tracks with a switchman sitting inside. The switchman had his back to the passing trains as he watched rows of dials and red and green lights lined up on a dull grey metal console. John thought about the switchman’s isolation from the world, and even from the trains that he was guiding. He tried to elaborate on his basic thoughts, but he couldn’t. He had to follow his memories and his voyage to their intertwined conclusions.

 

John went back to his normal habit of staying in bed late after his second night in the mountains. He found himself trapped in a stage between dream and consciousness. His mind was filled with abstract, disturbed dream fragments and splices of the conversation which Artie and Kathy seemed to be having in the same room. They became so confused in his mind that the dream and conversation ceased to have identities of their own, becoming indistinguishable. Opening his eyes and facing his friends helped to relieve the confusion. He sighed as his mind stopped spinning.

“Good morning, sleepy head,” Kathy teased.

“And a fine good morning to you too, me lady,” John remarked in a poor imitation Irish brogue. “And would it please me lady to turn her fair ‘ead so I could remove me humble naked body from this lowly sleeping bag?”

“No,” Kathy dared.

“Okay!” John snapped before she had a chance to change her mind. With a quick zip and rush of adrenaline he was up and out of his bag to the accompaniment of Artie’s metallic laughter and Kathy’s delighted embarrassment.

Out of propriety (her mother’s favorite word), Kathy turned her had with a slight smile on her lips as John got dressed.

“Well, what did you two have for breakfast this morning?” John asked hungrily as he pulled his belt tighter around his waist.

“Nothing yet.”

“Good, that’s what I was hoping to hear…Well, I’ll fix some pancakes and then I’ll walk down to town for more food.”

Pancakes were John’s specialty. He cooked and ate them well. They didn’t have any imported city water left, so John walked out into the crisp air under a pale blue morning sky and scraped up a couple of quarts of snow for melting. He came back in shaking snow off his bare feet. (“You’re crazy!” Kathy yelled when she saw the pink feet now getting covered with dirt from the cabin floor. “You are out of your friggin’ mind.”) He melted the snow, mixed up the pancake batter, and ate heartily while wishing that Kathy wasn’t his friend’s girlfriend.

After breakfast, they all went outside to bid John farewell and good luck on his trip down the hill with his empty pack. Before he was out of sight, he slipped on the snow and ice with his thick, slick-soled work boots and cracked his ass against a rock. He brushed the snow off carefully before he started slipping again on the steep path.

“Get back here, you mother!” Artie called.

“Who, me?” John called back as he slipped purposely and flung himself backwards into a small pine tree with a toothy smile on his face.

“Fuckin’ clown,” Artie laughed quietly as he went to take John’s pack and walk down the hill. To John, “I don’t see you making fun of my new boots now.”

“Sorry about this, buddy,” John said sincerely as he started walking back up to the cabin on the sides of this boots.

“Hey John,” Artie yelled. “I’ll eat lunch down in town, so you two can fix some of that soup that’s in my pack.”

“Okay!…Sorry about sending your boyfriend away,” John apologized to Kathy, “but he…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Kathy interrupted, aware of John’s eyes on her thick red hair. “Is that thing all right?” she asked teasingly as she patted and then grabbed John’s ass.

John was going to answer. He was going to stand up for his friend and say, “We shouldn’t be acting like this. You belong to Artie.” He didn’t – the invitation flashed by her eyes showed that she didn’t “belong” to anyone. Society says it’s wrong to make love to your best friend’s girl. He even heard that line in some of his favorite songs. (He found it easier to listen to just the music.) He did make love with Kathy, but simply because it was what felt right at the moment. Their common friend and any other third parties didn’t enter into the relationship at all (he told himself).

John envied Artie’s will power. LSD wasn’t a god to him like it was to John. He took it when he thought he’d benefit from it, but it never became a habit. He didn’t give in to habits. John saw his own passions becoming habits. Girls had been a passion for him. He let Caroline become a habit when he was in junior high and it took a conversation with Artie before he realized what type of box he was sealing himself into. He let his passion for Sue turn into a habit during his first year at U.C. and she broke it off. He only found himself squeezed into Kathy’s sleeping bag now because of a habit. He really couldn’t decide whether his passion for acid was becoming a habit or not. Acid didn’t have Sue’s strength. It wouldn’t warn John of his overzealousness. Feelings of envy for Artie welled up again in John’s mind. Artie was the only person whom John ever experienced any envy towards. He wouldn’t tell Artie that either. He almost wished that Artie hadn’t made that run to town for food and matches. If he had gone instead, he wouldn’t have had this opportunity to surrender to his passions for Kathy’s flesh.

John smiled as she continued to massage his side with her soft thigh. He was surprised that he had been completely unaware of her touch for a few moments. His passions always diminished a little, and sometimes even came into question, after they had been spent so completely. Kathy removed his passions as well as anyone.

John never regretted his actions.

Nothing was asked and nothing was said about what went on while Artie was gone. Even if John had said, “We balled our fuckin’ asses off,” no one would have believed him. The rest of their stay was nice but uneventful. After a couple of more days, they all piled into Artie’s blue and white Ford van and drove off through the rainy lowlands. John was dropped off at Berkeley, Kathy was dropped off at her parents’ house in Canoga Park, and Artie headed back toward his job at the San Diego Post Office.

 

Back in 2017

The line about Artie and John going out of “their wretched little minds” reminded me of a book and an author I hadn’t thought of in years, if not decades, another in that long list of required readings in the psychedelic age, psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise; the famous line I was alluding to was “If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you I would let you know.”  I think I read The Politics of Experience either just before or while I writing this book and Laing wrote a lot more about madness and normality (and society’s unquestioned views  of the concepts of “madness” and “normality”) that informs my understanding of and sympathy for John Matthews. I’d be curious to know if some readers have simply been dismissing John and his visions as “crazy” or labeling him with more professional terminology from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

On a minor point, I have to say that I’m still wincing at my repeated use of ‘which’ to introduce restrictive clauses in these chapters (they seem to be proliferating), but I’m still following my cardinal rule to retype without editing at all, even some of the stranger comma placements and spellings.

 

The final short chapters (3.4 & 3.5) have just been posted here on November 9, 2017.