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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.