“How to Make This the Summer of Missing Out” https://nyti.ms/2ma51Yd
This New York Times article is the perfect addendum to my last post about making time for writing.
“How to Make This the Summer of Missing Out” https://nyti.ms/2ma51Yd
This New York Times article is the perfect addendum to my last post about making time for writing.
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the years while I was working full time and even had a few things published, but most of my projects have been either unpublished or unfinished.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.
Why didn’t I think to add a catwalk musical number to the Hindenburg scenes in Fire Answers Fire?
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.
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.
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.
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.
One 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.
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.
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.
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 nineteenth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the second chapter in Part Three.
“Hello…Are you still there?”
Amy Beth had finally realized that John wasn’t listening to a word she was saying.
“Yes,” John answered mechanically.
Amy Beth was satisfied as she began droning again. Nobody ever paid very close attention to her, so even an obviously mechanical reply was enough to satisfy her. “…best friend back in Indiana. Her name is Judy – Judy Ann Peyser. We call her Jap. She’s not Japanese or a Jewish American Princess. We don’t have any Japs or Jews in my school. Those are just her initials: J-A-P. Get it? Jap’s a senior at Tumbling Orchards too. She beat me out for the head cheerleader position. Our cheerleaders are…”
John found her voice slightly less monotonous than the train’s rumblings. But the train’s rumblings didn’t demand answers. He listened to what she was saying for a few sentences as he though of the poor fool who’d marry her. Someone would definitely marry her for her tits and clear complexion alone. People who have become conditioned well enough to become cheerleaders and football stars in high school usually don’t think twice about taking a “normal” step like marriage. Amy’s husband might not realize what he’d done until many years later when he began to fade sexually and her doll face became wrinkled.
Amy Beth and Robin were alike in many ways although Robin would never accept that opinion no matter how it was backed with arguments. Amy Beth wanted to be a fashion model and a wife and have an important place in the social life of her community. Robin wanted to be a historian and a husband (his secret emphasis was on the latter) and he worked hard for both. Robin would have come right out and said, “But I’m better than a fashion model!” John really saw very little difference. “Amy’s using her body,” John thought to himself, “to the exclusion of her mind to reach her goals, and Rob’s ignoring his body in favor of his mind. Neither one of them realizes that they’re connected. Both of them are trapped in society’s view of men and women.” John was able to sense his own enslavement to boundaries and limits. When thinking or speaking of himself, he always tried to use the word “limits” in conjunction with the word “natural.” He wondered who he was trying to fool.
The view from the train window caught John’s interest. Grape fields down below him stretched out in long straight rows towards a calm, mirror-surfaced lake and the mountains high above the opposite shore. The other people in the compartment were also silent. They all seemed intimidated, or amazed, by Amy Beth’s loquacity. John stopped scanning the horizon and he let his eyes drift down towards the patched knees of his jeans and his dark brown, scuffed work boots. He had had those things for years. The boot soles were already worn smooth when he went hiking with Artie and Kathy in the Sierras. That was two or three years earlier. He smiled at how well his boots had held up and he promised himself that his next pair would be exactly the same.
The dog in the cabin greeted John with a snap at the shins. John responded by punching him softly in the snout with a snow covered glove. They were even.
“How are you?” John called out to the man sitting next to the fireplace. Even with the fire, the cabin was still extremely dark. John’s pupils were pinpoints from the effect of the bright snow outside. It took his eyes about five or ten minutes to adjust totally.
When his eyes did begin to adjust, he could see that the man in the corner must’ve been in his late forties or early fifties. He had about a week’s growth of grey and black bristles shooting straight out from his chin and cheeks – framing a friendly, yellow-toothed smile.
“Fine, buddy,” he replied warmly to John’s question. “And don’t let ol’ Rex bother you. He’s just a ol’ watch dog. Army took all the goodness out of ‘im and they let him when they figured he’s too bushed to fight for ’em…Damn bastards did the same to me.”
John liked listening to men and women with stories to tell. People he met in the mountains always seemed to have more than their proper share of things to talk about. Rex’s owner told how both he and Rex fought together in the big war (WWII) and the Korean War. John didn’t mention that Rex would have to be over thirty years old if he fought in World War II. He listened to details of how Rex cleared German bunkers with one frightful growl and snap of his teeth. The man’s eyes glistened and his tear ducts swelled when he told how Rex sniffed out a friend killed by the North Koreans. It didn’t matter that the stories weren’t true. They were real, and that was more than enough.
“I’m not boring you, am I son?” Rex’s owner inquired.
“No, not at all,” John answered although he was yawning. “I’m just tired; I got up at 5:00 this morning.”
“No. I have two slowpoke friends out in the snow somewhere.”
“And you’re the fast one?”
“Well, I do okay.”
Now that John’s eyes were adjusted to the light in the room, he could see an old wooden shelf near the ceiling crowded with rusted blue Maxwell House cans with worn adhesive tape labels, “First Aid, Sugar, Salt, Matches.” There was only one windowpane which wasn’t broken and patched with cardboard. John had to squint through the dust, cracks and cobwebs before he could make out the faint outlines of trees on the other side of the glass. The blinding whiteness of the sky and ground didn’t help the visibility at all. There was a staircase, actually more of a ladder, leading up to a trap door in the ceiling.
“What’s up there?” John asked, “The sleeping loft?”
“Have you been staying here?”
“Yep…me and my army buddy.” He pulled Rex’s massive head up onto his knee and patted it affectionately with his thick calloused hand. “We’re leaving now though. I was just about to put on my parka and put out the fire. We’d like to get down before it gets dark and before this snow gets too deep.”
“Well, you can leave the fire going. My friends and I are gonna stay here.” John already had his jacket and gloves off and hanging on a beam. “Don’t worry about getting lost in the snow though. It will all change to rain after you hike about two miles down.”
“No shit,” John assured him with a grin.
“Weather in these hills is the damndest thing. It’s been snowing here on and off for three days straight,” Rex’s owner explained as he squeezed a rucksack over his fur-hooded parka and headed for the door. “See you around boy.”
“It was good talking to you…Hey! If you see a couple fucking around along the side of the trail, tell ’em to get their asses in gear. They have all my food in their packs,” John called out behind him.
The old man didn’t answer, but he chuckled silently to himself and playfully brushed the fur on his dog’s head against the grain.
John stayed outside for a little while to pick up more fuel for the fire. The air was too penetratingly cold to make him shiver. His arms and hands were numb and snow covered as he hopped back into the cabin and slammed the door behind him. He dropped the wood down onto the rocks in front of the fire with a clatter and shivered violently. The shiver brought his body back into harmony with the temperature inside the cabin. After rubbing the snow off his hands and warming them by the fire, he reached down into the bottom of his pack and pulled out an ice cold, key of C harmonica. He was tinkering with some simple blues progressions with his thick grey socks propped up before the fire when Artie and Kathy opened the door.
“It’s about time,” John said in greeting.
“Hi, John,” they answered. They both squinted into the dark room. “That is you, isn’t it?” The only part of John which was immediately visible were the feet propped up in front of the fire.
“What took you so long?”
“These boots are killing me,” Artie answered. “I guess I didn’t break them in well enough.”
“That’s what you get for buying those fifty dollar status symbols. I’ve had these work boots for a year and a half now. Their soles may be a little smooth, but my feet are comfortable.”
John pointed to the books sitting on the floor beside him. Artie couldn’t see them; they blended perfectly with the deep brown hue of the whole room.
“And how about you, honey?” John looked towards Kathy silhouetted against the fresh white snow on the other side of the doorway. “Why are you so quiet?” Her newly adjusted eyes barely managed to discern the wink which accompanied the words.
“I don’t know,” she replied, “Well…except I do have to use a bathroom.”
John let out a partially restrained laugh. “Well, unless there’s a toilet up in that loft, you have your choice of using your pants or the nearest tree.”
John was glad to hear Artie breaking into spontaneous laughter.
Kathy just blushed and shivered, “In the snow?”
“Bears and bunny rabbits do it.”
“I was sort of expecting something like this.” Her blushing had ended. “But don’t you follow me,” she warned playfully as she set her pack down and walked outside.
“When they heard a waterfall on the other side of the cabin wall, Artie and John both found it impossible to keep their laughter inaudible.
“Cut it out!” a voice yelled louder than the flow of water.
They were still laughing when Kathy returned with her face doubly red from the combination of the cold and the embarrassment. “That wasn’t nice.”
“I’m sorry babe,” Artie apologized as he finished laughing.
“Yeah, me too,” John added. “When are we gonna eat?”
“I expected you to have dinner started when we got here,” Artie said.
John’s face took on its most serious expression of the day as he said, “I thought you brought all the food for this trip and I was bringing solid stuff like an axe and utensils.”
Artie raised his voice to assert himself again, “Didn’t I tell you when I called a couple of nights ago that I was going to bring all the food for three days and that you should bring it for the other two? No wonder you hiked so fast! You must have nothing but air in that pack of yours!”
Artie hadn’t told John to bring food. He had meant to, but he couldn’t stop talking about Kathy once he got on the phone. John wasn’t going to put his friend down now. Artie hadn’t been this happy since they were both kids.
“I’m sorry Art. I’ll hike down to the little town we passed – that can’t be more than five miles – tomorrow or the next day at the latest.”
“Well?” Artie was still a little excited about his own raised voice.
“C’mon pal, have I ever let you down?”
“No,” Artie answered with a tension-killing smile.
“So, what are we eating tonight?” John inquired with his hands resting on an air-inflated stomach.
“Freeze-dried beef stroganoff,” Kathy answered.
“Ahhh, the boy scout’s delight. Did Artie ever tell you, honey, that we used to eat that on just about every hike just because it was so cheap and light?”
“Well, we did,” he winked.
“So?” she asked innocently – waiting for an end to the story.
“So what? We ate it. There’s no story.”
John wasn’t flirting with Kathy because he wanted to hurt Artie; that was the last thing he wanted to do. He only did it because women were a passion of his. They were a passion which had deteriorated into more of a habit since his break-up with Sue. He found himself trying to get into the pants of almost every beautiful girl he met. He found Kathy beautiful.
John and Artie pitched in and both cooked dinner while Kathy fooled around with John’s harmonica (she played much better; she knew half a dozen songs by heart). They were all too tired to do anything but sleep after dinner. They did have some short conversations as they sat around smoking and drinking coffee by the fireplace. Their longest conversation was about John’s old room at his parents’ house.
“Artie, doesn’t this sort of remind you of my room when we were in high school?”
“This cabin?” Artie seemed surprised by the question as he glanced quickly from the broken windows to the spiderwebs on the ceiling and then to the dirt floor.
“You had a room like this?” Kathy asked. “No wonder you ran away from home.”
“You guys have me all wrong. I’m not talking about particulars. This cabin just has that same color and feeling that I always tried to cultivate. Very dark and comfortable.”
“What did your room look like?” Kathy asked.
“It was locked when I left home for the last time. I guess Mom finally had to open it up when she sold the house. She must’ve found some grass and a little organic mesc that I left behind and wondered what all those things were on the walls – pictures from magazines mostly – just things that seemed nice, with no regard for order. The only thing that sticks clearly in my mind is this picture from Life of a girl in in a black one-piece bathing suit with the back cut halfway down her ass; she was right above my face when I slept.”
“Tell Kathy what else there was,” Artie said, then turning his face to Kathy. “We used to love partying in John’s room. Just so many things to look at when you were high and listening to the Dead and the Airplane.”
“A lot of day-glo psychedelics – normal stuff. Some haunting faces of bloodied photographers at Chicago. With that powerful emotion of impotent rage. Y’know, like when you want to kill the pig who just cracked your skull but he has the tools to stop you in your tracks. Those photographs were a more powerful response to the pigs than any return of violence or court action…”
“I guess it all sort of confused and scared my mother when she finally opened that door.”
No one saw the yawns which interrupted John’s memories as impolite. They were felt mutually. Kathy and Artie climbed up into the sleeping loft and John rolled out his ground cloth and sleeping bag in front of the fire. The fire went out long before John fell asleep. He chuckled to himself as he watched the ceiling above him pulsing – pulsing with life. (“Two nice people,” John thought, filled with warm Christmas with family type feelings.) The down sleeping bag wrapped around his head and body kept John extremely warm. He even had to unzipper the bag a little to expose his entire face to the cool, fresh outside air. He enjoyed the warmth of the bag, but he couldn’t put up with the confinement and the smell of his own sweat and stale farts.
As John finally dozed off he didn’t fall into dream. He simply slipped out of his past and back into his present.
The train to Brig was a local and it stopped a lot more often than John would’ve liked. Every time they pulled into a station, John found his string of memories broken in order to look around the new station at the people on the platform.
Amy Beth had stopped her talking. That helped jolt John and his traveling companions out of their private reveries. They all looked at her as if they expected an explosion. She showed more strength and independence than John had given her credit for by simply picking herself up and getting off the train, just because the town they were passing interested her.
“What town is this?” she had asked.
“Montreux,” John had answered after being stunned by her fifteen second silence.
“It looks nice.”
“Yeah, it is. I stayed here once a few years ago. There’s an interesting château down by the lake. It served as the basis for one of Lord Byron’s poems. There are even some small palm trees down by the lake. Strange place.”
Amy just picked up her orange pack and climbed off. John smiled inwardly to himself when he realized how far off his judgments had been. The spontaneity which allowed her to make quick decisions was a quality which John valued highly.
The train started up again, but John had a little bit of trouble getting lost in its rhythms. The lack of Amy’s chattering was an obvious omission. Her voice was obviously still ringing in the minds of the other passengers too. They all looked shell shocked. John abandoned his eyes on the other side of the window. The mountains were much higher around Montreux than they were around Geneva. The lake and town and hillside grape fields all seemed more or less in harmony because of the late afternoon sun which was bathing them all in orange tints. Even a power station with large chimneys balanced on the slope of one of the mountains seemed to fit into the overall effect, because of its sheer magnitude and isolation.
Back in 2017
A few things as we approach the end of the manuscript. I have to say that I became a little unstuck in time (to borrow Billy Pilgrim’s words) as I retyped this chapter. I was listening to live Grateful Dead as I typed, specifically a June 22, 1976 show from the Tower Theater in Philly that I attended, and I was concentrating on the music when I got to the part about John and Artie listening to the Dead and Jefferson Airplane in John’s room in high school. I hadn’t remembered that mention of my favorite bands. I also hadn’t remembered the line “…he didn’t fall into dream. He simply slipped out of his past and back into his present” and the sense of John’s floating freely in both temporal directions, not just backward. It surprises me a little that there haven’t been more musical references in the book considering how central music was to me when I wrote it. Not only was I attending the aforementioned show at the Tower as I was writing this, but when I went to Europe in 1975 I carried two things, a green Kelty backpack and a chipboard guitar case containing my imitation Martin D-28 made by Nagoya. I was not and am not a great musician, but a guitar was and is a necessity for me and playing and singing is not a bad way to meet people in a new place. The only musician mentioned here is Anne and her piano (but as Flaubert and I have already established, “Anne Jenkins, c’est moi!”).
Two: I don’t like the idea that John and the author think of a guy in his late forties or early fifties as “old.”
Three: I’m glad John and the author realized the fact that they were wrong to stereotype Amy Beth Wilkinson.
If you only have time to read one short piece about writing, editing, and publishing today, I’d like to recommend “The Problem with ‘Problematic'” by Francine Prose on The New York Review of Books‘ NYR Daily site. I had no idea until reading this that “sensitivity reading” had become a cottage industry starting at $250 per manuscript and that editors and reviewers and publishers and schools are on the lookout for any mention of characters from marginalized and/or diverse groups (especially in books by non-marginalized/diverse authors). There’s a sense that some in the industry are running scared in the face of criticism (or potential criticism).
In the novel from my youth that I’m in the process of serializing on this blog, I’m my own sensitivity reader and I’m finding my own “problematic” characters and situations without even searching. My description of the young woman introduced in Chapter 3.1 makes me cringe, but I’m following my own ground rules and leaving everything from my manuscript unchanged as a time capsule from 1975. At least I was aware of feminism then, even if I (or my characters) sometimes reflected the values of an earlier decade in practice.
This becomes even more problematic for books of earlier eras; Francine Prose mentions an anti-Semitic stereotype that disturbed her in Wharton’s The House of Mirth and continues, “Moby-Dick might not exist if a sensitivity reader had objected to Melville’s depiction of the indigenous Queequeg, silent, telling fortunes. It’s painful to imagine someone reading Huckleberry Finn and having only one thought: fuck your white savior narrative.”
At a time when we have an anti-literate government, should we readers really be so actively policing (and sometimes suppressing) the language of imaginative literature too? Read Francine Prose’s piece; she spells out the problematic issues better than I can.