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.