Reading Myself in Exile (2.6)

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

Fete de Geneve Aug 1975

R.D. Mumma, with his mother and sisters, at the Fêtes de Genève on August 16, 1975.

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 sixteenth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the sixth chapter in Part Two.

6

Sunlight steadily collected in pools of light around the soft mattress as the whirring of appliances and voices from other apartments grew louder and as the hours slipped by. But Anne slept late on the morning of the sixteenth after running errands on her first full day in Geneva. Her father’s diplomatic corps duties had led him to this city for the second time in six years and Anne was not at all unfamiliar with her present surroundings; she had spent a year of high school here. A feeling of contentment greeted her as she found the apartment empty upon awakening at noon. She fixed herself a sandwich and a cup of black coffee.

A light cloud of disappointment partially eclipsed her contentment as she dropped her newspaper and answered the phone at three.

“Hello?”

“Anne?”

“Yeah?”

Initially she had no clue as to the identity of the caller. She certainly hadn’t been expecting any calls.

“This is Robin. I’m in Geneva.”

She remembered an invitation which had been extended in the spring. “Where are you?” she asked, “at the train station?”

“Yeah. How do I get to your apartment?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll come pick you up. Just stand in front of the taxi stands.”

“See you.”

“I should be there in a few minutes.”

As she hung up the phone and searched for the bulky wallet which contained her international driver’s license, the cloud of disappointment thickened around the room. She had been looking forward to the trip as a rest from the continuous social obligations of school and work. She didn’t see herself as anti-social, but she did need to be alone with her own thoughts. She saw many problems in her life which needed contemplation. They were problems which had to be solved from within. Constant conversation, especially that advice which others seemed so eager to dispense, only obscured self-knowledge.

Robin’s visit seemed inopportune simply because he figured prominently in some of the problems Anne sought to contemplate without pressure. There was an obvious tension whenever they were together largely because of their conflicting interpretations of love, friendship, and sex.

Self-confidence and even heartlessness were feeling which Robin sometimes applied to his image of Anne merely because she had a little more sexual and social experience.

However, confusion was the emotion which was most often present in Anne’s mind. In some of her experiences she saw sex as analogous to a fresh thin coat of paint which covers the errors in a hasty repair job. The rough edges of a relationship show more clearly when that relationship is platonic and problems which are encountered must be faced directly or consciously ignored. In a sexual relationship, sex can be used to overwhelm these problems…problems which are inevitable – problems which can then ruin such a relationship without ever being acknowledged.

Ironically, it was precisely because of the lack of sex in their friendship that Anne sometimes felt closer to Robin than to anyone else. At other times they were separated by a palpable, cold tension. She was undoubtedly confused about their relationship to each other.

His visit would not help.

While walking down the sunlit spiral staircase in the center of her apartment building, she ran into a cute little girl with short blond bangs.

“Bonjour,” said Anne.

“Bonjour Madame. Pourquoi…something?” asked the little girl.

It sounded like she asked about the patches on Anne’s jeans, but Anne wasn’t sure. She did manage to get to her family’s BMW without any other little girls hopping out of cracks to test her knowledge of their native language. Anne had been feeling comfortable – settling back into this French-speaking city after six years. She had been reading the newspaper without even resorting to the use of her French-English dictionary when robin had called. In a moment, she felt like kicking that little blond-banged kid for destroying her self-confidence so simply and deviously.

She drove up in front of the train station after fighting some heavier than usual city traffic. It was the time of the Fêtes de Genève and a few of the major thoroughfares along the lake were blocked off for parades and fireworks. She recognized Robin right away in the crowd by the Gare. The suntanned guy with Robin also stood out (the Europeans all looked slightly pale). No attraction was present between Anne and John although Anne was generally recognized as beautiful and John was the sort of guy who Robin saw as “attractive to women” in general. In his view of men and women as groups instead of individuals, Robin saw himself as “unattractive to women” and Anne as “attractive to men.” His thoughts on the arbitrary nature of love consisted of the fact that he was fated to live with this “unattractive to women” characteristic. He didn’t think much more deeply than that about his own problems. He tried to make Anne feel guilty because she did not make a superhuman effort to surpass this obstacle he had been cursed with.

Instead of leaving the station in a tense silence, Anne decided to start a conversation.

“Who was that?” she asked. It was obvious that she was referring to John. He continued to wave at their departing car.

“Oh, he was just a guy I met at a hostel in Paris. He’s a little strange, but I spent most of the day yesterday with him.”

“How long have you been in Europe now?” Their conversation seemed about as awkward as a long silence would have been.

“Since the end of June.” He thought for a few seconds. “Almost two months. I’m heading back before the end of this month so I can move into my dorm on the first or second of September. When are you going back?”

“December or January.”

“You’re not going back till spring semester?”

“I’m not even going back then. I’ll just work during the spring. I’ll probably be going back after I figure out what I’m doing there. Maybe not.”

“That could be a good idea, I guess. You’d better watch out though. That guy John, you know, that guy with the blond hair I was talking to?”

“Yeah.”

“Well he was going to the University of California for two years and he took some time off and never went back. His life seems pretty messed up now.”

“Messed up?”

“Well, he’s into drugs – hard drugs, not like you and me – and he’s working in jobs where he doesn’t use his school at all. He really seems to be wasting his brain. It’s a shame.”

“Yeah.” She really didn’t know enough about the guy to pass judgement on him.

They drove for a little while and found themselves hopelessly tied up in traffic. The city looked fine to Anne. The sun was shining brightly off the lake and the jet d’eau, and the banks and bridges were covered with red and yellow city flags because of the festival.

“Is something going on here?” Robin asked.

“Yeah. They’re having a festival. I’m not sure what it celebrates, but it sounds interesting. They’re gonna have parades and fireworks, amusements, refreshments, bands. I hear they sell confetti and soft plastic hammers and everyone attacks each other harmlessly.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Yeah.”

“Is that going on tonight?”

“I’m not sure. What’s today’s date?”

Robin glanced at his silver calendar watch. “It’s Saturday the sixteenth.”

“Today’s Saturday?” She really thought it was a weekday for some reason. “This must be parade traffic we’re trapped in then, and the fireworks are tonight too.”

“Are you planning on going to them?”

“I guess so. I’ve heard that this is one of the best displays in the world.” Anne really enjoyed the loud fireworks that sound like cannons and reverberate off the apartment houses and mountains before attacking individual abdomens.

“Good, that sounds like fun.” The first mutual smile of their meeting.

“Yeah.”

The traffic finally unclogged and they drove back to Anne’s empty apartment. Anne enjoyed the lack of conversation and the high-revving engine attached to her body through the quivering clutch and gear shift as they zipped back to her apartment on clear streets.

When they walked into the apartment and sat down, Robin picked up the copy of Le Journal de Genève which Anne had been reading when he called.

“What kind of paper is this?” Robin asked.

“Huh? It’s just a newspaper.”

“No, I mean is it leftist, conservative, middle of the road? What?”

Anne couldn’t answer because she wasn’t sure. She had only been reading the extensive literary supplement. But memories of Robin’s constant concern for politics and political images flooded her mind. Anne saw the “image” as the foremost thing in Robin’s mind. It started with his personal appearance and extended to the fact that he would not be caught holding a Daily News, but would display a New York Times or a Village Voice as if to say, “Here I am. I’m a fashionably not-too-leftist New York intellectual.” Images.

In her own life, Anne tried to think that the realm of images was relegated to a back closet of her mind. Even “serious” politics remained at a lower level in her hierarchy of thoughts. Levels of social interaction progressed toward the high level of her intensive personal loves and friendships. In her present state of mind (this hierarchy had many variables), the personal search for knowledge took precedence over all, and the poetic, esoteric search was taking precedence over her formal academic duties. In each one of these levels, Anne saw infinite complexity. To understand these categories of thought and feeling in her own mind would only mean that she was coming to an understanding about one part of her life. It all seemed so complex and confusing. She wondered if anyone really understood anything. It became more confusing when these levels entered into practical considerations about her own life’s future. So much worse for a woman where a choice of love and marriage can mean an end to many choices made freely about career, travel, friendships, education.

Robin’s presence in her living room did not help the flow of her thoughts. He smiled a sad smile across the room and she felt a flash of guilt for not loving him; in the same instant she felt anger directed at the lack of control he seemed to have over his emotions. She realized that the anger was as wrong as the guilt. Asking him to stop loving her was the same as his plea for her love. She couldn’t manufacture an emotion which didn’t exist and he couldn’t destroy an emotion which seemed so strong. She recognized their problem as a simple dilemma; that recognition did not lead directly to the problem’s resolution, and she realized that her own alternate emotions of anger and guilt were usually stronger than her intellectualizations about them.

It was eventually her guilt which forced her to break the silence of that Swiss living room. “Where have you been this summer?”

“All over. I went to Paris and Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Rome, Florence, Madrid, Sweden, Norway…um…the Riviera. I really saw a lot.” He wished the list was longer. They often had to search for things to talk about because they rarely talked about the thing which was most on their minds, that ever present dilemma of two strong opposing emotional premises.

They spoke of the European cities which were familiar to both of them and then the conversation replayed itself as Anne’s parents arrived.

“Hi,” Anne smiled.

“Hi.”

“Mom? Dad? I’d like you to meet Robin. He’s a friend from school.”

“Hi Robin.”

“Hello.”

“Have you been in Switzerland long?”

“Just got here this afternoon. I’ve been in Europe for two full months though.”

“What’ve you seen so far?”

“I saw a lot. I’ve been to France, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Italy, Sweden, Norway, all over.”

“You should really see the Swiss Alps,” her mother suggested. “They’re really beautiful.”

“I will. I’m planning on going to Zermatt tomorrow to see the Matterhorn.”

That visibly disappointed her parents, especially her mother. You see, they worried about her sometimes because she was not as socially active as her older sister. When one of her friends from school, or anywhere else, dropped by, they’d try to coax him or her into staying for a little while to insure Anne’s happiness (or theirs). They didn’t understand that she could feel content sometimes (often) by just sitting and reading or writing or discovering a new tune on a piano. She tried not to sit and do nothing at all (although she was perfectly capable of it), because they’d invariably ask her what was wrong.

Predictably, her parents tried to talk Robin into staying a little longer.

“You know you’re welcome to stay more than one night.”

“Yes, we have plenty of space. There’s an extra bedroom. It’s no hardship at all for us.”

“Don’t feel like you’re putting us out or anything.”

Robin showed more backbone and independence than Anne gave him credit for. He answered politely that he had two weeks of travelling left and he wanted to see the Alps and parts of Germany before he returned to Paris to catch his plane back to New York. He answered all her parents’ questions and requests clearly and easily. He didn’t stumble over words the way he used to whenever he was alone with Anne.

She was more than a little turned off by his structured attitude toward travelling though. He seemed to see it as a touring business where timetables had to be made and kept.

“Yes,” he explained to her father, “I want to spend two days in Zermatt and then I’m going to Zurich for one overnight. After that I’m heading for Munich, where I’ll stay for three days. After that…” And so on.

She grabbed a couple of sheets from the closet and made up the bed in the extra room for Robin. She hated making beds. That and folding and ironing clothes always seemed to her like two of the biggest time fillers ever devised by civilized man. She went through the ritual of tucking and folding sheets anyway as she listened to some American music on the radio. The news came on and she translated parts of it for Robin. The airwaves talked of political problems in Portugal and on Corsica and then they broadcast an editorial about the constantly explosive situation in the Middle East. A meteorologist came on to explain how hailstones are formed and she turned the selector knob until she found some scratchy Beethoven.

As the piece was finished and she reached for the knob again, her mother called in that dinner was ready.

“Okay, we’ll be right there.”

Dinner was short, simple, and quiet for the most part. Anne’s parents voluntarily undertook the task of keeping Anne’s guest occupied.

“So you go to school with Anne?” her mother began.

“Yes,” Robin answered. “I’ll be starting as a junior in two weeks.”

“Oh, the same as Anne,” her father added as he glanced in his daughter’s direction. They didn’t like the idea that she was taking time off from her studies.

“What’s your major?”

“History.”

“Anne’s a philosophy major, but I guess you must have shared some classes.”

“Yes, one or two.”

Pause.

Anne’s contribution to the conversation was delivered in the form of silent glances toward her father and mother, “I was a philosophy major. I lost my interest in formal studies sometime last year and I haven’t found anything to replace them with yet. I let you talk about my school and grades because it keeps you happy. (I know too many kids who are only in school because it keeps their parents happy.) I love you but you should know that I’m not about to structure my life around the framework of your expectations. If I go back to school after working for a little while, it will only be because I’ve become interested in something that only college can teach me.”

“Great dinner,” Rob said with a politician’s smile as everyone started getting up from their chairs.

“Annie, are you going to the fireworks with us tonight?” her mother asked.

“I think so.”

The fireworks were good.

But Anne could never figure out why some people compare orgasms to fireworks. Fireworks don’t directly affect any of those pleasure synapses in the brain that sex and drugs cause to spark and pop. Once in a while there was a loud bang which bounced off the apartments surrounding the lake and it punched her in the abdomen. She enjoyed those, but an hour of uninterrupted light and sound started to get a little tedious. When she saw that Robin shared in her developing boredom, she suggested that they walk back to her apartment rather than waiting for her parents and their car. She led him over the Pont du Mont Blanc; beneath them Lake Geneva was officially changing its name to the Rhone as it progressed in its voyage from mountains to sea and in the sky above the colorful explosions continues without hint of cessation. They were halfway up the hill leading to her apartment on Route de Malagnou when she began to talk. At first, only comments on how the fireworks were even more impressive when they could only be sensed through echoes and red reflections between stone walls – war images. Then she asked him how he had been feeling. Hoping, of course, for the response that his feelings had changed – that he would stop harassing her with his love. She hadn’t sensed anything like that in his letters. “I’m feeling the same,” he answered. “I have my ups and downs. I do think I understand myself better though now that I’ve had a little bit of time away from school or work. I mean especially in my overwhelming concerns about you and women, you know.” He added quickly, “You don’t mind if I talk about this, do you?”

“No.”

“Well I think a lot of my problems come from the fact that I’m overly concerned about sexism and the whole idea of women being sexually exploited by men. I mean, how could I make a pass at you or any other woman, when I’m so aware of these issues?”

They both paused as they stopped to cross a street and think. “No,” Anne said. “I really can’t see how the Women’s Movement plays as big a role in your motivations as you’d like me to believe – and as you’d like to believe yourself.”

Robin’s voice showed, “I don’t understand.”

“I don’t want to say anything that might hurt you.”

“How can I change if you don’t tell me what you’re thinking.” (Vague hopes for sexual success and happy love and life lurking in the back of his head in the anticipation of the clues and keys she may now drop.)

“Did you ever stop to think that your lack of action isn’t tied to any modern political concern at all? Maybe it’s just good, old-fashioned timidity – just a self-serving defense mechanism which saves you the embarrassment of being rejected and hurt.”

He shrugged his shoulders without making any commitment to her words. The sting of her attack hurt him more deeply than she could guess. “Sensitivity” – that’s the word he preferred to “timidity” in describing himself. The word sounded more unselfish. Anne and Robin defined “sensitivity,” like many other words they both used freely, from two different points of view. For Anne, the word shared its meaning with “compassion.” It was the faculty which she called upon in a situation like this, where she sought to put herself in Robin’s place in order to figure out why he held himself back – to find out what frightened him. In its simplest terms, Robin saw “sensitivity” as a description of his ability to be hurt easily. He also held normative considerations about the word; he considered it a virtue.

Their pensive silences were broken by the whistles and bangs of the fireworks’ finale, which left the sky glowing and ears ringing all over the city. “That would’ve been real nice if we were high,” Robin commented, trying to lend a lighter air to their conversation. It worked; they heard nothing but small talk on the short remainder of their promenade.

Robin and Anne said good night and went to their bedrooms without having said too much which seemed truly important to them. That wasn’t unusual.

As Anne fell asleep she jotted down random thoughts in the notebook next to her bed. She didn’t bother to turn on the light; she had started writing in the halflight of moon and streetlights out of courtesy for college roommates. Now she found these night hues to be the best soil for the germination of her ideas. She had reached a point in her writing where the movement of the pen did very little to obstruct the flow of thoughts and words.

The reasons for her writing were varied. Basically, she wrote short thoughts which she thought might stimulate personal revelations. “Sparks” was the term and image which she consciously applied to these ideas. Sparks of self-enlightenment.

Back in 2017

The next chapter, the last in Part Two, will consist entirely of Anne’s nighttime writing and will be the only chapter in the manuscript written in the first person. I wish she had appeared earlier in the book. I like her.

The line about Anne trying “not to sit and do nothing at all” reminds me of one of my favorite albums of the last few years, and definitely my favorite album title, Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

That unsolicited musical plug out of the way, I have some serious things to say about this chapter. When literature professors and critics talk about the “meanings” that authors put into novels and stories and poems, I’m always skeptical. I never know how much is done intentionally by the authors and how much is the overlay of the critic. In this case, I don’t know if my dialectical composition of the three main characters was conscious or not in the 1970s, but it’s crystal clear to me now that Robin is the thesis, John the antithesis, and Anne the synthesis. As Flaubert said about Emma Bovary, “Anne Jenkins, c’est moi!” While I shared parts of my past with Robin and John, I was the one living with my parents in Geneva and taking a year off from college when I started writing this book. In the flashback in chapter 1.6 I even have Anne talking about dialectics with Robin, so it seems clear to me, as the 2017 reader and critic, that I, as the 1975 author, must have planned this consciously and schematically. Maybe I did, but I don’t remember doing so.

Chapter 2.7 has now been retyped and posted here.

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Reading Myself in Exile (2.5)

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

SNCF Vitesse ConfortI’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 fifteenth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the fifth chapter in Part Two.

5

Robin’s attempts at conversation with John hadn’t been going well. Robin couldn’t keep John interested in anything long enough to start taking his mind off his own problems. The conversation about girls had only served to depress him. The day before, John had only seemed interested in one subject, hallucinations and his private worlds. Robin had never experienced much natural curiosity about drugs, but he viewed this as his last chance to get an involved conversation started.

“John?” Robin began timidly.

John was still peering out the train window. When Robin didn’t get an immediate answer, he tried to pretend that he really hadn’t said anything. His eyes drifted down to the little chrome plaque under the window which warned him not to lean out in French and German. “Nicht hinauslehnen. Ne pas se pencher au dehors.” He tried to pronounce the words in the voice of his mind before glancing at the resting Moroccan family and at the girl standing outside their compartment with her head out the window on the opposite side of the train. Then he attempted to start a conversation again.

“John?” He spoke louder this time.

“Yeah?”

“What’s it like to trip?” Robin didn’t get an immediate response, so he tried to explain his question. “I really am curious about hallucinating. I guess you were right yesterday when you said that my mind was closed about hallucinogenic drugs.”

Rob really didn’t think that John was right about his mind being closed. Rob did want to start a conversation and he had exhausted many other possible openings.

“You really don’t think I was right. You just want me to talk. Okay. I hesitated before for a very simple reason. I don’t think that tripping is something I can talk about. It’s something you have to experience for yourself…When you talk about it you start giving the impression that it’s no more than distorted vision and intense pleasures and shivering and laughing. It is more. You look at the world differently – worrying about things loses all importance… And for me, acid can be a catalyst. It helps spring me into other worlds. It doesn’t create worlds. It just helps me throw off the blinders of this world and see others more clearly.”

“That’s a pretty far-reaching statement. I don’t really buy the idea that there are other worlds or that acid is a means of reaching them.” Robin was sure that this would strike a responsive nerve even though he made his challenge without any feeling in his voice.

“It’s not that far reaching. I’m just talking about a personal thing. For me, acid is a catalyst. It doesn’t create these worlds. I glimpsed one a couple of times before I tripped. Maybe it’s only in my mind. Okay, I told myself that too until a friend of mine saw the same world.

John’s mind shifted to Artie for a second. (He had seen the snake too. It existed.)

Robin was still trying to think of more questions. He realized that it was an awkward conversation so far. It didn’t seem to have any direction. He tried again.

“I was interested in the physical effects of acid too. I know some things like the trip lasts about eight hours but I really don’t…”

“I know what you want me to tell you,” John interrupted sharply. “You want me to tell you I see liquid walls and rooms that dance to music and I have eight hour orgasms. I could tell you about all that as well as seeing my face melt in a mirror and my body becoming a rocket while I was balling. But that stuff isn’t important.”

The idea of an eight hour orgasm intrigued Robin.

“What is important are the rare times when I’ve been given the opportunity to gain knowledge. That’s what I’d like to tell people. I don’t anymore, because nobody believes me. You won’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

“It’s worthless because you won’t believe me.”

“I’ll listen.”

“A world of giant snakes.” John challenged Robin with words and his tone of voice.

“You’re right. I don’t believe you.”

“I knew you wouldn’t. You’re tied to this world too completely. You’re tied to your girl and your course of study and you feel that there are no other choices for you. There is such a clear choice of worlds that I can’t see why more people don’t realize it…I don’t know, I think maybe schizophrenics realize it; that’s why they get themselves locked up or keep themselves quiet.”

“You mean you agree with what R.D. Laing says about schizophrenia?” Robin always tried hard to draw examples from books that he’d read whenever he had a discussion with anyone.

“I don’t know. I do know that I have the ability to see what you can’t see.”

Robin thought about a previous conversation in the short silence which followed John’s statement.

“You mean you really thought you saw a snake yesterday when we were at the Eiffel Tower?”

“I know I saw it yesterday,” John corrected.

Pause. The steady rhythms of the train filled the gaps of silence. John tried to think of new ways to express his position. He had never expressed these ideas to a stranger before, because he never had enough nerve to start this conversation. There were lots of things that his mind accepted without the use of words. Words were insufficient to relate his experiences. If anything, they tended to confuse.

John continued, “I’m going to try to put this in terms that you’ll be able to understand. Try to imagine your world as an airwave. Your whole world is like a complicated television signal. Instead of just transmitting light and sound, it transmits texture and smell and perspective. Okay…” John had to pause often as he balanced his words; he preferred understanding to explanation. “…so…um, so you’ve been tuned, through your upbringing and schooling, to only receive one airwave – the airwave you call ‘reality.’ Okay, so now try to imagine an infinite number of airwaves, all projecting different sights and smells.”

“I’ll accept that,” Robin interrupted unconvincingly.

“If you did accept it, you’d be able to see that LSD and mescaline are just tools to help us change the station.”

“That’s absurd,” Robin concluded after he took a little time to sort out what had been said.

“Maybe.” John seemed to be deep in thought. “I have to use this metaphor though, because it’s the only way I can think of to visualize these ideas. It’s really wrong for me to use words to explain what I go through. These words themselves are all part of the grid which patterns your view of the world.” John realized that his thoughts were well-patterned along a petrified grid too. He was seeing Robin as a point on the center of a straight line segment. John was an arrowhead nearing the apex of an incomplete circle.

John paused for a little while as the talk again surrendered to the train sounds. He lit up as he thought of another example.

“Do you remember how the world looked when you were first born?”

“No?”

“I don’t think anyone does, because that jumble of worlds and signals is drummed out of us in order to insure our survival.”

“You’re crazy,” Robin decided that it was time for the conversation to reach its conclusion.

“Maybe, but there’s only one way you’re ever going to change your mind. You’re going to have to see for yourself what I’ve seen. I have acid on me – in my pack frame. You’re welcome to a hit of it if you really are curious. I have to go take a shit.”

As John excused himself and squeezed past the legs of the other people in the compartment, Robin found himself staring at the ass of the girl standing in the hallway, right outside their compartment’s door. She was wearing a pair of soft black corduroys which perfectly outlined the curves of her hips and thighs. When she got her fill of the wind and sun streaming in through the open window, she walked away and left Robin’s eyes staring at a wall of glass and military green steel.

“You are American?”

The voice startled Robin. The Moroccan man who had been sitting next to John noticed the break in their conversation, and he saw it as an opportunity to test his rusty English.

“Excuse me.” Robin really hadn’t been able to make out the question through the heavy accent.

“Are you American?” Every word was clearly annunciated and separated.

“Yes, I’m a student on vacation.”

“Where in the United States are you from?”

“New York, very close to New York City.”

“Oh yes. I know. My brother was there once. And you go to school in New York?”

“Yes.”

“Oh yes.”

The man wore dark grey glasses because he was walleyed. His left eye was staring right at Robin and right eye was pointed towards the door. Rob had a hard enough time looking people in the eye as it was. His eyes strayed up to the mirror above the man’s head and he found himself admiring the new growth in his own beard. His eyes tried to avoid the quarter-sized bald spot on the left side of his chin. He was sure that it would be pretty full by the time school started in two weeks. He told himself the same thing every summer and every spring he told himself that his beard would look full and manly by the time the summer rolled around. It never quite made it.

“And what do you study?”

Robin had forgotten that he was in the middle of a conversation.

“History.”

“Oh yes. That is very interesting study. You study chemistry also? You and your friend were speaking of ‘acid’ and ‘catalyst’.”

Robin didn’t know whether to laugh or shit in his pants from fear. Did that guy understand that they were talking about LSD? The question seemed innocent enough though. He just wanted to continue speaking English.

“Yes, I studied some chemistry. I was just discussing the properties of sulphuric acid as a catalyst with my friend.”

The Moroccan man understood about half of what Robin said but he continued to nod his head encouragingly.

John returned after about twenty-five minutes with a beer in his hand and he sat down gracelessly.

“There’s a guy two compartments down who’s selling all kinds of drinks and sandwiches. I finished my first beer while I was talking to a girl in the corridor.”

Robin was jealous. He knew that John was talking about “Rob’s girl” with the tight black corduroys.

John continued, “She’s from Michigan and she likes my tan. Then I got on line again and got another beer. You want a sip?”

“No. Is there a long line?”

“Maybe ten people.”

“I guess I can do without.” Robin knew that if he got at the end of a loosely organized line of ten people, he’d let twenty people go before him. He wasn’t very assertive.

“What did you do with yourself while I was out flirting with that pretty Michigonian?”

“Oh, I was talking with…” Rob didn’t know how to introduce someone he didn’t know. “…uh, this gentleman,” he said while pointing.

“Hello,” John said in the Moroccan’s direction. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes.” He replied mechanically perfect, but without the feeling which accompanies a mother tongue.

They spoke for a little while in English and then John discovered that they both spoke Spanish. Robin didn’t understand a word they were saying from that point on so he found himself watching the hallway for signs of his girl. She never came by and the Moroccan family got off the train at the town of Culoz.

“What were you talking about with him?” Robin asked curiously.

“We started off by talking about the differences between his Spanish Spanish and my Mexican Spanish. Then he asked what you and I were talking about before so I told him about tripping. He seemed pretty interested. He never met anyone who took acid before. Then we talked for a little while about the quality of hashish coming out of Morocco these days.”

“Oh.”

***

“I think you’re wrong,” John said loudly without raising his hand.

The classroom stirred at his outburst. Eeryone had been sitting quietly as vegetables while the professor in front of the lecture hall talked about the Pueblo Indians. John liked anthropology during his freshman year, but he found the sponge-like accepting nature of this class and the arrogance of the professor to be suffocating. The lecture had drifted onto the Snake dance of the Hopi Indians. The professor described the breakdown of the Hopi into clans and he spoke accurately about the Snake and Antelope Clans’ participation in the Snake dance – a dance which had become a tourist attraction in the twentieth century. The professor’s own theory about the dance (which he stated as fact) was that the Hopis simply paid homage to the snakes because they were awed by the snakes’ poisonous powers.

“I think you’re wrong.”

John was surprised at the effect that his statement made on the class and the professor. The floor was his for the taking, but he didn’t take it. He didn’t explain that the Hopis once had knowledge of a giant snake that roamed the world, and they had lost that knowledge but they continued worshipping the only snakes they knew. He didn’t mention that Judaism and Christianity had the same roots. The giant, knowledge-giving snake of the Garden of Eden had been changed unbelievably over the years into a small evil snake and a snake pushed from its proper role as a deity by a group of deified people who preached ignorance and organization. John didn’t say anything.

***

“How much longer to Geneva?” John asked.

“About an hour more I guess,” Robin guessed. “Why did you have to tell that guy about tripping? You didn’t know him that well.”

“So, I don’t know you that well and I tell you things that I’ve never told anyone.”

“Why?”

“I really don’t know. I think I just want someone else to have this knowledge.”

“What about your friend?”

“Huh?”

“What about your friend who saw the snake?”

John started thinking about Artie, but he avoided Robin’s question.

***

John was a champion. Along with his red-haired, Italian friend, Chris, they built the best go-kart on the block. They didn’t build real go-karts with motors, but theirs was almost as good. The body was basically two new orange crates (taken from their local supermarket) nailed to a frame of two by fours. The wheels were the former property of John’s baby carriage. The whole thing was finished off with a couple of little cans of sewing machine oil for lubrication and a nice sanding job done by John’s father’s electric sander. Chris put their names on one of the orange crate slats with the woodburning set that he got for Christmas. They were both proud.

There was a hill near their houses where they could race. Most people called it Tarantula Hill because of the tarantulas who made their homes there. Sometimes people would pour water down into their holes and hold glass jars over the openings to catch the tarantulas. John only did that once. He caught a tarantula, but he didn’t know what to do with it. He felt sorry for it as it rubbed its massive dark brown legs against the inside of the peanut butter label, but he didn’t feel too secure about dropping it down on the ground right next to his feet either. He eventually put it down and it scrambled back into its soggy hole. To avoid making that decision again, John decided not to catch anymore tarantulas.

In late September, Tarantula Hill is completely dried out and an orange crate go-kart can roll easily over the hard ground and dry grass. People in other neighborhoods raced on streets and sidewalks, but they always had to look out for other people and cars. Dry grass got caught in your wheels sometimes while racing on Tarantula Hill, but at least you could race unobstructed. There were about ten or twelve go-karts in the neighborhood, and on a warm fall afternoon most of them would be ready to race. Chris and John were the youngest (they were in fourth grade and everyone else was in fifth or sixth), but they were the best.

One Saturday afternoon when they raced, John and Chris got off to a late start because Chris tripped as he was trying to push the car off the crest of the hill. They lost time as Chris jumped on the back. They passed one car right away, but that was only Joe’s car. He always came in last. They seemed to pick up speed as the wheels bounced over a few small stones. John was proud of this car. His front wheels were sparkling and running straight and fast. The wheels on the cars in front of him were wobbling like the wheels on orange crate autos were meant to wobble. They passed cars on the left and right as both began to yell.

“Come on!”

“We’re gonna win!”

Come on!”

They did win. They passed the last car just as they hit the bottom of the hill. They usually both jumped off and pulled the car back up to the top, but Chris hopped out right away and started laughing with his full small torso. John laughed too as he kept steering the car with his feet along the sidewalk which ran around the edge of the hill. Chris’s red hair was gleaming in the sun and the spokes of the spinning wheels were gleaming even brighter. John could feel the sun’s warmth penetrating his own sunbleached hair. The whole day was shining.

John started fooling around by steering the car in zig-zags along the sidewalk. He accidentally steered the car’s left front wheel into a little ditch and they stopped. John began to laugh again when he saw Chris on his knees behind the car.

He stopped laughing when he saw a spot of blood on an orange crate slat’s corner and saw the blood coming from the corner of Chris’s closed eye.

John was unaware of the fact that such joy could transform itself into such undiluted terror in such a short time. John wanted to be able to touch the eye and heal it, but he felt totally useless as he led Chris, screaming, back to his house. He felt his heart skipping beats as Chris yelled.

“I’m going to sue you!” he cried through tears of blood.

The anger of a friend pierced John as badly as if his own eye had been cut.

John called Chris’s mother a couple times during the night, shaking as he hesitated by the phone; he was glad to hear that Chris hadn’t injured his eye. He only needed two stitches in the lid.

John wasn’t even very upset when he heard that their car had been stolen from the side of Tarantula Hill.

***

As the train pulled away from the station at Culoz on its way to Geneva, Robin remained quiet. A group of people had piled onto the train – glad to find the large spot vacated by the Moroccans. They were a French family on their way to visit relatives. Robin didn’t want to talk and risk the chance that one of them might understand English. He just hummed a tune to himself while watching the silver railroad tracks blur beneath his vision.

John looked out the window, but he was tired of sitting so he walked out into the hallway and stood by the window on the other side of the train. Robin put his feet up on John’s empty green seat and kept watching blindly out the window as the conductor came around to ask for the tickets of the quiet French family.

“Chaussures,” the conductor asserted as he pointed at Robin.

“What?”

“Chaussures!”

“Your shoes,” a little French boy translated instantaneously.

“Merci,” Robin said as he moved his feet from the seat.

Robin looked out into the corridor and John was gone.

As he wandered past the train compartments filled with people, John found himself thinking of war refugees because of the families with their battered suitcases and screaming kids and the young middle-class tourists in their self-imposed poverty and exile with their backpacks and sleeping bags. When he left the second class cars and walked into first class, he found his mind drawn towards second-rate murder mysteries. They always took place on trains like this with their luxurious compartments filled with businessmen in suits and old ladies in white gloves. The difference between first and second class was amazing. The SNCF put on equal nubers of first and second class cars although there were at least four times as many second class passengers. “Robin was right about that,” John thought to himself. “Classes are wrong and outdated. For all of this new European leftist rhetoric they even lag behind the U.S. in a couple of areas. This grasp on classes is one thing. They talk of equality like all nations and they try to condemn inequality and injustice wherever they spring up, but they don’t even notice the economic inequality practiced on their subways. Political talk is just that – political talk. Robin doesn’t realize that, I don’t think. He places hope in those words before actions. He praises revolutionary words and curses reactionary words. His praises and curses have the same intrinsic worth as those words. They don’t mean shit unless they directly cause or represent actions.”

***

The Saturday sun reflected brightly off the Capitol dome as the crowd of half a million sang and got high in a supreme effort to end the war. Robin was in that crowd and he wanted everyone to know it. He wore his blue button with the dove that said “April 24” for two weeks before the demonstration.

“Robin, what’s the button for?”

“I’m going to Washington to demonstrate against the war on that date,” he’d reply proudly.

He really did feel that he was working hard against the war when he handed out buttons and hung posters in his high school. When he finally made it to Washington, he was sure that the war was going to end. How could the government fail to respond? How could the government ignore those sweet illegal clouds of marijuana smoke in the Washington air? How could the government ignore the fact that half a million people were singing “Give Peace a Chance” along with Peter, Paul and Mary and chanting “FUCK” right along with Country Joe McDonald? How could the government ignore the fact that Robin Jackson was marching hand in hand with a girl he had a crush on while screaming, “Peace, Now!”?

Nixon watched TV.

***

John’s mind wandered to other things as he walked through the train. He thought about what he’d see when he got to the mountains. He had a pretty good idea. He dreamt about it most nights. The sight of the growing hills made him anxious and apprehensive about finishing his journey.

As the train entered a stone-walled tunnel, John found his stream of thoughts broken again. He stopped walking and his eyes tried to follow the black rock walls which were flying by two feet from his face. The train passed more workmen on scaffolding who were in the process of chipping away at the rock. The sound of the jackhammers, along with the intensified, echoing rumblings of the train, surrounded John’s ears and brain until he found the sound carrying him away. The goggled, dirt-covered faces lit up by naked light bulbs looked more than a little like something from another planet, but John left that planet as quickly as he had entered it when the train found its way back into bright August sunlight.

John continued walking until he ran into the locomotive. On the walk back he looked into the same compartments and smiled at the same children. He counted twelve cars between his and the engine. Riding on a train still reminded him of a game.

“Hi Rob,” John sang as he squeezed back towards his seat.

“Where did you go?”

“Just for a walk.”

“Where?” Robin wasn’t aware that he could walk farther than the end of his own car.

“To the end of the train.”

“You’re allowed to do that?”

“I guess so. Nobody stopped me.”

“Anything interesting?”

“More of the same.”

They paused. John smiled at the little boy sitting next to him and then turned back towards Robin.

“You want to talk about anything?”

“No.” Robin mumbled. Keeping silent was better than having another argument about drugs.

“Okay.”

 

While sharing the train compartment with these two American travellers, the French man, his wife, and the older of their two sons, all decided that John and Robin were the same. Just as the Minnesota farmboys and Frenchmen fit Robin’s stereotypes, he fit theirs. He and John were the typical young American travellers. They both carried backpacks and wore jeans. They were both unkempt. It didn’t matter that John was just unshaven because of a lack of concern for such things and that Robin saw his rough edges as a symbol of… They were both drug users. They didn’t see the difference between Robin’s occasional social smoking of marijuana and John’s quest for other worlds through mescaline and LSD… They had both demonstrated against the war. It wasn’t important that Robin’s involvement was centered around mass peaceful gatherings and that John’s short involvement had been caused by his intense rage after his cousin was killed at Khe Sanh. He had flirted on the violent edges of the Weathermen, but he made a point of never joining groups. He really didn’t agree with them ideologically (he didn’t believe in any ideologically). He just used them as the vehicle for expressing his rage at a system which spread death and money.

It didn’t matter that their minds were worlds apart; John and Robin were the same.

 

The compartment lay silent until the train passed into a built up area and John spotted a Swiss flag.

“I think we’re here.”

 

Back in 2017

This chapter seems to jump around a little, but I spend a lot of time riding on trains — literally thousands of commuting hours since writing Exile — and I’ve found that they are conducive to letting thoughts run freely. A long train trip like the one from Paris to Geneva could allow for lots of internal time traveling.

John’s incident with the orange-crate car was an experience of mine in fourth grade. I was the driver and the friend with the bloodied eye (whose name I don’t remember) really did threaten to sue me as we ran back to the apartment house where we both lived. The hill we drove down was a sidewalk in Bergenfield, New Jersey (where I lived for one year), but Tarantula Hill was a real location too. It was behind my sixth-grade school in Woodland Hills, California (where I lived for three years). Lately I’ve been hearing about writers whose books are tied to a specific area of the country that their family has lived in for generations and that they know extremely well; there’s also a common American experience of having no roots in a specific place, especially for many who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s certainly the experience of these characters, and of this author.

Robin’s experience in Washington, D.C., on April 24, 1971 was my experience as a fifteen-year-old peacenik. I was my high school’s coordinator for the Student Mobilization Committee (in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where I went to school for three years) and I did get to hold the hand of a girl I had a crush on as we believed we were ending the war with songs and chants.

I’m getting a little tired of the back and forth (or lack thereof) between Robin and John. I peeked ahead and I’m glad that we finally meet the elusive Anne at the very beginning of the next chapter.

 

10/29/2017: Chapter 2.6 has now been retyped and posted here.

 

Reading Myself in Exile (2.4)

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

SnakeI’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 fourteenth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the fourth chapter in Part Two.

I’m going to try to pick up the pace as I type the last sixty or seventy pages. I’d like to finish this serialization of Exile by the end of October so that I can start a new manuscript in November. I don’t think I’ll be officially participating in NaNoWriMo, but I love the idea of completing a first draft of a new book next month, using my daily time on the train as writing time rather than reading time.

4

Artie and John managed to hitch back into Martigny, Switzerland, after spending an hour or so chopping pieces off the Mont Blanc glacier and rolling them down a steep grassy slope.

Once inside the Martigny train station, they put twenty centimes in a machine and pulled out a little yellow train schedule for the area. It was three o’clock in the afternoon when they got there and they had to wait another forty-five minutes to get a train to Brig. From there they could get right on a train to Zermatt and the Matterhorn. Besides taking the train, they decided to splurge even further by looking for a motel room when they got there. They both worked hard all summer for this trip and they didn’t mind splurging once in a while. John even worked two jobs in the beginning of the summer just so he could enjoy himself during these last two weeks in August.

John was impressed again by the flatness of this valley and the steep hillsides covered with grapevines and switchbacks. They spent some of their time walking around the train station after they bought their tickets, but there wasn’t much to see. It was a modern town that could have been lifted intact and placed in any other Western country without upsetting the balance of things very greatly.

They didn’t regret getting on the move again as their train left the station and town behind and headed out into some open fields. The train was spotless, orderly and totally punctual, none of which impressed John in the least. They were both a little impressed by the fact that they were on a train at all. The closest that John ever came to the experience was a San Francisco cable car. That was completely different. Artie had been on a train at Disneyland that rolled past Indian villages and fake animals when he was a kid. That was different too.

In California, passenger trains are sort of a novelty. They are the things that belch black smoke and get robbed and blown up in the movies. When a Californian abandons a car for a train, they treat the train with respect and maybe a little awe. (John didn’t have a car, but Artie had a van – a beautiful van that was dark blue around the tire openings and shaded until it was almost white on the roof. He loved his car the way many American males love their cars. Totally.) Artie was in awe of this long green monster that was pulling him to his destination effortlessly and electrically and leaving the cars on the parallel road in its wake. He couldn’t understand why the other passengers were simply sitting back and taking the train for granted. There were only about twenty people in their undivided car. About half were reading and the other half were talking or resting their eyes. Their was a girl in the car who was looking out the window just like John and Artie. She was a tourist too.

John’s eyes were trying to follow a hawk as it glided back and forth above their flat valley. It occurred to him that she seemed to be tacking much like a sailboat does to soar into the wind. She swept her wings down in a full effortless motion that kept her gliding for another few hundred yards until she stopped and flapped her wings furiously. She hovered, then dived behind a line of trees just as John’s window caught up with her. She swooped up from behind the tree without any victims as the conductor interrupted John’s musings to ask for his ticket. John was a little pissed as he looked back to the sky and hills. The bird was nowhere to be found. The train was bound to outrun her anyway.

John lost interest in the other side of his window when it started to become repetitious. Although he tried not to indulge in small talk too often, his growing boredom and the look of boredom on Artie’s face drove him into it.

“I don’t believe how hot the sun got when we were out there hitching this morning.”

“What?” Artie asked mechanically.

“I don’t believe how hot it got this morning.” There was no reason to repeat the sentence, because Artie had already heard it. They both knew how hot it had been without mentioning it at all.

“I know,” Artie replied after hearing the sentence for the second time.

From the smell of them, anyone could tell that they had spent the day standing in the sun. Sometimes John secretly enjoyed the smell of sweat on his body, but the sweat didn’t mix well with his heavy wool shirt. He dressed in this coarse blue woolen shirt when he woke up on the side of the damp mountain and he had been suffering because of it since the morning. He had the shirt almost totally unbuttoned and his sleeves were rolled up above the elbows, but that didn’t stop the sweating. There were still beads of perspiration perched on the white hair of his sun-darkened forearms. It did feel good to sit next to the window and have a breeze blow onto his face and chest.

There were some good moments while they stood waiting for a ride in Chamonix. They told some old jokes. They always kept each other amused – John loved this friend of his. Artie had stopped a stranger walking past and he asked him to take their picture. He took a picture of their backs as they stood by the side of the road with their thumbs out. From that angle they looked pretty much alike. They had practically identical green nylon backpacks (John’s had two extra side pockets) and they both wore faded Lee jeans. The only differences were that John’s hair was blonder and curlier and that John had kicked off his shoes and socks. The mountains rose majestically in the background of the picture and it was one of the best photographs that John had ever seen (he carried it in his wallet until the day he died).

An old man in a Renault station wagon had finally given them a ride to the train station in Martigny and they thanked him heartily.

“We change trains here,” John said as they arrived in a train station marked BRIG. He had been watching the signs in all the stations since the beginning of their trip.

“Okay,” Artie said as he stretched and reached for the pack in the rack above his head.

John shook off a little dizziness as he stood up. The combination of standing in the sun all morning and not eating since breakfast struck him immediately as he jumped to his feet.

“We’d better get something to eat before we catch our next train.”

“What?”

“We better get…”

“We can’t – we don’t have enough time. Our train to the Matterhorn leaves in five minutes according to that schedule.”

“We’ll make it,” John concluded confidently as they went to buy a couple of sandwiches.

They missed the train.

John just shrugged his shoulders and grinned when Artie shot him a glance which screamed, “I told you so.” John never regretted his decisions. He was glad to be eating his ham and mustard sandwich.

“We have to wait over an hour for the next train. What are we going to do between now and a quarter after six?”

“Let’s trip.”

“You have a fuckin’ one track mind and keep your voice down,” Artie blurted out in one breathless phrase.

Without making any attempt to quiet himself, John continued, “Look, what’s the harm? We can buy our tickets and then drop it and sit and wait for our train. We’ll be flying on our train trip through the mountains. Come on, you know how good it is to trip in the hills.”

Artie did know how good it was. The first couple of times he took LSD he was in the Sierras with John and Sue. Besides, he reasoned to himself, “My paranoia left me a while ago. I’ll be alright.”

“alright,” Artie said softly.

“Great!” When John became excited, his excitement was always visible. He couldn’t stop smiling. “You go get the tickets and I’ll dig the capsules our of my packframe.”

“Keep your voice down,” Artie screamed under his breath.

“Okay, I’ll be right back. Do you have enough money for the tickets or do you need some more?”

“No, I have over a hundred Swiss francs left. You can pay me back later.”

“Sounds fine.”

“What?”

“Good, get the tickets. I’ll be back in a flash.”

John was in a men’s room stall for awhile. He removed two of the magnesium pins that held his pack together and almost dropped one down the toilet. He heard the plastic bag that had been held in place by the pins slide through the tubing of the frame. His anxious hand at the end of the tube awaited the arrival of the capsules, but they didn’t come. The tube was clogged with mud that had been baked dry during the day. John tried pushing the mud in with his index finger to break it up and it came back down in one piece. It was a sample of earth in a single core neat enough to please the pickiest of geologists.

With the pride of a new father, John pulled two of the capsules of acid out of the plastic bag and reversed the process he’d just gone through (he left the cylinder of dry mud on the floor though). After a total of about ten minutes, he walked out of the stall with a full pack and without flushing the toilet to the total bewilderment of the two men waiting to take shits.

“Bonjour,” John remarked joyfully in French.

He was answered with silence. (“Unfriendly bastards!”) John didn’t know that he was now in a German-speaking city.

“Did you get the tickets?” John boomed while Artie was still ten feet away.

“Yeah, did you get the acid?” Artie whispered when John came closer.

John held out two clear, empty capsules in his right hand.

“Capsules?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve never had acid any way but mixed in juice or dropped onto paper.” Artie had only tripped three times.

“I’ve never had it this way either, but they tell me that the acid is painted onto the inside of the capsule…Pretty ingenious, huh? It’s supposed to be twice as strong as that blotter we had last month.”

No verbal responses came from Artie. He picked up one of the capsules and swallowed it. John followed suit and they took off their packs while sitting down on a bench.

“Where’s the train gonna stop?” John wanted to make sure all these little details were taken care of before they became big difficulties.

“Right in front of us…All the trains that come along this track are on their way to Zermatt, so we have nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing to worry about.” Those were four of John’s favorite words and he was glad to hear them in the state of mind he was in.

John sighed contentedly and expectantly.

After about half hour of saying and doing very little, Artie asked an inevitable question.

“Do you feel anything?”

“Yeah…Do you?”

“What?”
“Do you feel anything?”

“Yes,” Artie replied with a laugh.

It was a pretty normal trip for both of them. Artie felt extremely high. He felt like he just smoked a few joints of excellent marijuana or downed a couple of quarts of beer. His senses were heightened rather than blurred and he didn’t have the sore throat that smoking could give him and he didn’t have the upset stomach and bladder associated with large bulks of alcohol. Usually Artie felt a little nausea when he tripped, probably because of the speed folded in with most of the blotter acid he’d had. Not this time.

For John, the world was pulsating. He usually listened to music when he was tripping. When he did that, everything would bounce and flow along with the rhythm of the tune and even his heartbeat seemed to change its rhythm to please the music. There was no music in the train station, so the scenery adopted the steady pulse of John’s heart muscle. The walls of the train station were liquid and rounded – concave. People floated at a distance – sharply defined and hollow and light. Labyrinths of pipe and cigar smoke glistened white and fine in sun rays. He began giggling as the little red train poured itself into the station and he scooped up his pack and rolled on. Artie was laughing too. They must have been a funny sight.

John sat next to the window on the left side of the train and Artie sat next to him. John tried to put his hand through the gelatin window, but his hand stopped when he hit it and turned soft itself. He shivered and smiled. As the train started (was it ever stopped?), he couldn’t figure out how fast it was going. It could’ve been going fifteen or a hundred miles an hour. Who really cares when you think about it? The emphasis was on the quality of the travel, not the quantity.

The mountains were pulsing in the same slow, barely perceptible motion of the train station walls; another conductor came around and asked for John’s ticket. The conductor had to pour his hand onto John’s shoulder before John swiveled his head around and smiled. Cold stare. It took a couple of minutes before John reached into his shirt pocket and handed his ticket to the sweaty-palmed conductor. Artie had responded much faster. People in uniforms had a sobering effect on him no matter how high he was.

The train stopped pretty often and it confused John a little bit.

“Are we stopped?”

“What?”

“Did we stop?”

“I think so,” Artie replied softly with a laugh.

“You’re not sure?”

“No, I’m sure. We stopped.” Artie replied resolutely.

“Why are the mountains still moving?”

“You’re hallucinating,” Artie whispered.

“Oh.”

John paused for a second.

“Now I could swear the train’s moving.”

“I think the train is moving now.”

“You’re not sure?”

Artie paused to think.

“No, I’m sure. The train is moving.”

“Good.”

John’s hallucinations went through a series of subtle transformations until the mountains ceased all movement and crystallized into extremely sharp forms. They seemed so gleaming and beautiful that John wanted to cry. He might have been crying. He didn’t really remember.

When the train stopped again in the small town of Stalden, John was able to sense the cessation of movement without much trouble. Stalden is a pretty typical Alpine town with old wooden houses and churches built on the side of emerald hills. The wood on many of these houses and shacks there is grey and split from being exposed to the elements for so long. The wood has ceased to be a living thing or even a dead living thing. It has passed onto a new existence as a building material for old houses. Once in a while, a flake of grey will chip off to reveal the light brown hue of what what was once a living thing, but that’s a glimpse of another – older – world, and it quickly conceals itself. John was engrossed in staring at a group of grey wooden houses on the other side of a high walled rocky stream. (In Southern California, that much water in one place would constitute a major river. It all depends on your point of view.) There was a building right on the other side of a small bridge which stood out against the rest. It was especially small and weathered and it had a conspicuous cluster of crosses and crucifixes down where the wood met the uncut stone foundation. John experienced a moment of sobriety as he examined the buildings.

As the train started slowly up a grade and out of town, John shifted his gaze away from the buildings and up into the green hills. He wasn’t sure if he was hallucinating again.

“Artie.”

“What?”

“Look up at that ridge,” John said while pointing to a point in the hills.

Artie looked up. “Hey, I’m finally starting to hallucinate.”

“What do you see?”

“A giant snake, clear as a bell,” Artie whispered into John’s ear.

“You’re not hallucinating.”

“what?”

“You’re not hallucinating. I see the same thing.”

“I hate to tell you this, but you’re tripping too.”

“Yeah, but I’ve seen it twice before. Before I ever tripped.”

Artie glanced back at the ridge as the snake faded in the distance. It didn’t seem like an hallucination. It was just resting in the sun at the crest of a hill like the guardian of Eden. His past hallucinations had come when everything was more distorted and all reality seemed more unsure. This wasn’t like that. He was extremely high. The pleasure in his brain and body rivalled that of an orgasm, but he hadn’t been hallucinating. Besides, he’d never shared an hallucination before.

As Artie’s mind tried to decide what it had really seen and the snake passed behind higher mountains, John felt a great joy of release welling up deep within his chest; they had shared something which John had come to believe was his alone. John felt like laughing aloud, but his emotions chose another outlet. When he turned his face from the window, Artie could see tears welling up in John’s eyes. His eyes were wet but the surface tension of the water remained unbroken. His cheeks remained dry.

“You saw it didn’t you?” John asked humbly.

“Yeah.” Artie was still too confused and scared by the combination of the drugs and the situation to understand what was happening. “It was real?”

“Don’t you remember?” John asked cryptically.

“Remember?”

“Remember when we were coming back from San Jacinto when we were in the scouts. In your dad’s Land Rover. I said I saw a giant snake. That’s it. I saw it again when we were in the tenth grade. I didn’t trip then and the radio and television news never confirmed me. I was sure that I was going crazy. Now at least if I’m going crazy I’m not doing it alone. You saw it,” John said without taking a breath. “You saw it.”

“Yeah.” Artie was still confused.

The snake incident was the high point of their trip. John hardly ever stopped talking about it. They tried to find it again by returning to Stalden. They couldn’t but it didn’t matter. Artie had seen it and John was glad.

Back in 2017

There’s such a temptation for me to go and check maps and train lines and distances to confirm the travel of John and Artie in the Alps, but I’m trusting that I got the details right, as seen by a foreign observer who was to most of these places once in 1975 and wrote about them contemporaneously. A book written from a retrospective position in the twenty teens might not have dwelt on the summer heat so much, but a book written at the time couldn’t ignore it. It’s easy to forget after decades of ubiquitous air conditioning in public places that in the 1970s it was still easy to spend days and days without confronting refrigerated air anywhere. There were still many subway cars in New York that didn’t have air conditioning, my first job in the city in the late 1970s had no air conditioning, and all the trains we took in Europe had windows that opened if one wanted to cool off. This trip of John and Artie’s is a few years before the adventures of John and Robin in 1975, so the only place they would have experienced AC was probably on the jet that took them over the Atlantic.

Finally, whenever I see anyone writing about LSD experiences, I’m curious about the writer’s own experience. I had not tripped at the time I wrote the first draft, though I was deeply familiar with the essential canon of psychedelic literature at the time: Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Huxley’s Doors of Perception, hilarious anti-LSD films shown in the Los Angeles schools, Jefferson Airplane lyrics, Timothy Leary’s ideas, and the Carlos Castaneda books. I had remedied my lack of first-hand experience by the time this second draft was completed.

The next chapter, 2.5, has now been posted here.

Reading Myself in Exile (2.3)

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

IMG_6049I’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 thirteenth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the third chapter in Part Two.

3

“Monsieur?”

A silent mood had overtaken Robin along with all this talk of death from boredom, and only the conductor coming around and asking for his ticket was able to draw his mind away from it. He reached into his wallet for his railpass and passport, and the conductor left him peacefully to drown in his musings.

He began to carry on a structured conversation with himself.

“John’s father wasn’t an intellectual. He was an engineer. An intellectual gets more stimulation from his work.”

“Why?”

“Because he uses his mind.”

“An engineer uses his mind.”

“But that’s only figures and computations. You can’t call that creative thinking.”

“Why is designing a new plane less creative than writing an article or teaching? Are words less abstract than figures?”

Before Robin answered any of his own questions, he let his mind become absorbed and soothed by the humming that generated deep in his vocal cords. He settled down as he stopped thinking. He was glad he didn’t come to face his own death. He knew that that would have been the logical conclusion to the train of thought that he had embarked on.

He tried again to start a conversation on a simple level.

“John?”

John was still looking out the window, but Robin continued anyway.

“We must be getting closer to Switzerland. It looks like the beginning of some foothills out there in the distance.”

***

John and Artie finally finished their hike to Mont Blanc just as the sun was setting and the ice of the glacier was glowing pink and orange. John ran with full pack up a short grassy ski slope towards the snowline. He planned to make a few snowballs and pelt Artie as he walked up the hill. Snow always made John feel like a kid. Disappointment fell over John as he reached the white and discovered that it was all clear and hard and wet. He reeled backwards as he pulled off one piece of ice and Artie finally caught up with him.

“Shit!” John bellowed. “This looked so soft and inviting from the road.” He still held the chunk of dirty ice in his hand. “I wouldn’t throw this at anyone I didn’t intend to kill.”

“Unh…Unh.” Artie was still out of breath from chasing John up the hill. “Unh y’mean I risked a heart attack…just so we could sit next to this ice?”

They were just beginning to relax as a man ran up the slope a few yards and yelled something in French. John waved and they ran into a wooded area below them to the left. The man stopped when he saw that they were gone, and they spent a little time just sitting, laughing, and recatching their breath.

John started cleaning large twigs and stones from a place between the trees.

“What are you doing?” Artie had leaned back against a tree without bothering to remove his pack – ready to move on.

“I figured we’d sleep here tonight, right on the slope of Europe’s tallest mountain.” He patted the ground.

John’s voice didn’t show any strains of running as he talked and pulled a rolled-up tent from the bottom of his pack. Artie’s voice was still tied to a panting rhythm.

“Do you think it’s safe to stay here tonight?”

“Sure, no one will see us, plus I think this might even be legal in France. Why are you so worried now? We camped in Switzerland last night and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal there.

“That guy just got me a little jumpy. The fact that you’re a walking drugstore doesn’t make me feel any better either.”

“That’s fuckin’ ridiculous. How many times have we been hiking in California with marijuana or LSD on us? It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me whether I spend a few years in an American jail or a French one.”

“Thanks for putting is so optimistically.”

“No – really – don’t worry. All the drugs are hidden deep in my pack frame. Besides, even if someone does find them I’ll get the blame.” The words didn’t sooth as much as the slow dancing rhythm of his voice which he accompanied with gentle movements of his hands.

Upon finally standing up and catching his breath, Artie agreed, “I guess you’re right. I’m still excited about…”

“Do you want to trip now?”

“What!?”

“Let’s trip now.” John’s impulsiveness was definitely getting the best of him.

“No – not now. Definitely not now. I’m still feeling a little paranoid and I don’t want to freak out…I’m sure you don’t want that either.”

John stopped taking his pack apart. He had to take the pack off the frame to get to the stash of drugs. His face had been lit up a second before, but Artie pulled a plug from the source of his enthusiasm. Artie saw the instant change in attitude and he tried to repair the damage that he’d done.

“Hey, cheer up Bozo. You look like a kid who just got his lollipop stolen. I’ll trip when we get more settled, but I just can’t handle it yet. I don’t adjust as fast as you do to new situations, so just hold on for a day or two.”

“Okay.” John was relatively silent as he concentrated on replacing the clevis pins which held his backpack on its frame.

John finished stringing their tent between a couple of trees and he rolled out their sleeping bags inside. He pulled out an old harmonica and started to play Dixie while waiting for Artie to finish boiling the water for their freeze-dried beef stroganoff.

“Don’t you know any other songs?” Artie sounded like the impatient parent of a kid who was just starting piano lessons.

“No.”

“Nothing?”

He asked again as John made a feeble attempt at Old MacDonald and failed. Maybe Artie was better off if he just left John alone. At least he hit the right notes when he played Dixie.

John got tired of his own limited playing long before dinner was ready. Artie relaxed when he saw the harmonica drop back into its blue plastic case.

“Hey Art, how much food do we have with us?”

“I have enough dinners to get us through a week and then we should find a store that sells camp food somewhere.” His eyes didn’t look up from the pot he was stirring.

“Shit, with all that food you brought…and that pot and stove and everything, I’m surprised you made the plane’s weight limit.”

“Forty pounds on the button,” Artie exclaimed as he proudly patted his green Kelty pack on a side pocket.

“And you try to run up mountains with all that weight. You are fucked in the head. My pack only weighs eighteen pounds. The heaviest things in it are my harmonica and a box of rubbers.”

John was glad that Artie had come prepared, because he did enjoy eating more than playing Dixie. He volunteered to carry the pot and a tank of propane fuel when they broke camp the next morning.

“Art, tell you what. Since you’ve cooked dinner every night so far, I’ll cook some powdered eggs tomorrow morning.”

“You won’t wake up tomorrow morning.”

“You’re probably right.”

***

The mountains out the train window had both Robin and John pretty well hypnotized as they rolled farther into central France. Robin found himself simply humming again as John watched.

“Do you want to talk about something?” John broke the silence in perfect anticipation of Robin’s desires.

“Yeah okay.” Robin thought he did a good job of controlling his emotions this time. He didn’t seem visually overanxious, but he was and John sensed it.

“I didn’t mean to upset you last night when I walked into the hostel and made that remark to you about being hung up on that girl you were thinking about. I wanted to add some more to what I said, but when I came back you were already in bed and I didn’t want to disturb you.”

Although Robin wasn’t aware of it, his light brown eyes were emitting a faint stream of happiness in John’s direction. This was what he really wanted to talk about. “Go on. I’m usually interested in getting advice about girls, but last night I guess I was sort of down.”

Robin was expecting the kind of advice that he got from his friend Aaron at school. Answers to questions like, “When should I kiss her?” and “What should I say to show her that I want to go to bed with her?” John sensed the type of talk Robin wanted. He could’ve obliged Robin’s desire – he had his share of knowledge about effective methods – but he had something more important on his mind.

“You know there’s an old saying about misery loving company?”

“Yeah.”

“Well I just wanted to tell you something that I thought would ease your mind a little bit. You just finished your freshman year in college right?”

“No, sophomore.” Robin was a little puzzled by the way their conversation was beginning.

“That’s close enough. When I was a freshman at UC I went through just what you’re going through now. I met this girl, Sue, from a little town just outside of Fresno. She was petite and she had long brown hair and light brown eyes and white skin. There wasn’t an imperfection in this woman’s face or body and I loved her with all my heart and soul. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to keep her by my side and you know what she did?”

Robin remained silent.

“She left me. One day she just got up and said, ‘I can’t stay here anymore.’ She just stood up and walked out my door. My mouth opened but I couldn’t say anything. I sat there with my mouth hanging open for hours.”

Robin wasn’t convinced of the parallels between his life and John’s story. He had never slept with Anne and he couldn’t look any deeper than that. He was as close emotionally to Anne as John had been to Sue. The rejections they received were almost identical. They were both “too intense” in their professions of love.

John continued, “You know, after she left me I thought I’d never be the same again. I used to lie in my room sometimes and get lost in notes that sounded sad on my harmonica – just like the convicts in the old movies – ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.’ I really thought that I was the most pitiful character on earth. Then you know what happened?”

“No.”

“All of a sudden I realized that I was a fool. I had no reason to feel sorry for myself. One day I found myself lying in bed trying to cultivate a depression that simply didn’t exist anymore. When I first met Sue I fell in love with her voice and shoulders, her hair and eyes. I had this intense desire to lay a finger on her lips. This moment, that laying of my finger as her tongue slipped through to greet me – and that first warm smile. That moment was a greater pleasure that the rest of our sex. It was all anti-climax. I tried violently to hold onto a moment which was no more than that, a moment. (Did I suffocate the moment by trying to apply an overlay of more experience? thinking faintly and quickly as his spoken words embarked on a life of their own – beyond his control. What relationship did Sue and I really have to each other? What relation is there between ‘me’ and my memories? Do they exist out of space and time out there – in here? That initial coordination of feelings between us was never totally destroyed by my possessiveness, was it?) I learned my lesson well too. The summer between my freshman and sophomore years I came to Europe with a friend of mine. I haven’t been depressed over a woman since.”

John paused to see Robin’s reaction. Rob was sitting silently letting the words soak in. They were passing without understanding. Robin had felt the same depression during his freshman year too, but that’s where their similarities ended.

Robin often said that he was interested in history because he could learn from history’s mistakes. For all his far-reaching opinions about the world’s mistakes, he couldn’t turn around and see his own mistakes repeating themselves. He went through the same depression two years in a row. He caused it himself but he blamed it on Joan in his freshman year and on good ol’ Anne Jenkins in his sophomore year. When his depression finally caught up with him, he let it sink in until he felt it festering in his stomach and nerves. He’d been depressed in one way or another because of Anne since December and he’d been jealous of her new boyfriend Ed since the first day he saw them smile at each other back in March.

“Don’t let it eat away at you just because you don’t have a girl by your side. It’s no one’s fault if you don’t get laid regularly. It has no importance at all in itself.” John could sense the depression overtaking Robin as his mind drifted away from the conversation. John raised his voice drastically, drawing visible astonishment from the Moroccans who’d been who’d been sitting quietly through the whole trip. “Shit! It’s more luck than anything else. Just don’t give in to your feelings so easily.”

Robin had never experienced the death of a close friend or relative. He had never gone a day in his life when he wondered where his next meal was coming from or where he was going to sleep. However, he had come to the conclusion a couple of years earlier that he was the unluckiest person alive.

***

John struggled for a little while with the zipper on his sleeping bag before it zipped up around his shoulders with a jerk. He enjoyed the warmth and confinement of the bag as he pressed his head against the nylon hood and ran his fingers across the relaxed muscles of his bare chest and stomach. His hand could feel the beating of his heart between his ribs when the wind died down. He could feel the same beats a split second later through his left temple pressed against the ground.

The rhythms contained within his body kept John engrossed until big raindrops started hitting the tent slowly and powerfully. He thought that he had to get up and cover the packs that were leaning up against a tree outside until he remembered that he had tucked his poncho around them right after dinner.

“John? Did you cover the packs?” Artie had been engrossed in his own pre-sleep reveries before the rain started to fall.

“Yeah, my poncho’s wrapped around them.”

He paused to yawn.

“It better not be raining like this in the morning or I’m never gonna climb out of this bag.”

Artie was too tired to say anything other than good night.

“Good night.”

John listened to the varied sounds of the rain. It beat hard and violently against the plastic of their tube tent. The pounding on the plastic poncho which protected their packs was just as violent but it was separated from him and it didn’t seem as loud and insistent as the rain right above his head.

The rain on the leaves was relatively peaceful. It was no more than an intermittent pattering high in the trees which filled the silences between the crashes on the tent. Before sleep finally held John, he was able to make out the outlines of leaves sitting on the tent under the light of a full moon that managed to break through the clouds momentarily. It rained sporadically throughout the night.

John surprised Artie in the morning. He awoke early and alert and he began mixing a package of powdered eggs with water. A look of astonishment glazed Artie’s eyes when John tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a plate full of scrambled eggs.

“Good morning.” The air was as crisp as it always is in the mountains after a night of showers. John’s face was creased with a smile that reflected the same crispness.

Artie yawned and joined him at breakfast. John finished eating before Artie. John finished eating before Artie even lifted the fork to his mouth twice.

“Shit, this campsite is a mess.”

“What?” Artie was in the process of wiping the sleep from his eyes with the knuckle of his index finger when John broke the silence of the morning air.

“Just look around you. Look at all the mud and shit that splattered up on my poncho and the sides of the tent.”

Artie took his first good look around and yawned wide when he thought of the cleaning which lay ahead of them. “What time did you get me up anyway?”

The sun hadn’t risen high enough to throw a clear light on their dawn-shrouded campsite.

“How should I know what time it is? You know I’ve never worn a watch.” Artie really should have known this. He’d seen John display genuine anger at people who lived their lives by a clock.

As he walked back to the tent, Artie stepped uncomfortably into piles of wet leaves and twigs with his bare feet. He had been too tired when he first climbed out of bed to let the dampness bother him. He tried brushing some of the muck off his feet as he sat down on his sleeping bag and groped through the coins and socks in his boot in search of his watch. He finally pulled out a luminous skin diver’s watch with a corroded black band.

“It’s not even 6:30,” Artie exclaimed with an air of disbelief as he held the watch to his ear.

“Really?” John didn’t seem concerned.

“6:30 in the A-M!”

“So, you know I don’t live by a schedule.”

That was true. But Artie had been camping with John since the sixth grade when they both joined the scouts. Artie had never – never – known John to wake up before nine or ten o’clock. John was the troop’s bugler too, and he made a habit of forgetting his bugle every time they went camping despite Mr. Black’s (the scoutmaster’s) constant reminders. Artie attributed this rare early rising to the excitement about the trip and he enjoyed the fact that he wasn’t the one to prepare breakfast.

“Shit!”

“What?” Artie was surprised by John’s sudden outbursts although he had them often.

“I hate breaking camp after it rains.”

“I know.”

“huh?”

“I know. Everything gets all covered with mud and you have to wait till it dries to do a good job of cleaning it off.”

“I know, that’s what I meant.”

John finished squeezing his sleeping bag into its stuff bag as they were talking and he started rolling up the muddy tent after Artie had removed his sleeping bag. John’s hands were covered with rich mud and decayed leaves and twigs when he finally dropped the tent into its bag.

“Shit!”

“What?” Artie said “what?” even though he knew exactly what John was complaining about. He paused – as though a revelation of the problem had just taken place – then he continued, “I hate getting that stuff on my hands too…What do you think we should do today? Do you want to head for the Swiss Alps, the Matterhorn and all that?”

The idea appealed to John and he grasped onto it as if it were his own. He agreed quickly and added another suggestion.

“Yeah, that sounds perfect, but why don’t we try climbing a little way up Mont Blanc as long as we’re here.”

“Okay.”

“What?”

John perfectly mimicked the way that Artie mechanically responded to every statement with the same monosyllable, and they both fell over laughing. At Artie’s suggestion, they raced out of the wood and up the ski slope that they were chased off the day before. Artie’s inhibitions about being in a strange country had vanished. John saw this for himself as they smiled at each other through pantings of a race well run at the foot of a field of dirty summer ice. John didn’t especially like the term, and he never used it, but he knew that Artie was his “best friend.”

The next chapter, 2.4, has finally been retyped and posted here.
Continue reading

Reading Myself in Exile (2.2)

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

Geneva and Mont Blanc

I’m finding out and sharing the results as I retype the paper copy of my 1970’s novel Exile in serial form, posting chapters as soon as I get them onto a computer. The twelfth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the second chapter in Part Two.

 

2

“What are you going to do when you get to the mountains?” Robin was just trying to disturb the pensive silence that John had fallen into. He found it extremely uncomfortable.

John didn’t respond right away. There was a pause as he seemed to weigh his words while staring out the window. Robin was almost ready to speak again when John’s voice rose above the train rumblings. “I guess I’ll do a lot of hiking and I’ll find some empty place to camp. I’ll spend a lot of my time just watching. I’ve heard that’s one of my specialties – observation…What d’you plan to do?”

“I’ve heard that the town of Zermatt is beautiful. I plan to head straight there on the first train I can catch tomorrow morning. I hope the weather’s nice, because I know people who’ve gone there and couldn’t even see the Matterhorn because of the clouds. I wouldn’t want to miss seeing the Matterhorn.” Robin spoke with the true enthusiasm of a tourist; John’s thoughts seemed to wander off again as his eyes strayed out of the window.

“Yeah, Zermatt’s beautiful.” John’s voice strayed along with his eyes.

“John, turn this way.”

“What?”

“That’s it, just turn your head towards me.”

“Why?”

“Now turn your head back out towards that farm.”

John did what he was told to do, because he realized the discovery that Robin had made.

“Do you know what your eyes do?”

“I’ve been told.”

“They wiggle when you look out the window. It’s as if they follow every object that flies by.”

“They do.”

“What?”

“They do.” John took his matter of fact newscaster tone again. “My eyes follow everything that travels past this window. They adjust themselves to the speed of the object.”

“You mean nothing is blurred?”

“Nothing I decide to focus on. You’d be surprised what you see when each object holds its proper place and isn’t blurred with the others. If you saw your world clearly, you wouldn’t believe some of the things that exist. You don’t realize how much of your life is passed in a blur.”

“You mean that there are things that move so fast that I can’t see them?”

“I know it’s not that simple. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to satisfy myself with an explanation. I just know that I can see things that you can’t see.”

“How do you know?” Robin was defensive again. His eyesight and his powers of observation were both things that people complimented him on.

“If you could see everything that I could see, then you would’ve shit in your pants yesterday in Paris.”

“Why? And what would I have seen? The blob?” smiling protectively.

“No, but you would’ve seen a snake fit for a Japanese monster film.”

Robin laughed.

John didn’t smile. He didn’t mention that he wasn’t joking either. He sat silently and tried not to betray any emotions which could tell Robin if he was joking or not. Robin decided on his own that it was a joke.

John’s eyes drifted back to the window and Robin was hypnotized by their movement for a little while. He couldn’t help following John’s eyes. His dark brown irises and placid pupils had the gravitational pull of black holes, especially because of their background of light – almost white – hair. This too must have been a contributing factor in that initial attraction between them in Paris on the previous morning. (It’s that simple, Robin tried to tell himself calmly.) He attempted to follow some objects on the ground without letting them blur, but he easily became a captive of his eyes and their attention focused on the tracks which ran parallel to his train. To Robin, it seemed that the track moved along with the train, because the track stayed visually constant as the grey gravel below it was blurred into obscurity. If he could keep the gravel from blurring, he would’ve had a different view of the situation. He would do away with the optical illusion of a moving track and he would have simply seen a stationary track above stationary gravel and ties. He tried to do this but it gave him a headache and his eyes were ordered to retreat back into the tranquility of the compartment.

***

Artie woke up early and content as he watched the town of Martigny silently coming to life down below. John woke up a little later. He always woke up late. They ate some bread for breakfast as they rolled up their tent and sleeping bags. After lying back on some leaves for a little while, smoking tobacco and marijuana, they walked  up a little slope to a heavily travelled, switchbacked roadway. They decided, after a little debate, to head for Mont Blanc and the French Alps instead of hiking farther into Switzerland. At this place in Switzerland they were actually closer to the large French Alps; and Mont Blanc was the largest mountain in Europe.

They were surprised to get a ride so quickly. When they reached the roadway, Artie sat down next to the packs and John stood up and stuck his thumb out. It was a system they worked out so neither one of them would get too tired. They didn’t even have to switch places once before an old dark green Citroën stopped on the narrow shoulder. They had to carry their packs on their laps, but they quickly travelled over the crest of the hill and saw some large snow-capped peaks in the distance. John grew visibly excited as the massive base of Mont Blanc came into view. The driver was going all the way to the mountains but John asked him to stop beside a field which was high in the hills and had a perfect view of Mont Blanc across a small valley. John hopped out of the car before it even came to a complete stop and dragged his pack out behind him. Artie didn’t hesitate a second as he followed. The young couple in the front seat smiled at their passengers and tried not to laugh at their thanks of, “Mercy! Mercy!”

The two travellers sat down on a soft grassy spot. The only people they could see who weren’t encased in cars were a couple of people who were practicing their rock-climbing techniques on a large flat-faced rock and someone in the distance with a small rucksack who seemed to be hiking goallessly up a barren trail.

John was totally awed by Mont Blanc in the distance. It was completely covered by a giant glacier. He had seen millions of snow-capped Rockies and Sierras. Even the mountains behind his house became covered with snow in the winter. Maybe he was awed by the fact that he was sitting in the warm sun looking at the gleaming snow, or maybe it was just the fact that he was on a strange continent. He had never been any farther from his home than Colorado or Baja California before this.

Artie suggested that they hike towards the snow. John agreed enthusiastically and they started down the road. The snow left their field of vision a few times as smaller hills rose between them and their objective. When they couldn’t see it for long periods, John seemed to get a little edgy. They stopped a few times at wide spots on the road where their view of the glacier remained unobstructed. That tended to settle John down. By noon their walk seemed more than half finished and they stopped to eat lunch. The traffic was heavier by noon too. It was a clear Saturday afternoon and tourists were converging on Chamonix and the glacier from all directions. A lot of them were anxious to ride to the top of Mont Blanc on the cable car and some of them just stopped their cars for a picnic in the mountains.

John closed his eyes for a few minutes – face up into the sun – after they finished their ham sandwiches and canteen water. He was perfectly at peace with himself as he propped his head up against his down sleeping bag and crossed his feet at the ankles and balanced them on a small rock six feet away. Artie felt a slight surge of contempt – jealousy – for his friend who enjoyed his food and sleep so completely and innocently.

***

Robin was humming an old love song to himself now. He did this a lot without even thinking about it. He hummed a tune to himself silently. Something in the depths of his throat vibrated the melody of the song and the whole lower part of his face became bathed in the warmth of that melody. When he rode on a train he hummed almost audibly because the train grumblings and beats masked his humming from the other passengers. When, like now, he hummed a sad love song to himself, he found his mind drifting toward Anne, in her idealized form, and his immediate surroundings adopted the gloom of his mood.

The whole compartment just faded into a fog as he found himself humming an old Joni Mitchell song. He imagined scenes of Ed and Anne in bed together and the compartment disappeared. The humming became loud enough for the woman beside him and the child on her lap to hear him. He looked down, saw the child smiling, and he became embarrassed. He didn’t even realize that he was humming because he did it so often. He didn’t know why the child was smiling, but he took all smiles from strangers as threats. He looked up and across the compartment and he saw a little girl sitting diagonally across from him near the door. He didn’t realize that he was staring at her until she turned towards him. His eyes retreated out the window and rested on a white barn with the word CINZANO printed on the side of it in red and blue.

“Rob?” John’s voice woke him from his thoughts.

“Yeah?”

“What time is it?”

“Oh…it’s only about eleven.” Robin was surprised by the time. He was sure that they’d been on this train for a lot longer than two hours.

“So we have four more hours left?”

“If this schedule’s right.”

Robin saw that John was drifting back into his own world, and Robin didn’t want to be left alone in his, so he tried to strike up a conversation.

“This weather’s ridiculous.” John didn’t respond and Robin followed up immediately on his observation. “It must be ninety degrees today but I was in Paris on July 4th and I remember I was freezing. I was actually wishing that I had a coat with me.”

“Yeah, guess it must be strange to go through changes like that. Me, I was just sweating my balls off all summer. Little change.”

John’s movements and facial expressions still didn’t show the slightest interest in the direction of the conversation, so Robin decided to try a trick. He had noticed that John was able to talk to the farmer in McDonald’s the day before just because he latched onto a subject that he knew the farmer would be interested in. Robin thought for a couple of seconds before blurting out a question.

“What kind of work do you do?”

The question flew from Robin’s mouth with more feeling than he had intended. He wanted to start a casual conversation, but it sounded more like a pleading for an end to the silence. John realized how Robin felt before the question was even vocalized and he answered softly.

“I work at building surfboards right now. A friend of mine and I started the business last summer. This summer we sold about 25 boards. We didn’t make very much money, just enough to keep us eating and keep the business going.”

The steady rhythms of John’s voice were keeping Robin from getting depressed. Robin wasn’t interested in surfing or surfboard building, but he knew that he had to keep the conversation alive to keep his mind off his depression.

“Does a lot of work go into building a surfboard.”

John answered with pride about the hours he spent shaping boards of his own design and how his friend Bryan colored them and finished them. John was surprised that they managed to finish 25 considering the time they spent on each one.

The tone with which John spoke of his work impressed Robin unbelievably. He still wasn’t interested in the particulars of shaping a surfboard, but John seemed to speak with the same pride with which Robin’s professors would speak of their new pet research projects. He spoke with a pride that Robin had considered the sole property of professionals and intellectuals and their work.

John drifted back to his window, but now, more than ever, Robin wanted their conversation to continue. He thought of a slew of questions which stood a good chance of being answered.

“What did you do before you got yourself involved in surfboard building?”

“Well, I built my first board when I was a junior in high school, so I’ve been involved in that for a little…”

“No, I mean what did you do for a living when you first left school?” Robin wanted to stoke their conversation with some fuel other than the foam and resin of surfboards.

“Why should I talk about them when they’re just a means of feeding myself? We might as well talk about how I hold my fork, because they’re both just steps toward eating. My heart didn’t live in those construction sites and factories that I worked in. I was doing someone else’s work there. The interesting part of my life began when I came home and read or did work with my hands or fooled around with my guitar or my friends.” John was growing more animated as he continued, and Robin was pleased with the track that the conversation had slipped onto.

“What kind of things did you read?”

“Different things. When I first got out of school I read anything I could get my hands on, mostly novels. A lot of existentialism. I’ve gone through a lot of stages though. I went through one long stretch where I read nothing but popular psychology texts. I quit that after I came to the conclusion that everyone I knew, including myself, was schizophrenic…Lately I read a lot of – I guess you’d call it fantasy. You know, stuff like Tolkien’s trilogy and Alice in Wonderland. I can get totally lost in those books. I also read a lot of books with plain factual information. I read things on crafts like building musical instruments and furniture. Craftsmen with polished skills amaze me almost as much as fantastic characters…I even read some on aerodynamics to help me with my board shaping. My father was an aerodynamic engineer y’know.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yeah, but he was a fool. Spent all his education so he could be good at one thing, building jets for the Air Force.” John saddened when he spoke of his father.

Robin didn’t know John’s father, and his political convictions told him that building government jets was wrong; he felt like defending the man though. “It’s good to be committed to something. I know that I have a goal in my studies. I want to be a professor of history. Maybe I’ll only end up teaching high school kids, but I’ll still be working in a field that interests me.”

“And what’ll you do after a hard day of teaching history?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what are your other interests? Or are you going to spend your evenings writing journal articles and grading papers like a million other history professors?”

“I don’t know. That’s all in my future.” Robin felt justified in adopting a defensive stance and tone of voice.

John’s eyes dropped a notch and his voice softened proportionally. “I don’t mean to attack you, but it’s just that I imagine my father must have been a lot like you when he was in school – determined to reach a goal…full of fear for his future security.”

(“Aren’t you full of fear too? Fear of being secure in the wrong thing? Afraid of commitment?”) For some reason, Robin didn’t say that; he thought it. He did say, “It’s great to have a goal though. My studies have a direction and purpose for me. If you had a goal while you were in school, you’d still be there.”

“I don’t want to brag, but I think that my life is fuller without a specialization – without what you call direction. I make a point of trying everything that I’m capable of. My only ‘goal’ is to do and learn as much as I can in my lifetime…Everyone has to be a Renaissance man and everything a person attempts has to be approached with the fervor of rebirth. When you can say that you’ve grasped every opportunity that’s crossed your path, then you can die content – with no regrets about those future opportunities which death steals. Do you know how my old man died?” John’s stare drew the strength from Robin’s eyes and his voice became even softer and more dramatic.

Because he didn’t like to talk (or think) about death, Robin remained silent. This was more than just a general question about death too. John had already compared his father to Robin, and by talking about his father’s death he made implications about Robin’s death. Robin grew uncomfortable as John paused and prepared to answer his own question.

“You know the doctors have their opinion. They always have an objective reason of one sort or another. They say that my father died of his stomach and liver problems. You want to know what he really died of?”

The pose that John assumed as he leaned towards Robin was almost menacing, but his voice was still soft and deep. Robin remained silent.

“I know his job killed him. His beloved ‘career.’ Not openly of course, but his job and the modern conveniences that it won for him bored my father into overeating and drinking.” John paused for effect once more.

“My father died of boredom.”

Back in 2017

Here’s another chapter where I can freely admit (as if the reader can’t already see) that John and Robin are schematic halves of one author. I wrote this while taking a year off from school between my sophomore and junior years. Part of me was thinking of an academic career in history and part of me was seriously thinking about becoming a craftsman. I wasn’t going to build surfboards, but I was a guitarist and was very interested in building musical instruments; I had thought about contacting Martin Guitars when I returned to the States to see if they had apprenticeships. I ended up following neither option. I went back to school with no clear path, taking courses I was interested in, without much thought to practical application. I worked as a painter, in a hotel, and a bookstore when I first graduated. After a couple of years working at the Strand, I went back to school at Columbia with a fellowship to study history. I realized after a month that graduate school was going to be too restrictive for me, so I quit, answered a want ad in The New York Times, and got an entry-level publishing job that I thought would be good for a few months, or maybe a year.  It was with a small company bought by a larger company that I’ll probably retire from in the next few years after having worked there close to forty years. Planning? In my personal experience I’ve found that it’s overrated.

 

Chapter 2.3 has finally (Oct. 12, 2017) been retyped and posted here.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Myself in Exile (2.1)

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 retype the paper copy of my 1970’s novel Exile in serial form, posting chapters as soon as I get them onto a computer. The eleventh chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the first chapter in Part Two.

We’re finally leaving Paris and Part One of this three part manuscript. In real life on August 16, 1975, I was heading from Paris to Geneva just like Robin and John. Digging through old journals and documents I see that I was traveling alone, and my two-month Student Railpass had expired two days earlier.

PART TWO

1

 

Robin and John caught their train without any trouble. They got to the Gare de Lyon at 8:30 even though their train didn’t leave till a little after nine. John seemed angry, because he had been awakened so abruptly just to sit in a train station. Rob didn’t want to take any chances though. He was early for everything.

They hopped into a compartment as soon as the train pulled onto its track. They sat in window seats across from each other after arranging their packs in the luggage racks above their heads. They fell into an early morning tired silence. John closed his eyes for a few minutes and tried (unsuccessfully) to fall back into his dream. Robin was looking down at the platform outside his window and staring blankly at the people walking past. He thought that he and John might be the only people in their compartment as the clock above the crowds of people neared nine.

Just as Robin was certain that they were going to be left alone, a family of five walked in and piled their suitcases next to Robin’s old canvas bag. Rob simply nodded his head in greeting, because he didn’t know what language they spoke. They had very dark skin but their features weren’t African. He thought they were Turkish or something until he read a baggage claim on one of the suitcases which read Royal Air Maroc. Robin hadn’t met any real Moroccans before. He only knew the Morocco of songs and Casablanca.

Robin trained his eyes from the suitcases back to John as the train lurched forward in the beginning of its trip to Geneva. John’s eyes were opened by the movement.

“Only ten seconds late.”

“Huh?” John wasn’t quite awake yet.

“Oh…I was just saying that the train was ten seconds late. We were supposed to leave at 9:05 and we left at ten seconds after 9:05 according to that clock out there.”

“Oh good.” John’s voice didn’t contain any enthusiasm. He was still tired and he was always especially unimpressed by punctuality. “What time are we supposed to get to Geneva?”

“I don’t know. Wait a second. I’ll check my schedule.”

As Robin stumbled out of his seat and rummaged through his pack, John took his first careful look around the compartment. The French National Railroad put black and white pictures of different French scenes in all the cars to encourage more travel. The little Moroccan girl siting near the door had a Loire Valley château above her head. Her brother, sitting across from her, was under a fountain at Versailles. A picture of the Mont Blanc glacier was hung above the seat where Robin had been sitting. John himself was sitting under a picture of some modern hotels or apartments in Nice. He found himself wondering what he’d be doing if he were in any of these places. He decided for himself that Mont Blanc and the Alps were definitely the most appealing choice offered by the photographs. That was why he was headed in that direction. He was glad that…

“I found the schedule.” Robin’s statement broke off John’s train of thought. “We should be getting to Geneva at 15:07 according to this.”

“That’s 3:00?”

Robin nodded.

“Great. I won’t have any trouble getting a train into the Alps at that time in the afternoon.” John visibly shook off his grogginess with the news.

“You’re welcome to stay with my friend in Geneva if you want to start for the mountains fresh in the morning. I’m sure she has enough floor space for two sleeping bags.” Rob didn’t really want to spend another night with John, but he had already made this offer once, so he decided to repeat it out of courtesy and hope for a refusal.

“No, I guess you misunderstood. It’s not that I’m worried about imposing on you and your friend. It’s just that I want to get to the mountains as quickly as I can.”

Rob breathed a sigh of relief.

***

John stretched back onto his sleeping bag and turned his head towards Artie, who was starting up his propane stove. After seeing that Artie was busy, he looked down toward the valley below them. He was in Europe for the first time and it wasn’t’ quite what he expected (though he wasn’t sure what he expected). He and Artie set up their tent in a mountain above the town of Martigny in southern Switzerland. It was dark and clear now and the headlights and streetlights far below stretched out in straight lines for miles. The flat regimented valley surrounded by mountains reminded him an awful lot of California.

“Hey Art, can’t you imagine that we’re in the beginning of the Sierras up above Fresno or something? Look at how flat that valley is.”

“I know. I was thinking the same thing while you were sleeping.”

They knew each other’s thoughts pretty well. They camped together. They camped together for three years while they were in the scouts and neither one of them had any idea of how many weekends they just umped into Artie’s van and decided to take to the mountains in the years since then. In the last few months before this trip, Sue had come along too. Her love was the high point of John’s first year at U.C. She lived in a valley a lot like the one which lay below him now; she never seemed trapped there like most of the people. She chose to live there, and live is what she did. No one could find her hedonism reprehensible. John tried to learn from her. The easy flow of her desires and actions led most people to see them as natural. John liked the way she didn’t take shit from anyone, but she didn’t take shit from him either. He was too selfish and possessive in his love for her and she dropped him in that same way that he had dropped Caroline. This was a new experience for John. He had met girls who refused him and he had girlfriends who broke up with him. He had never run into a woman strong enough to hurt him. He didn’t let her – or anyone else – know that she meant so much to him. He planned this big trip with Artie as though she meant nothing to him.

He wasn’t thinking of her now. He wasn’t thinking of much at all. They had landed in Luxembourg two mornings before and their hitchhiking had finally taken them to the beginnings of the Alps. It was good to be in a settled camp after those endless short rides from one farm town to the next. They’d spent the night before in a youth hostel in Montreux along Lake Geneva, but the high mountains were just a little too far away and it was raining. When they finally got as far as Martigny it was almost dark, so they started hiking up a switchbacked road into the hills. They found a little clearing where they weren’t too conspicuous and they started setting up camp. John fell right to sleep and woke up to see Artie lighting his blue propane flame and opening a packet of dried soup.

“Do you like mushrooms?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“This is the only soup we have and I thought it’d be good for this cold weather.”

“D’you think we could sprinkle some grass on it?”

“Okay…You know, I still think you’re crazy for bringing that along with you. They could stop us and find that at any border. Bringing that acid was absolutely insane. They’d probably lock us up for life if they found that.”

Back in 2017

One of the things I like about a found manuscript is that there’s no chance of anachronisms inadvertently finding their way into the text. The language (not just English, but every language) has changed so much since 1975, so there’s no danger of referring to the ‘internet’ or ‘software’ or ‘yuppies’ or ‘gentrification’ or to a telephone that isn’t firmly wired to a building, or a microwave oven, cable television, or a VCR. Over the past two weeks I’ve been religiously watching the PBS broadcast of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s brilliant The Vietnam War which will end in the 1970s, and last weekend I saw Battle of the Sexes about Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King’s epic 1973 battle in which the production designers obviously worked hard to get all the period details right. If I have one quibble with the Vietnam documentary, it’s that the music, which is perfect, seems a little too perfect in evoking the late 1960s and early 1970s. If I have one problem with the production design of the the tennis movie, it’s that the details never allow us to forget that it’s 1973. My last novel, Fire Answers Fire, took place partly in 1937 and I was always aware that I might be using a word or phrase that hadn’t been invented yet. I’m sure that some may have slipped through there, but I’m confident that everything in Exile is, if nothing else, certifiably authentic 1975.

 

The next chapter (2.2) was just posted on September 29.

 

The Quote & Question of the Day About Writing

I stumbled on the short Penguin Lives biography of James Joyce by Edna O’Brien (1999) at the library last week and I’ve been reading it with pleasure, but one question (and answer) jumped off the page at me in this morning’s reading on the train. It’s a question that’s bothered me on and off since I started writing fiction over 40 years ago. Edna O’Brien’s instant answer to her own question disturbed me, and I thought I’d share it here with other writers.

After Joyce’s son Giorgio is paraphrased about preferring to have been born the “son of a butcher” than a famous author, she writes…

Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do. It is a paradox that while wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict. There can be no outer responsibility, no interruptions, only the ongoing inner drone, rhythmic, insistent, struggling to make a living moment of both beauty and austerity. For Joyce, people were becoming more remote and would eventually be specters.  (p.129)

I don’t believe that writers need to become Ahab-like monomaniacal monsters in service of their art, but maybe I’m wrong. Edna O’Brien obviously has more writing experience than I do. Anyone else have a comment on this?

[By the way, I did not, and would never, deface a library book with yellow highlighter. It’s only a digital effect.]