Charles Fenwick recently graduated with a degree in anthropology. His research paper was developed from inquiries with ‘Boomers’ with particular focus on what they remember doing during the memorable ‘60s. When Fenwick finishes his master’s thesis, described as an attempt to fashion a 'grand, unified theory' of the 1960's, he promises to make it available here.
Although most of the interviews were conducted in the area, none was with people from our town, and Fenwick assures me that any resemblance to events or experiences enjoyed or endured by local Boomers is purely coincidental.
Ralph’s New Year
“The ‘60s? Well, dunno, guess I haven’t thought about it for a while. I mean, why do you ask?”
I explained the paper on the 60s I was doing for a college assignment, and no offense, but he seemed to be about the right age to ask, Sir.
“I’m probably not one to ask; I survived.” His name was Ralph, his age was to just this side of social security, but he had kept fit, had hardly any gray, and still the devilish gleam in his eye, probably planted there before Nixon. “Okay, that’s not funny,” Ralph admitted. He was busy repairing a hole in the ceiling of a porch in front of one of the businesses in town when I interrupted him. “Close to lunch,” he explained to some hidden auditor as he descended the stepladder. He unbuckled his tool belt. “Hmm, wow, the ‘60s,” he mused to himself. He picked up a knapsack and pulled out a thermos and a baggie with a sandwich, and we both sat on the steps. It was January, but it must have been fifty degrees and the sun landed right on us. He thought, maybe rummaged, while sorting his fare, and something caused him to twist his lips like he wanted to smile. “Yeah, it was so long ago I guess there’s no harm,” he decided.
“I got it I my head about ’67 or eight I was going to be a tv writer, you know, write a Star Trek or something, even had a script, and my uncle Willy lived in L.A. and he had some success at that, and he said ‘Come on out.’ I didn’t have much to pack up, and I had a girl then, and you won’t believe it, but in those days girls, — even girls that mattered — didn’t care if you had much or not; isn’t that kind of funny now? Sweet girl, she was. Dark. Dark eyes. Had a real sweet smile, and a laugh that peeled off the frustration. Yeah, I know, everybody thinks it was all peace and love, but there was frustration, too, or where the hell did I get an idea to go to L.A. to learn to write tv shows? Sierra was her name. Ain’t that a great name? Couldn’t tell you if it was the one she was born with, but it was the only one I knew her by. Came out of New York. Think her family moved there from Missouri or some place. Great grandfather was a brewer, but her grandmother spent most of the money and now her mother was down to a crappy million or so. And Sierra had a ton of brothers.
“Sierra and me were either real great or real mean to each other. There were times I almost hugged and kissed her to death and then times I’d tell her to go to hell. Man, romance was like snookers then, kids — hey, plenty of grownups too — bouncing off each other, and you could do that and not be afraid of being unusual. But Sierra was no violet, if I told her to go to hell she’d go sack with some guy, so it was hell, all right, it was hell for me. Well, that was what was where it was at between us when I bought the used pickup and told Sierra I was going to L.A.”
Ralph removed the sandwich from the plastic baggie, and poured a cup of coffee from his thermos, took a bite, a sip, a bite and a sip and then continued.
“Nothing new I can tell you about L.A. Only thing I can say is I bet it hasn’t changed a bit all these years. Except I bet it’s even colder now. Man, what a cold, cold town. Coldest in America. Been there? Well, then you know.
“After a couple of months I figured out I wasn’t writing no Star Treks. That was the easiest lesson about the trip — L.A., man, what a frigid town. Back then they used to say everything started in California and moved east, and I remember thinking, ‘no, really?’ It wasn’t a settling idea, man. It wasn’t all peace and love, believe me. Uncle Willy had this old doll; she was forty or something, Lucy? I think so. Lacy? Could have been Lacy. I suppose now I’d think she was okay, but at the time she looked a hundred years old, but she didn’t act that way toward me, and I guess uncle Willy did some romping around to help make her act that way — like I just said about everybody bouncing around. Anyway, after about two months I gave up Star Trek, it was right before New Year’s — oh yeah, it had to be ’68 because I got there the November Nixon got elected — and it was after Christmas when I decided to get out. Cold town, man. I didn’t have a girl the whole time I was there. Whoa, you’re taping this? What an embarrassment. Well, it’s the truth, I didn’t. I had even less to pack up when it was time to leave, I think I borrowed a few bucks from uncle Willy, you know, gas, just gas, man, I don’t think I’ve ever slept in a motel.
“Anyway, before I left I knew as soon as I hit the high desert it would get frigid, and get even worse going east from the Rockies, and sleeping in the truck wouldn’t be an option, so I went down to the UCLA bulletin board and see if somebody wanted to share driving and gas to New York, you know, just keep moving.” Ralph made a silly smile. “Well, guess what? There was.”
Bite, sip. Bite, sip.
“I called the number and this chick comes to the phone, her name was Cathy, and says yeah, she trying to get to New York, and she’d share gas and the driving. I asked her if she could drive a standard shift, and she said she’d driven a Carmen Ghia, which meant nothing to me, but it sounded like something with a standard. So we set up a time and place to meet.
“Ha, well, what a surprise, I mean you’d expect a dog, right? But man, Cathy — did I say that was her name? — was one nice looking chick, she was eighteen or so, freshman I guess, not exactly blonde, sort of close, very tan, and freakin’ green eyes, and that kind of body that made you wish there was no civilization to stop you, well, you get the idea. And what is she reading? I swear, man, she’s reading The Art of Loving. She gets into the truck and we’re not ten miles down the road and already out of stuff to talk about, and she pulled out that book. I never read it. Somebody once told me it isn’t what you think, very professorial or something.
“I was reckless then, and better than that, lucky, not afraid of anything, including the weather, and I steered us right to Vegas. That part of the trip I expected no problems, even though there weren’t those four lanes you have now. Vegas was a man’s town then, it was like Hugh Hefner in neon, not that I had money to be a man in a man’s town, but the casinos sold you a steak dinner, and I mean a nice steak dinner and a glass of brandy, for a lousy two bucks, and if you avoided the slots on the way out you really beat the house. So we ate good, and I think Cathy sort of appreciated my worldliness, and I told her, ‘Shucks, I found that out when I came through on my way to L.A.’”
Ralph reflected for a moment, and said, “Something you kids will never know is the time when the whole damn country wasn’t a food court. You never saw a McDonald’s once you left L.A. You never saw any of that crap. The highways were still pretty new, too. That’s something that did come east out of L.A., the malls and food courts and that crap. Yeah, and Reagan.
“From Vegas I drove us through Utah and into the mountains, over Loveland Pass, just about killed the truck, but you couldn’t kill a Chevy in those days. Did I mention it was a Chevy? Anyway, I had driven thirty hours or so, it was dark again, and coming out of Golden, Colorado it was nothing but plains from there to Pennsylvania, and I pulled the truck over, and woke up Cathy and said it was her turn. Hey, no prob, she said. She was totally alive in one second. Maybe she was Buddhist; I hear Buddhists jump right out of bed. Anyway, I got out of the truck and walked around to her side, and she scooted over to the wheel, and I opened the passenger door, man, I was headed for the crash of all crashes, my lids were heavy as that hammer over there, and there was a wind, a wind, man, cold as ice. I opened the door, and Cathy’s got both hands on the wheel and she’s looking at the floor, and she asks, ‘How come you’ve got two brake pedals?’”
Ralph stopped and looked at me, and interjected, “Thing is, man, I could have been vengeful, you know? I could have steered us right to the nearest motel, and we barely had money so we’d have to share a room…” He let the thought go.
“It was a good thing I didn’t, ‘cause you know, it’s the unusual things that stick. And the thing was — you’re going to think I’m nuts because Cathy, Cathy, man, was one nice looking chick — all I thought about the whole time I had been driving was Sierra, and getting to Sierra’s house, and just feeling her wrap. I never missed or wanted someone so bad, and every mile we got closer to Sierra my fingers started burning on the wheel. Guess that explains the thirty hours. I don’t want to get dirty about any of this, but the thing is, man, Sierra just took you, all of you, we’re just bastards, you know, all of us, but she took it all like it was gold. So anyway, Cathy learned how to drive a shift.”
Ralph laughed. “’Foot on clutch.’ Then I put the gear in first. ‘Foot slowly off clutch, other foot gently on gas.’ Jerk jerk jerk, but she got it moving, and I said, ‘Foot off gas, left foot on clutch,’ and I shifted it into second.” Ralph had gotten to his feet to make the demonstration, he repeated the same silly smile made before, and almost as quickly as he had risen he sat down. “Well, so like that, we finally got it into third, and she drove okay. Like I said, the highways were new, and they were four lanes now, and I fell asleep. And man, I was out. It seemed like five minutes before we were somewhere in Kansas, and Cathy said, ‘Ralph, I think we need to stop for gas.’ I was sleepy, man, I rose from the dead, and told her to slow down and managed to say, ‘Foot off gas, right foot on brake, left foot on clutch,’ and I shifted it down to second, and we got off the highway and crawled to this gas station, and stalled at the pump, and I gassed her up, and got back in, and then it was ‘Foot on clutch…’ you get the picture.”
Ralph took a gulp of coffee, smiled. “Chicks liked being taught a manly thing. I think she enjoyed the idea of chowing in a gambling den more than she enjoyed the steak dinner we had in Vegas. Not that driving a truck is really so manly, but if she never done it, never even thought about doing it, then finding out there ain’t so much to doing manly things, or at least thinking so… all I can tell you is Cathy had this face of real determination, and especially after she got it into third all by herself, she had a real eager, intense look at the highway as we entered it from the ramp, she looked like a real accomplishment, I mean, what an expression. I should have stayed awake.
“She got us east of Kansas City, and that time after we gassed up and I took over. I could see she was tired. Some people hate quitting; she was one. You know the type; next morning they’re dead and still holding the glass in their hand. But I wasn’t two miles down the road when she conked. Hard. Out like a light. And you know what? She fell asleep with her head on my lap. It didn’t start that way. She started out leaned back in the seat, and sort of weaved right and then she veered left and her head went right down on my lap, and her right hand rested on my knee, and she was out. I was maybe four or five years older than her. Can’t explain it. Never had daughters. All I know is I never had such a good-looking chick so close to me, not to mention asleep on my lap, and it not get me fusty, if you know what I mean.
“I drove and drove, my fingers were on fire again, it was like Sierra had torched the whole east and the closer I got the hotter I felt. I don’t need to tell you. This kind of lust hits you kids every five seconds. But when you’re driving toward it, and you know it’s there, it’s ten times worse. I had thoughts about Sierra and about being with her and about stuff you can hear from any jerk on the subject, I mean, just go to the book on the lowest bookshelf; it’s all there.”
Ralph laughed like more words on the subject would be indiscreet, silence would have been even more significant, so he laughed.
“Well, after about five hundred miles of this — Indiana? — I had worked myself into practically a hallucination over Sierra, you know Buddhists, they’re always talking about the One. Well man, I was at One.
“And it was all just pouring out of my — oh, you’re taping this? — man, this Sierra hallucination clouded up the windows. And suddenly, and don’t ask me how or why, but suddenly I realized that all this, um, love was pouring from me right into Cathy’s head. Her head was right on my lap. Man, I had been breathing in my nose and blowing out what you can’t imagine right into Cathy’s head for five hundred miles. I can’t describe the moment. It’s funny, because I’ve thought about it a lot over the years… Oh screw it, we call them quarks and muons because what the hell else can you call them, but quarks and muons? “
The same laugh.
“Our deal was I’d get her this far and show her the bus to New York, and that Chevy dragged us here the first hour New Year’s Day. I had that shack at the end of Smith’s Road — the road was sparse back then — the pipes had been drained and the heat turned off. I don’t know if Cathy ever saw a real winter before, but if she did she didn’t let on, I mean she looked like she was in the middle of a glacier. I didn’t care. There were plenty of blankets; I just wanted to get the hell out and over to Sierra’s. Crazy, right? I’m telling you, Cathy was one nice looking chick, she didn’t have a real winter coat, she stood there with her hands bunched into the pockets of her little, thin jacket, which made the coat tight around her figure; man, she was nice.”
Ralph calmed himself down with a bite and coffee.
“So I lit the heater, a real pain-in-the-ass kerosene stove, had to put a candle under the valve to free it up, man, it took forever, and of course, even after firing up it took a while longer for the thing to begin to barely heat the place, it took so long that you even wondered if it ever would, and Cathy puts her arms around me, and it was a nice appreciation.
“But I couldn’t, the same way I had thought Lacy was a hundred years old, Cathy looked ten to me, and I really got down on myself for all that stuff I’d put into her head already; I don’t know, man. It was just weird…” As if an idea occurred for the first time, Ralph paused and then said, “Funny, maybe she was just afraid of being alone at the end of Smith’s Road. I can understand that.” He thought a little more, and then continued. “So it finally warmed up, and I lied and told her I’d be right back.
“You never saw a Chevy get so fast to Sierra’s. About four miles. I’ve seen people have seizures; nothing like what I was having. Just as I pulled into her driveway I saw a guy, a guy I had seen around town, at her door. She was right behind him, she was wearing a nightgown, and I knew all about these threshold departures, when the guy leaves in the middle of the night, I know what that’s all about. But he was giving her the gentlemanly goodbye kiss best he could, when my headlights distracted them. I guess that gave him the excuse for getting out of there even faster than he planned or hoped for, and he jumped in his car and fired it up and split out of there before I was out of gear with the ignition off.
“I got out and Sierra saw it was me. She’s embarrassed because she’d just been with this guy, and I’m embarrassed because I don’t care.” Ralph gave me a purposeful look. “It wasn’t all peace and love, but there was love, and you make sure to record all its dimensions.” He then hesitated before continuing.
“Listen man, just go to the low shelf. All I’ll say is she was too embarrassed to have coitus, and it didn’t matter to me, because she read me perfectly, and I was on my back in a minute.”
Ralph looked off into space, not pleased or unpleased by the simple answer to one plus one.
“The next morning I drove over to take Cathy to the bus, you know, the shack was three miles from the highway. The place was warm, in fact it was a furnace, and she was gone. Must have been gone for a while because I didn’t see her on the road coming up. Her knapsack was gone. The only clue she had been there was the fifty blankets scattered on the bed. And I saw something poking out from under one, and went to look, and I never read the damn thing, but I’ve still got it some where; The Art Of Loving.
“All the good that done me,” Ralph laughed, and then fetched his tool belt. “Hope that helps,” he said, eying my recorder.
I said “Happy New Year,” because you do until the fifteenth or so.
Sophie’s Valentine’s Day
Sophie embellished her admission; “A hooker. A call girl. A whore. Call it what you want, I was young and delicious and made a living renting out the fruit.” She gave me a sympathetic look; I guess I looked incredulous; she was after all touching sixty.
I met Sophie when auditing a local writers’ group. I had heard it was populated with Boomers, and I was nosing around for a memory to include in my college research paper. There was the instructor and seven writers, all around Sophie’s age, and those who weren’t writing about their cats seemed to stray into political thickets covering old quarrels. At least I by that point had heard enough about Nixon.
Sophie was the only one in the group working on a movie script. Her story told of a young woman turning tricks from her trailer parked in some vague location, if I had to guess, some place like ours. Sophie appeared very concentrated and transported when reading aloud from her latest progress, and I guess I had asked too many probing questions while we walked from the private residence that hosted the group to our cars, and that’s when she suddenly hit me with her secret that back in the late ‘60s she had prostituted herself. And it was a secret. “Don’t you ever, ever tell anyone,” she said after her sympathy had resolved into shock at her sudden burst of truth telling. I assured her I would heavily disguise the source — and I have. The 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival had just passed, and there were thousands of Then and Now pictures of Boomers in the media, and because I had studied them carefully it was easy for me to appreciate how pretty Sophie was; I thought as we talked now that she looked nicely put together; she was trim and shapely and she had soft, expressive eyes that help a woman of any age. She stopped at her car, a very nice car, and instead of opening the door she leaned against it and looked up between the tree branches at the night and seemed ready to pull from the limbs a memory.
“I’ve been married for almost thirty-five years,” she prefaced. “I’ve got kids, and I hope to God when my time comes that the last thing I think about is how much I love them and how kind and considerate my husband is, and I hope I think about every Valentine he gave me over the years, and the little presents and flowers that came with them…
“But that’s hoping for a lot,” she concluded. She paused, and made a reckless, maybe wry smile. “I’m not going to tell you about any hooking; it was during a brief period of my life, and I won’t say the money wasn’t important, but I don’t think it was the object…” her eyes looked away from me and she did not finish the thought. “The ‘60s, eh?” She opened her car door, deposited her script, closed the door and again leaned against it.
“There was a boy, and that was the problem, he was just a boy, his name was Jensen — lovely, no? — he was the first boy I loved. I was bragging before; I never felt pretty or ‘delicious,’ although I’d been told many times I am.” She laughed. “Was,” she corrected herself, giving a half wink and a patronizing smile, and then continued. “There is only one really disagreeable father in the world, and it is the bad luck of every daughter to have had him.” She paused, and then continued. “It’s always the father, and mine was a crazy coot, that’s another story, just a crazy, cheap coot, and I guess if my mother hadn’t driven him completely insane I’d think even less charitably of him, but she did. When I was just a little, little kid one morning I got into bed between my parents, he was sleeping, I lay there staring into his face, and I breathed in his face, and he suddenly woke up and made this real disgusted look, like I had just vomited on him, and then he turned the other way. I’ve never thought of him without thinking of that.
“Anyway, Jensen not only told me I was pretty, he made me feel it, too. It made him the most handsome boy on earth.” She laughed. “Feeling pretty is the best drug. Unfortunately, that’s all it is.
“In some ways, maybe most ways, Jensen was like a lot of the kids then, he smoked pot and did some acid, he was always trying to get me to do an acid trip, but I wouldn’t. Scary, you know? But once he talked me into doing mushrooms with him, swore it was mild. It was in October, and you know what it looks like around here in the fall. We went to the woods where the Warren development is now; then it was a big wood lot. It was the only psychedelic I ever did, but it gave me an understanding of just what people got from that stuff. I had known that for some it was like entering a fairy tale, you know, princes and ladies and tassels, and for others it was the Odyssey and for others there was all the Hindu-maya stuff. Me, I just giggled through the whole trip. I just laughed and laughed at everything. I couldn’t tell you what was so funny, but it was.
“The afternoon passed, and it got chilly and a storm was coming up, and we walked to town and went to Jensen’s and got inside just before it started pouring. He had a dumpy, little studio, but when you’re kids you don’t see it like that, although I have to say the mushrooms took off some of the veil for me, maybe him, too, and we both started feeling awkward in his dirty little place, it was dark, too, because of the weather, and he poured us some jug wine, and that helped.” Sophie paused, perhaps to reconnoiter the past she was about to reveal.
“I can’t remember if it was Proust, maybe a lot of writers said it, but anyway somebody said the most natural thing a woman can do is ask to make love, at least it was an excuse to turn the lights out. It wasn’t the first time we did it.
“But this time it was weird and unsatisfying. It’s usually unsatisfying with boys,” she noted, and noticed my feet shuffle, and quickly resumed. “It was probably the mushrooms, and I wasn’t used to the weirdness of it. I tried drinking more wine to shake the feeling; it didn’t help, but I did get a little sloshed.
“I don’t know if the wine took over or if the mushrooms wore off, but I felt capable of walking home, and I definitely wanted to, and I lied and told Jensen my mom wanted me for something — dad was long gone by then — and I left. I don’t know why; I just had to get away.
“I wasn’t five minutes from his house when Tommy Gann, yeah, that’s right, the Tommy Gann pulled up in his Corvette, of course he had the top up, and gave me a big smile and said, ‘Hey sister, it’s raining.’
“Tommy and other guys in the band had already run through every chick in town, Christ, I knew that, I knew exactly what I was doing when I got in his Corvette.” Sophie looked at me. “It must have been the wine,” she explained.
Sophie asked if I minded if she smoked. I didn’t, and quickly she had one fired up. “Don’t tell anybody I smoke,” she said. She gave me a hard look, and asked, “You’re sure you want to know this?” I nodded. She was still unsure. “Christ, it might as well be you,” she finally said, but she didn’t look at me and I don’t think she said it really to me.
“I got pregnant. What a great Thanksgiving that was. I couldn’t tell my mother. And I hadn’t seen Tommy Gann since crawling out of his bed the next morning; he was probably on tour.” Sophie laughed, and noted, “Lucky world,” and a cloud a smoke trailed her words.
“Finally I told Jensen. It could have been his. It probably was; I mean it was only that one time with Tommy. Well, that poor boy… Oh, Jensen tried. But he was too young and it was too complicated. If I told him about Tommy it might have been simpler for him, you know, just go shoot the bastard or break his fingers. But pregnant? Boys just don’t have any idea. None at all. What can I tell you, we were all over the place; have it, don’t have it, marry, don’t marry, and to be very honest, if I had had that child I think I would have named it Tommy, in a weird way it seemed to me more manly to knock a girl up and leave her, just fucking desert her, than all the back and forth crap I got from Jensen.”
Sophie concentrated very hard on the half moon that had appeared from behind a cloud.
“Finally I had to do something. Abortion wasn’t legal yet, that was another year or so, but in New York it was practically legal, and it wasn’t done in back alleys anymore, but they weren’t in clinics yet, either. I got the name of some doctor; he had a second floor operation down in New York off Waverly. It was obviously a converted apartment, sort of flung together. I think it cost something like a hundred bucks. Abortion wasn’t such a big deal like it is now, it was sort of like smoking in the girls’ room.
“I lied to them about how far I was.
“The doctor was young, maybe late twenties, and this will sound stupid, he was really handsome, dark and tall and muscular and very assured, very mature, and I wished I was there for any reason other than getting an abortion; I was just embarrassed. But he was sympathetic, and really not knowing what to expect I felt safe with him.
“I’ll spare you the details.” Sophie gave me a very sharp look, and interjected, “You be careful with the ladies.” She took a long drag off the cigarette, and blew smoke at the half moon.
“By the time he figured out I had lied there was nothing he could do but continue. Even with a mega-dose of Valium it hurt like hell, but what hurt even more was watching him, I mean, he was in hell, he was in real, deep hell, and it took him a long time. When it was finally over he quickly walked out of the room, you could tell it used to be a bedroom, and he sent a nurse in. She straightened me out, and walked me to the ‘recovery room,’ which was just a smaller bedroom. They gave you an hour or so for the Valium to wear off. I asked her to turn the light out. The windows were draped, so when she turned the light out it was very dark. When she left she didn’t close the door completely, which at first I didn’t notice. I’m not sure after how long, but I came out of a trance, and the door had cracked open enough that from my bed I could see out of it and across the hall and right into the doctor’s office.”
Sophie drew on the cigarette and kept her eye on the half moon.
“He was sitting at his desk, and just staring straight ahead, and it was a terrible stare, and I felt really, really awful because I thought I had really injured the man, such a young man — God, I sometimes wonder what happened to him. I stared at him for a long, long time just praying that wherever he was he’d get out of there and be okay again. And God, did I hurt, but my hurt was even more for him. How stupid, but I felt like his mother and that I had carelessly injured him.
“And then a woman appeared. She was pretty, and nicely dressed, and had that smile we have only for people we love. She very quietly came up from behind him, and wrapped her arms over his shoulders, and kissed his neck. And in one hand she had an envelope, a pink envelope, and I heard her say, ‘Happy Valentine’s Day.’”
Sophie took a last drag, tossed the cigarette to the ground and stepped on it, and then looked the way people do when coming out of the subway after a long, sweaty commute. “My script is kind of stupid, don’t you think?” she asked.
I told her when she finished it I would definitely like to read it, and with that we parted.
Tim Bardy’s St Patrick’s Day
“How about a story of St Patrick’s Day; the holiest day of the year? God, if I had the liver for religion now.” Tim Bardy shook his head. Even at sixty or so his eyes conveyed menace, perhaps somewhat dimmed and dieted on light lager. Ready fists and a voice quick to rise had cut his path through the world, so it is said. He had a knot of curly hair, each one a survivor, a hand-to-hand combat between rust and gray. Several hues of paint trapped under his nails tried to hide from my attention, indeed house painting had been his trade all these years, although his youthful ambition had been to be an actor. At first he brushed off my entreaties, but then he scrunched his shoulders and gripped his stein as if preparing for a role.
“It’s not like me to dabble in memory, it has a terrible effect on my presence, such as it is, not what it was, never to be, well, I’ll just pretend it was a dream; at this point is there a difference? The bad ones you try to forget; it’s the good ones that haunt you, there’s always an angel in the good ones, usually one you kicked the teeth out of. Or maybe,” he added after a moment of consideration, “Maybe one you had no business battering up against.
“It was maybe ’67 or ’68, a fine time to be young and 4-F — that’s another story, and not a sad one either — I had a dandy part playing the lead in a local production, for the life of me I can’t remember the name of the show, but it seemed I was a poet or some sensitive thing, and the woman playing opposite — what a cow she was — had the demons, and by a trick, all the playwright’s as I recall, in three acts I brought her to the sensible shores of marriage, or at least a commitment of sorts, marriage was a square thing at the time, falling in love transported you to some fuzzy, botanical glory. That’s what the writers of the time thought, or at least as far with the idea they could get.
“Half way through the run, after I got the paint off my face and changed out of the silly costume, I started out the theater door when, Lord help me, about the prettiest face you can imagine walks up to me. ‘Mr Bardy,’ she says, ‘Thank you for that performance.’
“I believe that was the first time anyone called me ‘Mr Bardy’ and if it were Mary in heaven addressing me such I couldn’t have been more keen to a woman’s eyes, and there was no delay finding out her name was Cynthia, and if you suspect a reason for mentioning Mary in heaven, well, you’re right to, because there are pretty things on the Earth that don’t belong here, and Cynthia was one; I’ll tell you, even when you take away the desire, a woman’s eyes can show a bounty rich beyond the heart’s limits, and she was just such a creature.
“I saw she was smitten with me, I guess you’d call it, but there was the serious problem; she was smitten by The Poet I played. Happens all the time. It’s why actors have such poor reputations, I mean, human after all, just farting, belching louts when the fine words have run their three acts, and he finds himself to the wrong side of the stage lights. I should have told Mary in heaven right then and there she had the wrong impression, but man, if it is true a beautiful woman began a whole war then it’s no less likely Cynthia’s eyes could provoke a lie, and God help me, but I became the sweetest most sensitive man on the planet. A terrible lie, it was.
“Of course, in those days the penicillin and the Pill still reeked with novelty, and the boys and girls were going at it with a sense of impunity; disease and babies — hate to admit it — were identical, miraculously obliterated obstacles, and the question, Why should I, was replaced with the question, Why shouldn’t I, it infected everybody — everybody I ran with — and people feel an obligation to their times. Here is the real thing about the 60’s; you’ve heard it said ‘everything in moderation’ and no doubt are given to the lesson that the key word there is ‘moderation,’ but in the 60’s the key word was ‘everything.’ EVERYTHING in moderation. Get my point? And when you’re 4-F and a dandy actor there was plenty of everything to oblige you, though to be honest all I remember now is the conniving, I couldn’t tell you one moment of joy with a woman, just the conniving and the getting there.”
Tim paused, and to the ceiling said distractedly, “I guess they had to have had bodies, too.”
Tim finished his stein and looked at it as if it were a troubling question, and then called the bartender for a refill.
“After you’ve spent you see the emptiness of the body,” he continued after sampling the refreshed stein. “You understand why God can be so blasé about the flesh, why He permits wars, age, agues and horrible death, because without desire there’s just absolutely no need for the body, it’s a burden, a clump, a palpable reminder of one’s imagination getting the better of them, without desire flesh just becomes an annoying question of what the hell am I doing here? It’s all a body leaves you with, no matter how fetching you believed it, a sort of numbing incomprehension, but of course,” and here Tim cast me a somewhat sneering, sympathetic look, “I needn’t be telling you that.
“Well, there I was bobbing among the Sirens, and this sweet girl, Cynthia I mean, paddles over to me with her sweet eyes and says, ‘I’m guessing an actor seldom gets a home-cooked meal.’
“Now here I should tell you, she was plump. I’d rather tell you I stole an old woman’s purse than admit the superior, dismissive stance I took toward her and her plumpness. I’m not saying ‘fat,’ though nowadays they stick that tag on any woman a size over four — it only means now we have enterprises hoping to cure her — I just mean plump, a few more sixteenths of an inch to her bones. A dimple more in her smile. An undulation across her breast when she laughed. Did I tell you she had a sweet laugh?
“I let her cook me a dinner. Grand of me, no? It was St Patrick’s Day; that was just coincidence, but enough of one that I arrived at her place already in a glow. She had a tidy, little flat, an itty bitty kitchen. She started me out on a couple Raphael’s over ice with flamboyant twists of lemon, then pulled a steaming roast and vegetables from that nick of a kitchen and washed me down with, I swear, Pommard, which, I believe, now costs about half the price of Cameroon and maybe still half as much more. Then came the dessert, my God, a crème brouille that pasted heaven across my palate, served with a generous snifter of Gran Marnier. It’s a thing about the sexes, a man takes a woman to a fine establishment so she can see what a grand fellow he is. The gesture’s nothing compared to a woman feeding a man from her kitchen.”
Tim had a staring contest with his stein, breaking the trance with a swift grab, and then down went half the argument.
“I wasn’t stupid, well, not in the ordinary sense, I knew that the woman had cooked her heart and put it on a plate for me to eat, that she had lost all use for it; her eyes looked at me like I were the whole power and the glory, she laughed at every crack I uttered, any silly story of the theater she listened to like a gospel — my God, man, if it weren’t such an dangerous opiate it’s something every man should have at least once, for one moment, the pure shining love streaming at him from a woman’s eyes. Ha. I can say it now, whatever the hell ‘now’ is. But at the time I was far too clever. The world was too full of possibilities, too full of everything. There were no obstacles. Even the Moon would soon be ours to trample on.
“And you know what? I played with the woman. I toyed with her. I pretended that only tethers of decency kept me from leaping from my chair to smother her bosom with kisses. I said things to make her blush, and smile despite herself. God damn me, man, I waltzed her right to the gate where a man is expected to be a man, to where a woman wants no more than that; be a man, be a man. At which point I seized her hand, kissed it, thanked her for a charming little dinner, exactly what I called it, a ‘charming little dinner,’ put on my coat and left her holding the door.”
Tim had a silent disagreement with the stein.
“Never saw her again. Heard sometime later that she’d gone to Texas, and learned to ride horses, and made a trim, lovely lady of herself. I’ve not made love to a woman since without it being a disappointment. I’d have taken Cynthia with another hundred pounds, just for those eyes, those adoring eyes. Well, happy St Paddies.”
Madge’s May Day
Madge was pink as magnolia blossoms, and if her thoughtless habits added a superfluous seventy pounds to her frame they at least had been considerate enough to distribute them evenly, and old books would describe Madge as roly-poly. She sat at the bar, she wore a loose dress with sleeves reaching a third of the way toward very dimpled elbows, and she drank a concoction called a ‘sloe gin fizz,’ “But put a pizzazz on it,” she instructed the bartender, which was her way of asking that he top it off with a big drop of vodka. Her hair, still a vibrant cascade of curls, was rigorously dyed blonde. She spoke in a volume that intended to be heard, even obeyed; a stranger would think she owned the place.
“Oh, for the love of Pete’s sake,” she exclaimed when I had approached her. “Why don’t you kids go out and make your own damn 60s, and leave ours alone?” But after I persisted and explained the purpose of my inquiry she cast a half suspicious, half sympathetic look, much like the one I had received many times while standing on doorsteps trying to sell magazine subscriptions. “Well, junior, let me think about it.” She then muttered that she had moved several times over the years, and “God knows if the mice ain’t eaten them,” but finally offered I should come the next day — “Come earlier,” she instructed — and maybe she would have something for me.
The next day was gray, almost as gray as a barroom is at eleven o’clock in the morning. Madge was alone, her dress was the same cut but of a different, wildly colorful print. The bartender sulked at the far end like a mortician without a corpse. Madge gripped a half-consumed sloe gin fizz, by her tentative look it may have lacked the ‘pizzazz.’ Beside it on the bar was a small paper bag printed with a logo of a chain store that had gone out of business at least thirty years ago. “Well, for the love of Pete’s sake,” she greeted me with a failed effort toward ebullience. We exchanged a few words, the mortician was profoundly dejected by my order for a soda, and after he had produced it with a perfunctory motion bordering on an obscene gesture, and then left us alone, Madge said to me, “I don’t know if I’m giving a 60s story, or just an old story; I’ll just tell you this is the only one I have left.” She pushed the bag to me. “Go ahead,” she said, in a tone suggesting I was headed into a chamber of methane. “You said you wanted a story.”
In the bag were three letters, each in envelopes, the first one post marked San Francisco, July 1967, the next August 1967, the third November 1967. The envelopes were hand addressed; the return address on each was 1371 Haight Street. I carefully extracted a letter from the first envelope, feeling as if I had entered a mine. The letter was produced on a typewriter, one that had not been cleaned, and all the letters looked kind of like Madge, evenly thicker.
July 1, 1967
My Dear Margie,
From the reviews I’ve read it seems you and I were witness to a real historic concert. I never saw Hendrix before, but I’ve seen Joplin and her gang a few times at the Fillmore. I was never a big Who fan, but they sure beat the place up, didn’t they? AND WHAT ABOUT OTIS! Man, what a show, but to be honest, the best part was sharing it with you, it was the perfect climax to our six weeks of romance, I’ll never forget the date May 1, it will always remind me of meeting you, discovering you standing in front of the Free Store wearing that incredible frock, your hair streaming with sun, that laugh of yours, and how so naturally, easily, our lives entwined, and how, when you came back with me to my flat on Frederick, you said, ‘Somebody gave me this,’ and what great, fucking hash whoever it was had given you. May Day, May Day, I’ll never forget May Day so long as I live!
I hung out in Monterey for a few days after you left for home, I have to say all the excitement and joy of the place departed with you, but the breezes everywhere, especially by the bay, carried hints of you, whispered your name, the clouds streaming by the sun reminded me of my fingers combing through your hair, I wish I could tell you this was pleasant, but the reality of you being so far away made that impossible. I have never been religious, but I don’t see how the feelings I have about you can come from anywhere but a celestial throne, an edict enforced by all the stars and vastness of the night; dear Margie, you are the Queen, Goddess of my nights, now and forever. Without you near me, without your sweet, sweet body trembling in my arms and the music of your voice lulling me I wander the earth like a felon, wanted but not apprehended, loose in a freedom that is worse than imprisonment. Is your home that precious? Do you ever think about coming back?
So yeah, I guess this is a love letter, and I guess what I’m trying to say is I really want to see you again. If you visit me I can introduce you to the rest of the Oracle gang, and you can watch us put an edition together.
August 8, 1967
My Dear Margie,
I’m very, very sorry your boss is such a drag, man, even if he were crabby as Reagan, if he knew how much it would mean to me to let you off for a couple weeks I bet he’d give you the time.
You have no idea what it’s like here, Sergeant Pepper is still blasting out of the windows, there are incredible free concerts at the Straight Theater, the park is an endless banquet in the mansion of hospitality, pot is practically free, and that great Purple Owsley is still fizzing in the gutters, I mean it’s like everywhere.
It’s such a sunny, wonderful, plucky new world, Margie, but I have to tell you, it plays around me like a movie without a soundtrack, or a soundtrack without a movie, it is just so incomplete… It is clear, Margie, by dear, sweet Margie, that the joy of living will not dance with me, I just plod with insentience toward the glimmering, soft beam of existence to be shared with you, its distance seemingly proportioned to my desire for it.
But I’ll bet that every man that meets you gives you that line, and I can’t blame him, I don’t know if nature fashioned anything especially for a man, but if it did, you are that, and a man would be too timid or stupid not to tell you, not to shout it to the sky. I know your inner thoughts, I know the regions under that glorious shell nature gave you, I’ve explored them, with the acid pouring in our senses and the music filling every void in the universe, and not far away the salty breeze from Monterey Bay crying to baptize us in the creed of Love, I felt the virtue and honesty and most of all, I now believe in the justice of You & Me.
The Oracle is doing okay, I guess, there certainly is a lot of action around here, it’s kind of thrilling to know that about a hundred thousand people are reading what I write; I hope it’s not garbage. Do you know who Herb Caen is? Well, he’s a columnist for one of the city newspapers, he’s big around here, sort of the enemy, actually, very straight and all that, but he plugged one of my articles in his column, and wow, like now I’m getting letters from super-straight publications. But you know, Margie, I think pretty soon there isn’t going to be anything left to really write about. If you were here you’d know what I’m saying. We’re all just going to love each other, and take care of each other, and the world is going to achieve the equilibrium it always wanted and needed, and yes, people will have to continue to make things, but we won’t have to create things anymore. Maybe I should learn to be a potter!
Anyway, if you can’t come here I’m going to come see you at the first opportunity I get, if you want me to, that is. Please say that you do. It’s crazy, Margie, but I hate all this free love stupidity, I think it makes people no better than dogs in the park, I don’t want to make love to women, I want to make love to you, I really believe it is possible for a man and a woman to compose a complete universe… right now all I can tell you that as much as I appreciate, time to time, God’s intention with regard to pleasing a man’s eye with a woman’s shape, it is nothing I’ve been able to indulge, every woman in this town is like a kid sister to me, you really are the only woman on this planet, the only one I can ever, ever offer myself to as a man. So yes, I am asking you, and you know exactly what I am asking you, but I’ll make it as plain as THIS: Will you be one of us? Will you be mine? Forever and ever mine?
November 5, 1967
If it has been a while since you have heard from me it is because the shock I received from reading your response to my last letter almost sent me off the docks, I have to say the height of the Golden Gate never looked so potentially anodizing, I am not ashamed to admit calculating how long it would take the icy water of the harbor to numb and obliterate the feelings your letter gave me, I can only tell you that what stopped me from an act of complete despair was the angry suspicion that, were you to hear about it, you might respond, ‘ha, and he tried to persuade me he was likely.’ Even without your love I still cannot live without your esteem. Being the case, hobbled as I am, I will walk straight through this, my last letter to you.
Although our distance apart is now a blessing of sorts — I can’t imagine the torture if you were on this side of the continent — and no longer the source of anguish measured in thousands of miles, still you are not so far away that it can’t be imagined, someday, our seeing each other again. You won’t be my lover, or my partner in life, you say my feelings “can not be returned,” I suppose I should be writing to you nothing at all, except that — in case the imagined day should come — I wish to be taken by you for at least a friend. A friend from May Day, 1967. I would do my part, shake your hand without coveting it, look at your eyes without drowning, and let you go without a departing embrace. I can’t promise that my eyes will hide everything, that a wistful glance would be entirely avoidable, that a sentiment won’t escape, such as this; my dear, dear sweet Margie.
I handed the last letter to Madge, and let her carefully re-insert it into its envelope. “My first husband called me ‘Madge,’ and it’s stuck ever since,” she said, answering a question I had yet to pose. I did inquire if she knew what had become of Randolph. “I see him all the time,” she answered. She looked at my puzzled expression. “Oh for the love of Pete’s sake” she laughed. “Don’t you read People magazine? He’s one of their columnists.”
Zed’s Memorial Day
Zed was weeding the garden on the village green, he wore that luminescent green vest municipal workers have to. We got to talking, and I told him about my research paper, and wondered if he could help. He put the weeder down, and ushered me to the bench in the shade, sat down beside me and lit up a pipe. He looked up at the fat maple near us; its leaves were fresh and vibrant with May, a perfect contrast to his weathered mien, he let out a cloud of smoke, and the day was so still the cloud hung there for a moment. He spoke in a low voice with barely any inflection.
“I was at a funeral yesterday, an Episcopal service, I’ve been to a lot of funerals, I play the bugle, and you can’t bury a soldier without a bugler. I also play the organ, Bach is my favorite, so I won’t play him, I’ll only play Albinoni’s Adagio, especially if it’s for a soldier, because it’s based on a piece of music, a fragment actually, found in a bombed out library in Dresden. People ask for Bach all the time, but I won’t do it. Funerals don’t get me particularly sad unless it’s someone’s child — that happened three times — but otherwise I stand there feeling — I was going to say envy, but it’s far more imaginative than envy, I think it’s jealousy — yes, jealousy, ‘ah,’ I say to myself, ‘now he knows.’
“His name was Bolten, he was a vet, he was only 63, botched operation, infection, respirator, a systematic shutdown one by one of vital organs, at least he had the ability to make final requests, and then death, leaving a second-wife for a widow and three grown children — one estranged — to mark the passage. Yeah, I knew him back when, we didn’t serve together over there — he was Army — but we ended up in this town sometime after the war, I came here just to get high and forget about it, I think he was a drunk for a while, may have done some smack, too, but he straightened out, got to be manager of some tire company, had a house over there in the Hill Side Acres development, you know, all the things we fought for over there.
“A few years ago he got the political bug, ran for mayor a couple of times, lost big, he was easily excitable and would forget himself, his judgment, maybe it was his timing, was poor, and positions which appeared advantageous turned out to be not advantageous, he made dramatic accusations about his opponent, compared him to Hitler (every office holder’s eventual resting place in the mind of his enemy), and so yes, he sort of made a joke of himself; let that be the censor on our worst impulses, I thought, as I sat at the organ, looking at his urn; he got burned up, you see.
“I wasn’t cued up yet, and invisibly sat and waited, the organ was behind the flowers. The church never got full, not even half full, which I think is a good thing; it means less people need to assure themselves you’re dead. His first wife was there, she was the mother of his kids, she sat next to the widow; I thought that was mature. Two of the kids, I guess they were in their thirties, maybe late twenties, were weepy, the third one came with nothing.
“Before the doors closed a woman came in and sat way in the back, my eyes aren’t what they were, it took a hard look — I don’t know why I looked so hard — maybe because she was sitting in the back when there was plenty of room up front. It was Donna. My God, I hadn’t seen her in decades. She looked great. I mean, it’s stupid to describe us as great looking, especially to you,” and here Zed gave me a soft but piercing glance. “Thing is, we all come with a promise, and some of us betray it, and some of us don’t, and Donna was one who didn’t, so man, I mean it when I say she looked great.
“Almost as soon as she sat down the by-the-books service began, I pumped out the Adagio, then three ladies sang a hymn, and then the priest led in a prayer; it’s the nice thing about being the organ player, you can just sit there and not pretend a thing. I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening, I’d seen this too many times, when somebody’s dead any indignation he may have caused dies with him, and I guess that’s why funerals always feel the same.
“The priest launched into a eulogy. I already had heard plenty of his eulogies. No poetry. No art. A sort of just-the-facts dissertation. Yeah, he mentioned that Bolten served in Viet Nam, he said it fast, like there was still something a little shameful about it, like, ‘what a shame he ate that hamburger and got mad cow disease,’ I still haven’t met anyone who wants his time in ‘Nam talked up in a big way — God, I mean, what the heck ever became of Westmoreland? They must have buried him at midnight. — The priest went right into Bolten’s loving family, blah blah blah, but I shouldn’t criticize because Bolten’s family, except the one kid, took it like a real comfort and their eyes welled up. Then it seemed Bolten had joined some community organizations, and helped the poor, and comforted the sick, and the priest dwelled on that for a while. And then the priest summed it all up by saying, ‘Bolten was a real nice guy.’
“There was another prayer, another hymn, and then I pumped out a little Chopin, and people got up to go to the graveyard. I have to say there’s one disadvantage to getting burned up, and it’s obvious the moment somebody scoops up your urn from the little lamp table, there’s something just too casual about that, it’s not like six men taking a breath before lifting your fat coffin. Anyway, I lost track of Donna.
“People are always late getting to the graveyard. It’s funny, as old and stubborn as death is we still try to modernize it, and the graveyard had recently built a structure especially for urns, it looked kind of like a three bedroom ranch, only it was faced with cloudy, white stone, but it’s kind of funny to think Heaven is now a place with three bedroom ranches. We waited around, I kept to the side, even though I had known Bolten it wasn’t like I had any familiarity with his world, except for the old shrapnel, and then all of a sudden Donna tapped my shoulder and said hello.
“It’s a quick story, me and Donna. Her dad was a famous plastic surgeon, he helped a lot of disfigured kids from the Second World War; he had a big summer estate up here, and of all his kids — he had quite a few — Donna was most like him, she helped disfigured people. I was here maybe a month or so when I met her, she waitressed in a luncheonette in town, I was really stoned and messed up, and she looked like an isle of sanity, maybe it was compassion, anyway I wrote her a poem. I don’t know how these things happen, but one thing led to another, and one night she came home with me. Home! I was living in a screened in porch behind a ruin of a house, it was Memorial Day weekend, but for some reason it was cold that night, and we stayed tight under the blankets. Don’t get me wrong, there was passion and all that, but mostly there was healing — my healing — and it was a strange thing, but as pretty as Donna was and as nice as she was to me, I knew all along it was sort of an appointment, and that it would end like visits to the office of a nice doctor do, you know, no hard feelings. But I’ll tell you another reason why my night with Donna stuck with me: At the time there was a woman I knew who had just broken up with her boyfriend, and she was getting rid of a bunch of crap, and she said, ‘Take this painting,’ and it was a seascape, waves crashing on a rocky shore, not a brilliant painting, but fairly adept, and I hung it on the wall facing my bed. It was pitch dark when Donna and I got there, there’s no way she could have seen it, but the next morning, and man, what a beautiful, bright morning it was, she woke up and saw the painting and said, ‘I thought I heard water.’ Anyway, like I said, it’s a quick story, and that’s about all me and Donna had of each other. I may have wanted to keep it going, but she had saved enough money to go to California, and I vaguely remember stuff drifting back about bean sprouts and vegetarianism and Vishnu, and then I let her go until she showed up at Bolten’s funeral.
“’You played the Adagio beautifully,’ she said. She was still the healer; I pretty much crapped out on music, but she looked at me like I conquered Avery Fisher Hall.” Zed paused for a moment, and looked directly at me. “The most selfish thing about being young is thinking you have all the imagination. I’ll tell you, Donna must be sixty, or darn close, but standing before me was a woman practically in her teens. One thing that real intimacy gives you and never takes back is imagination. For me, anyway.
“We chatted while more people arrived. She was back because the family was selling her dad’s estate — he had been dead for years — and wouldn’t you know it, one of her brothers used to buy tires from Bolten’s company, and that’s how she found out about the funeral, and somehow had heard I was the organist. ‘I’m leaving tomorrow,’ she said. ‘I’ve thought about you a lot,’ she said, again in that healing way.
“Suddenly, I don’t know why, all that old pain resurfaced, God, for a moment I was that same wreck who had written her a poem forty years ago, I felt embarrassed that this happened in front of her; we try to believe years have taught us something, but there I was, the same dumb, scared kid just emerged from a rotting jungle. And I think she was hurt. And I heard myself quickly say, ‘Donna, please, if I die before you, and if there is a funeral, don’t let anyone describe me as a real nice guy.’”
“She smiled. She was relieved and understood me perfectly; dismissiveness is the cruelest human trait; it is the portal for all monstrous behavior, and what’s more dismissive than he was a really nice guy? ’I promise,’ she said, even shaking on it. ‘I won’t let them describe you as a tireless worker, either. Baby, I’ll stand up and shout that you were the laziest, orneriest man that ever walked the planet.’
“I can’t tell you how nice her hand felt when she shook mine, or maybe it was the solemn pact we had just made, maybe it was my momentary belief that for all whom I have known there can be some satisfying, maybe culminating Final Word to settle us into peace. Whatever it was, she had put me back together enough so I could stand in front of the three bedroom ranch and blow Taps over the silly, little urn.”
Zed looked over at the garden he had been weeding. “Nice piece of earth,” he said, and put his pipe away, fetched the weeder and went back to work. I’m not sure he was aware he had been speaking with me.
Maddie’s Bloom’s Day
I happened upon Maddie on June 16, Blooms Day, picking strawberries in the meadow up on the side of the mountain. She is a very handsome woman from Idaho. Near by, the Tibetan monastery had recently completed its expansion, and she had traveled east to take part of the opening celebration. I wasn’t even thinking of doing any interviews that day, didn’t have my recorder with me, but we got to talking, and I told her about my research paper. She was curious enough to take my address, and several weeks later I received this in the mail:
I would be nineteen in a month, for anyone who thought getting married at eighteen was too young, I wouldn’t be able to vote or drink liquor in a bar, but I could take off my clothes and lie with a man called my husband; this was not unimportant, and yet it felt vaguely inconclusive. Outside my window I watched the early, shrill, bright October morning sun smash up against the Flatirons — reminding me of Miles’s description of first laying his eyes on the Flatirons — I tried to think the solar rays meeting and absorbed into the blocks of stone some how blessed my wedding day, but the intrusive memory of Miles instead made me feel I had committed another infidelity.
Which was not the way to look at my only real infidelity, as my friend Billie Jean had said over and over. How many times had Miles wandered off? How many times had he come back and confessed to shacking up with a girl he had met maybe one joint ago? Not that these were reasons to be angry, no, not at all, there was going to be too much sex in the world to get bent out of shape about it, but baby, it’s got to be an even playing field, insisted Billie Jean.
The episode with Alvin was a Billie Jean set-up from the start. I knew it at the time — Billie Jean’s flagrant introduction of Alvin, followed with her coaxing looks — and I had guarded myself, but Alvin’s playful eyes… I felt my skin glow, even burn, I knew where the path of the first sip of sangria would lead, Billie Jean looked from across patio, nodding, her expression reminding me again and again, How Many Times? Alvin was adept, he knew just when to release, and when to start reeling in, and it helped that he had just moved to the area because he couldn’t read the PROPERTY OF MILES sign on my forehead; everybody else watched the foreclosure with more suspense than sympathy, Miles was such a bastard they all thought. Exactly how I can’t recall — the sangria kept those details to itself — but there me and Alvin were in his sleeping bag, we had to be quiet or the grown-ups would be involved, all I remember was it getting harder and harder, almost impossible to be quiet, Alvin was that adept, he was bigger than Miles, the field was so even, so even, yet sloping, tipping toward the realization that Miles did not know everything about me; how shocking that moment was, my teeth gritting, my fingers tearing the flesh from Alvin’s back.
That was the betrayal, and why Miles must never know, why I hated Alvin, and why the world had become a prison for truth; Miles must never know he had not been first to conquer this region in me. More than love Miles, my passion was to prove Love to Miles, prove that it were possible someone in the world thought more of him than anyone or anything else, let him, for at least a second during his friendless continuum, feel like the center of the universe, something we all should feel at least once — he never got it from his family — feel we matter, which he never could, he skipped like a stone, a solitary stone over the lives of people, even friends, fearing that to drop would be to sink into the very familiar void of indifference. I remembered one day walking down a county lane with him, this was when I still lived around here, and we passed a big farmhouse (no longer used as a farmhouse), and he said, ‘That used to be a boardinghouse. When I was three my mom put me there so she could go to Mexico with her lover.’ He said it with a detachment reminding me of Washington Slept Here notices. He said it like every mother’s wish should be to dump her kid in a boardinghouse and run off to Mexico. He said it like there was something lifeless and stupid about mothers who didn’t. He said it, whether he meant to or not, like my name and ‘mother’ and Mexico all began with an ‘m.’ And it tore through my heart. He said it with no self-pity for me to resent. How many times had we kissed and kissed, and I had tried to make him feel like the sun, and not some distant, pointless star alone in the night sky, obliterated by the smallest atmospheric disturbance; not a shred of self-pity, just the cloak of lead shielding his nerves. He must never find out I had proved otherwise. Never.
But the region, once discovered, had to be settled. I didn’t feel sexual desire as a distinct demand, it was like breathing, simply there, belonging to a rhythm too natural not to take for granted, a complete integration with my awareness, a soft, forceful necessity that descended on me as naturally as sleep, and taken like sleep with no feeling of compunction. What a beautiful boy Miles was. If only he knew. The dozens and dozens if not hundreds of times he had poked and exploded inside me, up until Alvin, had each been satisfying to me. If he could not feel like the center of the universe, he at least behaved toward me like he was near its center. He gushed words of want and need and love and endless love and eternal love and love that would walk through fire and hell… never coherent were I to study their structure, but a huge, madly colored abstract expression plastered across every wall of my consciousness, he ripped his heart open the way he ripped pop tops off a can of beer, and its sweetness, what sweetness it had, poured into my ears, and his lips fell on mine like mad waters, cum dribbled from my vagina, and every time, up until Alvin, I had felt satisfied.
Now I kept a secret. I could never tell him, but its narcotic demand for an echo whispered more and more urgently every time we took off our clothes. I tried to tug him this way, and deflect him that way; I remembered when he had taught me to kiss, only he could use words, now I could only use my body, my motions, my cues, almost senseless, until, until… the time he had brought me close. It was so close that I leapt out of bed and circled the room, cum dribbling from my vagina, I almost shouted to the walls, My God, My God, Miles lay with a peculiar expression on the bed, peculiar because it was unworldly — if Miles saw himself as anything it was worldly — I felt a frustration that almost brought me to tears — but the secret — suddenly I drowned in an intense joy with God, where did God get this incredible idea, oh dear God, just once more, just once more — but the secret, so deep and hurtful I could not take it to my Methodist God for atonement, who otherwise had been so receiving.
These were not the thoughts for a wedding day. I blamed having them on the fact that I was waking up in my bedroom in my parents’ house, a room I had not slept in for at least a year, the room where I had tried to not die, but to not live in either, tears still falling from my cheeks, after Miles had found out, and took my secret on his way to the Arizona desert, my life of Second Choices beginning. Terrible thing to say. Wesley Cockburn — pronounced CO-bern, please, it’s CO-bern — should be remembered as first choice; twenty-six, already an associate professor of Russian Literature at the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado, a man nature had fashioned for such calling, darkly handsome, a beard disciplined if not loved, one who knew the Great Questions and listened patiently to those with stumbling answers, very gentle, earnest, kindled fire like an Eagle Scout, practice, practice, practice, finally rousing the flame, but where, I would wonder afterward, was the meat, how long would simmered broth be enough; I promised myself that I would never sleep in that room again, and got out of bed.
Mr. Templeton’s Columbus Day
Mr. Templeton is a lawyer, a high and mighty in New York it is said, he is somewhere around 60, and he wears his success. The fabric and tailoring of his three-piece suit already whispered ‘money,’ but the fat, jeweled cufflinks, and the jeweled tiepin and the shiny gold wristwatch shouted ‘LOTS OF IT.’ I sat next to him at the bar in the Café Normandie, an establishment beyond my means, and probably one below his, but in the country rich people sometimes have to slum it, he showed a benevolent disappointment, he sipped a Manhattan made with top shelf Canadian whiskey, maybe his fourth or fifth one. For whatever reason, he took an interest in my project. We both looked out the big window that overlooked a copse of oaks and maples, which the autumn had transformed into dazzling colors. “Yesterday was Columbus Day,” he noted. “Wow, did a year go by this quickly?” I didn’t know how to answer. “Well, listen,” he said, hunkering down to his drink. “This might be close to what you’re searching for.” He took a big swallow and continued.
“It’s funny, considering all the opportunities, that I never got to Europe until just last year, right around this time, too. I don’t think they celebrate Columbus Day in Italy. That’s where I went. It was my kid sister’s 50th birthday, and she arranged for a walking tour from Viterbo to Montefiascone to Lake Balsena to Orvieto — altogether less than forty miles — and then it was a week in a little village in Tuscany, but of course, it started off first with a few days in Rome.
“The only way I can explain Rome is this; If sticking your finger into an electric socket could be described as a pleasurable experience, that is Rome. Or how about the bizarre science fiction story I once read about taking the blood of a young virgin and running it through the veins of an old man, and bang, there he was cranking around like a bumper car. If you come up with something better to describe Rome, let me know.
“I never married — talk about exotic locations — so I didn’t have anybody with me on the trip, except, of course, sis and her husband and two other married couples who are friends of theirs, yeah, I was the seventh wheel, which was nice, I could fixate on things and not worry about somebody else’s reluctance. Everybody yaps about Italy, Italy, Italy. Guess what; they’re right. You read how everybody in Italy is getting old, and nobody has kids, and how the place is headed toward a demographic catastrophe, but you don’t see it. I think it’s because Italians are so beautiful to look at that you can’t believe it. And it’s not just their physical beauty; Italians have a sensibility that just grabs you by the heart.
“For instance, when in Rome one of the places I visited was the Pantheon, you know, that big domed temple built by the Romans. Then the Christians showed up, and they dumped out all the Jupiters and Mercurys and Venuses, and stuffed the niches with saints and renamed it Santa Maria, and then started burying emperors and popes in there, and guess what? They buried Raphael there! A painter buried with all those emperors and popes!
“As long as we’re talking about the Italian sensibility, let me jump ahead. In Tuscany I took a walk to the next little town, Castelmuzio — pardon my pronunciation — yeah, another hill top collection of really old and charming brown masonry structures threaded together with narrow, cobbled streets, and clean as a whistle — Italians are very clean, at least the ones I saw; it makes me wonder how the Swiss always get talked up as the clean ones, I mean, if what I saw in Italy was any cleaner it would look like a sterile gauze pad — anyway, I came across an outdoor war memorial. I don’t know where Italians learned about proportion, but even their simplest stone edifices are a wonder — this one was about ten feet high, and not much, but purposefully, wider. Up at the top was embedded a marble slab inscribed with the names of the eight or nine Castelmuzinan lives given to the First World War, and below that, in a sort of embarrassed continuation, was a newer slab with the names of the twenty or so Castelmuzians slaughtered in the Second World War. But the funny thing was, according to the Castelmuzians, there were two Second World Wars; there was one fought from 1940 to 1943, an another one fought from 1944 to 1945. Okay, we know what that’s all about; for three years they fought with the Nazis and then they finished up fighting against them, but what struck me was how plainly stated it was. I mean, look at the French; they’re still trying to figure out what they were all doing during the Second World War. Except, of course, they were all in the Resistance.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that the most beautiful thing about Italy, even with all its art and architecture, are the Italians.
“But none of this has anything to do with what I think you’re asking for.
“From Rome we took a train 80 kilometers or so up to Viterbo, which hundreds of years ago was a big pope hangout, not anymore. That’s where we started the walking tour. Almost the entire trek from there to Montefiascone, eleven or twelve miles, I’d guess, was through fields and vineyards and olive groves, and for some stretches, woods. The Italians have a wonderful concept of trespass; you can walk across somebody’s vineyard, but as soon as you filch one of his grapes, then you have trespassed. Anyway, I guess the walking tour organizers got everything sorted out with the farmers, because none of them came flying out of their houses to give us dirty looks as we tromped by. All I can say is I wanted to taste everything I saw, even the dirt. It’s cliché to yammer on and on about the Italian countryside, I’ll just tell you that the effect of Italian art on the eye is no more pleasant than the effect of Italian agriculture on the stomach, I mean, your belly feels like the center of a warm, warm universe.
“It was the first time I questioned American values, in a deep way that is. Our whole food operation now seems geared to a maw, and not to taste. It made me think about all our other operations engaged for the purpose of our senses.
“Anyway, we got to Montefiascone, what I call The Land Of The Teenagers. Maybe it was the day of the week, I couldn’t tell you why, but it seemed like every teenager in Italy was sitting or walking of scootering around Montefiascone the evening we arrived. And every single one of them was beautiful, the girls and the boys, just beautiful creatures; it’s no secret where the Italians got their concept of beauty, just look at their teenagers! It’s the first time I felt old, not in the discouraged sense, I’m still in pretty good shape — no complaints, really — but in the sense of feeling like a stranger in another world. Very little English is spoken in Italy, but in Montefiascone the language barrier completely dissolved, and they could understand completely my thought, You Are Young, and I understood completely their thoughts, You Are Old. It was sort of like ‘good morning’ or ‘ciao,’ you understood it without even realizing the cognition.
“I had started smoking after I broke up with my last girlfriend.” Mr. Templeton gave me a look that was part defensive, part condescending. “If you can call a forty five year old woman a ‘girlfriend,’ I don’t mean any disrespect. Even though I never got married, I know what divorces are like; I’ve gone through pretty heavy break-ups, it doesn’t matter if you’ve married or not, when after a few months —years in some cases — you find out it’s not working with somebody. Her name was Jenny. It’s best to get it over with in a hurry, so it was over the gunwales with Jenny, only this time I looked abaft, watched the jetsam slowly disappear into the nautical mist… did I tell you I sail? Yeah, a got a sloop on the Delaware. Jenny was nice, it was probably all my fault, it was all my fault. Anyway, after it was over I started smoking again, but never told anybody, not even my sis, so I was real happy to have my own hotel room because I didn’t have a cigarette all day during the hike over from Viterbo.
“I couldn’t smoke in the room, so I opened the door to the second floor balcony and lit up there.
“The hotel had been built against a steep hillside that sloped away from the street entrance, so even though I was only on the second floor my room, which was at the back of the hotel, and its balcony looked clear over a cluster of houses that lay below. The houses were fairly new in the sense that they weren’t ancient, most of them had terra cotta roofs, and almost all of the small yards were surrounded by high — at least eight foot high — masonry walls. My vantage point was elevated enough that I could see over the walls into the yards. It was not yet completely dark, but the night was near doubtless.
“In just moments I was distracted by the sight and sounds of —what else — teenagers. Below me, on the street side of a wall stood a teenage man and woman, boy and girl, whatever, engaged in an intense discussion. On the other side of the wall were a half dozen or so of their peers, all hunched and quiet and listening intently to what the boy and girl were saying to each other. The boy and the girl were the most beautiful creatures in this land of beautiful creatures; it is not just Italian art, but the Italian reputation for love, amore, that are completely explained by this boy and girl; I never would have become a lawyer if I had seen them in my youth, no, I either would have become a poet or I would have killed myself, I never would have embarked on a life that could not explain such beauty.”
Mr. Templeton looked at me and smiled sheepishly. “Well, these are the kind of thoughts you have when you get on.” He sipped his Manhattan and continued.
“The girl did the talking. Her tone was urgent. Her palms faced upward while she tried and tried to explain something very important to the boy. The boy leaned against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, his sullen expression ceded nothing, his eyes fastened on the girl, he could have been a statue of a saint and she could have been a suppliant, except that even from where I stood, maybe about a hundred feet away and above, even through the gathering darkness, I could plainly read his eyes, which were saying; ‘I am not even listening to your words, but I will wait until you say what it is you must say because I want to kiss you, I want you to finish so I can kiss you.’
“Well, it’s like what you hear about a satellite slowly losing its orbit, and dipping lower and lower toward the center of gravity, and whatever it was that the girl was trying to say — and I don’t think the boy cared to understand one word of it — it turned out she had to kiss, too. First she put her palms down, and stood before him, and he kind of straightened up, and he took his arms from across his chest, and eventually, whatever strange thing that happens to people that propels them into the other’s arms, it happened, and they embraced and started to kiss. And as soon as they started kissing, the kids on the other side of the wall all stood up straight as bolts, and gaped at each other, and then ran to the gate and then into the street to interrupt the kissing. And then, like fireflies, they all disappeared into the night.
“While I continued smoking I suddenly thought about Melinda. Man, she was a long, long time ago. She was a girl from high school. I found myself remembering, almost reliving all her moments of sweetness I failed to appreciate at the time. She was a wonderful, beautiful land that I had visited with my eyes closed.” Mr. Templeton paused, and concluded, “That was all my fault, too.” Mr. Templeton looked at his drink, maybe the cherry at its bottom would rise; it didn’t. “I put out the cigarette and went back inside my hotel room. Lovely room, really.”
Mr. Templeton looked at me. “You really ought to see Italy,” he advised, and finished his drink and looked at his gold watch and said something about a court appearance, and left.
I met Tom at the Pub. Tom’s not so old, but life hadn’t been easy, especially on his teeth, and I soon saw that he doesn’t smile or talk much and he hunches like someone older than he is. He didn’t grow up around here, but in a town sort of like ours, you know, up here in the hills. It being the Season we talked about Christmases, and I told him a Christmas story that happened to me, a very ordinary one, and I told him about my college project, and old Tom got a glint in his eye, and he told me about a Christmas a long, long ago.
“It was some Christmas,” he said.
“Bonnie had not much of a chest, but her legs, well her legs erased any doubt she danced in a topless club, or so it was said, she never said it, but some locals who knew Bonnie said she did, yes, at some club down in New York. The first time I saw her legs, saw Bonnie for that matter, was the previous summer when she pedaled up the country lane on a bicycle. You know that men look at women the same way, but we start in different places, I always started from the hair, hers was tightly curled blond temptation ending just below the lobes, her bright blue eyes, even though they did not return my glance said, Look More, and so down her ungenerous chest I glanced, a page of disinterest then turning to the long, fantastic narrative of her legs pedaling her bicycle. She wore very short shorts, and the full story of her legs ended in the phrase, Adore Me, which for me was not an unusual end to these spontaneous tales because at the time I was twenty or so.
“I was tending bar that year in one of the village’s two music clubs. She did not come to the bar often, and when she did it was on a weeknight and almost always with her friend Marcy. Marcy had married young, had married rich, had divorced young and was now young and rich, and I saw Marcy around a lot, with or without Bonnie, Marcy caroused so hard one would never predict she would be a suicide, in the next year or so, a fancy departure from her garage accompanied by a bottle of champagne, fumes seeping through the open car windows. It was never busy on the weeknights, and it really distressed me when Bonnie came in to see me working in a slow club because I really adored Bonnie, but how could an empty joint ever interest her? If only it were busier, if only she could see how I worked under pressure, if only she knew what a master of Saturday nights I was. She ordered Jack Daniels neat, but please in a rocks glass, with a water side. Unlike Marcy she tipped generously.
“One night I wasn’t working, it got very late, I was drunk, I got into a fight with the doorman, we scuffled and mildly injured each other’s clothing, and the owner took the doorman’s side, and I took another job at a place up the road and nearer to my apartment.”
Tom shrugged at the memory, took a sip of ale and continued.
“It was The Auberge, the respectable restaurant two miles from the village, it served French-American cuisine, it had green and yellow Chartreuse, the tape player unreeled works of Mozart and Vivaldi and those kinds of strains. A very different kind of place, but the money was good, and I learned how to pronounce names of a lot of French wine. I didn’t see to many of my former customers. It was on a Saturday night, in fact it was Christmas Eve, when Bonnie, shaking snow off her coat, came to the bar. The kitchen had closed, there were no more diners, and the owner had left at around midnight to be with her family. Before splitting she told me to close the bar at one am. The bar was busy with Christmas Eve customers not concerned with Christmas stockings or Christmas morning, but who still retained a dash of Christmas in hearts long emptied of sentiment but not sentimentalism, so the mood was conducive to good tipping. Marcy had been at the bar already for an hour when Bonnie arrived.
“’Snowing? I still didn’t get my snow tires,’ laughed Marcy.
"The upper milieu had no effect on Bonnie's preferences, she ordered the same shot of Jack Daniels, but please, in a rocks glass, and a water side, and with the safety of the respectable bar between us she looked straight into my eyes while taking the first sip, something she never did at the other joint.
“I hated people who thought, when considering her chest, that it was kind of funny Bonnie danced in a topless club. Even though I was careless about sex and women, I felt prudish about topless dancing, but despite this bizarre fruit of my morals I felt Bonnie was entirely fit for her occupation, heck man, I would have paid to just watch her pedal a bicycle. And besides, I decided, if she had a nice chest to go with her legs she would long ago have been scooped up by the Prince of Monaco and I never would have seen her tight curls and felt her blue eyes stare into me, no chance of that in this bumpkin town.
“Bonnie and Marcy had the men around them. Bonnie’s laughter didn’t have Marcy’s exuberance, but I watched it light her blue eyes, and mixed with the whiskey was a chemical I really wanted to taste, my aching was intense.
“By 1:00 a.m. the crowd winnowed down to just a few of us, few enough to trust, and this was when Jim, the cocaine dealer, plopped a bag on the bar, and I locked the door, and the after hours party began and continued for some time.
“Bonnie’s blue eyes sometimes returned from across the bar a cool, very cool understanding to my half admiring half hopeless looks.”
Tom paused to sip his ale and perhaps the memory.
“Unstated but ever present was the imminence of dawn and its unveiling light,” he continued after the lull. “Jim was most wary of the danger, so near four am he put the bag away and the party quickly began to wind up. Marcy already had gotten sick at some point and tottered off and never returned. Jim and the other two men left, one of them I heard shout from the exit, ‘Wow, look at that snow.’ Bonnie finished her drink and thanked me for the lovely evening and left a generous tip. Man, I crammed my imagination with as much of her legs as I could see striding below the hem of her winter coat as I followed her to the door, unlocked it for her, and then locked it behind her, and returned to the now empty bar.
“I left her tip lying on the bar. I poured myself a Christmas cognac and stared at Bonnie’s money left on the bar. I might have stayed that way in the until daylight, but after a few minutes I heard a rap on the window. It was Bonnie. I went and met her at the door. The county plow had come by, and her car was buried in the snow bank.
“I locked up the register, locked the restaurant door behind us, and walked with Bonnie to her car, a very small car that she had parked along side the highway instead of in the small parking lot, and we both stared at its hopeless situation.
“'My apartment is just up the road,' I said, careful to use a tone that implied a spare couch. 'Well, I guess,' said Bonnie, in a way that made me think she had made up her mind about many things in her life using the same tone and casting the same long stare down an empty highway into an impenetrable, snowy night. People are so different, or maybe more realized, when you see them outside a bar.
“We walked from the Auberge through the snow — it was still snowing hard — and crossed the highway and approached my dumpy apartment building that once had been a barn, then a country store, now it was segmented into six one bedroom units and decorated for the season with icicles pinned from the eaves and the sagging roof. I did notice a candle faintly flickering in one of the windows of the ground floor apartment under mine. I thought it was the only light in the universe. Oh yes, new tenants, I remembered. Bonnie and I climbed up the cold, bitterly cold stairway to my second floor flat, it did have a couch of sorts, one I expected to sleep on after chivalrously offering Bonnie my bed, heck, even though I was careless about sex and women it was not in my nature to impose. I unlocked and opened the door, surprised by the small flat’s unusual warmth, but not pleased with the condition I had left it, a strewing of books, used dishes, ashtrays and the unframed art. The bed with its used, tangled bedding was in the other room.
“The lingering buzz from cocaine kept us up, and we sat on the couch of sorts and talked, about what I would not remember; I just know it was not about topless dancing.”
Tom paused, as if to find an answer.
“If I had to guess I would say we talked about the latest book I read, I later would recall the vague impression I had formed during our conversation that books, but not dark roads, meant different things to us, and maybe that was why she never acknowledged the roses I had sent her the next Valentine’s Day, maybe there had been too much text in them. I would remember wondering where her family was, but not asking her because I knew where mine had gone and maybe her answer would be too coincidental.”
He didn’t appear entirely satisfied, and took a big swig of ale before going on.
“After we talked for a while the dawn started to gleam through the iced window panes, and Bonnie’s blue eyes suddenly looked straight at me, and she beckoned from my couch of sorts to the door leading to my bed and asked, ‘Is that where we’re sleeping?’
“I’ll always remember how slack my jaw had gotten. I’ll always know how unsettling for the prospector when finally he has chanced upon his sea of gold.
“The unveiling dawn seeped through the icy window as we undressed and got into my bed, which had belonged to a fancy hotel, but time had eroded, seriously eroded its glory.
“Bonnie lay with her back to me, but I felt the warmth of her body rush into me, and with my right hand I explored her legs, I thought about her legs pumping the pedals of her bicycle, and I searched in the softness consecrated in the mystery her very short shorts protected last summer, but she was not interested. She didn’t fight, she didn’t say Stop it, she didn’t move away from me, but clearly she was not interested, and I would not impose, so I stopped seeking. Bonnie was close enough, I deeply loved Bonnie for just being there, man, I felt happy, very happy, and since she had not fought or showed disdain, only a lack of interest, I left her legs alone and thought to try to sleep, and so I put my arm around her chest, and my hand by chance gently fell on her ungenerous bosom.”
Tom then gripped his ale and made the hardest look one can into the past.
“The new tenants downstairs," he continued after the pause, "were a young couple with a child, and the child woke up, there were visitors to their door, and the child made excited cries while grownups exchanged happy greetings. And Bonnie turned to me, suddenly there was no sleeping, heck man, how could there be, it was Christmas morning.”
Tom relaxed his stare. “That’s all I remember,” he said, and hunched over the expected silence. I finished my drink and wished Tom a Merry Christmas.