Rocky
rocky

Driving into Laramie put me in mind of 2001: Bare lines, lunar planes, radio tower—a frontier town shining hard on the rim of a world at night, under the aspect of the stars. I'd never spent any time in Laramie. Ken suggested one of the local bars, the Stagecoach. We didn't need much convincing. Jack retrieved a brown Stetsun from its box in the trunk. In his Levis and boots he would pass for native. Ken looked like a hippie from anywhere, but he checked himself over in the rearview mirror, content with what he saw there. My jeans and t-shirt were anonymous.

The Stagecoach might have been a set out of an old western. Sawdust, brass appointments, a massive oak bar, rows of bottles . . . a four-piece rock'n'roll band played Ticket to Ride. College students, wranglers, burnouts, hip young business types - the place was a catchall. Antique fans whirled overhead. Tobacco yellow lamps cast thick light over green velvet, cocky young pool players. Pure honky tonk, thick with smoke and laughter, alive with couples dancing.

A stranger came up behind Ken, grabbed him by the shoulder, said

—Hey, you goddam hippie!

—Hello, Jim! said Ken, shaking hands. This is Guy and Jack. This is an old buddy of mine, Jim.

Something to look at: strong, rough-grained, dark hair cut shorter than ours. Jim was conscious of the impression he made. He didn't say hello, didn't shake hands, only nodded his head. Whereas Ken had gotten on with me and Jack without any noticeable turbulence, Jim seemed to demand we take him on his terms or not, fully expecting us to fall in. My mind was in the swim. I didn't trust my perceptions. I looked over at Jack. Whose tired eyes told a story but who was nonetheless feeling feisty and appreciably put out by the challenge presented by Jim. Jim fell in with us at the bar. We ordered shots and a pitcher of beer. In no time we were joined by a trio of college students in full blaze. On excellent terms with Jim and Ken, their names were Bud, Homer and Sean. They shook hands all round, once twice thrice, called us all hosers and incited us to perform various unnatural acts. They didn't suspect I was tripping. I wasn't about to tell them but took the safer route of laughing along with them. Bud looked at me later, wondering at my silence, and asked me what I did. I said I was between jobs and he said, laughing,

—O, keeping your options open, huh?

—Wide open, I replied, watching one half of his  face take a turn toward the Expressionist.

We looked over the women, listened to the band, shot some pool. Later Homer asked if anyone wanted to go smoke a doobie. I said sure though I hardly needed it. Bud and Sean were up for it, too, but Jim and Ken begged off and Jack said, no, thanks, maybe later. So I got up with the three and stumbled outdoors. They were disappointed that I was the only one who cared to join them. I considered that this was rushing things. I was not the object of their invitation. I didn't need to smoke. I passed after a few puffs and dwelled in silence, taking in the rhythms of their talk, trying not to resent them. They might have been friends of mine. They might. Only a few years younger and very much in the exhilaration of college life I missed so badly. I was crossing the country with Jack, no ties, no obligations, except to Jack, to my ambitions. And the night, the lonesome western night was clear and warm. Homer, Bud, and Sean had accepted my company more or less, meaning no harm. I felt a passage of memory, a growing old, told myself not to taint their good times with my sadness, to let them be.

Sean went off to relieve himself on the shrubbery. The rest of us followed.

—That's no flatland beer! Sean proclaimed. Homer affirmed this, adding

—That's no city beer, neither! Bud, completing the arc, said

—That there's mountain beer!

With that the three of them belched uproariously. College students, they were not precisely what you might call scholars. They wore their hair below their ears but had nothing but contempt for heepies and were all in favor of rolling some such for their stash of hootch - all talk, all in good fun.

—So what do you do? Bud asked me again, friendly enough.

—Hmmm? O, I'm a writer.

—O, yeah? What do you write?

—Fiction, mostly. Do you like to read?

—Yeah, I read some.

 

One gathered Bud read quite a lot, but was of a modest character.

 

—Have you read 92 in the Shade? Homer inquired.

—McGuane? O, yeah, I really enjoy his sense of humor.

—God, he's great!

—Mm hmm, he does a lot of things very, very well. His books do a good business, too.

—So who do you like? Bud wanted to know.

—O, I like a lot of people. Lately I've been on this jag where I've been reading Joyce 'n Eliot 'n Dante and Borges and Marquez. Just about anything, really; I still pull out Kerouac and Ginsberg and all those guys.

—Wasn't Kerouac a real worm? Bud asked, startling me, intending to. My reward for trying to impress, however off-handedly.

—What do you mean?!

—Yeah, put in Homer. Wasn't he a real lowlife?

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was all rather odd, anyway, talking books in the Wild West with a trio of cowboys, but at least I was on familiar ground, here.

—Well, uh, but, I sputtered, he spent a lot of time at loose ends, but he was a great writer, he wanted to experience everything . . . he brought jazz into American literature ... and of course you wouldn't have a McGuane without a Kerouac, he was the father of the whole Beat generation . . .

—How's that? leapt Homer, born skeptical, inquisitive.

Well, before there was the Beatles ...

No, I mean, what does Kerouac have to do with McGuane?

—Well, it's a question of influence, isn't it? McGuane read Kerouac, everybody read Kerouac, he was ... on fire, and a great writer, though unfortunately self-indulgent and self-destructive . . . doomed. I trailed off, unsure of where I was going with that.

—That doesn't mean McGuane is alive today because of Kerouac, objected Sean, sincere now.

—Well, no, but . . .

—You can't say just because McGuane read somebody he's a different writer than he would have been otherwise. It's like Schrodinger's Cat, how could you tell? Homer objected.

—Uh huh, I replied, wondering whose cat decided what.

Bud said he didn't think we would ever settle that question but I rallied and said

—O, look, it's like the law of gravity, it's just accepted that historical influences exist, it's hardly a matter for dispute.

—How can you say that? Homer was outraged. What you're saying is, I have no choice, I'm completely programmed by my environment!

—Well, that is a can of worms, I admitted.

—Really, said Bud, let's drink beer.

No argument there. We left the shadows of university buildings where we'd been smoking, and made our way back to the Stagecoach.

Kenny was in a booth near where we'd left him, his kerchief now around his neck. Watching the dancers, he pointed toward them when asked where Jack and Jim had gone. The band was playing a Little Feat tune, the sound boozy and swirling. Glasses clinked, billiard balls pocked. Some sweet young thing came by to wipe off the table, giving us a show. We ordered a couple pitchers of beer. My nerves were calming down, the world resuming its familiar solidity. Never again would I do hallucinogens.

—So explain to me, starts Homer, returning to our topic . . .

—Ho ho, says I, what a bulldog! I likes a good argument, I do. Why do you speak English?

—Because that was the language I was taught, he argued, the language I was brought up on.

—Exactly, I agreed, that was one of your big influences, and the reason it sounds the way it does is because others before us have shaped it to hold their thoughts and ideas. In a way, we're all linguistic heirs to Shakespeare.

—O, Shakespeare, said Sean.

—Uh huh, or the Bible, or . . ..

—Augh! I can't take it any more! Sean threw a fit, holding his head in his hands. I'm being informed!

Sean didn't have to take it any more. I retreated into silence, feeling a fool, the dandy with his fine talk among the rootin' and tootin' wild, wild west set. Jack and Jim returned from the dance floor— sweating, smiling, accompanied by two young women. Neither of the latter looked at me, but at Sean. Sean returned their regard, said hi in guarded fashion. Then one of them, Sonya, of the raven dark hair and eyes, gives me a significant look so right away I think she must be sensitive, but she is with Jim, so . . . They pull chairs over and join us at the table.

—Ah, says Ken, the girls in their summer dresses.

—Girls? says the blond, Barb, excuse me, but we're women.

—Do you know how many feminists it takes to change a lightbulb! Ken pounced.

—No, but I have a feeling you're going to tell me, Barb riposted with ease.

—Two! Ken informed us. One to change it, the other two to complain about the bulb's passive attitude!

Sean, Homer and Bud quietly bust up over this exchange. Ken they can accept. I am ignored. I will never be buddy buddy with these guys. I have been found wanting and they carefully ignore my dumb pedantic self. I look at Ken and our eyes meet, glide away. I don't care to be the object of his charity. Sean, Homer, Bud-in time they would grow old and no longer understand one another. Jim is recalling an exploit involving a man, a bear, and a gun. Dark, animated, plainspoken, he is right in there with the group ... though they resent his hauteur...

— ... so he's going to get some firewood and just as he's coming up on the woods there's this big mother of a grizzly!

—How big was he? Sean put the question.

—Way big, qualified Homer.

—Bigger than shit, added Bud.

—So the guy stops and just looks at the bear.

—O, oh, you're lunch now, buddy.

- ... and the two of them stop and look at each other and the guy cocks his gun ...

—O, good move.

— ... and the bear knows the score ...

... obviously smarter than the average bear.

— ... so he real casual like turns around and starts off in the other direction ...

— ... and the guy shoots him in the ass!

—... and the guy says, 'chicken shit' and the bear is all over him like that!

—O, shit.

 

Jim stopped to take a drink and light a cigarette, purely for dramatic purposes.

 

—So what happened?

—He was history.

—That bear ate good tonight, mm-mm-mm.

—So what happened?!

—So the bear has him pinned to the ground before he can even take aim, but he doesn't move or say anything, he just stares right at the bear, and the bear gets up and ... walks away.

—Ho ho, Ken laughed.

—That's it?! Sean wanted more.

—I thought it was gonna be a homosexual encounter, said Homer. Bud laughs and says

—Yeah, right, the guy gets boned in the ass by a bear.

—A grisly experience, says I.

—Truly, says Jim.

—Boo, says Sean.

—You're a sick man, says Homer.

Our female companions think this is all pretty weird. Barb is with Jack and Sonya is on Jim's arm. Sonya is pretty, slight a s a bird, Chicano or Indian. Barb, who has rested her hand near Jack's groin, is blond, sharp-eyed, made up to look high fashion. After so much dancing and beer and sweat, she has acquired a less polished look, a slightly fallen look, pouty and jaded. I watch and listen, let go. Tomorrow we will be gone. Jim is telling another story. Confident of his catch, of his place here. Bud is a deep listener, a kind soul with large, sympathetic eyes, a father confessor. Homer is lean, mercurial, didactic. He has a measuring out way of speaking. This is this and that is that. Sean is an Irishman, a blade; rugged, wry, irrascible, full of expression. The others love him, search out his thought. He needs their company to be fully himself. There is very little sparing of feeling here. They sharpen each other, iron to iron, though when the band runs through Tequila Sunrise they get quiet and sing along.

Sonya wants to dance. Jim isn't up for it, but I am. I catch her eye and the two of us make for the dance floor. The band is ripping throughNot Fade Away. Sonya wears a white cotton blouse that leaves her shoulders free. She is warm, brown, a Spanish afternoon. She has no real feeling for me, but I don't care, I want to dance. In between numbers she tells me she couldn't believe the energy. We smile together and so then I really stepped on the gas. And so the night whirls through a few songs from a rock 'n' roll band. Only the music is real. The group goes full roar with Brown Sugar and Sonya . . . is wild. This is her song, and I am on a Laramie dance floor, dancing with a wonderful girl. Returning to the table, she takes my hand and thanks me, and I am happy, high, pouring down like sun and rain.

—Dancing with my girl, I see, says Jim.

—O, yeah, you don't mind? I don't much care if he minds or not. 

Nah ... what's your name again?

—Guy Dewdney. You're Jim, right?

—Right. You in school here?

—No, no ... I'm a starving writer... passing through town.

—I see. Did you say Dewdney?

—Uh huh.

Dude! the three  chorused.

 

What did Jim see in me? He seemed to take me in, then.

 

—You're a student?

—Yeah, I'm into genetics. I remarked that that was a high powered field these days. Jim laughed a loud, good-natured laugh. He told me about immunological systems, the social aspects of genetically determined behavior. I observed that the needs of the group did appear to select certain types of individuals and that seemed to dovetail with Jung's works in archetypes.

—O, how interesting, said Sean. Is that like Neil Jung, rock 'n' roll psychiatrist?

Sean cast his eyes to the ceiling. Sean was a wise guy. Sean was an asshole. The others thought this was funny. I said nothing, drank my beer.

—Ah, well, Sean, said Ken, assuming an air of easy familiarity. You mustn't be so quick to belittle that which you do not understand. Our guest is an intellectual, and given to things of the mind.

—Yeah, right, replied Sean, whatwever you say, Ken.

—Nor am I so easily put off. You do yourself an injustice, closing your mind to so much, and make yourself a fool who thinks himself wise for winning the approval of the majority, who are often only bad men and moral defectives, and of no more account because of their numbers, but only more to be pitied when they mistake the norm for the ideal, not wishing to know any better.

—Well, excuse me!

—I do excuse you, but that would be an empty gesture if I did not correct you as well.

 

And with that Ken let out a great belch.

 

—O, well thanks, Ken, gosh, that sure is wise of you!

—I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight.

—It's a shaft, all right.

—O, boy, here we go! warned Bud, laughing.

—I think I'm gonna puke, said Homer.

—What a bunch o' silly wizards, continued Jim.

Ken laughed, they all laughed. Ken's verbosity was a feint they'd seen before. He was part of the gang, though easily the strangest among them. Older, more independent, he would say what he would. Later, Sean poured me a beer while Homer expostulated on the theory of quantum mechanics and what he called the observer problem, and how merely looking at a system changes the system in unpredictable ways.

—Where do you go from here? Sean asked, everything forgotten.

—West, California. I'm not sure beyond that.

—Wherever you go there you are, he stated.

—Yeah, I guess . . .

—Heavy blues?

—Hmm? No, I wish everything would slow down a little.

—Ahh.

—We've been traveling a long time. I suppose I'm missing home a little.

—You can always go home again.

—Hmm? O, right, ha! What a weird sense of humor!

—O, thanks! said Sean, quite pleased.

—No, it's funny, it's . . .

—Wry? Jim suggested.

—Bizarre? offered Homer.

—Stupid? tendered Bud.

—Fuck you all very much, said Sean, in his element now.

Jack and Barb were oblivious to the foregoing. They were kissing. Barb was fondling Jack's groin muscle. What a slut, I thought, immediately guilty for passing judgement.

—Hey, you guys, come up for air, insisted Sean. Geez, try to relax, will you?!

—O, sorry, said Jack, befuddled. Barb only said you guysssss, which seemed somehow to express her inmost feelings. She gave out with this in a peevish tone, conveying a note of injured sensibilities.

—O, sorry, said Sean, gleeful. I thought you were going into oxygen debt or something.

Oxygen debt? I wondered at that, put it down to Homer's influence, or Jim's.

Brian J Flanagan

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