Chapter the First

Chapter 1

On the run from the police in the back streets of Paris last night, holed up in the west of Ireland today, posing as a student abroad ... books, papers and backpack for camouflage, an anonymous American in a village from the Middle Ages, waiting out the rain by an open hearth, a fugitive in flight, stealing time, thinking what to do, trying to set this down while memory is green and I can hear myself above the muttering of distant thunder, muffled by mist and rain.

It was early summer, and a lightning storm had passed through the night before.

   Warm light flowed in through high windows while I lay quietly, propped up in bed with a book in my lap, worrying over the future, fretting times past, wandering a realm between waking and dreaming. A wayward wind parted muslin curtains - torn, makeshift shades, like sails, billowing now on a sudden gust, scattering shadows. Prompting me to look up from long neglected reading.

A woman I once knew lay blissed out beside me, beer breath moving in recurrent sighs. While I tried to decipher a mystic logician who let fall the offhand remark: the mystery of the world is outside the world.

I watched a sleeping beauty compose her slight face in an enigmatic expression. Her name I recall now was Gloria, because of the song. Rather than pretend to read blurred words, I put the book aside and gave reluctant witness to the morning unfolding, sun shifting in his shadowed passage through the hours.

Sunshine daydream do da-do ... the stereo playing low in the living room.

Awake, awash, not wholly alone, already a few miles down the road, then, when out of the blue a car pulled up in the drive, followed by a gentle rap tap tap and the back door creaking open. I figured it for one of my brother's friends.

But that was actually when Jack made his entrance. A bit of a start, that - the room hushed while time held its breath a moment. I hadn't seen Jack in years. And now this abrupt appearance, this all of a sudden visitation - the form of my old buddy looming in the doorway, on a spring morning.

- Whoa! I says. I guess the party can start, now!

- How, ya doin', Guy? Jack whispered back, so as not to disturb the woman at my side.

Jack stood framed in my brother's door, handsome as the day, blue eyes wide, slackjaw, beholding all agape the spectacle of my youthful debauch. ("A debacle unequaled in the annals of universal squalor," quoth the bard, Bonzo.)

- What are you doing? Jack wanted to know.

- Practicing detachment! I called back, under my breath, as though in a church.

- Don't think I've ever heard it called that! Mind if I sack out on the couch?

- Sure thing! What's goin' on?

- Tell you later! Go back to sleep!

- No way!

Meaning this was highly improbable. The woman stirred beside me, sleepy, supple. Jack's arrival was a rush. Wait till she saw him. She'd be impressed. Jack was excellent good times. A startling handsome blond cat with more charm than caution, his college day exploits were legend among our crowd. Jack had been my street mentor, my guide to the underworld of biker bars and strip joints - balanced by idyllic fishing trips, camping expeditions in the northern wilderness, on the boundary waters. It was Jack who, more than anyone else I have ever known, showed me how sheltered my youth had been. It's not like he ever made me feel bad about that - he just seemed to understand, to take it all in stride, and so I suppose you could say he took me under his wing.

Now here he had appeared without so much as a by-your-leave. Well! What might the storied visitor in my doorway portend? He always had good weed. I pulled on some shorts and sat down next to him on the couch. The living room was a disaster what with beer cans, cigarette butts, empty pizza cartons, odd bits of discarded clothing, and sundry artifacts quietly humming with intimations of other times ...

- Coffee? I asked. Sorry about the mess.

- No, thanks. Been up all night. It looks like your place.

- Yeah, me too ... the maid has the day off.

- Who's the lady?

- O, just a friend.

- You lost weight!

- You cut your hair!

- It's different, isn't it? he checked my reaction. Hair was political.

- Looks good! I assured him, nodding my approval.

- Thanks. Looks like you've been lifting weights?!

- A little bit. Trying to forestall the inevitable cardiac arrest. Also, lest we lose sight of our reason for being, the chicks go for it in a big way. And when I say big, I mean larger than average, know what I mean? Nudge, nudge!

- Don't drop the soap? he prodded.

- You audacious slut! I replied.

- Guy! Jack laughed, taken aback at my language.

- You take your coffee black, right?

Time was, Jack had worn his hair halfway down his back. Mine still rode my shoulders but Jack in his new incarnation looked all business. In our time together I'd been a dedicated couch potato and stoner - prompting one roommate (a leather-jacketed hippie since turned corporate exec with a place in the burbs), who, upon returning home from work after a hard day to find me supine on the couch (listening to Our Lady of the Roses ring out about being unfettered and alive, me smiling my most benevolent, most beatific smile), had taken to informing me, him in his ponytail and motorcycle jacket: Guy, you've got to maintain a minimal level of togetherness. Upon my recovery, I promised to have said advice etched into my tombstone.

In the present, however, I was lately transformed into a beefy (if somewhat faded) flower child, sporting blue jeans, t-shirt, hair cut medium long and parted in the middle. Of course I knew muscle was quite arguably a neofascist meat-head power trip - leastwise that was friend and advisor Bonzo's theory. For me, it was a more personal matter of cleaning up my act, looking good, taking care of my health and getting laid. You know. But it was Bonzo who made it all explicit for us. As when, by a perfectly logical argument, he demonstrated that Jack's motorcycle could be traced to a Nazi inspiration, asserting emphatically and with dead earnest insistence that it was no mistake calling them crotch rockets - the throb of power between one's thighs, and so forth, and so on.

- So what's your point? Jack had mildly replied, once Bonzo disengaged from his diatribe du jour.

Jack's knack for understatement established, he set the room spinning with his little comeback. Jack had gotten one over on Bonzo. Jack was our hero. Eventually he forged an uneasy alliance with Bonzo, who had also long since fallen off the face of the earth, leaving in his wake an ache of anxiety, a storm of speculation and anticipation of his return foretold.

In the here and now however was an old friend come back to me from that peculiar epoch, looking distinctly road weary.

- Go ahead and shower, if you like.

- Actually, that sounds good, he yawned, stretching his limbs and screwing up his face.

- Hey, make yourself at home, bud. What time is it? I yawned in chorus.

- Thanks, Guy. It's getting on toward noon, I think. No wait, that's mountain time. It must be about one.

- No shit?! Whoa . . . time to get rolling!

- Don't bother on my account. I'm gonna have to snooze, here. I will take you up on that shower, though.

- Go right ahead.

I looked in on Gloria. She'd turned over in bed. Her wonderful great mounds rose and fell in a sleepy slow rhythmic lunar movement. She was a good girl. She worried over me. She had reason. I closed the slatted doors. One hinge hung loose. Have to fix that, one of these days.

I put on a Pure Prairie League album which was most decidedly one of the year's best and nice mellow morning type music besides. Jack got me higher than Jesus and we talked and laughed and smoked cigarettes, carrying on like old times in good spirits, though remembering to be quiet so as not to wake Gloria.

During a lull I went for more coffee and Jack got up to get his things out of the car. Mug in hand I followed him to the porch to behold a sunny midwestern afternoon framed in clear skies, enormous white cumulus clouds drifting on a blue delirium, dazzling white, while here below blossoms in the doorway blooming from green buds, tendrils entwining latticework with bees humming, songbirds chirping, the whole scene impossibly cheerful, but there it was, a golden afternoon in the irrepressible month of May.

Just outside my door, shining in the parking lot, a sleek red sports car rested, relaxing with the top down, for all the world sunning itself in the drive.

- Jeepers! Is that yours?!

- Well, I paid for it, said Jack, pride mixed with misgiving.

- No doubt! What is it, a Fiat? I wondered at the sleek machine.

- Yup. I picked that up about a month ago with a free set of batteries at no extra charge . . .

- Whoa! Fiat Deluxe! She's really sweet, Jack.

- Thanks, he said, lifting his load from the passenger seat.

- What a nice day! I enthused. Good to see you, bud.

- Thanks. It is awful pretty, isn't it? Jack replied, stretching and smiling, his eyes distant.

Then, turning to me he gave me a big hug hello. Jack was my only male friend who ever hugged me. I hugged him back, picking him up off the floor for a moment, enfolding him in my enthusiasm.

Jack's family was loaded. Most of the time you'd never know but then and again he'd flash a wad or show up with a new toy - a motorcycle, a high end stereo system, a Fiat. He could be generous beyond belief. I believe in having an open hand, he'd say. Time and again I'd had occasion to thank him for his largesse, wondering guiltily how I'd ever pay him back.

A little later I was cleaning up the kitchen, trying to look halfway respectable for company when Gloria squealed. She'd gone to join me in the shower and had found Jack installed there instead. I hadn't heard her over the running water and turned to see a flash of lovely form dash past the kitchen door - woman with tan lines framed in flight, nude esthetic stasis, O!

I started to laugh. A moment later Gloria stormed into the kitchen wrapped in my red bathrobe, big brown Celtic eyes nailing me. She was hot.

- You dork! she actually said to me.

- 'Morning, Glory, I chortled, trying not to bust, attempting to stifle a chuckle which nonetheless broke instantaneously into a bellowing, full-throttled guffaw.

- It's not funny! she insisted, picking up a carving knife from the counter. Visibly peeved, her expression askew - she was dangerous like this.

- Sorry, honey. Ouch! Hey!

- You should've seen the look on his face! she said, reeling, seeing him in her mind's eye, meanwhile jabbing at me, trying to puncture me with the pointy end.

- Ouch! Knock it off! Jack's cool. So . . . did you get introduced?

- Yeah! Maybe he needs his back washed! Let's do find out! Ha ha ha, she mocked me, meanwhile sidling off toward the bath.

- O, no ... no back washing ... and no bush whacking ... no swashbuckling wish ... making ...

- Stop while you still can, she said, planting her index finger on my lips.

- But I'm just getting started!

- I know. Later! she waved me off, strumming the air with her long fingers.

- No way, I proclaimed, seizing her and drawing her to me, relentless, to enfold her breathless in my manly arms. I cooed to her.

- Sorry, but I need you first.

She really let me have it then. O, the mad rush of it. What can I say? I was an idiot, I was young. Later, I wondered how accidental her meeting with Jack had been, and why I really didn't seem to care.

The Hamburg Inn, our town's pre-eminent greasy spoon establishment, provided a feast almost unmoved by the years, featuring generous cheese burgers, thick chocolate malts in old-fashioned frosty soda fountain glasses, home fries, fried chicken, omelets any time of day - and a portrait in miniature of the town: young and old, every color of collar, the hip and the square and the I don't care, working class zeroes cheek by cheek with academic mandarins and elves, artists and writers known round the world, they sat together on stools alongside petty mediocrities with their pretentious minions, their pointed opinions. And then you had your patented crusty burnouts living on coffee and smokes.

- I'd like the chicken special, please, said Jack to the waitress, a willowy lass who took her job seriously.

- Ooo, gross, she said.

- Is that not good? he inquired.

- It's the worst, like, gag me. Better have the chicken sandwich. It's grilled. I mean, if you have to eat meat.

- Do you have tenderloins? Jack was naturally curious.

- Spare me. Can I take your order, please?

- I'll take the chicken special. And coffee. Thank you! Jack piped his thank you's like a little kid.

- Just coffee for me, I added.

- Is that all your having? Jack solicited this information with a quizzical expression, bordering on alarm. This was not to be, he seemed to say.

- Trying to maintain my boyish figure, I advised him, deadpan though seriously hungry.

- Give me a break, said the waitress.

- Hey, I'm buying, said Jack.

- O, well, in that case! I'll have a BLT, please.

- That is so disgusting, said the wench, whose name tag read: Dawn.

- So how's work? Jack subtly modulated the conversation. The maid departed.

- Great! I just got fired.

- What, seriously? How come? Jack could hardly believe it.

- Misuse of university facilities.

- So what does that mean?

- I got caught napping in the classics wing, I confessed.

- O, well, if that's all. Jack laughed and laughed.

- also apparently disrespectful and unmanageable. A law unto myself.

- So, then, you're free, he surmised, assessing the situation in the way he had.

- Or anyway dirt cheap. Then Martha threw me out of her place.

- Couldn't make the rent?

- O, I wasn't paying rent. She came home from work with an upset stomach and found me cultivating a young acquaintance of mine, so that didn't go down real well

- Women is fickle creatures, reflected Jack.

- No kiddin'. Like the silence of God, it passeth understanding. Then she couldn't stop throwing up. Geez, it was awful.

- Well, ha, seeing as you're at loose ends, why don't you come along to New York? Jack was on his way to the city.

- What, are you serious?

- Sure, he said, hey, why not? I'd enjoy the company and you could share the driving.

- Whoa! You know, I've never been to New York, though I've seen the movie. I have to tell you though, um . . . the thing is, I'm just broke. My brother's been putting me up at his place, you know.

- That's cool. I've been broke. Don't sweat it, OK? I'm not hurting for bucks.

- O, geez, that's real nice, Jack.

- Seriously! You can always pay me back. Think about it.

- I will. Thanks. Good to see you, Jack.

- Likewise.

Dawn returned with our victuals. Flinging our food down before us she turned to go, though not without a parting shot.

- Well! Here's your charred animal flesh! Enjoy!

- What a rosy disposition, I reflected.

After supper we walked across town to Gabe's. The Blue Band was playing. Between the Crow's Nest and Gabe's you got most of the decent music in town, together with an earnest assembly of bikers, druggies, deadbeats and barflies, the dredges, the college town drudges of whom I myself had been one. Like all my generation looking for the authentic, the strange and the revelatory, riding the periphery, anxious to leave white bread suburban America behind, an authentic late Beat. Gabe's had held out a turned down grungy subterranean glamour for me, though nowadays it seemed only sadly routine, a sanctuary for lost souls and common drunks, a continuing series of sordid connections, nocturnal forays in bush country, drug addled deals, low rent rendezvous soap opera gone south so long ago, like vanishing dust in the rearview mirror.

On this night, contrary to expectation, Gabe's was, however, jumping. We ran into some of my buddies who hung there, chief among whom it must be stated were Hans and Kurt and Walter. Hard-core crazies, nucleus of the local chapter of the fraternity and royal disorder of hippies, ambassadors plentipotentiated for the Woodstock Nation, Hans, Kurt and Walter wore their hair long, drank stupefying quantities of beer and hosed chicks on a frequent basis. In high gear tonight, cackling maniacally, the threesome tore about the bar opening beer bottles, napkin dispensers, cases of beer - anything that could mimic a mouth - simultaneously emitting a strangled garbled yoick! the which appeared, by a kind of ventriloquist's art, to issue forth from a variety of unlikely sources, the effect being high hilarity, as this wrenching guttural yoick! sounding like a squawk from a beast reeling from mortal disgust, animated, on various occasions, restroom doors, cupboards, jars, books and bread boxes, cabinets and canisters, thereby informing everyday objects with a deranged sensibility, a cracked croaking complaint, like a Disney cartoon gone decidedly awry.

Attired in t-shirts, jeans and work shirts, the three of them with dark hair years now unshorn and worn down to the level of their respective butts, the members of the weird trio nonetheless managed to preserve their individuality. Kurt, for example, sported his trademark death black Lennon shades, though it was night and we were indoors and it was dark. Kurt was the chief architect of a nonstandard psychoanalytic theory wherein all action and thought found both source and motive force, not in Eros or a will to power or spirit, but in the quality or faculty of spite. Wherein all was done and said in spite of what you might think, believe, expect or prefer. That is to say, in spite of all that.

- Hey, Kurt. Hey, Walt. Hans! I called, accosting them.

- Goober says Hey, said Kurt.

- Hey, back, Goob, said Hans.

- Yoick! said Walter.

- You know Jack, don't you?

- Howdy, said Jack.

The bunch of them shook an elaborate series of hippie handshakes, inspiring successive degrees of lunacy, the impish trio cackling introductions in unison, heads back, crowing at the ceiling.

- Yoick! they thundered, in chorus. They had the room turned upside down. This was their favorite effect.

- Isn't that Martha? said Hans, the handsomest of the bunch, to me.

- Yoick! remarked Kurt.

Martha was plying her way toward us through the crowd on the dance floor. She knew everybody and acted for all the world like she was having a fine time out on the town without me and everything was cool. She made me warm. In spite of everything Martha was still the only one in the room for me. Everybody could see it. What was my problem?

- O, it is my lady, it is my life.

- She's a good woman, said Walter, with a slight emphasis that suggested I did not wholly appreciate this fact. It was true. Walter was the soul of kindness and sincerity. A serious, funny and passionate guy, a heart-to-heart friend and first-rate stoner, Walter cared about everybody and found ways to let them know. He went to peace rallies, had actually read parts of the Vedas and supported just causes. I listened to his advice. As for Martha, however …

- What's up? she asked, no kiss.

- Hi, I said.

- Hi, she said.

- So . . . do you wanna dance? I said.

- Yoick! reiterated Kurt, who'd once informed me that, whereas I thought I was pretty cool, I was really just a fat boy with a big head.

We drank quite a lot that night, with time out in the beer garden for a little doobie between sets, the ceremony of the pipe, the fire, the sweet acrid smoke like burning leaves. After wards I danced with Martha. Then Jack danced with Martha. Well, but Jack danced with all the girls, reminding me that, in the beginning, it had come home to me how Jack was basically a nicer guy than me, with my sarcasm and condescension, my fears and failures, and how I was lately more at home in my own skin, thinking no small part of that was due to him.

Jack told Martha about our plans for New York. She looked surprised and a little pained. She wanted to know what I expected to find in the big city. Later, slow dancing, she wanted to know how long we'd be gone and I asked her on too joking a note if she'd miss me. She shook a little and then she began to cry, like she thought she was losing me forever, so I held her close and kissed her while the band played Tequila Sunrise and the lights burned low and blue.

Soft light, city! I walked to my brother's place the following morning, thinking how there was nowhere that was my own. Stopping by the merry-go-round in Green Square Park to look out over the town, smoke a Marlboro and strike a self-conscious pose, I felt the tidal pull of familiarity but then an insistent surge, an urge for going. I took a long last look over the dawnlight forms of school halls, hospitals, churches and office buildings - a sleepy little college town I'd no doubt outgrown. I took a long drag and then flicked away the butt, the coal hitting the dew on the grass, sizzling on impact with the misgivings of forethought.

Jack was awake and drinking coffee when I got back. I packed clothes and kit in the back of the Fiat, trying to think of what I would need, trying not to forget anything. My brother Gary was sleeping. Looking around, I recorded an impression for my private album, a caricature of the counter-cultural collective, dating from that peculiar era, the artist's rendering of the unreconstructed hippie pit - an early work, not without interest, consisting of vinyl records, mostly rock'n' roll, though not without a sprinkling of classics, all very tasteful, all gathering dust and detritus - books by dead poets and living cartoonists, a tattered Whole Earth catalog, the walls bedecked with Beatles, Bogart and Little Feat posters, a yin/yang symbol in black and white, with pride of place going to a venerable raggedy concert bill, presenting the Rolling Stones. (You get the picture? Yes, we see.) I smiled, looking in on my brother Gary, sleeping. We'd shared a room when we were kids. I left him a note: Yo, bro! Gone to NY. Chow. Moi. Fractured lingo made him crazy. This was great fun. Then we were out the door and into the car ... and it felt like a familiar dream, like a pair of old jeans, like, serious wheels, man! We put in at a 7-Eleven for coffee and smokes and then we were out on the interstate, eastbound.

Within an hour we were coming up on Rock Island, crossing the rattling old suspension bridge while below the Mississippi River mirrored an earlier world, the sun ascending. We didn't talk much, at first. Jack turned on the radio to some jammin' tunes on KRNA but I wasn't really listening, given over to odd wayward memories of people I hadn't thought about in years - personal stuff from the now distant past. But then I was all of twenty-four. Time to get on with it. Then it came home to me — I was really doing this, you know, spinning out into the summer green — footloose, free and I thought yes, now we are gone, now we are on our way and I whooped and pounded Jack on the shoulder, causing him to jump and the car to lurch across the road.

Blue skies above, I was gone.