I woke an hour or so later, cold on the hard stone floor of the church foyer. As I slowly regained consciousness, feeling the cold on my cheek, the pain in my hipbone, I remembered the events of the evening. Only the cold, the pain, and the sight of the church door looming over me assured me it all wasn’t just a dream.
I sat up, head pounding, eyes burning, ears ringing, nose running, a taste of metal in my mouth. The clear sensations of pain and discomfort were delicious! Deliciously, undeniably real, clear and sweet, like the first moments of awakening after a fever breaks. I leaned against the big wooden doors and laughed, savoring the sweet reality, the cold calm and hard-edged delight of clear dawn after a night of delirium.
When I could stand, I headed down the steps and back the way I had come. As I passed the sidewalk sign with the church’s proclamation on becoming a Christian, I shook my head bitterly. Guess I don’t meet God’s terms, I thought. Shit! I’m glad those doors were locked.
I wandered towards home as best I could, lost in thought, trying to make sense of the bizarre sequence of events: Salinger’s pilgrim story, the lusty landlady and her Jesus prayer, Charlie, the wall, the church. Like the meteor back at the cabin, it seemed to be some kind of sign, I just wasn’t sure about the meaning.
Wish I were sitting on that well with the monks in NKP, I thought. So peaceful there.
“What do you think is more important in his poetry, I mean… like, literary devices, the creativity of all that, or the content?” Judson’s voice broke into my thoughts. He was looking earnestly up at Charlie, who sat in the passenger seat smiling.
I realized I had been reviewing yet again the Jesus prayer incident, as it had come to be identified in my mind, and oblivious to their conversation for some time now.
We must be almost to Lexington, I thought.
Somehow I had made it back to the little house by the levee earlier that morning, slept for a few hours on the couch, and waked up only when the smell of coffee and preparations for another weekend trip made it impossible to sleep.
“It’s not so much a matter of literary devices…” Charlie was saying, “it’s more how he strings ordinary words together in unconventional ways to lift the reader above the level of mediocrity of his subjective experience.” He took a drag on his cigarette, leaned back with a contented expression, and blew a long stream of smoke that was quickly snatched away by the wind and swirled into the back of the van.
My God! I thought. They’re gonna talk about their dear damned W.S. Merwin all the way to fucking Lexington. I don’t know how long I can take this. Then something struck me.
I turned abruptly to look at Charlie. Maybe I should get him to talk about that ‘subjective experience’ shit a little more, I thought, remembering him on the floor peering out the window and talking on an invisible radio.
Judson, sitting on the floor between the seats, had been staring between his knees. He looked up when Charlie paused. “So all the sentences running together like thoughts, without any punctuation, all that’s part of the effect…”
I lost the rest of his question, thinking of ways I could turn this conversation to my own ends. I tried to catch the drift of their discussion.
“…while we’re experiencing, we’re also thinking, and that connects even the most ordinary events to this deeper stream of meaning that is constantly flowing in the unconscious thought process… so the poem, like the reader, exists in both objective and subjective ways… maybe not at the same time…” Charlie’s voice trailed off as he submerged in his own thoughts.
Judson looked thoughtful, but perplexed.
I seized the moment. “You said something about subjective experience a while ago… what does Merwin have to say about the nature of reality?” I was trembling a little inside already. I knew I was on shaky ground, above my head, but maybe I could get something started. Either draw Charlie out or really piss him off again.
“The nature of reality?” Judson sounded puzzled. “What does that have to do with it? The man’s a poet, not a fucking philosopher!”
Charlie just smiled. I wished I could see his face better, catch any telltale signs, but I was driving and traffic was picking up as we approached the city.
“Sure!” I pressed on despite my trepidation. “But poetry has to come from some philosophical base – I just wonder where he falls on the spectrum.” This wasn’t really where I wanted to go, but I was trapped.
“Fuck the spectrum!” Charlie spit out. He didn’t look at me and he didn’t stop smiling.
“Yeah, just read it and dig it!” Judson said. “Don’t be so analytical.”
“Well, I’ve read some of it – the one he got the Pulitzer for – and I just don’t quite get where the guy’s coming from,” I said. I was in deep now and treading water.
“Just keep reading and you will,” Judson said, his voice softening as he tried to be encouraging. I hated the condescension. But I pressed on.
“But I’m interested in the whole question of reality,” I said. Charlie at the window, the wall, the church steps, flashed in my mind. “I mean, I’m just wondering what his poetry speaks to in that regard… like, if reality only exists in the mind, then is fantasy as real as any other experience? That kinda shit.” I snatched a look at Charlie to catch a reaction, but his face was impassive.
“Yeah, shit is right!” Judson exploded. “That stuff is just bullshit, it doesn’t mean anything. Just read the poems and feel the meaning, just flow with them.”
“Yeah, cool Judson, I can dig it.” I said absently, searching for a way to redirect the conversation. Judson went on effusing about Merwin and poetry as I got occupied with looking for a chance to change lanes for the left turn ahead that would take us to the Latham’s road.
Waiting for a left turn signal, I tried again. I looked deliberately at Judson, sitting on the floor. “Have you ever had any waking fantasy experiences that seemed real to you? You know, visions, hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, stuff like that? Besides on drugs, I mean.” I tried to watch Charlie’s face without being obvious, and missed most of Judson’s answer.
The signal arrow finally lit up and I wheeled the van around the corner. “What’s the name of the road again?”
“Briarcliff. It’s a mile or so down.”
“Great.” I looked down at Judson again. “Merwin is clearly an artist, right?”
“Sure he is.”
“Well, the purpose of art is to reveal mysteries, or so Ouspensky or somebody said… I think the question of what is real is one of the great mysteries, so I’m just interested in what people’s perspective is on that… like what Merwin’s poetry reveals about that mystery. I just thought since you guys were so into Merwin, you could help me understand.”
Judson was thinking about it.
If I can keep him hooked into the Merwin connection, maybe I can push farther into the discussion of delusion, get Charlie talking about this with somebody else around, I thought.
“I just don’t know about that.” Judson said slowly. “I just like reading it. I don’t think he talks about that sort of thing… I don’t remember it anyway.”
“No, you’re right, he probably doesn’t talk about it.” I ventured. “But on some level, the basic philosophical position must come through in the poems. Maybe I’m being too analytical, but I find it interesting. Why do you think he’s so obscure? Don’t you think there’s some underlying message there? His poems seem to be going on in someone’s head, his head, I guess – so it seem there’s some idea of that as reality, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“What do you think, Charlie?” I was trembling again.
“About what?” Charlie turned his head slowly, a chill in his voice.
“About Merwin, his message, his take on reality.”
“Well, he’s no damn rationalist, if that’s what you mean.” He laughed.
“But you know, it’s more than labels. Does he take interior experience as reality? Like those nights when you were shooting commies out the window, man! Is that reality or not?” I was hoping my voice wasn’t trembling like my stomach. I didn’t mean to be so direct. I held my breath, awaiting an explosion.
Charlie eyed me coldly for a second, then laughed. “Shit! I told you I was just drunk! Why are you bringing that up again!”
“It was just a little scary, man. I don’t know, like you were delusional.”
“Shiiiyit!” He dragged the word out derisively. “You sound like my mama!” He was mocking, ridiculing. “Cain’t Ah get a little drunk without you givin’ me shit about it?” His voice was cold and sharp-edged toward the end.
Judson smiled. “Shit, John! You just don’t know ole Charlie! He does get a little wild and crazy when he’s drunk, but he’s not fucking delusional!”
“Yeah, okay, okay. Sorry! I know.” I hated myself for caving. Never could take sarcasm and ridicule.
“Oh shit, you just passed the road, man!”
“Oh. Sorry.” I pulled into a driveway and wheeled around. Everyone was quiet. I turned onto Briarcliff and Charlie and Judson fell back into their conversation about Merwin as if none of it had happened. Literary devices and voice. I was too sick to follow it.
I sighed and lit a cigarette. I wasn’t sure if Charlie just really had no idea what he had done, what had really happened in the cabin, and back at the little house in Maysville, or if he was just stonewalling. Was the anger a response to being accused, or to cover up fear of discovery? I was beginning to despair of ever getting him to talk about it. Every time I tried, it was a disaster.
And there never seemed to be a time to talk to Judson alone.
Maybe I should just forget it. Things had been pretty calm the last couple of weeks, before the madness last night. Of course, I got pretty delusional myself last night, I thought. Why don’t I just try to forget it all, hope it doesn’t happen anymore.
Shit! Hope is the last resort of the miserable and weak. Fuck Hope. Either accept it or do something about it, don’t ‘hope’!
I’m going to confront him about the knife, damn-it. It’s still there, under the mattress and he’s never mentioned it. Now that’s definitely weird. If he just doesn’t remember, wouldn’t he have asked me about the knife? I moved it from his bag to the van. Surely he’d have missed it…
When we arrived at the Latham’s, Judson’s mother was all the gracious southern hostess, insisting we stay for supper.
“It’s too late to start for Memphis tonight, so you boys just spend the night here,” she cooed as they sat around the kitchen table drinking iced tea after the fried chicken was gone.
“We’re just going to Nashville, Mother. Caroline’s meeting me at Arthur’s house. We’ll be there by midnight.”
“I see. Midnight.”
“Thanks for the great supper!”
“Yes, thanks a lot Mrs. Latham. It was great. Nice to see you again,” Charlie was oozing charm.
“Why, you’re most welcome! Do come back to see us, Charles!”
“Yes ma’m, thank you ma’m.”
Damn! All the way to Nashville and back, hanging out in Nashville two days, and I still haven’t mentioned it.
It was a fun trip. I had really liked the old bar The Back Door, watching the Opry stars sitting at the bar smoking and drinking and talking to each other like they were ordinary people.
I had thought about getting the knife out from under the mattress and putting it back in Charlie’s bag, or laying it up on the dashboard or somewhere to see if he would say anything, maybe get some conversation started. But I hadn’t done anything.
Why not? What’s the real reason? All that stuff about feeling responsible, that’s just rationalizing bullshit. Maybe it’s my old familiar enemy, boredom; trying to keep loneliness at bay. Companionship. Nah, more bullshit.
It’s fear. Just fear. Fear of – not just loneliness, it’s fear of being alone. Making this trip alone. Which boils down to being afraid of being afraid. When I’m alone, I’m afraid. Afraid of everything. With somebody else there, even Charlie, it’s not so bad. More afraid of being alone than of being with him, crazy or not, knife or no knife.
That may be crazier than he is.
As we began the descent into the Ohio valley, I looked over at Charlie, nearly dozing in the right seat.
“So where are we gonna get the money to head for California? I’m broke.”
“Charlie shifted in his seat and continued to stare at the dark road. “Good question,” he said after some time. “Maybe you could hit up your old man for a hundred bucks.”
“Yeah, right.” I snorted, thinking about it. Hey Dad, can you let me have a hundred dollars to head out for California with a lunatic drunk? Sure, son! Send us a card from the Golden Gate. Fat chance.
“I don’t think that’s gonna fly,” I said. “Maybe you could ask Judson for a little loan, he’s a working man.” I looked over at Charlie. “And doesn’t he know the dude that owes you money?”
Charlie said nothing.
“Think we could make it on a hundred bucks?” I ventured. “San Fran’s a long way.”
“Sure!” He said it like, any fool knows that. “We don’t need that much, even. We can pick up hitchhikers and ask ‘em for gas money. Like Cassady and Kerouac.”
“Yeah. Maybe so. But that was a different road they were on, man. This ain’t 1950.”
“We’ll make it. We’ve got a week before Caroline comes. We’ll get money from somewhere.”
“So why is it Caroline’s coming back to Maysville? I never did get that whole thing.”
“Valerie is moving to Nashville to live with Al. Caroline doesn’t want to live in Memphis by herself, so she’s moving back to Judson’s.”
“O-Kay! So we hit the rowdy road.” I looked in the rear view to see if Judson was still sleeping in the back. I noticed the cardboard where the window used to be and winced slightly. We might make it, I thought, if one of us doesn’t do something really stupid.
I looked at the cardboard covered window again. Why do I always want to break glass when I get drunk? And why the fuck did I have to break the glass in my own van? I was beginning to have a bad feeling about this whole trip.
“So you guys be ready to head for Lexington about four tomorrow, okay?” Judson looked at Charlie and Charlie looked at me. I just shrugged and raised my eyebrows.
It was Thursday night and we were all just sitting around watching old movies and smoking cigarettes. It had been a calm, uneventful week.
Charlie looked back at Judson. “Sure!” he said brightly. His standard what-the-hell ‘sure’.
I looked at Charlie, then at Judson. “Only one problem. No money!” I laughed. It was a what-the-hell laugh. Because I had decided. I had decided that if Charlie didn’t come up with some money, money enough to get to California, I was heading back to Georgia.
“Yeah,” Charlie said. “We have to get some money before we can head out.”
“You don’t have any money, man?” Judson asked.
“No money!” Charlie said, throwing his hands up and giggling as if it were just fucking hilarious.
“Don’t I still owe you fifty dollars from that trip to Florida, man?”
Charlie’s face lit up and he looked perplexed for a moment. Then he laughed. “Yeah, that’s right! You do! I’m sure you do! And if you loaned me another fifty, we’d just be set!” He laughed again.
Judson looked serious. “Well, I can definitely pay you the fifty. But… I’ve got to get Caroline here and all that, so not sure about another fifty. Maybe I could do twenty-five. Think you could make it on seventy-five?”
“Sure!” Charlie said again.
His favorite word, I thought evilly.
“We’ll make it somewhere!” Charlie crowed. He laughed and looked at me. I just shrugged again.
“Whatever. Yeah. We’ll make it. It’ll be a rice and onions trip, but we’ll make it.” I had figured the gas at fifty, more or less, depending on the variations of the price along the way, to get to San Francisco. With seventy-five dollars, we’d make it…. If the van didn’t break down.
“Okay, I’ll get the money tomorrow when I cash my check,” Judson said. “We’ll go to Lexington for the weekend and you can leave from there whenever you’re ready.”
“Cool!” Charlie looked at me. “See, told you we’d get the money!” He was beaming. I tried hard to smile.
Clara’s fried chicken and good biscuits were waiting for them at the Latham house. Mrs. Latham sat watching them eat. “My, you boys must’ve been hungry. It does my heart good to see boys eating at my table again!”
“Yes ma’m, it sure is good Mrs. Latham!” I looked over at Clara, working in the kitchen, as I spoke. She looked at us, then quickly averted her eyes. “Great food, Clara!” I called out.
“Thank you, sir. Thank you. Glad you enjoyin’ it.” She smiled quickly, then went back to her work.
Mrs. Latham looked at me, her lips thin, then turned to Charlie. “And how is your family, Charles? I haven’t heard from Christine in ages.”
“They’re just fine, Mrs. Latham. They stay very busy, you know, and they’re out of the country quite often. I believe they were at the house in DC back in December. They’ve taken to spending the summers in London, I think. We don’t speak that often, really. They seem to be happier that way.” Charlie smiled his most charming and looked warmly at her. I almost choked on my biscuit, and looked out the window.
“Well, tell me about your dear sister; how is she?”
Charlie cocked his head to one side, smiled at Mrs. Latham, and began to tell her about his sister, his eyes closing as he spoke…
Judson and I finished eating and went off to the den leaving Charlie to entertain Mrs. Latham. We found Mr. Latham reading the paper in the den.
“Mind if we turn on the TV, Dad?” Judson asked.
“If you must,” he said, not looking out from behind his newspaper.
Judson smiled at me and shook his head. He turned the television on and they watched in silence for some time before the others joined us. Charlie came in petting a grey kitten, and sat down with it in his lap.
As they climbed into the van to leave the house two days later, I saw that Charlie had the same grey kitten with him. “What are you doing with that kitten, man?” I asked.
“Mrs. Latham gave her to me,” he answered, a child-like pride in his voice.
“Did she give you some cat food, too?” I sat with my hand on the key, hesitating, looking at Charlie.
“No, but the cupboard was well-stocked with that and a few other things I thought we could use.” He put down the kitten and took a plastic bag from under his coat. He dropped two bags of rice, a large jar of peanut butter, a bag of small red beans, and a few cans of cat food into the footlocker that held our food and cooking utensils.
I just shook my head. I didn’t want to even ask. I started the van and we pulled out slowly as Charlie stretched out in the back, the kitten curled up beside him. “Oh boy, here we go!” I said softly.
As we entered the commercial area of Lexington, Charlie crawled up to the front and sat in the passenger seat. “We just need to make one little stop before we get out on the road,” he said.
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“I need to visit a beverage center to stock up for the trip.” He smiled as if amused at himself. He didn’t look at me.
“You mean a liquor store?” I was incredulous.
“Of course,” Charlie said calmly. “Just a bottle to help us through the long nights.”
“Yeah? Well fuck that!” I said. “We don’t have the money to spare, besides I’d just as soon…”
“We’ve got plenty of money!” Charlie interrupted. “We don’t even need to buy any food; I took care of that, and it can’t take much more than fifty dollars for gas. It’s only a few bucks! Don’t worry so fucking much! Try to loosen up and have a little fun! You’re just too serious!”
I was breathing deeply, trying to get through this.
“Hey! There’s a liquor store right up there. Just pull in… I’ll only be a minute.”
“Pull fucking in, goddamn it! I got the damn money didn’t I? Now pull in.”
I began slowing down. I had no answer. It was his money. I really did want to loosen up and stop worrying about everything…. I pulled into the parking lot and wheeled to a stop in front of the store, growling in the loose gravel.
“Just leave it running, I’ll be right back!” Charlie said as he jumped out and ran into the store.
I slammed my fist into the steering wheel and looked away. “Stupid shithead!” I said aloud to myself. “Why do I give in like that?” I should’a just drove on, let him squawk, I thought. It’s my fucking van. I sighed. But he’d ‘a got it somehow, sometime anyway, I guess. We gotta stop sometime. He’d’ve found a way… If I hadn’t stopped, there’d have been icicles in here before we got to Colorado. “Stupid shithead!”
Charlie came out of the store clutching a long slender bag. Shit! He got a fucking fifth!
“What’d you get?” I called out as he approached.
Charlie just beamed. As he opened the door and got into the seat, he said, “Johnnie Walker Red!”
“Damn! That was more than a few dollars!”
“They had a special on,” Charlie said, still beaming. “I hate cheap whiskey!” He looked at me, tilting his head haughtily, and laughed.
I just looked at him for a few seconds, then roared out of the parking lot, spinning gravel and hardly looking as I pulled into the street.
“Wheee! Ride’em coyboy! We’re having us some fun now!” Charlie leaned out the window, laughing and waving to people in traffic. “California here we come!”
A couple of hours later, we crossed the Ohio River into Indiana. Charlie was still sitting with the bottle in his lap. I looked down at the greasy river and shuddered. “Hate to fall into that! It’s been through Cincinnati since it left Maysville. Probably eat the flesh right off your bones now!” I looked at Charlie, and he grinned.
“Ya know, ninety percent of the population of the U.S. lives within 500 miles of Cincinnati. We’re really in the heart of the beast now!”
We laughed together, and I felt better than I had since we left North Carolina. Guess I just have to keep moving. Now I’m not even worried about the damn bottle or the knife or any of that shit. Roll on!
As we came down off the big bridge, I looked over at Charlie. “Whoo-ee! We rollin’ now boys! We be in Illinois before you know it!”
“You bet!” he said. “I’m feelin’ so good now I might just have to take a drink a’ likker!” He was really grinning now.
“Oooh shit! Pass that bottle over here!” I echoed.
Charlie rolled the top of the paper bag down, cracked the seal on the lid, then stood the bottle up between his legs and carefully took off the top. He took the bottle in both hands and raised it to his lips, taking a long slug. “Aaahhhgh” he growled roughly, passing me the bottle.
I took a quick drink and shuddered slightly, then another and handed him back the bottle. “I’m set for Illinois now!”
Charlie took another good slug and then capped the bottle, carefully rolling the bag back up and stashing it under the seat. “Ah, that brightens my outlook on the day!”
He stretched his arms over his head and slid down in the seat, resting his head on the seat back, eyes closed.
I looked over at Charlie and shook my head, then leaned forward over the steering wheel. Looking at the speedometer, I eased the speed up another five miles per hour. Might as well take advantage of this fine interstate highway, I thought with a grin. If I was really ideological, I wouldn’t even drive on the damn thing. Nothing but a military project, designed for rapid troop deployment. Foolish Americans think it was built so they can go on vacation!
Just past Indian Creek, we stopped for a bathroom break and I studied the map, marveling at all the little towns crammed into the Indiana countryside. Worse than south Georgia, I thought. Too damn many people here. Not enough trees.
As we pulled onto the access ramp, we saw two guys with backpacks holding out their thumbs. “There’s your hitchhikers, Charlie. Wanna pick ‘em up?”
“Cool with me,” he said. He sat up and stared at the two young men. A tall one and a short one. Beards, hiking boots, jeans. The tall one with dark hair to his plaid shoulders, the short one in curly blonde locks and blue nylon windbreaker. “Yeah, they look okay. Let’s see where they’re going.”
I stopped in front of the two, and Charlie called out, “Where you guys headed?”
“Aspen, Colorado!” the shorter one said, stepping toward the window. “And we’d sure appreciate a ride as far as you’re going that direction. We’ve been standing out here all day and getting nothing but stares and waves.”
I wondered if Charlie would ask them about gas money.
“And it’s damn hot out here for September,” the taller one added.
“Well shit, we’re going to San Francisco, you want to go that far?” Chuck laughed and pointed to the side door. “Get in and we’ll take you as far as you want to ride.”
As they opened the door, Charlie turned around and pointed to the kitten sleeping on top of a pile of gear in the corner. “Look out for the kitten, now.”
“Cool! A little fur ball!”
They threw in their packs and scrambled in behind them, overflowing with gratitude for the lift. Alex and Tim were from Fort Wayne and going to visit a friend who was working as a ranger intern in the White River National Forest.
“Hey, how’s things with the big WOWO Radio?” I asked.
“Oh, pretty good, I guess,” Tim said. “We don’t listen to WOWO that much any more, but they’re still booming out across America.”
“Yeah, I grew up listening to it down in Georgia. We even called in requests and dedications and stuff. WOWO and WLS. And WLAC. So what is Fort Wayne like?”
“It’s alright, man.” It was Tim again. Alex had his long legs stretched out on the floor, leaning back on his pack. “Most people are pretty nice. The pigs really suck, though. You know, just your typical American town, I guess. Not too much happening, good or bad. Sometimes it gets real hard to buy good dope. It’s a real drag of a town then. Everybody’s pissed at everybody else, blaming everybody else, complaining, you know.”
“Yeah man, we know. We left Orlando about three months ago for the same reasons.” I told them I was going to visit an old girlfriend in San Francisco. Fortunately, no one asked why Charlie was going to San Francisco. No reason to go into all that.
When we stopped for gas, Alex offered to pay. Charlie got magnanimous. “Nah, man you don’t need to do that, we’ve got enough to get us to California.” I just shook my head.
Alex bought everybody cold drinks and snacks, and when we were rolling again, he passed a fat joint around and everybody got real silly. Tim played with the ‘fur-ball’ for hours. When I got sleepy, Alex drove and I slept. We switched off driving from then on, determined to press on to Denver non-stop. We blew through St. Louis, marveling at the arch floating above us. It was about the coolest thing I ever saw.
I slept through Missouri and woke up in Kansas. I couldn’t see anything, so I went back to sleep.
The next morning, I was driving again. I started looking for the Rockies to appear on the horizon. As the morning wore on, I knew we must be close to Denver, but I still hadn’t seen the mountains… Abut half an hour later, I realized that the blue horizon I’d been studying was the mountains. Not the sky, but a wall of mountains so high I had mistaken them for the sky.
I had to lean over and look up through the windshield to see the peaks. I drove along leaning on the steering wheel, mouth open, speechless.
We drove slowly around the deserted Sunday morning streets of Denver, looking for a café. Alex wanted to buy everybody breakfast.
“Can you believe we’re a mile high? And look how wide these streets are!” Tim was fired up. He had slept all night and was ready for action. He had a comment about everything. “Can you believe how clean the streets are? I never saw a town with streets this clean! Everything is so clean!”
“Shut up Tim,” Alex said.
“Man, it’s like it’s all brand new. Even the sidewalks and the gutter are wide!” He hung out the window gawking.
Finally we found a diner and went in for breakfast. Everybody had the special: eggs and hash browns with toast and jelly, orange juice and coffee. Breakfast in Denver. Breakfast in America.
Even Tim shut up while we ate. As we sat around sipping coffee, Alex spoke. “Why don’t you guys come on up to Aspen and stay a few days. I’m sure it’ll be cool with Michael.” He looked at us. “You guys don’t seem like you’re in any big hurry.” He smiled.
Charlie sputtered and laughed. “We have to get there sometime this year, right John?”
“Yeah, right!” I turned to Alex. “Man! I’d love to go to Aspen for a day or two We’re a couple of days ahead of schedule anyway.” I didn’t mention that since I’d never been able to get in touch with CJ, she didn’t even know we were coming, much less expect us at a certain time. I had written, but if there was an answer it had not caught up with me yet. On the move, that’s me.
“We had a schedule?” Charlie laughed, and I laughed with him.
“Far out!” Tim said. “Let’s go to Aspen, see how the beautiful people live.”
A few hours and several mines later, we were gawking at lycra and furs, glitzy bars and trendy boutiques. Tim was gushing.
“Shit!” I said. “Let’s get outta here! I can’t even afford to ride around on the streets in this place! Gives me the creeps.”
Charlie sniggered, and Alex and Tim laughed. “We ain’t in Kansas no more!” Tim quipped. “I think you turn right up here to head up to Michael’s place. It’s not too far.”
Michael’s place was an old trailer on the edge of a big meadow a little way out of Aspen. Michael had been fine with us sleeping on his living room floor, while Alex and Tim took the spare bedroom. After a little lunch, we were all lying in the warm sun watching Charlie’s kitten explore this new mile-high world.
The kitten chased a blowing leaf awhile and then clawed its way up to Tim’s shoulder, ran across his chest and leaped on some imaginary prey in the dying grass. “Whoa, fur ball! Getting a little frisky aren’t you!” Tim laughed. We all grinned and Charlie grabbed the kitten, plopping it in his lap and stroking its head gently.
The kitten rolled over onto its back and pawed at Charlie’s hand, then twisted back around and jumped off onto the grass again, running toward an oak nearby.
“That cat got a name?” Alex asked.
“I was thinking of Maxine,” Charlie grinned, “but I thought maybe I should wait and see what fits. I just got her a few days ago.”
“Maxine, huh? My step-mother’s name is Maxine,” Tim said. “She’s no kitten.”
“How about fur-ball?” Tim suggested with a grin.
“She’s a feisty little thing,” I said as she clambered a few feet up the trunk of the tree, then inched her way back down and resumed her battle with the leaves blowing around.
The conversation turned to the possibilities for adventure in town the coming evening, but lacking much information, there was a lull that left all four stretched out on the ground. Several minutes went by without a comment, and suddenly Charlie sat up.
“Where’s that dang cat?” he said, laughing as he looked around.
The rest of us sat up and looked around. “Not much of anywhere she could go really,” Alex noted, looking around at the empty meadow to our backs and the three medium oaks between us and the trailer some 30 yards away. The ground was clear otherwise, with no hiding places, even for a small cat.
Then we heard it. Tiny kitten sounds floating down from on high. We finally spotted her on a large limb that extended out over us.
“How the hell did she get up there,” Charlie sputtered. More to the point, how were we going to get her down? She didn’t seem to have mastered backing up yet, and just kept inching further out the limb, mewing all the while.
We clustered around underneath, clueless as to what to do. Then suddenly it wasn’t an issue anymore. The kitten suddenly slid off the limb and came plummeting to earth just yards away, hitting the ground with a solid thud.
It didn’t sound good. We all raced to her, fearing the worst. But as we arrived, she stood up, sputtered and shook, blood coming from her nose and mouth. Still worried, we all stroked her and huddled around, concerned looks on everyone’s faces.
Within moments, though, the kitten shook her head again, then took a few hesitant steps, and other than an occasional wavering shudder, seemed fine. She was not her former playful, feisty self for the rest of the day, but after a good night’s sleep she seemed normal again.
Stretched out on my back in the late September meadow, I watched the cold grey clouds roll in over the peaks. The surface of the clouds seemed to be alive. It was like looking into a pot of boiling grey oatmeal.
Charlie came walking across the meadow toward me. “How’s the birthday acid?” he called, grinning.
I turned slowly to look at him, staring dully for a second. “Oh. The acid. I forgot. Yeah, it’s great. Look at those clouds! Wow!”
Charlie looked at me, still grinning. “It’s probably going to snow. Those are snow clouds. Everybody’s getting all excited. Guess they haven’t had any snow yet.”
I just stared at the clouds. Charlie walked off into the trees, and suddenly I forgot about the clouds. The trees.
The meadow was surrounded with spruce and fir, and as I looked at them now, they seemed to pulse with some mysterious energy. I felt drawn to them, connected to them with a feeling of love. Looking at the trees made me feel that everything was okay… everything in the whole world, in fact, was wonderful, everything fit together and made sense. The trees seemed to be filled with all the meaning and beauty and truth I would ever need to know in this world. I couldn’t say exactly how it was that the trees were communicating this to me, but it seemed clearly true, just emanating from them in some powerful, non-verbal way that penetrated my being. I felt very happy.
Then something cold and wet touched my face and I looked up. The clouds were still boiling with energy, and now, snow was falling, a soft, wet snow that melted on my face and hands and left icy prints on my sleeves. And then I remembered what Charlie had said, realizing that the first snow of the season was beginning, and it was on my birthday.
This also filled me with great happiness, and I began to cry. I was filled with an exquisite sense of my deep connection with all of existence. The trees and the clouds were spiritual beings who were communicating with me, in fact, holding holy communion with me, emissaries of Jesus himself, and all of the torment and confusion of the past few weeks made perfect, whole, and complete sense to me.
I raised my arms to the trees and the snow and the clouds and the whole universe then, tears streaming down my face in total acceptance of all the love that was pouring out on me.
And everything was okay.
A few hours later, I was still sitting on the edge of the meadow soaking it all in when I saw two figures coming across the open space. At first I thought it was my imagination, but as I watched they kept coming, and I saw that they were cowboys, and they were walking right toward me. At least they looked like cowboys, though without the horses one typically associates with cowboys.
They were dressed in jeans and boots, western shirts, leather vests and chaps, and both wore big hats over long, greasy hair. They sported outrageous mustaches, and three-day stubble on their cheeks. I nodded in their direction, taking in the details as they strode across the grass, apparently purposefully headed in my direction.
Right out of some Glenn Ford movie, I thought. I didn’t know people actually dressed like this. Their hats, skin, clothing, boots, all were variations on a theme: brown.
I began to feel a little anxious. I noticed that the snow had stopped. Then I began to wonder again if they were real. They seemed so… real.
And then they were upon me. “Howdy!” I said, in my deepest voice, giving a quick little nod.
“Wa howdy tu you!” one replied, grinning widely.
“Howdy,” the other said.
“What’s going on?” I said, trying to sound relaxed.
“Wha, we jus’ two hard-livin’ high-flyin’ range riders, blew in on a twister outta Montana, lookin’ for a wild-ass time in the city!” Smiley said. He was smiling so big he was almost laughing. “Wha you doin’ out here in thu woods lookin’ like a lost heifer?”
“Me? Hell, I ain’t don’ nothin’,” I said, affecting the western drawl.
“Nothin’ huh?” Smiley asked, grinning.
“Nothin’ much, man. Just diggin’ on the snow and the trees and trippin’ a little on some fine windowpane a guy gave me as a birthday present!” Now I was grinning. It was contagious, this grin. I was feeling comfortable, though slightly strange. “Just wonderin’ if you guys are real or just part of my trip….”
“Oh, we real alright!” Smiley said. “We so real we scare the shit outta some people.” He grinned again, and it seemed unlikely. “Windowpane, huh? Whoo-ee! I hearda that shit. Never see nothin’ like that up in the high plains. We blow a lotta weed, though, when we can get it.” Smiley shook his head and looked at his silent partner.
“Yeah?” I said, trying to keep things lively. They didn’t seem like hallucinations. Too gritty.
“Yep.” Silent Cal spoke. A slow grin now spread across his face.
“Well, we haven’t seen any good weed since we left Memphis, Tennessee,” I offered. “Well, except for a joint we shared with some hitchhikers we picked up back in Indiana or some such place, it’s been dry-long-so…”
“Yeah, ain’t it the truth.” Smiley was shaking his head. “We headin’ in to Aspen, see if we can score, in more ways than one….” He grinned and winked at me. “If you know what I mean!”
“Yeah,” I grinned back. Maybe I am delusional, but this is real. Way too gritty to be a hallucination. I could smell the dust that covered these guys.
“Say, you know which way Aspen is, now? We just come over that mountain and we saw it a while back, but they’s so many trees… we were just hopin’ to come up on somebody who could point us the right direction, here you are…” He looked hopefully at me.
“Aspen.” I looked around, trying to remember, trying to orient myself. Then I looked back at them. “Shit! You guys walking?” I said incredulously.
“Naw, dude! I tol’ you, we blew in on twister outta Montana!” He grinned that outrageously huge grin, big as the Montana sky, snapped his head, and looked at Cal, spit on the ground, then looked back at me.
“Oh yeah, Aspen,” I said. I smiled and shook my head. “Well, let’s see. I’m just visiting here, but the trailer I’m staying in is off that way.” I pointed across the meadow. “It’s just down that slope. Then there’s a highway that’ll take you into Aspen. But I’m not real sure which actual direction it is from here, everything being so twisty and all.”
“Highway, huh. Don’t like highways much.” Smiley seemed disappointed, looked off up the mountain and then down at the ground as if trying to decide what to do.
I looked off over the trees. Then I remembered the glow in the sky the night before. “Oh yeah,” I said. “Last night, the sky was glowing off over that way.” He pointed off to the left. “Must be Aspen, not far.”
“Awright!” Smiley was happy again. “Let’s go Purvis. ‘Preciate your help, man!” He grinned and lifted a finger in my direction as the two of them moved off. “You have a good birthday, now!”
“Thanks,” I said. I watched them move off across the meadow, fixing the sight in my mind, reluctant to release it. They were so strange, yet so familiar. I stared ‘til they entered the trees on the far side of the meadow. Losing the figures in the dark forest, again, I wasn’t sure it had all happened. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it was just the acid. No, too gritty.
I looked down at the ground and saw the still-moist place Smiley had spit moments ago. Yeah, it was real.
It was snowing again. I looked up at the sky. It took me a few seconds to register that they had stopped boiling.