We were lost. Well, we knew where we were. We were just north of St. Louis along the Mississippi River smack, dab, in-the-middle, the heart of America. We just didn’t have a direction. We had our hearts set on New Orleans. Go south. And indeed, that is what direction the river flows. But that plan, along with our hearts, was sitting ten or fifteen feet down at the bottom of the Mississippi where the Illinois River and it meet. There we were though—at the Gateway to the West. Almost literally. We had some walking to do to get to St. Louis, and specifically the Arch, but that is where we were headed. No one particularly wanted to go west. Not that anyone was against it either. We didn’t have a Plan B. We should have. A lot of things could have gone wrong. This is why Caring Sue had so many rules. It wasn’t registered with any State in the Union. It was as good as stolen as far as the law was concerned. And knowing that, if the law needed to get a good look at the motley crew that was running the thing down the river, we would have been tried and convicted on the spot. Or the thing could have just gotten stolen from us, with all our stuff aboard, despite our best efforts to keep it locked, and to keep our stuff with us mostly. We wouldn’t have had any recourse. Luckily for us, it just sank. We were still alive. We still had our precious stuff and our savings. We just needed a new inspiration. A new muse. A dream to chase.
Not that everyone was upset about it. Bear, for one, seemed ecstatic that we were back on foot. He didn’t even care that we didn’t have a direction. He was just happy to be a pedestrian again. That is what he was calling himself now—a pedestrian. It was now a thing of pride for him. He would say things like, while grabbing the door for someone for instance, “Oh no, let me help you with that! I can do this now, you know why?” After a few hours everyone knew the answer. It was because he was a pedestrian. Which is also why he could now drink to his heart’s desire. Well, not that it was legal on land either, but the cops are less likely to bust someone for public intoxication if they are just walking to and fro—not that he was ever really good about concealing his intoxication on the canoe, as I have already detailed previously. The point is, Bear got his freedom back, and as a result we got the old Bear back. The one that generally had a happy disposition. The Bear that saw life as something to be celebrated daily, hourly, if not just down to the minute.
It was all anyone of us really wanted though, when it comes down to it. We just wanted to be free and to be ourselves. It did occur to me at some point, after a year or so, it wasn’t completely lost on me, that I was traveling with a group of cast-offs, that for whatever reason had been dropped from the human tribe. They were chased off into the wilderness by the alphas in the human tribe. Left to fend for themselves and make due with what little they were afforded by living in the shadows out past the brink. I could understand to some extent why someone like Bill might get chased off. I mean, Bill will starve to death before he will put down his guitar and rustle up something to eat. We all know that. Even Bear looks out for him and will lend a hand to Bill when needed. He might give him hell while he is doing it, but he watches out for Bill. But if Bill won’t even take care of himself, he sure the heck isn’t going to be able to help us. I think I have already explained to you in enough detail that it is not that Bill is going to show up to the table with an empty plate. It is just that he is going to show up with something peculiar and unconventional. Most of the time it will make your day and turn out to be something indispensable to your life. You just rarely understand Bill’s gifts until the moment has passed and life has dealt you a whole new hand.
It was while we were walking to St. Louis that Prof brought up Alaska. I don’t know why he kept talking about it. Maybe he kind of missed our cabin in the Upper Peninsula. He had been reading a lot of books about Alaska while we were there a couple of winters ago. And he never really seem to lose the spark of curiosity for it. Prof said, “I actually really enjoyed what we did that winter in the U.P. A few years back. We gave Old Man Winter his due respect. We held our own.”
Machine smiled and said, “Yeah, I think about those times sometimes too, Prof. Sometimes it was really hard, ya know? Being cooped up in close quarters with y’all. It was that or go freeze your ass off for a few moments of solitude. But in the end, I’m really glad we did that. Laying around all day, feeding the fire, reading books, waiting for winter to let go. You know, we could have gone down and hung out at a beach in the Gulf for the winter?”
Prof said with excitement, “Right!” Seeing now that he had at least one person’s ear, he continued, “In reality, winter is supposed to be something that beats us back, that sends us burrowing into the ground, that causes us to stop and be idle, to do our time, to bide it, and to just wait. Winter is like sleep. It is a process that is so vital to living a healthy life. Our ancestors used to do give into it and just accept its fate. Of course, they didn’t have a choice. But the way our society goes…well, it just won’t slow down for nothing. Not even death. You can’t halt progress. You mustn’t. But it isn’t natural. It might even be folly. Everything on earth retreats at times back into the shadows. Progress is almost always very slow and very deliberate. And everything that bursts forth on the Earth in a spectacular display, be it a flower or a new born babe, it all comes from darkness. Then along comes humans, hell bent on disrupting the natural order and the natural rhythms of the universe, we blaze forth into the future, on the edge of our collective seat, almost completely devoid of caution, with a simple faith that the road ahead, not only exists, but it also eagerly awaits.”
Caring Sue smiled, “Well, somebody is in a philosophical musing mood, huh? You are usually so quiet Professor Saban.”
Prof shrugged, “Retired is what I like to call it.”
Caring Sue still smiling, “Yes, but are we ever really free from being who we are?”
Prof smiled back, “No. We can’t just turn it off. Even as our powers wane and our gift, which once gave us wings, becomes a burden, a ball and chain. I guess almost drowning will do that to ya though. Make you want to talk.” He paused for a few moments and said, “You know, we are right here heading into one of the most congested, fast-paced, high octane urban settings in the heart of America. We are walking right into it. Right into the heart of the rat race. The 70’s and 80’s in America were so shallow and plastic. It was what you and I were so dead set against back then, and I don’t see any indication that that has changed or that it is ever gonna.”
Caring Sue said, “Prof! We are just going into St. Louis for some supplies! That is all! No one said anything about settling down here. We are not going to lease an apartment and all get a job. We had to throw away a lot of our food stuffs and toiletries. We just need some supplies. That is all.”
Prof said, “Caring Sue, you should know better than to think that I am ever going to sweat the small stuff. Where we’re headed today and whether or not we have paper to wipe ours butts is not something that I can mentally handle. I just don’t care. That is why I have you. You know that I am farsighted. I can only see things clearly that are way out there on the horizon. The closer it is the more prone my image of it is to distortion.”
Caring Sue seemed confused, like that maybe she was having a conversation with Prof’s dementia. I am not being mean, but Prof wasn’t always all there. And it did seem like it was getting worse with time. The others would argue the point with me and say that the fault is not with him, but with me. They say that it is me who simply can’t comprehend the train of thought that Prof may be laying down at any given moment. I won’t argue the point. I will give them that. When it comes to Professor Saban.
Prof continued, “It is very subtle. It is hard to see now. But it is already here. It is among us. There are two forces at play in the world. There is America the Republic and there is America the Empire. People think that these two things are synonymous, but they are not. People think that the one cannot exist without the other, but this isn’t true either. The one has been on this soil since the Revolution. When I was a kid there was only one of these things. The other was created as a result of World War II. It ought never have been allowed to exist and yet it does. And now, the one is going to destroy the other, and then eventually destroy itself too.”
He had me all freaked out. We all were. I said, “When Prof? When?”
He turned to me and said, “I imagine by the end of this decade, Piper. Just in time for the new millennium.”
Oh boy, did Prof have me reeling! Sometimes he could get us all reeling. It 1993 at that point. And of course, that time has long since come and gone and there was no such catastrophe, nor any other type of non-specified catastrophe either, on or near that date. But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have its grip on us psychologically. We all believed that we were on the eve of destruction here in America. Even Bear believed something was going to go down. He chalked it up to America’s “bullshit” foreign policy but he still believed that something was about to go down. I remember it just being part of something in the air we breathed. The air everyone breathed. And Bear Bacchus didn’t believe in anything. He had no mechanism in his brain to absorb a belief structure. In fact, that is what he thought beliefs were—fabrications. It is hard to have a fear of the Lord when you don’t even think such a thing exists. But Bearcould muster some fear when Professor Saban went on with his prognostications.
I think this is why Prof started to push for Alaska. Almost as soon as the canoe was down. Makes me wonder if he had anything to do with it. Maybe he figured he was doing us a favor, because he knew that we were on the eve of destruction in America. He wanted to get us out and Alaska was the last holdout of the American Frontier. It didn’t take much to convince the others that we should head north. I think just the idea of the pure sweet taste of unadulterated freedom was enough to convince the others. When Prof was trying to sell the idea of Alaska to us he referred to our winter in the Upper Peninsula, but he said it would have to be on a more grand scale.
Caring Sue said, “It sounds like you’re talking about settling down.”
Prof thought for a second and then said, “Yeah, I guess I am Caring Sue, but…” He took a few moments to collects his thoughts, “…I’m talking about a place where we live a simple life that has meaning and purpose. I’m not talking about giving in and living shallow lives out in the burbs. We are going to live close to the Earth and in harmony with her cycles. We are going to live wild and free the way God intended us to live.”
It didn’t take long and he had us all not only thoroughly convinced, but working for the cause. We were going to move to Alaska where we were going to live wild and free. Of course there would be work. A lot of it. We were going to live off the land and live in tune with the seasons and the natural order of things.
I said, “I read a few of Jack London’s books that winter while we were holed up.”
Bear interjected, though in his old jovial way, “Another goddamned writer, Piper? You really are a weird kid. We need to get you laid.”
Caring Sue shot around fast. I mean fast. She said, “Bear, you watch your mouth! I mean it! He is fifteen years old! What you do with your soul is your business, but I am not going to sit idly by while you corrupt his!”
Bear was no longer jovial. He seemed serious. He shrugged and said, “With all due respect Caring Sue, do you really think he can’t see what is actually going on out here in the real world? Do you really think if we neglect to speak about it that it will somehow shield him from the inevitable? You think he hasn’t seen it all already?”
Caring Sue said, “Just the same Bear, you can be mindful that you are talking to a child.”
Then she made me mad. I screamed, “I am not a child!”
I could see in her face where she realized what she said. She said, “Of course you’re not, Piper. I’m sorry.”
I said, “I’m not!”
She said, “I know, Piper. I am sorry I said it. I really am.”
I said, “I just get tired of it, ya know.”
She said, “I know.”
I said, “It just gets old.”
She said, “I was a quarter of my age too once, Piper, so I do understand what you’re going through.”
I said, “I don’t think you do.”
She said, “Okay.”
While she and I were busy setting the record straight on that, we suddenly found ourselves in a peculiar place surrounded by rather colorful people. It was still St. Louis. But it was as if the sky was yellow and the sun was blue.
Bear stopped and began to examine his surroundings. He turned his head slightly and in an inquisitive way he mumbled to himself, “Deadheads?” Then he grabbed one of the colorful people by the arm that happened to be walking by and asked, “Pardon me, are the Dead playing around here somewhere tonight?”
The colorful person smiled and said, “Whoa! You must have had a hell of a show last night! You look spun! Do you even know what year it is?”
Bear said, “1994!” He seemed excited that he knew the answer.
The colorful person smiled and said, “Right on, bro! You don’t remember last night at all?”
Bear shook his head, “We just got into town.”
The colorful person threw up his arms and said, “Ah man! You missed a hell of a show, bro! They burnt down the house last night!” Then he rattled off a bunch of names of things that I didn’t know. And said a bunch of things about the things that I didn’t understand. Bear seemed to be following him alright though. Eventually the colorful person got around to answering Bear’s question. And the answer was ‘yes’. Yes, “the Dead” were playing a show that evening. I wondered if Bear would have asked someone different, if he could have gotten a more direct answer, but looking around I could see these people weren’t in a hurry to go anywhere, not until the music was over. Bear eventually parted ways with the colorful person and came back to us.
He explained to us that his suspicion was confirmed and that “the Dead” were playing. He kept saying that. The Dead were playing. I thought it was such a peculiar thing to say. Because I didn’t have any context. My mind went literal. How? How were these dead going to play? And what exactly were they going to play? Would these dead be people we once knew? Why should I care if just any old dead person comes out to play. And what did he mean by play? Were these dead people going to come back and play before us like children? I then thought that maybe it was a magic show of sorts. I think Bear was even using the word magic himself to describe what happens during the show. But you know how magic isn’t real, how a magic show really is just about illusion, tricking the senses into perceiving something that actually didn’t happen? Well, I thought that maybe that was what we were trying to line ourselves up for. I didn’t know. I really didn’t.
Then I started thinking that maybe this was some kind of voodoo, woo-woo, hokey-pokey, New Age, witch-doctor stuff because of what Bear had us do next. I should say that Caring Sue and Prof were making a big fuss about the cost of admission to this event. They didn’t want to spend a penny on it. Bear explained that it wasn’t going to cost anyone anything. He explained that we weren’t all going to get in, but that those of us that did, that it would be free of charge through what is known as “a miracle.” To get a miracle, all you have to do is walk around the front of the stadium with your index finger in the air. This signifies to the dead that you are looking for a miracle. I guess the idea is then that the dead would see this act of devotion, this act of humility even, and grant you access to the ceremony. That was the other thought I was having about this ordeal. I thought maybe Bear was flirting with some sort of cult—a Cult of the Dead. I wondered if unbeknownst to me and the others, that Bear was actually leading us right to the Devil’s Den.
As we got closer to the stadium though, I realized that we were just trying to attend a rock ‘n’ roll concert that was going to be performed by a band called Grateful Dead. They were just a bunch of old geezers from the 60’s. I just didn’t understand why they were being spoken about with so much mystique. They seemed like just another rock band playing another show. Get over it. I will say this though. It was kinda neat because we were meeting so many people from so many different places. They came from all over the United States. Sea to shining sea. We felt comfortable among them. They were like us—just some more of society’s rejects. But their muse is the music. So they chase after it like a surfer chases waves. And I guess this one band really knows how to do it for them.
They were a bartering people, so Caring Sue was interested in the bartering. She had no interest in miracles. Well at least not the sort of miracle the boys were talking about. She was interested in supplies—first aid, medicine, tools, jewelry, gemstones, and precious metals. Caring Sue was very tight with our money, but it was occasions like this where she would divest much of our savings and stock up on supplies we needed. You are going to tell me that this is paranoia, and maybe they did brainwash me a bit. But they really believed that the economic system was going to collapse, that the time was at hand. They thought that at all paper money would eventually be worthless.
It is something that Prof could go into more deeply. He would go on and on about it with stats and figures. I never really understood it. How we could one day wake up and a dollar wasn’t going to be worth anything anymore. But it was the thing they were afraid of and the remedy to that fear was to trade the thing you think will be worthless for a thing that is always invaluable to you—like water, food, and shelter. Something Prof used to always remind me. People would say that we were homeless. Prof would say, “No, I am not. I have a blanket. That blanket is enough to shield me from the elements and keep me alive for at least three hours. This is the very definition of a shelter. If you’ve got that, then you’ve got a home. What is a persons home other than just a big blanket?”
The boys insisted that Caring Sue take me with her to go bartering. “Yeah, he can help you carry stuff,” they told her. I was mad. As the boys were leaving to go off on their own, I yelled out so that everyone could hear, “You guys just don’t want me to come because you are going to look for trouble and you know I will tell Caring Sue, Prof, and Stephan about it!”
Bear listened to what I said intently. Then he smiled and nodded. He said, “Okay good. At least we are on the same page.” Then he turned to carry on as he was. Machine and Bill were smiling. I don’t know if it was because of what I said or if it was because they were generally happy to be where we were. It was a parking lot at a rock ‘n’ roll show. It was a party.
I was still angry. I screamed, “I’m not a kid!”
Bear put his hand up in the air to acknowledge what I said, but he didn’t turn and he didn’t say anything. He just kept walking toward Bill and Machine who were further up ahead waiting for him to catch up.
I was still angry. I clenched both my fists and yelled right across the parking lot, “Assholes!” I could see them laughing about it off in the distance. I knew then that they were laughing at me.
Caring Sue admonished me saying, “Piper!” She put herself between me and the boys, so that I couldn’t see them, only her. She spoke quietly. She assured me that she needed my help, that there would be much to carry. She said, “Besides, you don’t even like to have the same kind of fun as them, remember?”
She was right and I knew it then. But I was busy feeling sorry for myself. I shrugged. I said, “Still.”
She smiled and said, “Still what? Maybe they feel like you’re judging them because of the things they do to get their kicks. And you probably kinda are, aren’t ya?”
I looked to her. She raised her eyebrows. She smiled and said, “Let’s go shopping.” I agreed. She turned to Prof and said, “You wanna come with us, Gramps?” It was what she and only she was allowed to call him.
Prof said, “No. I was up late last night with the telescope. I am going to try and catch a nap under that tree there.” Stephan agreed to stay back with him under the tree, and so Caring Sue and I were off.
There was one long main strip where all the colorful people were selling their wares. It looked like a carnival in a foreign land. Caring Sue bought a hot vegetable burrito and we ate that as we moved from vendor to vendor. She stopped and looked at a few pieces of jewelry, but didn’t buy anything. I was just sticking by her side and people watching. Nothing that the colorful people were offering interested me, but their food smelled good and the things that Caring Sue bought me were delicious.
We were just walking along when this girl said to me, “I like how you defended yourself against those boys back there. Are they your brothers?”
I looked to her. I did remember her being there when I was yelling at them. But I didn’t think anything of it other than she was really cute. I looked to Caring Sue who just smiled at me and then walked on.
I said, “Yes, my brothers can sometimes be real jerks.”
She said, “I’m here with my older sister. Except she doesn’t mind having me around. Well, now. Last year it was a different story. Last year she was a Senior and I was a Freshmen. She wouldn’t be caught dead with me. This year she is a Freshman in college and I am a Sophomore in high school and now somehow everything has changed. Now she couldn’t be more proud. Anyway, I feel like I am rambling.”
I said, “Oh no, you’re not! I’m sorry, I am being a horrible conversationalist!”
She smiled and asked, “Is that a thing?”
I asked, “A conversationalist?”
She smiled and nodded. I said, “Yes, I think so.”
She asked, “How does one officially become a conversationalist? How much does it pay a year? Are the benefits good?”
I looked at her as if she were crazy, but then I realized it was just her sense of humor. It was just kind of dry. Her name was Becky. She was a year older than me and grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis. She was totally a nerd. That was not just me saying it, that is what she called herself. She was an avid reader and we had read many of the same books. She was aspiring to be an anthropologist. She showed me around the place and told me what everything was called. She told me about the band and tried to explain to me why they were so special. Again, it was all to no avail.
At one point we were walking together holding hands. She seemed happy when I reached for it. There was this huge crowd gathered around something. Some people were running from the crowd, but if they were, then they were carrying a balloon or two. It seemed like the reason why everyone was crowded around this thing was because it was giving off balloons. When Becky saw this she got excited, turned to me and asked, “Do you want a balloon?”
I knew this was one of those questions I didn’t really fully understand. In this instance, I was pretty sure that a balloon wasn’t just a balloon, that there was something more to it. Before I could even answer though, she grabbed me by the hand and said, “C’mon.” We ran toward the crowd. As we got closer I got a better idea of where the balloons were coming from. When my mind was left to wander I imagined this machine that was spitting out balloons, but it was just a series of guys. One was taking the money and passing them out. The other was filling them up.
Becky turned to me and said, “Here. Hold my cigarette. I am going in. I’m coming out with two balloons.”
She did just that. She squeezed in and got right in front of the money guy and handed him a five dollar bill. He handed her two balloons within a minute or two and then she backed out of the chaos. She handed me a balloon and I gave her cigarette back. She said, “Okay, let’s go find a hill to go sit on far away from this place.”
I said, “Okay. Then what? What are the balloons for?”
She looked at me and said, “For real?”
I shook my head.
She smiled and then said, “I can’t tell if you are really this dumb or if you really are this sweet. Please don’t be mad at me for saying that!” Then she leaned forward real quick and planted a kiss right on my lips. She pulled away and said, “Follow me!”
I could see where she was going. She was running across a section of parking lot that was yet to be filled. On the other side of that parking lot was a large hill. There were a few people sitting here and there on the hill, but it was by and large empty. I watched her run to the top of it with her balloon in hand. I ran up after her. I got to the top and we looked out over and it was a pristine shot of the Mighty River.
We observed for a few minutes and then she said, “Okay, ready?” She put the balloon to her lips.
I said, “Oh, we have to breathe it?”
She looked at me dumbfounded, “Really, Piper? You come here from god-knows-where, telling me all these stories about what has happened to you in the last two years, and this stuff is new to you?”
She took a gulp from her balloon and then said in a deep voice, “It is laughing gas!” Then she took another breathe. So I took a breathe. And then another. And before I knew it I was completely swept away into some other dimension. She and I were sitting on that hill. I looked over to her, she smiled, and took another gulp from the balloon. I remember just becoming overcome with astonishment. I couldn’t think of anything not to smile about, so I smiled back. I then remembered that I still had a balloon of my own. So I took another gulp myself. Before I had ever even taken a breathe of that laughing gas, there was only ever one sun in the sky, but suddenly I was looking to the sky and there was two suns, and one of them was eclipsing. I was so astonished that I turned to Suzy, but she was pointing at me and laughing. I reached for the place she was pointing to and it turns out I had made a mess of myself with drool rolling off my bottom lip down my chin and onto my t-shirt. Apparently, the only place those two suns existed were on the back of my eye lids. That stuff had me so far gone I couldn’t tell if my eyes were opened or closed. And just as soon as it picked me up, it dropped me back down. And I was on Earth. Sitting on that hill with an empty balloon in my hand.
After a few moments I turned to Becky and said, “Weird.”
She looked to me, but she wasn’t smiling. She said, “Yeah.” But then she didn’t say anything more, but she was still looking at me. I could tell her mind was somewhere else. Eventually she asked, “Are you even going to try and kiss me?”
My heart immediately started to race. I wanted that so bad. I didn’t know I was even allowed to have it. I just blurted out, “I didn’t want to make you mad.”
She smiled and nodded gently, “That wouldn’t make me mad.”
So I moved closer to her and said, “I don’t know what I am doing.”
She smiled and pulled me in closer and said, “That is what I like about you.”
We just let the magnetism take over. Well as much as we could. We couldn’t go far or do much, not from some hill that was created to protect a parking lot from a flooding river. We reluctantly pulled away and just faced each other on the hill and talked.
She said, “Piper? Don’t go to Alaska! Stay here!”
I said, “I can’t. I have to stick with my family!”
She knew I was right. All we could do was lay there facing each other and ponder the sweet sorrow.
At one point, she suddenly became very alert. She said, “You don’t even have a ticket for the show, Piper, and you’re not even trying! What if all your brothers get in, but not you?”
I shrugged, “I don’t really care. I’ll just hang outside with Caring Sue, Prof, and Stephan.”
The ease kind of left her face suddenly and then she asked, “Why do you call your parents and your uncle by their names?”
Suddenly, I was off of Cloud 9 and was dealing with reality. I guess if you tell a lie long enough you start believing it yourself. It was just easier to explain to people, or rather it was easier just to let them assume, and not ever bothering to correct anyone. I didn’t want to be lying to her. Not her. I was a big fat liar and I knew it. My whole life was a lie. I never cared much if I was lying to adults though, because the truth is I don’t have a lot of respect for adults. Almost every single one of them I know is living a lie. I think it just goes with the territory of being an adult. I bet if you went to New York City and sought out Holden Caufield, do you know what I bet you would discover? That he is an adult now, he is alive and well, and now completely full of shit. I’m sorry to use that sort of language. Suffice it to say that I mean phony.
I didn’t know what to do because on some level they were my family. Prof and Caring Sue looked out for me the way a mom and dad would. They did the same for the others. Stephan was a bit older than Bear, Bill, and Machine, so he was like an uncle to them. And me. And Prof and Caring Sue treated him like a brother. They respected his opinion much more than any of the boys’. And the boys were like brothers to one another. And as much as I might hate to admit it, I was like their little brother. Anytime Prof or Caring Sue said ‘the boys’ they meant me too. So I had a dilemma—do I get into the whole spiel to her and explain everything the way it is? Run the risk of her not understanding, thinking that I am being kidnapped, and then turning me over to law enforcement. They’ll just assume that I have Stockholm Syndrome and take everything I say with a grain of salt. Or do I just let her continue thinking something that factually isn’t true, but nonetheless in spirit is just like what she thinks it is?
She stood up and put her hand out to help me to me feet. She said, “Let’s go! Showtime is soon! I have to get in. I have to find my sister. You’ve still got to get a ticket yourself.”
I stood up and put my arms around her waist. I laid my breathe across her neck. I said, “Who cares about the dumb concert?”
I felt her hands grab my wrists and remove them from the back of her waist. Moving them then around her waist and back into the front, all the while she kept herself close. She kept my hands together in hers. She said, “I can feel your breathe on my forehead.” I could tell she was savoring it. She smiled and opened her eyes. Looking at me and with raised eyebrows she said, “I am not missing the show for anything! Especially not for some boy!” She smiled. Then she laughed and moved in closer so that our waists were locked, but pushing the top half of her body away for mine with her arms, she looked up to me and said, “You need to try and get a miracle! Come into the show tonight and find me!”
I agreed to do so. I was on a mission now. Heck, I thought about even just buying one. It was just money. It would have been just about everything I damn well had, but it seemed worth it. In that moment. Who cares about money when it is the only thing separating you from the love of your life? I know that sounds extreme. You are thinking, Piper, you just met the chick. Slow down! You are blowing this way out of proportion! I hear you—now. But that is not the way it felt at the time. It felt like the clouds parted and a booming voice from the heavens said, “Behold—your other half.”
I know it sounds crazy, but anyone who has ever fallen in love, I mean really fallen in love knows that it happens quick and without warning. You know you can’t just make it happen. This is why there are so many love sick people in the world. Why there are so many songs about it. They’ve tasted that nectar before and they want it again. And again. The lovers are simply a slave to a chemical reaction that just spontaneously happens when the right two ingredients are put together on the Earth plane. Viola! Suddenly two hearts are fused together to become one like what happens at the core of an atomic bomb. It might look like two autonomous pieces of plutonium, but you better keep them apart, because if they find each other, they are going to meld, and when they do a spark will be let off that has the power to either power a city for at least a millennium or it could pulverize it into an infinite array of unrecognizable particulates of silicon and carbon.
Becky muddled around in her purse. I didn’t know what she was looking for. I didn’t care. While she had her head down, I was smelling her hair. She looked up and asked, “Are you smelling my hair?”
I nodded. She smiled, leaned forward, and quickly laid a peck on my lips. She said, “Okay, I was going to take two, but now I am going to only take one, and I am going to give the other one to you. This way, no matter what happens, we are connected and sharing in the groove. Hold out your hand.” She dropped a very small white piece of paper onto my palm. It was very small. It looked like maybe a piece lint from her purse.
I said, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
She took hers and threw it in her mouth. She said, “You can put it under your tongue near all those blood vessels under there.” She opened her mouth to show me the blood vessels under her tongue. “Or you can put it between your bottom front lip and your teeth. “Or just leave it on your tongue. Eventually you should just swallow it.”
I said, “And this little white piece of paper is going to keep you and I connected tonight?”
She smiled at me and didn’t immediately say anything. Then she said, “Well, it was nice to meet you Piper Applebee. I hope we cross paths again in the future.” She put her hand out to shake.
I didn’t immediately take it. I was a little put off. I said, “That’s it? How about you give me your phone number? I will keep in touch!”
She smiled, “Would you? All the way from Alaska where you guys are probably not even going to have electricity.”
In all earnest, I said, “You come with us! Come with me and we will live in paradise together.”
She laughed, “I hate winter, Piper! Even St. Louis gets too cold for me!” I didn’t know what to say. After a few moments, she continued, “Plus, I hate roughing it. I know why you love it so. It is the stuff of a good story, but I am not looking for a good story.”
We eventually were able to pull ourselves away. On the one hand, I was elated, but on the other, I was crestfallen. I put the two together and tried to strike a balance. I needed to do the impossible. I needed to get into that show. Not only that when I got in there, I had to find Becky. I put my finger high in the air. I noticed that some people were letting it be known vocally that they were looking for a miracle. So I started doing that too. I was making my way toward the front of the stadium when I saw the gang all together. Stephen, Bear, Machine, and Bill all still had their fingers in the air, so I knew none of them scored either. Prof and Caring Sue were standing right beside them, but they didn’t have their fingers in the air. I knew that they didn’t want to go in even if given the opportunity.
I walked up to them and asked them how things were. Caring Sue was the first to speak. With a huge smile she said, “Well, why don’t you tell us? What a cutie! Did you have fun?”
I just kinda shrugged.
Caring Sue asked, “What is wrong, Piper?”
I kicked the ground a little bit with my shoe. Moved a few rocks this way and that. There was an ant down below. I tried to imagine what the ant must have thought as he saw these huge boulders moving for what looked like no reason. I postulated that the ant probably could see the boulder, but not see me. Because I was just too big. But not the boulder. And not that it was a boulder to me. Just to the ant. To me, it was more like a pebble.
Caring Sue came again, “Piper?”
I kept getting put in all these weird positions. Do you see now what sort of sticky mess you get yourself into when you decide to let love into your heart? Then you have to start being honest and telling people the truth. I mean at all costs. I didn’t mind telling Caring Sue what was going on, but I didn’t want to say it in front of the boys—and in particular, Bear. I don’t know why boys are not allowed to have feelings, but we are not. Unfortunately, I had all these kind of feelings and I really wasn’t allowed to have any of them. Eventually I was able to hmm and haw my way through the conversation that I think she got the gist—that I was sad because I had it bad for a girl, one that I was probably never going to see again.
We stood out front of the stadium. I kept forgetting to keep my finger in the air. I was listless. Even if I got in, how would I find her? Sometimes I would have a moment of inspiration where I would think—Love! That is how! Love will find a way! Then I would get my finger back in the air. Suddenly, my attention turned to that little square piece of paper Becky gave me. I had been playing with it using my tongue for fifteen or twenty minutes. The oddity of that exercise was not lost on me. But I just figured that chicks could be weird. They have unique ways of stating a bond they might have for each other. Guys don’t do that. We don’t have friendship bracelets and pinkie swears.
I didn’t think much of it, but I finally said, “This is weird, but that girl gave me the smallest of pieces of paper and told me to put it under my tongue. She had one too. It was identical to mine. She said it would keep us connected regardless of whether I got a miracle today or not.”
Everyone looked up and over at me at precisely the same moment. Bear, Bill, and Stephan were facing away from me out into the crowd of revelers, but they abruptly turned my way. Caring Sue, Prof, and Machine were already adjacent and facing me, but their eyes went right to my mouth. I wasn’t trying to be rude, but I immediately stuck out my tongue. They took one look at that little square on my tongue and I watched the blood drain from each of their faces as they stood there with their mouths agape.
It was strange because it was almost like I knew what Caring Sue was going to say because I heard her thoughts first. She screamed, “Piper, spit it out!” It was like how you see the flash of lightning first, then moments later you hear the crack of thunder.
Bear lunged toward me with the palm of his hand open, saying, “No Piper, spit it here!” It was like he was moving in slow motion. He was so intent. His eyes fixated on that little square. His mouth was still agape from the initial shock. I pulled the piece of paper off my tongue with an index finger and a thumb and I set it in down in Bear’s palm. I thought he was going to examine it more closely and tell me what the meaning was of this gesture of hers. Surely this was just some sort of custom of these colorful people. The fact that they were so excited about it had me a bit alarmed. Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to say something. I did feel a little bit better when I watched Bear take that piece of paper from his palm and began gnashing it with his own teeth. He didn’t care that it had my spit all over it. Plus, I was making out with Becky, so it might have some of hers too. But I was pretty sure I hadn’t been poisoned.
Caring Sue said, “Bear! It is too late! You are not going to get anything from it.”
Bear said, “It is still worth a shot!”
Caring Sue suddenly seemed kind of somber. She said, “Sure, Bear.”
I said, “What’s going on? Why is everyone making a big deal about some little piece of paper? Does it have some sort of magical power like a chain letter? Because I have gotten those before and I am pretty sure they are not real. They are just pieces of paper. Just like that thing. You just ate the spit out of my mouth, Bear! I want you to think about that! It’s disgusting!” I looked around. Caring Sue was the only one who looked worried. Everyone else seemed amused. Machine, Bill, Bear all had a smirk on their face.
Prof asked, “Should we even tell him?”
I asked, “Tell me what?”
He continued, “Because maybe we should just let him go through it. Come up with his own judgments. We tell him what it is and his own preconceived notions might send him over the edge.”
Caring Sue said, “Well, he is standing right here, Prof. We kinda gotta tell him now.”
I screamed, “Tell me what?”
Prof said, “You know how I am. I can’t see anything up close. And the objects in my mirror are always farther away than they appear.”
At this point, no one had their finger up in the air anymore. They were so overcome by the situation, whatever that situation was, that they had forgotten about even attending the show. I, however, still had my finger in the air. Force of habit. And even when Caring Sue looked at me and said in slow-motion—Piper, that girl put a dose of LSD on your tongue—I still managed to keep my finger in the air.
I kept my finger in the air even though I wasn’t entirely sure that I even liked that girl as a person anymore. I was stunned. I began spitting. I even put my finger down my throat to try and empty the contents of my stomach. Even as I was doing that, my other finger was still in the air. And even as the others explained to me the futility of it all, about how it doesn’t go through the stomach, about how I was just going to have to ride it out, I kept my finger in the air.
Finally I had found some words. I had managed to quietly pull Caring Sue away from the pack. I looked to Caring Sue and asked with tears in my eyes, “How could she do this to me, Caring Sue?”
She looked to me sympathetically. She said, “Aw Piper. She probably didn’t think she was betraying you. I am sure she thought she was doing something nice. Something that would impress you.”
I said, “Drugs?”
She nodded to show she understood. Then she said, “We are all out here on the road looking for the same thing, Piper. Freedom. Transcendence. Who are we to judge how someone finds a way to rise up and to overcome?”
I said, “Caring Sue?”
She said, “Yes?”
I said, “I am scared. What if I go insane?”
She sat there and thought for awhile. After quite some time of deliberation she said, “That stuff actually came out of mine and Prof’s generation. It was all the rage back then.”
I said, “The 60’s?”
She nodded. Then she continued, “I had some experience with it back then.”
I said, “You did?”
She nodded. After some time she said, “I am not going to tell you that it doesn’t have its pitfalls and its perils, because it certainly does. But what I can tell you is that much of what has been relayed to you is based off of a preoccupation with fear and ignorance.”
A few minutes later she said, “And maybe it is not even powerful stuff. Maybe you won’t even feel it. It seems like it has been a good hour or two since you came back—are you feeling anything yet?”
The truth was that I really wasn’t feeling anything. I took a sigh of relief. I think Caring Sue did too. We went back to hang out with Prof, Stephan, and the boys who were still looking for their miracle. It was getting really close to showtime and people were scrambling. I still had my finger in the air too, but as we approached them they all put their fingers down and turned to me. All of a sudden I started to feel this warm radiant wave of love and warmth wash over me. First I would feel the wave of warm love, then I would hear their words. “How do you feel, Piper? Are you okay? If you need to talk, we are here for you. It’ll be okay, buddy.” I assured them that I was well. It was strange. I felt their feelings first. I felt how grateful they were to hear it. Then I heard their words about their feelings.
I didn’t feel like I was high on a drug though, but this wasn’t a normal thing for me to experience in reality. It was like I was getting information about people with a new and different sense. I just felt so cared for and loved as we stood there outside the stadium in St. Louis. Suddenly, I wasn’t the little brat brother anymore. Well, maybe I still was, but I was the one that got messed with a little bit by some girl, and now their love and concern outshines whatever shadow they might cast ordinarily because they get frustrated that I can be annoying sometimes.
All of a sudden one of the colorful people walked into our group. He looked at everyone and smiled. He felt so warm and caring to me. He said, “You just need one for your boy? Right here.” He put the ticket in my hand and as quickly as he entered, he had disappeared.
We were all in a state of shock. What just happened? When we were in that state of shock, there were no feelings emanating from anyone. It was like a numbness. Suddenly I began to feel feelings emanating from the others. There was joy and excitement, but I also felt envy and anger. It was coming off of Bear. He could say whatever he wanted. He could project whatever he wanted. It was just the truth about what was in his heart as the ticket was handed to me. Before Bear could say anything though, I handed him the ticket. I then watched as the anger and envy immediately disappeared and were replaced by joy and gratitude. Then I felt guilt creep in. He didn’t know that I knew, that I could feel before he could say.
I then felt this nervousness and anxiety coming from the direction of Prof. I heard him say, “I think you ought to give that ticket back to Piper, Bear.”
Bear interjected before he could even really finish. He said, “Say no more. I was already thinking the same thing.” And he was. I could feel the conflict within himself end as soon as he made the decision.
With the ticket back in my hand, Prof said, “Piper, all are called, but few are chosen. You should leave your bag and stuff with us. Maybe Caring Sue can give you a couple of dollars so you can buy a coke when you get in there.”
First I could feel the fear and the confusion, then I heard Caring Sue’s words, “What?! Are you crazy, Prof? He is high as a kite on LSD right now. Look at his pupils! He is not going in there alone! We are buying Bear a ticket so he can keep an eye on him.”
Bear said, “It is a sold out show, Carin’ Sue.”
Caring Sue pointed to him and said, “Get your finger in the air right now!”
Bear laughed, said “Yes ma’am.” And then he did just that. She pointed to everyone else and said, “All of you get your fingers in the air! Let’s go! Spread out! Except you, Piper. You keep your fingers in your pockets, you understand me, boy? No more miracles for you.”
Caring Sue was serious, but she was also having fun. I felt the wave of her emotion wash over me before her words could travel across space and time to find my ears. It was only that I was going in alone. That is what was causing her anxiety. Nothing else.
Then Caring Sue decided to get in on the action too. She put her finger in the air and yelled, “I need a miracle!”
But the colorful people just kept walking by. Then she started to plead with them. She said, “Please! I need a miracle! My youngest son is going in to see your heathen band and I just want one of his brothers to go in with him! Please!”
The colorful people mostly laughed and got a kick out of her. They said things like, “Heathen? Really lady?” Or they asked her how old I was. When she told them I was fifteen, they told her she needed to chill. Some of them simply offered to look after me for her. Others just wanted to know which one was me. Then they came up and told me stories about their overbearing moms.
Meanwhile, the LSD was obviously having an effect. It started to look like there was an ancient language written in the clouds. That it was written everywhere and on everything. I didn’t understand how I could have not seen it before. I struggled to read it and make sense of what I was seeing.
I was just sitting on a grass island in the parking lot. They were all up trying to score. Caring Sue was way off in the distance while everyone else was fairly close with their fingers in the air. All of a sudden, my fat cankles felt sore and the thing I want to do more than anything was just pop a squat on my cushy touche. So that is what I did. I just wanted to watch. I didn’t have any thoughts on anything. I was just happy for the opportunity to live, experience, and perceive.
Stephan asked me at one point, “How are you doing, Piper?”
I said, “Well Stephan, it is funny you should ask. I was just sitting here thinking about words. I was thinking about how people use words and they don’t even really know what the words mean. They even use the words wrong. So much of the language we learn is just assumed. And now we have words where the meaning is completely wrong from what it should be.”
Stephan replied, “Oh yeah, Piper, how so?”
I said, “I’m glad you asked, Stephan. The truth is that right now I feel absolutely awful! Awful! And now you boys think that I am in a bad place, but I am not. I couldn’t be in a better place. In fact, I feel the exact opposite of bad. I feel wonderful! I feel full-of-wonder. And awe. I feel full-of-awe and that is why I say I am awe-ful. It might just be that the human mind misunderstands awe. Here is another word that everyone uses ad nauseum—yes, Bear I said ad naueseum. I did use that word. It is Latin. Read it once in one of my books—but this word that now has no real meaning is ‘awesome’.” Suddenly I found myself all up in arms. I yelled at them, well I guess it was more of a proclamation, “People don’t know what awe-some is! I know what awe-some is! This,” I was pointing to the general vicinity of where we were, “is awe…some. The Earth is a thing that carries with it as a feature the preponderance of awe! The River! Our River, the mighty Mississippi has a high degree of awe associated with it! That is why it took our boat! But now everything is awesome and how can that be? How can that be?”
I could see that I wasn’t making any headway because they each had a smirk on their face and seemed to be trying to restrain themselves for all out laughter. Bear said, “You have to go, Piper! Showtime in the few minutes! Lets get you in there!” He called out for Caring Sue. She made eye contact and he waved her over. She glanced over and then started our way. They were taking my stuff and just leaving me with only what I would need for the show.
Bear said, “Find a discarded beer cup right away when you get in there. Take it to the bathroom, clean it out, and fill it with water. Then go to your assigned seat. Drink that water slowly. You don’t want to have to go to the bathroom mid-show. You do have enough money for a coke. You might want that hit of sugar later on.”
Caring Sue thanked Bear for saying such things and then she came and gave me a big hug. She held me for a long time. Then she pulled away and with a hand on each shoulder, she forced a smile. With tears in her eyes she said, “Have fun and be careful!”
I smiled and said, “I will.”
Everyone else shook my hand and wished me luck. We made arrangements to meet after the show at a particular spot. Then I made my way toward the entrance with nothing but a ticket in my hand and two dollars in my pocket in case I wanted to buy a coke. I told them that I would try not to though. They told me I could, and that I actually should. As I was walking away, I could hear Bear over my shoulder telling Caring Sue to “just relax” and trying to reassure her that everything would be fine.
In order to get down onto the main floor where my ticket was, you start out above on the ground level and then wind your way down to the basement level. Then you walk through a long tunnel that must be lit even in the daytime. All you can see at the end is a point of light that grows as you approach it. I walked toward that light, then into it, and I came out to a stadium full of anxious bodies waving their arms, hooting, and hollering. It felt like everyone in the stadium was up on their feet at that moment and cheering for me as I entered the arena. It felt like a personal welcome. And it wasn’t because I was unique or special among the attendees. They were doing it to everyone and anyone who walked down that tunnel, through it, and out onto the main floor. I wondered if that is what a baby feels like at birth. You do kinda come down a long dark tunnel where all these smiling faces are there to greet you. After I had been in for a moment or two I turned around to see what was happening to people as they entered the main part of the arena. No one was particularly paying them any attention as they entered. They were not welcomed, nor were they shut out either.
I came to the conclusion that it had more to do with the ‘energy’ in the room. It was high voltage. I could feel it. It was unsettling. All those souls gathered together for a specific purpose whose time had yet to arrive. There was anticipation in that. But with that, also anxiety. The tunnels were neutral. It was the contrast between nothing and psychic chaos. The crowd. I remember there was this book that Machine Gun had had once. It might even be at the bottom of the river now. I don’t know if he kept it that long. He said it wasn’t the best book in the world, but that it had one of the “sexiest” titles ever. His words, not mine. Anyway, this book was called Mass Cultural Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I’m sure you can see that it is, of course. that last half of the title that I am referencing here. Let’s face it. It is also the reason why we are Alaska bound.
The madness of crowds. No one needed to sell me on the idea with a book. I wondered if there were any books on how to navigate a crowd while under the influence of a mind-bending narcotic? A script for agoraphobia for sure. I mused to myself that it was voids such as these that the Hitler’s of the world find their way. Okay, maybe a bit melodramatic for a teenager who just wants the rock show to start. The weird thing being that I didn’t even really care. Anyone else should have been here but me. Bear was actually a fan. Bill was a fellow musician. Heck, even Machine belonged here more than me. I just wanted it to start because all of that unbridled, errant energy was absolutely driving me nuts!
Suddenly, I felt a hand on my knee. It was trying to hold it down. I looked to the owner of the hand. He looked to me. He said, “I’m sorry, your knee has been bouncing non-stop for like twenty minutes.”
I looked to him and simply said, “Some girl out in the parking lot gave me LSD without telling me what it was. Then I got miracled in here tonight. And I have never even heard of this band.”
Even before the guy could say anything a woman shot out from behind him and said, “Are you serious?”
I shook my head quickly.
She asked, “Are you okay?”
I shook my head quickly again.
Then she tapped the man’s leg who was sitting between us. She said to him, “Switch me seats. I want to talk to him.”
The man stood up and she squeezed by in front of him and then plopped into his seat. He then took her old seat. She put out her hand out and said, “My name in Sharlene.” Pointing with her thumb over her shoulder she said, “This is my husband, John.”
Sharlene was really pretty. I mean really, really pretty. Besides her obvious boyfriend, she was also too old for me, so don’t think I was thinking that. She was almost twice my age. She was a college student at the University of Missouri. She was doing her graduate work there. She was writing her doctoral thesis on linguistics. Something to do with the philosopher Wittgenstein. Yeah, I don’t know what any of that means either, but she did get her undergrad degree in English literature. Her favorite writer is John Steinbeck. We eventually had a nice conversation about The Grapes of Wrath and Canterbury Row during the set break.
Before that though, she wanted to know how I ended up in this particular predicament. She wanted to know about the girl, the ticket, everything. And of course, I was under the influence and wasn’t thinking like my normal self. I am just going to come out and tell you that I basically told her the truth. I didn’t mean to, but that is what I did. And you know why? Because LSD is truth serum. That is all that shit is. Pardon my language. That stuff will just make you tell the truth whether you want to or not. You can’t tell yourself a lie or build your life around a lie, and then take some LSD and think you are going to be able to believe that lie, much less live it. It isn’t good because sometimes we have to lie in order to get along in the world. There are millions and billions of people out there happily living a lie. We can’t live in a world where everyone goes around telling everyone else the truth about the way the world is. The world would collapse. The world is built on a house of cards and those cards are lies.
I don’t think that I have been at all less than forthcoming about the fact that sometimes I have had a sorted past with the truth. I mean in real life. In person. When I am writing, it is a different story. I would have to be pretty diabolical to write things down that didn’t happen. When I tell someone a story that isn’t true in real life, what we call a lie, it is only cause they caught me off guard. And when I say ‘they’ what I mean are adults. They ask me a question, next thing I know I am answering the question how they want to hear it answered, instead of how it actually ought to be answered if we are staying true to fact. I am just giving them what they want.
I said too much to Sharlene though, but lucky for me she tipped her hand before she had a chance to act. She seemed absolutely enthralled with my story. I told her everything. She got a better version than Becky. Which I did kind of feel guilty about. And after I was done, she just sat there. I had noticed that her husband seemed to be listening intently too. Neither one of them said anything though.
Finally Sharlene said, “Okay Piper. Let me get this straight. You are out on some strange vacation with a foster family where you guys are backpacking down the open road. You aren’t opposed to a canoe if one happens to be available, but it is mostly on foot. Two of your brothers are alcoholic and the other is a heroin addict. Your mom and dad know that you are in here, on acid, albeit by no fault of your own, and they still let you come in?”
I could see it in her eyes. She wasn’t going to just let this go. She was going to report me to the authorities. Because she thought it was the right thing to do. All of a sudden, I felt adrenaline coursing through my veins. I began to tremble and shake. I calmly looked at Sharlene and I said in a hushed tone so much so that I don’t even think her husband could hear, “Sharlene, I will just cut the cord and run from you. It’ll be fast. You will not know what direction to look. Or what direction to tell them to look. I have done it before. I am not in a bad place. I don’t need your help. Do you understand?”
We just stared at each other for a long timeless moment. She didn’t have me trapped and she knew it. I could just walk into the crowd and vanish. She didn’t want that. She shook her head. She agreed not to meddle. I knew it was only reluctantly though. I could already tell that she was going to hold on tighter than I wanted after the show was over. I could see that she still had a card up her sleeve. Or at least she thought she had one. Thus far, she had been sitting perpendicular to how she was supposed to be sitting while we talked. It was so she could face me while we talked. And when her husband John leaned back in his seat, he could actually look over and see me as opposed to just hearing me. Her feet were up on the seat pulled up against her buttocks. Her knees were together and pulled in near her chin as she hugged her legs with her arms. This position of course no longer felt comfortable for her as the friction between she and I began to build. Gone was the ease with which we had been communicating. It was now replaced with awkward tension. It was awkward. It was tense.
I thought about just getting up and walking away. I could just go fit in anonymously anywhere in the stadium. And just be done with this lady. Not that she was bad. She was actually interesting. A real life egghead. I know she didn’t mean any harm and actually even meant well, but I couldn’t have her getting too much in my business. But now that I had sufficiently backed her down, I started thinking about the force with which I had acted. Yes, guilt. My damn conscience. Because of it, I could now feel this debt with her. I had to settle the score. I wasn’t really sore at the lady. I could just see in her eyes that she was over there getting wise. She would make a horrible poker player. She definitely had a tell. She is exactly the sort of person Bill was always looking for, the type that thinks they’re a smooth operator and has got everything under wraps. It is one thing if they actually do have it together, but if they only think they do, then they’re the easiest to fleece. Like Bill once said in an unintended moment of candor about a woman he took advantage of. He said, “It was her own fault. She was full of shit. Her friends were even telling her that she was full of shit. She wouldn’t listen. She was so full of shit that she didn’t even know that she was full of shit. That is how full of shit some people can get. It is the worst kind of full of shit. There isn’t anything wrong with being full of shit—most of us are—but the key is to know when you are full of shit and not inadvertently delude yourself with your own bullshit.”
After a few moments, a way to smooth things over with Sharlene had begun to occur to me. Maybe I was taking a risk of beating a dead horse, but I didn’t want to leave things so sour, especially if I was going to have to sit next to her all night. I said, “Listen Sharlene…”
But before I could get anything out, she interjected saying, “No Piper, I want to apologize. I don’t know you from Adam. I am not trying to get you in trouble or make a mess of your life. If the things you said were all true, then you wouldn’t be the well-adjusted young man that sits next to me right now. It is not to say that I don’t believe you, but there are many sides to every story, and I only have yours. So I just wanted to say that it is m-y-o-b for me for now on—okay?”
And I did agree, but I still went on with what I was going to say too. I said, “Well funny you should say that Sharlene because I was going to point out that you only focused on the dark half the picture. Sure, my brothers are messed up, but what about my uncle, who is a pious man, who was once a monk in a religious order? Or what about Caring Sue and Prof who were both teachers?”
She seemed enthralled again. She said with wonder, “Your uncle was a monk?”
I shook my head. “Still is, I think. I don’t know if you ever loose that status.”
She asked, “Still? What order does he belong to? Where is his monastery?”
With the adrenaline now long gone from my blood stream, the LSD began to take hold again. Not only that, but it had begun to really intensify. I came to the stark realization that I had as many questions about him as she had. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Stephan never talked much. References to Stephan’s previous life were always done by other people and there were never many details.
Suddenly I heard Sharlene ask, “Are you having a breakthrough there, Piper?”
I then came back to the moment.
Sharlene said, “Yup. I could see you were somewhere else pondering something.”
I said, “Actually, when you asked me about him, it occurred to me about how I don’t know anything about him. I don’t have anything to share with you because nothing has really been shared with me. And it isn’t like he is dead. Why doesn’t my uncle ever tell stories? Does he have secrets?”
Sharlene smiled, “I think you are having what people in the psychedelic community call “a breakthrough.”
I asked, “A breakthrough?”
She nodded, “Yeah, well I know that this has all happened to you by accident and that you have no real interest beyond this evening, but not everyone is in agreement about whether drugs like the one you are on right now are all bad. It might just be that they have some uses.”
I asked, “Are you on them?”
She smiled and shook her head, “No. But I have before. When I was a little older than you. And if I did these days, I wouldn’t take acid. I would use magic mushrooms.”
I was floored. I said, “Sharlene! You are so smart! I can’t believe you would do drugs!”
She didn’t immediately say anything. She was glancing around the stadium and just seemed to be observing. You know, just people watching. I was still kind of floored with what she said. I didn’t know she was still thinking about it. We were both still looking toward the stage. After a few moments she motioned her head slightly toward mine. She said, “As a PhD candidate at a university, you can’t really just get away with writing a dissertation. You’ve got to teach. I mean, I guess if you are really wealthy, then you might be able to pull it off without having to teach the undergrads, but more than likely you have to teach.”
I asked, “Do you like teaching?”
She immediately said, “Hell no!” But then laughed and immediately took it back. She said, “The truth is both yes and no. On the one hand, who wants to be a slave? And that is what a teacher is, they are tied to the earth, they are beholden to those on earth. They don’t make a whole lot. They live near the salt of the earth. They are the salt of the earth. Some don’t mind that. Some wouldn’t have it any other way. Others have dreams. Others have things they would like to do themselves. So on that other hand, it would be amazing if I could just fly and just do my thing. If I could just be a writer of books, a poet who flies the earth but is not tethered to it. I’ll churn out new works with every flap of my wings, and I won’t be beholden to earthly law.” She said all this with a smile and then let it settle in a moment. Then she continued, “But the truth is that almost no one gets to do that. Especially poetry. There are world renowned poets who write fiction just so they can make enough money to pay bills and write poetry. I guess that is why I don’t mind teaching. I have accepted my fate. You have to.”
I asked, “Is not an English professor nothing more than a failed writer?”
She shook her head. “No. Some people know they don’t have it, but they nonetheless have an ability to understand the nuts and bolts of the process, and they possess an ability to pass that knowledge on to others, some of whom may actually possess a gift. You asked about English. I have two dear friends who are part of faculty at the University of Missouri. Both of these individuals are well aware of the fact that they do not have a way with words. Yet, they fully understand the mechanics and laws of our language. They are fine teachers who aren’t trying to be anything more than what they are. Tell me, Piper. I sense this disdain from you for teachers and school in general.”
I shrugged and said, “Aw, I guess. It is just that people are always pushing the importance of school on me, like I don’t already know.”
She said, “Well, I don’t think you do know. Because if you did, then you would be in school pursuing it with everything you have. I’m not saying that is what you should be doing. I am just saying that is what you would be doing if you knew it. Take me, Piper. I am twenty eight and I have been in college since I graduated high school in 1983. I don’t know what to do. I am a nerd who can’t stop reading and our society just doesn’t know what to do with people like me. My knowledge of the world is all theory. Now you? You are an empiricist, Piper?”
With a straight face I asked, “I am a what?”
She laughed and said, “An empiricist. It comes from the philosophy of David Hume. He was in English philosopher from the 18th century. Basically all he meant was that the only way one could truly know something as truth was to experience it firsthand. So someone would ask David Hume if the sun was going to come up the next morning and his answer would be that he would let you know the following morning after the event in question happened. An empiricist.”
I didn’t know what to say. After a few moments though she continued, “I think the reason why everyone pushes school on you is because it just seems like a natural fit. You are a very precocious kid. Indeed, you are more advanced than most of the freshman I teach.”
I sat up and said, “Really?”
She nodded. She said, “I think you know that, Piper. You know the fancy book learning just comes easy to you. And that is why you don’t care about it. But, well now, experience? That is the challenge. It is a little tougher to come by.” I sat there and thought about what she was said. She looked to me briefly and then said, “I have seen it before. You will wander back to school after you’ve sewn all your wild oats. And to be honest, Piper. I think you will be better for it and your education will be better served. So no, this college professor isn’t going to give you a hard time about school. The reason why I brought it up was to answer more fully your question about drugs. I know that you have grown up in an era where the issue has been presented to you and it is just as black and white as can be. But that is not the truth, Piper. For instance, you tell me about Alaska and how Jack London inspired your dream for it, at least partially. Do you know how Jack London died? Well, they are not sure if it was on purpose or if it was an accident, but he overdosed on morphine. He had been using it as a muse though, so it might just have been a simple accident that resulted in his death. We will never know. But at that time, morphine was seen as the anecdote to the scourge of alcoholism. Indeed, people began consuming it from products they were buying right over the counter and it did seem to be able to get people off of the booze. Of course, they were just trading one addiction for the other. We know that now. They eventually learned that and I suppose that is why our society has decided that abstinence is best and why there is now this push toward complete removal of narcotics in our society.
Anyway, one of the undergraduate courses that I teach is called “Aesthetics” or more simply put—the philosophy of art. One of the things we cover in the course is the complex nature of the artist. Because if you have ever noticed artists usually get a pass when it comes to deviant behavior. When you spend a good deal of time learning about the artists themselves, the history and their lives, and if you take the history of art as a whole, and I am including all crafts here like music and writing, it has been a very drug addled journey. It isn’t a recent phenomenon either. It always has been. Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t discover it. It just got on board and adopted the usual means. It has been so pervasive throughout art history that if one could wave a magic wand and not only eliminate them now and for the future, but also scrub them from our past, I don’t know where that would leave our culture artistically speaking. Because the awful truth, the one that no one really wants to say, is that every artist needs a muse and sometimes that muse can be something as simple as a drug. So this is what I would offer you though, Piper, when you wonder to me why an intelligent person would use a drug. I would just say to you that human history is full of intelligent people who used drugs for better or for worse who nonetheless advanced the human species. It really is that simple.”
No sooner did she say that and then the lights dropped and the stadium went into darkness except for some lights on the stage. The crowd erupted. Sharlene yelled in my ear, “We’ll talk after the show!” I agreed and then I watched as a series of small silhouettes filed onto the stage and each picked up an instrument. They readied themselves and then looking to one another, they seemed to agree on a song. There was a countdown from three and then the music began.
And as soon as the music began, I watched in awe as I saw all these arms and legs start flailing in the air in all directions around. It wasn’t haphazardly or without purpose. The movements, some of them elegant and graceful, all of them deliberate and intense. And the look on everyone’s face was nothing that I was able to comprehend and register. It was the look of pure joy. I actually didn’t believe it. I thought they were putting me on. The whole stadium. But why? Fool who? Why? Yet, their profound happiness confounded me. I could understand it if we were at church. But it wasn’t church. It was a rock ‘n’ roll concert. From the sound of the first note, I just sat there with my mouth agape as I watched these people give way to completely uninhibited ecstatic dance. Even Sharlene’s husband who was a very quiet and reserved person was over there just a few feet from me moving wildly to the music. Sweat was pouring from his forehead and pooling up as his feet.
I thought that maybe after a song or two that perhaps the colorful people would have burned themselves out so that they would have to sit down and enjoy the show from the comfort of their seats. No such luck. These people didn’t stop. In fact, their movements got looser and more intense as the show continued. Sweat was flying through the air and dancers were completely oblivious to it. I watched as dancer after dancer moved in place with their eyes closed, even as some of these songs went on for fifteen or twenty minutes or more, these dancers moved with every new beat, smile still on their face, undeterred as a new musical frontier was explored and cataloged. And depending on what song was played next, the place could give way to complete pandemonium if the right rare choice was made.
There were songs that were sung almost completely by the crowd. And seeing how everybody in the crowd was acting and treating each other, it reminded me about how Jesus told the Apostles they were supposed to live after he went away. Not how people live now, but how it says they were supposed to in the Book of Acts. The atmosphere was completely saturated with love. People were hand ‘n’ hand dancing and laughing and wailing as the band sang songs about love and death. There were a lot of marijuana cigarettes. Sharlene liked to smoke them, but she didn’t pass them to me. She skipped me and passed it to the guy on the other side of me. He looked at me briefly as he took the joint from her. She yelled into the loudness, “He is fifteen!”
The guy shrugged and yelled back into the loudness, “He is also on acid!”
She furled her brow, pursed her lips, and put her hands on her hips and stared the guy down. Did I mention that Sharlene was gorgeous? As she made that gesture to the stranger next to me, I could see why she had power over her husband John. The guy next to me saw it too. She was hot. He put up his hands and mouthed the word “kidding” to her. She then dropped it. Later on that guy bent down and said some encouraging things in my ear, about his first time on acid, and what he thought was necessary to have a good trip. I could tell he was a good person. He must have been listening when Sharlene and I were talking.
There was this thing that happened though while I was on that LSD. I have been dancing around the issue, so to speak, because I don’t know how to address it. And I know that you probably don’t know how to take it. Yet, it is part of my deposition. It has to be.
But there was a point there where I no longer had a body, where “I” ceased to exist. I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know where my body went. Or even how to say it without sounding a little nutty. I should say that while I was still an intact individual sitting at the Grateful Dead concert, talking to Sharlene, I had already begun to loose control of my body. The violent shaking was one thing, it is actually what got Sharlene and I introduced, but once the music began to play and there was a thing to move to, well it was all but hopeless. I tried to hold on for as long as I could. Even as I watched the madness unleashed around me. Even as that vortex of chaos spiraled around me, I tried to maintain control. Control! To resist the temptation toward carnal pleasure.
It starts with dancing. Dancing—an exercise where the body, which is of course naturally shameful to the Lord, is brought out, scantily clad, if even at all, and paraded about as a thing to be celebrated and revered. I sat there in my seat and looked around at all these beautiful college-age women around me. They were all five to ten years older than me. I watched them as they moved their vessel to the music. I was surrounded by a series of soft luscious curves. And the smells. It was infectious. I could resist it no more. A few moments ago I was wondering how people could still be moving so intensely three songs in and it was barely the forth song and I had lost to them. I wasn’t dancing to the music, the music was dancing me. My arms and legs began to flail in the air along with everyone else. My mouth was no longer agape, though my wonderment hadn’t gone away. Now I was marveling at what was happening to me as I felt a force more powerful than me—music—suddenly picking me up and throwing me about.
Then there was the moment where I looked over to Sharlene and I found her eyes, but I didn’t see her body. In fact, I didn’t see my body either. As I took my eyes down and surveyed the scene, gradually moving them down to where my body was supposed to be, and then across to Sharlene’s where her feet were supposed to be, and then up to her eyes. There were no feet. There were no torsos. There were no more arms and legs. Not mine. Not Sharlene’s. Not anyone’s in the audience. There was no boundary between Sharlene and I. And it wasn’t just Sharlene. It was the nameless guy on the other side of me with the encouraging words. It was the people in front of me. And behind. There were no people. There was just this one organism. And it had tens of thousands of eyes. I looked out across what was supposed to be a crowd, but all I saw was this huge blob with ten thousand eyes and ten thousand little tentacles. If I wasn’t integrally apart of this organism, I would have been repulsed by it. It looked like the thing of a horror film. I am thinking about that 1950’s movie “The Blob” because that it what it looked like.
And then on the stage, there was this different sort of blob. It was clearly separate from the bigger blob though, but it was still a blob. This blob was different though. It didn’t have as many eyes or as many tentacles. Each of the tentacles it did have either held a tool in it or worked with an adjacent tentacle to hold and work a tool. When this smaller blob with all the tools in their tentacles began to operate, beams of light would shoot from one set of tentacles to another set at a different spot of the blob. These beams of light were shooting back and forth from tentacle to tentacle and it was beaming out to the big blob too. Which is what I was apart of. Of course, it seemed to be generating these light beams for the appeasement of the big blob. The big blob didn’t have any light beams coming from it. It was there just to absorb the light beams coming from the smaller blob.
I told you that I didn’t really have the words to explain these things fully. There literally wasn’t any “you” or “me” and in fact even “us” and “we” didn’t really exist. With these pronouns humans are first separated into their individual compartment beings and then unified into a whole. There were no individual compartment beings. There were no I’s. There was just this huge beast that had no divisions anywhere. “I” was just a mere cell in this giant organism. Of course the show did end and the beast did individuate and disperse.
After the show, Sharlene and John, well more Sharlene, wanted to make sure I got back to my family okay. As I have already said, I knew that that was already going to be the case. And I felt that despite the heated exchange we initially had, she wasn’t going to get too wise anymore.
They were waiting exactly where they said they would. As I approached, Caring Sue came out of the crowd and made her way toward me with a smile on her face and her arms open to receive a hug. She asked, “How was it? Did you have fun?” No sooner did she ask those question though, she said, “My gosh, Piper, you are drenched! Is that sweat? Well I see you danced!”
She let go and then Bear was the next to approach. He said, “We could hear it from out here! What a show!” He rattled off a few songs that I had apparently heard, but it was all Greek to me. Maybe he should have went in since he was the fan. But I did the best to explain things even though I didn’t even really understand it. They wanted to know how “the trip” went and I assured them everything was okay and did my best to explain it.
Then Caring Sue brought my attention back to Sharlene and John, whom I had kind of forgotten about in all of the commotion. They were standing by waiting patiently at the outskirts of our circle.
I said, “Oh Caring Sue, you of all people will be happy to know that I had people looking out for me!” Then I introduced them to everybody.
Caring Sue immediately expressed gratitude. She and Sharlene really seemed to hit it off actually. Sharlene explained what she did for a living and Caring Sue turned to me with a smile and said, “Of course, Piper was going to befriend a college professor. What else could I expect?” Sharlene then went on to compliment me to Caring Sue. She told her how bright she thought I was and how much promise I had. Caring Sue seemed so proud. Then the conversation turned to her and Prof and about who they were. I started to get a little nervous.
Sharlene said to Caring Sue, “Piper tells me that you are a teacher.”
Caring Sue smiled, “Was. I am retired now from the profession.”
Sharlene said, “You don’t have to tell me about how rough it can be on a teacher’s salary, let alone pension. I see now why you have chosen to backpack America. What a novel idea!”
Caring Sue just smiled and said, “Yeah.” Then she turned to me, her smile not fading. It was a game we were now so used to playing. But I have to say that it did feel wrong telling the stories to Sharlene and Becky. Because I didn’t want anything from them except friendship. And I think that is all they wanted from me. I got even a little more nervous though when Sharlene turned to Prof.
Sharlene said, “It is nice to meet you, Professor Saban. Piper tells me that you were a professor of history and philosophy at American University?” Ugh. This was bad. So bad. Because Prof and I never talked about his life as a Professor. I just made it up on the spot back when she and I were in the stadium. Nobody ever pried that far. I suppose it would take another professor for that. I told her this as part of the initial smoothing over process. The thing is, these people all had a past, and it wasn’t something any of them were ever forthcoming about. Just like Brother Stephan, I learned about Professor Saban from what the others had to say about him and the details were likewise sparse. So I just made them up. Mostly. I knew he had once been a professor of history and philosophy. I knew that from his own mouth, but I didn’t know from where. I didn’t even know that there was an actual university called American. But when Sharlene didn’t even bat an eye and I had slid by with that one, I just went with it and let well enough alone. But here was well enough, back to bite.
But Prof intuitively knew how to handle it. He said, “Well, it was an American university, but not the American University. And it doesn’t matter. There is no need for me to give you my credentials. I was chased from academia and my work has mostly been discredited. If you can find my books, I would be surprised. I am not bitter about it. I am just wise to it. Those who know, don’t talk and those who talk, don’t know. That is Socrates, correct? I still think that I was right. But the powers that be don’t need truth and rationality on their side when it doesn’t suit their agenda. It was a very traumatic time for me. A time I don’t really want to remember.”
Sharlene seemed a bit taken aback. With raised eyebrows she said, “Oh, I am so sorry. I mean, I know how political academia can be. You would be preaching to the choir. I currently live in that tower. You have peaked my interest, but then you pulled back just short of giving me anything of substance.”
He said, “It is because I am an old man and I have no desire to defend myself. I have no desire to see the world live in truth. What is truth? Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. There some bullshit of Biblical proportions for ya. It is not what the powers that be want. Let us just say that history is just that. It is just his-story. The Man’s. It shouldn’t come down to that. What place does agenda have in a story about the facts of events as they actually occurred? It has more than you know. Trust me. But it shouldn’t have any.”
Sharlene said, “I’m intrigued Prof! I can assure you that I am no foe.”
Prof said, “I don’t even want to give it to you. I’m done. I’m really done.”
All of a sudden Sharlene’s soft spoken husband John spoke up. He said, “Are you talking about stuff like the true origins of the Sphinx?”
Prof looked to him expressionless, but didn’t say anything.
Sharlene turned to John and with furled brow she said, “Oh that is easy, John. The Sphinx is actually remnants of Atlantis.” John had suddenly lost his zeal and he backed down without any further comment. Sharlene then turned to Prof and asked, “Is he right?”
Prof said, “I don’t know because he isn’t even allowed to ask the question.”
Sharlene smiled and said, “Oh I can see it just fine Professor Saban. I have been telling him for years that he is crazy and that he needs to double-check his sources.”
Prof just smiled.
Then I introduced Sharlene to Stephan, Bear, Machine, and Bill. I told Bill what Sharlene had told me about the philosophy of art, and though he seemed to think it was cool, he didn’t do anything with it conversationally. I was happy that she didn’t feel inclined to talk to them about their addictions. After that it was time for us to go. Caring Sue thanked Sharlene and John again. I gave them each a hug even though I didn’t ever feel connected to John at all. I think if he would have gotten things his way, Sharlene wouldn’t have even talked to me at all and she would have paid more attention to him. Just the same, he was still pleasant.
Then all of a sudden, it got kind of weird. It was like Sharlene didn’t want to let go. Caring Sue thanked her yet again and kind of implied to her that it was time for them to move on. John was even grabbing her with a couple of fingers by the shirt sleeve and saying that it was time to go. But Sharlene wasn’t ready to let go. She asked, “Piper, are you sure everything is okay?”
I assured her that it was. Caring Sue then seemed to be upset. She looked to me and asked, “Piper, is there something I don’t know?”
I shook my head to indicate that there wasn’t. There wasn’t.
Sharlene said, “Oh, I am pretty sure you know everything. You have got one son that is addicted to heroin and the other two are hopeless alcoholics. Then your youngest gets dosed with a very powerful drug and you just let him wander into a Dead show unsupervised? I realize it was an accident with that girl giving him the dose and all…but still.”
If Caring Sue wasn’t upset before, she was now. She said, “You know what lady? None of that is any of your business. Thank you for taking care of Piper, but you need to be on your way now. Right now.”
At that point I even had to step in and tell Sharlene that she needed to leave. She told me that it was just because she cared about me and wanted to make sure I was okay. I assured her once again that everything was okay. I wasn’t in danger. I told her that I appreciated her concern, but that now she was making problems. When John tried to guide her away again, she did finally abide. I did sneak a peak or two of her as they were walking away. She would look back periodically. But they were moving away. After she was gone I had to explain to them what I exactly told her and why. They weren’t really sore about it. They know who they are. I didn’t say anything terrible about them or anything that wasn’t true.
It turns out that having had gone to a Grateful Dead show back in the day gives me some street cred here in prison. There are a few inmates who have been to a bunch of shows. I mean a bunch. One prisoner said he had seen them over 50 times. I only ever saw them the one time. The inmates would all get a kick out of my story when I told them about my lone show and about how a girl dosed me with LSD without me even realizing it, without me even knowing what LSD was. They would really get a kick out of that. They’d ask with a smile, “And how was the trip?” I would tell them that it went fine. It was even kind of fun. It was definitely strange. One prisoner explained to me. He said, “It is cause you’re a cool cat, Piper. I don’t mean that as a compliment necessarily. Cause there are times when I think you need to man-up a bit. But you don’t really let things rattle you. And you don’t have any hang-ups. That is why you took to it so well. Plus, you’re not full of shit.”
But I never took it again. I never took another drug in fact—not before, and not after. I just had this one lone LSD experience. Of course, I was around drugs all the time, as has been thoroughly documented here, but I wasn’t a part of the commission of those crimes. And Caring Sue watched over me like a hawk. She wasn’t going to let them corrupt me.