When things go bad, they really go bad. That’s what Jeremy Wright was thinking as he drove home the night after it happened. His job as sheriff of Wells River, New Hampshire, seemed to get harder every year. Every year there were more burglaries and vandalism, and there were crimes that Wells River had never had before. And now the strangest thing of all had happened. At about three am the night before, a man who had called himself John Jones had been run over by a car. Had been out walking in the rain miles away from where he lived, and there was no rational way to explain why. That’s what made it hard on a cop. When there was no logical way to explain something. So Jeremy had a mysterious murder or accidental killing or whatever on his hands and didn’t know quite what to do about it.
This John Jones had come to Wells River the past fall and gone to live alone in a cabin on Crawford’s Hill, having seemed to come out of nowhere bent on withdrawing himself from society. Jeremy had disliked him right from the start. Maybe it was that the kid was too much like what he’d been himself when he was young but had grown to have contempt for, the Jeremy Wright who’d wanted to be a painter, who’d had such a way with form and color. He’d even gone down to Boston to art school for a year when he was nineteen, but he’d had to come back after his father had died to work and help support the family, and it had ended there. He was past fifty now, so almost everybody in town had forgotten what he was like then, or was too young to know anything about it. There were a few women in town, though, who’d never forget the young man with the melancholy eyes who’d played so well the role of the solitary, alienated artist. Now almost everyone thought of him only as the stern but conscientious sheriff of Wells River, who had taken on the burden of raising his daughter alone and caring for his widowed mother without complaining.
It was almost seven o’clock when Jeremy pulled into his driveway. Like most of the people in northern New Hampshire, Jeremy Wright didn’t make much money, and even though he took on extra jobs when he could get them, he struggled to get by. He lived in a cramped clapboard house with faded white paint and black shutters on the outside, and inside, rugs and furniture that were threadbare. His ex-wife, Ann, he hadn’t seen or heard from since shortly after Mandy was born, when she’d run off with a handsome and mysterious stranger who’d come to town with a theater troupe. Chalk up one more reason why Jeremy didn’t like outsiders like John Jones.
Jeremy felt as if he’d been under the gun all day, what with trying to investigate the accident or murder or whatever it was, with trying to figure out what to do with the body, with talking to reporters from newspapers and radio stations and even the TV station from Manchester. It had become quite a story, and the catch phrase “The Mystery Man of Crawford’s Hill” had been coined for it by a reporter. Early in the afternoon he’d gone up to the cabin where John Jones had lived to try to find some definite identification and to gather up his effects so that he could dispose of them properly. He was surprised and frustrated that he couldn’t find even one piece of identification, even though he’d turned the place inside out. That made the job of handling the case ten times as hard, and he wasn’t even sure how to proceed. It had never happened before, and it wasn’t supposed to happen ever.
The only hope he had of making identification came from a pile of manuscript that he found in a desk drawer. It struck his curiosity the moment he laid eyes on it, and even though he muttered to himself that it would be a pain in the ass and probably a waste of time to read through it, another thankless chore of his underpaid job, it really did interest him. He began reading it in the cabin, and took it with him when he left. Though it was written somewhat like a novel, he felt almost certain after reading for a while that it was autobiographical. He had a hunch that was true right from the first page, and when he found that the protagonist’s name was John Jones and then turned to the end of the manuscript and read that he came to northern New Hampshire to get away from all that had happened to him, there was no doubt in his mind. It fit like a glove, and it made him feel so good he smiled for the first time that day. Surely, he thought, there would be clues here that would enable him to positively identify John Jones and notify his next of kin, and thereby solve some of the problems the case presented. Now he’d be able to show up the state police, with all their laboratories and experts. He was already imagining it, and couldn’t help but smile again.
When Jeremy walked into his house, he had the manuscript under his arm. He could smell the pork and beans and Boston brown bread that were warming on the stove, and Mandy was setting the table as she listened to Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fightin’” on her transistor radio.
“Turn that damn thing down,” Jeremy said.
Mandy frowned but quickly obeyed her father. The light outside was growing dim as the sun set dreamily behind the mountains back of the house. Jeremy set the manuscript, which he’d put in an accordion folder, on a high bookshelf.
“What’s that, Dad?” Mandy said.
“It’s a manuscript I found in John Jones’s cabin when I went up there today. I think it’s autobiographical. I’m going to read through it tonight to see if I can find any clues about who in the hell he really is.”
“Can I read it, too?
“No, you most certainly cannot. I didn’t bring it home to provide entertainment. And besides, I’ve read enough of it already to know that it’s not the kind of thing I’d want you to read.”
“Oh, I get it,” her curiosity rising.
She was already trying to figure out a way she could read it without her father finding out. She imagined what a coup it would be for her at school to tell all the kids what was in it. She could just see herself the center of attention as everyone gathered around her to hear what she’d read about this man who’d caused such an uproar in the town. But then she felt guilty for wanting to cash in in such a way on John Jones’s death, because she really did feel bad about it.
“What was it like up there, Jeremy?” Jeremy’s mother, Dorothy, asked during dinner.
“Well, you’ve been up there before, when the Weavers still came there. Just imagine it as older and worn down. It doesn’t look like it’s been painted since they left, and the road up there’s so grown over the jeep barely made it. He didn’t have much up there, either. Just some old clothes and a few books. There was hardly even any food. Everything was dirty. He lived like a pig.”
“Maybe his heart was broken by a woman, and he came up here to forget,” Mandy said. “That’s what I thought ever since I talked to him once in Wells River.” She had bright, dark pixie eyes and a peaches and cream complexion. Her dark wavy hair fell below her shoulders and was held by a gold clasp.
“I doubt it,” Jeremy said. “From what I know so far I’d say he was a drifter and a bum who didn’t have the guts to face up to life.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that, Jeremy,” Dorothy said. “The man just died yesterday, and it isn’t right. Whatever his faults, it’s up to God to judge him now, not us.”
Jeremy didn’t believe in God, but he acquiesced to his mother nevertheless. “Right, right,” he said, and let it drop.
Jeremy continued reading the manuscript right after dinner. About eight o’clock George Teller dropped by. He was Jeremy’s brother-in-law and often helped out when Jeremy needed an extra man for some job around the house or in the yard, or when Jeremy was sick or too busy to do work that needed to be done at home himself. George Teller wasn’t particularly kind and he didn’t particularly like Jeremy, but his wife was usually able to get him to help Jeremy out by nagging him about their obligation to Jeremy’s family, because Jeremy was supporting their mother. George was 38 years old and taught English and history at Wells River High School, though he considered himself much too bright to be stuck in such a hick town. After all, he often reminded himself, he had a master’s degree from Dartmouth. Tonight he came to Jeremy’s on the pretense of just dropping by, but what he really wanted was to find out more about the investigation of John Jones’s death, so that he too would have some inside information when he went to the school the next morning. Not that he ever minded being there when Mandy was home. He would have been ashamed to admit how attracted he was to her. But the first thing he noticed when he came inside was Jeremy sitting at a table reading the manuscript.
“Well, Jeremy, don’t tell me you’ve taken up the writing of novels?” he said, considerably amused. Jeremy didn’t look up or deign to answer him. “That’s what makes life interesting. Just when you least expect it you find someone doing something totally out of character.”
“As a matter of fact, I’m doing detective work,” disgustedly. “I found this manuscript up in John Jones’s cabin. I thought it might help me figure out who in the hell he really was.”
“I don’t suppose curiosity had anything to do with it,” with a goading look.
“As you can see, I’m writing down names and places to call tomorrow. If they don’t turn out to all be made up names, that is. It’s like a novel but it doesn’t have any chapters. Just a title, The Labyrinth, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.”
George’s interest was now definitely piqued, so he walked over to where Jeremy was sitting and started reading the manuscript himself.
“You’re making me nervous as hell,” Jeremy said. “I shouldn’t even be letting you read this.”
“You really ought to let me have a go at it. I’m good at ferreting information out of books. That’s the sort of thing they taught us down at Dartmouth.”
“Well, if that’s what they taught you, you wasted your time.”
After they had read for a while George said, “He claims he was involved in a murder, although he didn’t do the actual killing. He seemed to see himself as sort of a cross between Errol Flynn and Jack Kerouac.”
“What in the hell has that got to do with anything?”
“Nothing, I suppose. I was just thinking out loud. Of course we don’t know if this is a true story or not. It could just be a fantasy that he whipped up in the long, lonely hours he must have spent up in that dreary cabin. Or it could be that the story is more or less true except for the names. Or it may all be true. You have all those possibilities, Jeremy, my boy. Take your pick.”
“What’s it about, Uncle George?” Mandy said, coming over to them. “I want to read it myself but Dad won’t let me. Are there lots of passionate sex scenes in it or something?” laughing.
“I can see already why he didn’t want you to. It’s violent and it’s pretty racy. I’d have to give it an ‘R’ rating—if not an ‘X’. I’m sure he made the right decision, as always,” with a wink at Jeremy. “If I were you, Jeremy, I’d keep this manuscript under lock and key,” more than a little amused.
“I think I’m old enough to be able to read it. I’m not as innocent as you think I am,” looking at her father.
Jeremy looked up at Mandy reproachfully but didn’t reply to her. He and George went on reading more or less constantly until after ten o’clock. Before George left he had talked Jeremy into letting him finish reading it, using the argument that it might be of literary merit, and that of everyone in town he was the most qualified to make that determination. And though Jeremy didn’t give a damn whether it was of literary merit or not, he was glad to agree just so George wouldn’t badger him about it anymore.
Jeremy returned the manuscript to the high shelf before he went to bed. But after everyone had gone to bed and the only sound in the house was the ticking of a grandfather clock in the living room, Mandy got up and took the manuscript down and began reading it. She read for about three hours, until she could hardly keep her eyes open any longer, skimming through it right to the end, and was determined she’d find a way to read the whole thing.
The manuscript didn’t stay where it was long, though. In the morning after Jeremy had gone to work and Mandy to school, Jeremy’s mother took it down and began reading it herself. She was embarrassed and a little amused by her curiosity, but after all the hoopla and talk there’d been about John Jones around town, she couldn’t resist taking a look. So whether surreptitiously or as a matter of official duty or whatever, four persons read the manuscript left by the strange young man who lived alone up on Crawford’s Hill. This is what they found:
OK, so I deserve this: Here I am, living in a rundown cabin in northern New Hampshire, cut off from all the people I’ve ever known. I tried to live a normal life. I tried to be like other people. I even tried to pretend sometimes I was above other people. And in a way I was. I tried not to get close to anyone. Sometimes I pretended I was cool and above the fray, watching and laughing as the fools all around me butted their heads against walls and ran around in circles searching for love and happiness they were never going to find. But what I really was, I suppose, was jealous. I never could be like other people. I never could plan a life with a wife and kids and a house with a white picket fence or any of the other fantasies that people have about their lives when they’re young. I had a terrible secret that I knew would catch up with me sooner or later. I could forget it for a while. I could pretend I was like other people. I could even fall in love. But sooner or later the reality of my situation would catch up with me. It would grab me by the throat and crash me back to reality like a car crashing into a brick wall.
Mostly, my life has been defined by women. I always thought it was me who was in control, me who never got carried away, because I knew I could never really settle down, knew I could never go all in emotionally. No matter what happened, no matter how happy I thought I might be for a while, I knew it would all come crumbling down sooner or later. But I was just kidding myself. They were really in control all the time: When I was with Jan I lived like Archie Bunker, when I was with Heather I lived like Thoreau in the wilderness, when I was with Laurel I went on a wild trip down the coast of California. And so on and so forth. But I suppose that happened almost by default. At least they had some idea of what they wanted or thought they wanted and where they wanted to go. All I could do was go along for the ride.
My life is really two stories: One is a kind of normal story of a guy’s life as a young man. The other is story of a murder. I tried to keep them separated, even though I knew I couldn’t do it forever and knew that once the two stories did finally come together, my life as I knew it would be smashed into little pieces. There’s not a hell of a lot for me to do here at night, all alone in my cabin, so I thought it would be a good time to write about my life. I want to put the story down on paper and try to make at least some sense out of it, so that if I ever have any doubts about why I came up here, I can always go back to it and find out why.
So I’ll begin, as rain taps softly on the roof, and I think back to 1969.
When I came back to Michigan State that fall, it seemed like so much happening, so much change was in the air. But I only did because it was the easiest way out, and I was always taking the easy way out. Then something happened that made it all right for a while, and I ended up being glad I was back, but because of a certain pair of blue eyes and a curious smile, rather than the things that seemed to matter so much then. At my dorm, McDonel Hall, a party was going on, and there I met Lonnie O’Brien. We got to talking, and were feeling good from the wine we’d drunk, and after a while she invited me up to her room. It was small, as dorm rooms are, but she seemed to have put a lot of effort into making it look good. Plants were all over, and on the walls were posters—of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and a couple of landscapes that looked very definitely like Hobbitland. On the floor she had a deep purple carpet, and beside it, taking up most of the floor space in the room, a waterbed. As soon as we got to her room she got a bottle of Blue Nun out of her little refrigerator. Then we sat on her little sofa and drank it as we listened to the Moody Blues’ On the Threshold of a Dream.
“This is unquestionably their best album,” I said, after little awkward silence.
“That’s debatable,” Lonnie replied with a mocking half smile.
“Some people prefer Days of Future Passed. It has a different style than their other albums. It’s a lot less like rock ’n roll.”
“All in all, I’d have to say that’s my favorite.”
“I like the way you’ve got your room fixed up. It looks better than any other room I’ve seen up here.”
“The rooms here are so small, I wanted to do as much as I could to make it livable. These rooms are unbelievably drab when you first walk into them.”
With the grace that all her movements seemed to have, Lonnie lifted her wine glass and took a sip from it. She was slender and had long brown hair. Her eyes were as cool and watchful as cat’s eyes, and you could see in then the touch of irony that flavored most of the things she said. When she was about to speak, often she would give her lips an expression of gentle mockery that just seemed to suit her wry way of looking at the world.
“How do you like sleeping on a water bed?” I asked midway through a second glass of wine.
“Great,” with a smile that seemed to suggest memories of the fun she’d had on it. “It’s a lot of fun and really comfortable.”
“I’ve never been on one before. Would you mind if I tried it out?”
I took my shoes off and lay back on the waterbed. I’d never been on one before—it was during the time they were first coming in. I felt like I was on an air mattress in the water and I could hear the water splashing a little inside the bed. Then Lonnie came by the bed and fell onto it, which made me bounce up and roll over. She laughed and we both turned so that we were facing each other.
“Well, what do you think?”
“I like it so far. But to know for sure I’d have to spend a night or two on it.”
“I might be able to arrange that. Maybe if you’re a good boy and put it on your Christmas list, I’ll let you then. Right now, though, all you’re going to find out is what it feels like to get tickled on a waterbed,” just as she was reaching her hands out to my stomach. I reached out to tickle her then and we kept trying to tickle each other until we were laughing hard. But when we suddenly came close together one moment we stopped trying to tickle each other, looked into each other’s eyes, and smiled. Then we kissed, a long soul kiss. In a little while I put my hand under Lonnie’s pullover shirt to rub her side and stomach. I didn’t intend to push my luck any further at the moment, so I was really surprised when Lonnie decided that would be a good time to take her shirt off altogether. I wasn’t expecting it to be that easy. Everything seemed easy after that, like we were in a seduction play that we had rehearsed for months, and before long we were making love. It was fun and a little strange on the waterbed, like making it on a boat or something.
Later, we lay under the covers talking, with a candle burning beside the bed. To album after album we listened, mostly music that was meant to be played quietly, like Gordon Lightfoot, Isaac Hayes, the Trois Gymnopedies by Satie, and even Tony Bennett. Lonnie had a little bit of everything in her huge record collection, and we took turns getting up to put on new albums.
“You have very interesting eyes,” Lonnie said. “I think I could look into them all night and never get tired of it.”
“I don’t suppose we’d get a whole lot of sleep if you did that, though, would we?”
“I didn’t mean I’d really do that, of course,” laughing. “And even if I did, we could sleep all day tomorrow, and when we woke up we could have breakfast in bed together, then just start the night all over again.”
“The ideal way for a perfectly lazy person like me to spend the day.”
“Your roommate’s really going to wonder what’s happened to you if you don’t go back pretty soon, you know. It could start some terrible rumors. But I don’t care. I don’t think I’m going to let you go, even if you want to.”
“You really think you can keep me, eh?” with mock toughness.
“Oh, yes. And it won’t take locks and chains, either. Just a little loving, some romantic music, a little more wine. I think I’ve got your weaknesses figured out already.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“We really should get some sleep, you know. That is if you want to stay.”
“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away,” singing it.
“Well, that’s good to know. I promise I’ll dream about you and it’ll be a good dream. I’ll dream about us taking a walk through the Tuileries in Paris in the spring, or making love on a cloud, something like that. I’ll even fall asleep in your arms if you want me to.”
“All right, but I’m warning you. I’ve been known to toss and turn half the night.”
“Oh, really? Could you give me references?”
As Tony Bennett sang the last bars of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” Lonnie and I fell asleep. But I woke up after a little while. Lonnie was asleep but we were still partly entwined underneath the covers. I was on my back with my arm around her neck and my hand on her side, and she was on her side with her arm draped loosely over my chest. I could hear and feel her breathe, and my hand on her side went up and down with each breath. “The Shadow of Your Smile” ran through my head again, and I could hear the wind rustle through the trees outside. I imagined I could hear the first leaves of autumn drifting slowly to the ground and scraping along the gutters. I remembered a night when I was a kid sleeping alone in a strange house, listening to the wind in the leaves and hearing a dog barking far away. Suddenly all the doubts I’d had about everything dissolved. Nothing mattered but that moment.
I woke up later when Lonnie opened one of my eyelids and smiled at me.
“I’ve got a great idea,” she said. “Why don’t we take a walk to Beal Garden? The sun’s just starting to come up and it should be beautiful.”
I looked at her in a way that she could tell I didn’t want to go.
“I know what you’re thinking. But we can come back later and sleep as long as we want to.” I still looked skeptical. She stuck her bottom lip way out and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“All right, all right,” I said. “How could I say no to a face like that?”
On the way to Beal Garden we stopped at the rapids on the Red Cedar River, in a half circle of juniper shrubs and small birches across from Hannah Administration Building. Sitting down, we listened to the water break over the stones and watched the ducks. A flock of them were always there, except in the spring during mating season, when they would spread out up and down the river. Most of them floated on the water above the rapids, occasionally skimming the water with their bills for insects, but a few slept on the banks with their heads tucked under their wings. Along the bank one strutted up and down the grass, and Lonnie and I laughed when we tried to figure out why. Mist was on the river, drifting in the maples, pines and willows that hung over the water, and a crisp, clean morning smell was in the air. Looking down the river, we saw the sun coming up through the clouds and the trees.
When we left we crossed the river and walked the little way to Beal Botanical Garden, which stretches in a soft S-shape behind the library, with grass and trees in the middle and flower beds on both sides. The garden contains flowers and trees from all over the world, and there are markers before each of the types of plants with their names and the place in the world they come from. We walked by flowers with names like bitter nightshade, wild four o’clock, heart’s ease, and azure monkshood. We passed tulip trees, willows and cedars, and in the middle of the garden a huge hemlock and a little pond with a bench beside it. In the dewdrops a thousand tiny suns were reflected. Standing under a bitternut tree, we put our arms around each other and kissed.
“Now aren’t you glad you came here after all?” Lonnie said.
“Are you kidding?” with a look that made any answer unnecessary.
“I can’t think of a better way to start a day than this, can you?”
“We could have taken a walk through the Tuileries, or made love on a cloud.”
“Yes, but this is just as good as the Tuileries, I’ll bet, and we’ve already made love on the water, which I’m sure is as much fun as a cloud any day.”
“I’ll buy that.”
“I’d like to live every day like I’ve lived this last one. Not exactly like it of course, but as spontaneous and carefree and exciting, just taking each day as it comes, with someone as interesting as you.”
“Don’t you think it would wear you out after a while, that you’d almost want to get into a rut so you could appreciate it a little more? That seems to be what happens to most everyone.”
“No way. I’ll worry about that when I’m 64.”
When we got back to Lonnie’s room we made love again and then went to sleep. Lonnie was gone when I woke up. I looked up at her clock and saw that I’d already missed my first two classes. I got up and dressed and read the note she’d left on the door.
Had to get up to go to class. Would’ve woke you up but you just looked too comfortable. Come on up about five if you want to go to dinner with me.
I had to hurry even to get to my third class. As soon as the prof started talking, though, I knew that I’d wasted my time coming. Dr. Tower stood in front of the class with his back as straight as a drill sergeant. He looked at the class as if he were a prosecutor and they the defendant. I was afraid he was going to point at me and try to hold me up to ridicule for not paying attention—as I’d seen him do to other students before—by asking me a question about ancient Greece that I never could have answered and making a joke about what I’d done last night. No matter what the subject, he seemed to be able to link it up with some story about himself. At the moment he was talking about education in Greece.
“When I was in elementary school, in my class all the desks were arranged in order of I.Q. The closer you were to the door, the higher your I.Q. The student with the highest I.Q. got to sit by the door and open it when someone knocked, and that’s where I sat.”
He just blew me away when he said that, almost knocked me right out of my chair, and I knew he’d hit a new low in his bragging, not to mention that I thought the story was highly unlikely. I coughed loudly and he looked at me like he was pissed. A few students chuckled or muffled laughs, but most just sat there like sheep. If they thought what he’d said was ridiculous, they weren’t letting it show. I felt half like throwing up and half like laughing. I mean, I wonder how the kid felt who sat farthest from the door? But Dr. Tower went on with his lecture and soon my mind started to wander again. Every once in a while I’d concentrate on the lecture, but as soon as I’d start listening I’d realize he had nothing important to say, that his mind was a complete vacuum, so I only caught bits and pieces of the lecture as more pleasant thoughts from the night before, or drowsiness, kept crowding it out.
After Dr. Tower said, “While I was in England this summer, I had tea with a group of distinguished scholars from Oxford,” I remembered Lonnie and me drinking wine, and her smiling in her curious ironic way that made me wonder what she was really thinking. And when Dr. Tower began a story with “I broke bread with some of the finest minds in Europe, the distinguished philosophers of the Vienna circle,” my mind drifted off to Lonnie saying, “I can’t understand why people dwell so much on the future. The more you think about how you’re really going to end up, the less you’re going to like it,” and laughing. And when Dr. Tower said “after I earned my Ph.D. at Michigan—summa cum laude, I might add,” I remembered Chopin playing as Lonnie and I lay back on the bed, floating on the water that seemed to float us above all the mundane junk that fills most people’s lives. Then it seemed like I couldn’t keep my eyes open and…
Before I knew it only five minutes were left in the class, and Dr. Tower was saying, “This is your theme: The importance of myth in the fabric of the Greek psyche.”
I’d missed almost the whole thing, all the stories about what a genius Dr. Tower is. As far as I could see, though, the only thing he really knew anything about was his own marvelous self. He could have written a thousand monographs on that subject. To me he was the biggest jerk who ever stood in front of a classroom.
After class I went to a dorm where I didn’t know anyone for lunch, because I didn’t want to talk to anyone and I didn’t want anyone to ask me where I’d been all night. Then I went back to my room to take a nap. When I woke up, my roommate, Gary Hennessy, was there.
“I think I’m in love,” I said, with just enough of a cynical edge in my voice so he wouldn’t take me seriously, smiling a little. I was lying on my bed with my head propped up on the pillow and my hands behind my head, and Gary sat on the chair that was beside the other end of the bed.
“I can pretty much picture what happened, the way things looked at the party last night. But you’ve got your vocabulary mixed up. ‘In lust’ is the term you were looking for.”
“I think I’ll have a dozen red roses sent to Lonnie’s room this afternoon. I’ll tell the florist I’d like the flowers delivered by a man dressed like a courtier of King Louis XIV, with a white feather in his hat to set off the flowers.”
“She’ll probably fall in love with him instead.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t that be something? But I could always win her back with a smile.”
“Yeah, sure. You and Clark Gable. I’ve got to take off now. I’ve got a meeting with my counselor at two. I think you’d better go back to sleep. It doesn’t sound like you’re done dreaming yet,” much amused.
“I hope not.”
From the top of his desk Gary took a book and a notebook and pen.
“See you later,” he said, and went out the door.
I got back in bed. As people walked by outside I could hear talking and cars and a bus go by. Down the hall someone was playing the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” But I could still hear “The Shadow of Your Smile” playing in my head, and smiled at the contrast. I didn’t have any idea what would develop between Lonnie and me, but I wasn’t going to worry about a thing. For a while I stopped dwelling on that one horrible night when I was 15 that changed my life forever. I decided I’d just take each day as it comes, like Lonnie said she did. I was amazed at how much my thinking had turned around in just one day.
Ed Carey was my hero. He was the coolest guy I ever knew. He looked cool, he dressed cool, was about the best natural athlete around (though the coaches at our school could never get him to join any teams), the guy who attracted the most girls. He was also the most dangerous guy I ever knew, and I wanted more than anything to be like him. He’d spent a year in juvenile home after he robbed a grocery store in the middle of the night, and in a way that made him even more cool to me. Even though he wasn’t the biggest guy around, bigger guys and guys who acted tough mostly didn’t want to mess with him. He didn’t like me when I first got to know him. He insulted me and pushed me around. But I was friends with some of his friends and kept hanging around him, and at some point I became his pal. I suppose I knew in the back of my mind that someday he’d get me in real trouble, but I never even imagined how bad the trouble would be.
Lonnie and I were riding bikes down Farm Lane. We rode out past the MSU experimental farms and finally came to the place Lonnie had in mind for us to stop.
“We can leave our bikes here,” she said, walking toward a thick clump of trees beside the road. “There’s a place in the woods I’ve just got to show you.”
We walked across a field and into the woods down a lightly worn path. Lonnie seemed to know exactly where she was going. With a sly smile she looked over at me a couple of times, like she had a surprise waiting for me. When the wind came up, leaves fell and drifted around us and made me think of dancers in the air. We came finally to a clearing with a pond at one end, which I supposed was a pasture of a long abandoned farm.
“Well, how do you like it?” Lonnie said.
“It’s nice. But I can’t imagine how you ever found it.”
“I didn’t. Someone had to show me. But now I come here all the time. It’s a good place for me to come when I want to read or just be alone and think. Why don’t we put the blanket down and relax for a while?”
We spread the blanket out, and only a few seconds after we laid down on it we started kissing. Then we unbuttoned each other’s shirts.
“We’re going to feel pretty silly if someone comes out here and catches us like this, you know,” I said, but not because I was that worried about it.
“I wouldn’t concern yourself about that too much. No one has ever come here when I’ve been here. And besides, we’d probably hear people coming and we could dress real fast before they could see us. I can really dress fast in a pinch.”
“I won’t even ask how you learned to do that.”
Lonnie laughed. “It doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re thinking,” looking at me accusingly. “I learned it in Girl Scouts.”
We kissed, and I ran my hand down her side and across one of her rather supple breasts. Soon we took the rest of our clothes off and made love.
Afterward, we dressed and lay on our backs. It had been mostly sunny when we’d left on the bike trip, but some darker clouds were starting to move in, and now it seemed like it might rain. In other words, it was a typical Michigan fall day. Leaves were falling in the woods and drifting out, sometimes landing on the blanket or on us, and it was so quiet—a light wind and the musical chatter of birds were the only sounds—that it was hard to believe a pretty good-sized city was just a few miles away. When I sat up, I could see a long way into the woods, and I saw how leaves had covered up the ground. Lonnie and I didn’t talk for a while, not until I looked over at her and said, “You know, I really don’t know a thing about you. Whenever I ask you about your past, you just give me these vague smiles like you don’t want me to know anything about you. I’m startin’ to get curious.”
“Actually, the less you know about me the better you’ll probably like me,” with a smile that was full of implications.
“Come on, you can’t be that bad.”
“It depends on the way you look at things.”
“I’m pretty broad minded. I’ve got a few skeletons in the closet myself, including one really big one.”
“The truth is, I’m a witch, and I’ve been alive for over three thousand years. I was King Tut’s queen first of all. One of his priests fell in love with me, and I tricked him into casting a spell on me that made me live forever. It was my mysterious expression that inspired the Sphinx. Later in history, I was the confidante of Cleopatra, and had secret love affairs with Mark Antony and Julius Caesar. They were the best lovers I ever had until I met you.”
“Don’t let me catch you smiling when you say that, or you’ll be in big trouble.”
She flashed me her biggest smile.
“Anyway, I was the woman who kissed the frog that turned into Prince Charming, and who later became his princess. A few centuries after that, I was a pirate with Blackbeard and his gang, and I was every bit as tough as the men. We took all our loot to an island in the Dry Tortugas, where we built a castle, and I became queen of the island. Eventually I got caught plundering a Spanish ship, though, and got thrown into a dungeon in Barcelona. But I used magic to escape. I’ve been just about everywhere and had everything I wanted. I even traveled to Hobbitland once and met Frodo and Sam and Gandalf.”
“I’m amazed I never read about you in my history classes.”
“You would have if you’d done your assignments like you were supposed to,” poking me in the chest. A gust of wind came up, and we could hear the dry sounds of the grass and the leaves. “Actually, I’ve led a pretty ordinary life. I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and we lived in Kansas City and Des Moines and Milwaukee when I was growing up, and we moved to Birmingham, Michigan, when I went to high school. That’s how I ended up here. My father’s a salesman and he was always getting new jobs. He made a lot of money but he was hardly ever home, and I remember being lonely a lot. Every time I made new friends we’d move again. I created a lot of fantasies because I was so lonely.”
“Most kids do that when they’re growing up, but I doubt many have quite your imagination.”
“I don’t know. I never try to guess any more what’s going on in other people’s heads. Ever since a girlfriend of mine who I really cared about and I thought was doing OK committed suicide.”
Lonnie looked meaningfully into my eyes.
“Sorry I let the conversation get so heavy,” she said. “I don’t know why I mentioned that. I hate it when people bring up stuff like that.”
We got up and walked to the pond. As we came close to it, we heard frogs plop into the water and saw the ripples. Along the shallow edge of the pond reeds and cattails were growing, and a little farther out, water lilies. We came together and kissed, and for a long time didn’t speak.
We talked about what we’d do if it rained, and just as we were about to leave, Lonnie said, “By the way, don’t get to like me too much. I absolutely can’t be counted on, and I never stay with anyone very long.”
“We’ll get along perfect then,” trying not to show any surprise at her bluntness. “I’m just like you are.”
After we had dinner together in the dorm cafeteria, Lonnie went back to her room because she had studying to do. I did, too, but I didn’t feel like doing it, so I went to see my friend Jack, who lived at Mason Hall.
After we smoked a joint, Jack got out a bottle of burgundy. We drank it as we listened to a Pink Floyd album, and I talked about Lonnie. I told him about our bike trip that afternoon.
“So just when everything was really mellow, when everything had happened like you’d expect us to be falling madly in love, out of the blue she says, ‘Don’t get to like me too much. I never stay with anyone very long.’ Can you believe it? I didn’t know whether to laugh or throw her into the pond.”
Jack seemed to enjoy the story.
“Someday you’ll get to the point where nothing anyone says will surprise you, then you’ll be all set.”
“I really didn’t think I was all that innocent.”
“Your trouble is you expect people to be sane, and they’re not. Most people are crazy.”
For a while we didn’t talk—just drank the burgundy and listened to music. I was on a beanbag cushion on the floor half sitting and half lying down. Jack was sitting in his shabby easy chair smoking a Tareyton. He had on black pants and a gray shirt and at first glance looked vaguely unhip. But you only had to be around him a little while for him to be unforgettable. Maybe it was because of the easy, cool way that he moved, or the roguishness in his smile or his mustache, or maybe it was his eyes, which were dark and somehow made him seem both strong and vulnerable, which you could never quite figure out but never stopped wondering about. Quite a few women had fallen wildly in love with him, but as long as I knew him, he never got serious about any of them. He used dope like the freaks and liked a lot of the same music they did, but he dressed like them hardly at all and he didn’t hang around with them much. And he was completely apolitical. He was a fair amount like Ed Carey, actually—cooler and more dangerous than I could ever hope to be—but without the violent streak as far as I knew.
He probably used more drugs than anyone I’ve ever known. I mean, he just devoured them, and he used just about everything, from marijuana and acid to Quaaludes and cocaine, with quite a bit of drinking thrown in. He just went through enormous quantities of drugs, he was always on something, like he wanted to deaden every feeling he’d ever had. But he could really handle them. No matter how fucked up he was he always came across about the same, just as quiet and enigmatic, so that you almost had to have seen him doing the dope to believe he could be that high. I’m sure there were many people who knew him who never suspected. I suppose I was about the closest thing to a friend he had. He was unique—one of the few original persons I’ve ever known. The way I’d got to know him is that he was in one of my classes and I just struck up a conversation with him one day. I thought he looked interesting and I’d noticed that he never seemed to talk to anyone.
“Let’s get the hell out of here and go someplace,” Jack said after a while. “The longer I stay in this room, the smaller it gets.”
We took a joint with us and went out for a walk. We’d decided to look for a party and if we couldn’t find one to go to Lizard’s, our favorite bar, for a drink. It was chilly out and a little windy, and not many people were around. We finally decided we’d go visit these women Jack knew who lived at Butterfield Hall, one of the small, Gothic dorms that are part of the old campus. As we were walking across Beaumont Tower park we came up to four women who were walking in the other direction. They were talking loudly and laughing.
“Hey, laugh a little,” one of them said to us just as we were passing each other. “The cow just jumped over the moon.”
“No, he didn’t,” I said. “He didn’t make it and he’s on his way to Mars.”
They walked a little way past us and stopped, and we turned around toward them.
“Cows are a she, not a he,” the same woman said, theatrically.
“That’s right. What I saw must’ve been a bull.”
“Somebody around here’s full of bull, anyway,” and she and her friends laughed. “Didn’t really mean that.” She held the bottle they’d been passing between them out toward us. It was Boone’s Farm apple wine. “Would you guys like some?”
“Sure,” I said. Jack nodded that he wanted some, too, and smiled his most charming smile. We each took a sip and talked some more with the women. Their names were Helen, Ann and Olivia, and as it turned out Ann was in one of Jack’s classes. They asked us if we wanted to go back to their dorm and party with them, and we passed the wine bottle back and forth as we walked there. When we got to Helen’s room, we listened to music and drank wine, and after a while played a drinking game in which Jack and I ended up kissing all the women. Even though I was having a good time, I thought a lot about Lonnie. I wondered what she was doing and thinking and whether I should have any second thoughts about fooling around with these women, but after what she’d said that afternoon, it hardly seemed to matter. When we finished the wine we smoked a joint of some really good grass Helen had.
“I wonder if that cow we were discussing got to Mars by now?” Ann said.
“I’ll bet he overshot it and is half way to Jupiter,” I said, using he again on purpose to see if I could get Helen riled up. “Cows aren’t very intelligent.” We all laughed hard.
“Neither are people who think cows are boys,” Helen said, with a smirk directed at me. “She’ll probably end up in another galaxy at the rate she’s going,” to more unrestrained laughter.
“That would make a great movie,” Jack said. “The Mystery of the Intergalactic Cow.”
“But who’d star in it?” Helen said.
“How about Spiro Agnew?” Ann said.
“Great!” I said. “And Nixon could play the president who wanted to use nuclear weapons to get the cow back down.”
“You’d still need a love interest,” Olivia said. “We could have the cow meet a bull out in space and fall in love, and then the cow could lay a space egg.”
“Hey, since when do cows lay eggs?” Helen said.
“Strange things can happen when you leave the Milky Way,” Ann said. “You can even end up in the fifth dimension.”
“I wouldn’t mind that,” Helen said. “That’s one of my favorite groups.”
Our conversation stayed ridiculous for a while, and we laughed like we were crazy, harder than we ever would have if we’d been straight, smoking more grass and drinking the wine that Ann miraculously discovered she had in her room down the hall after Helen’s ran out. But later we quieted down and just lay back and listened to music. Helen put on this really interesting album that I hadn’t heard before, strange music with Moog synthesizer and electric violin that faded in and out. I closed my eyes and saw thousands of toy soldiers marching together in perfect order, then a long bank of palm trees behind a white beach with waves rolling up to it, only it looked like it was up in the sky. Finally I got up to leave and asked Jack if he wanted to go, but he wanted to stay. He and Olivia were in a corner of the room sitting back on a cushion, close together, talking quietly. Ann was already gone, but I said good-by to the others and left. I was really messed up.
I had a hangover the next day, so I drove out into the country to go for a walk. Pumpkins were piled high by the side of a barn at a farm I went by, and an old man and woman were putting a ladder beside an apple tree drooping with fruit. I passed a hog farm and a hog looked at me with such curiosity that I had to smile. I pulled over to the side of the road and walked into the woods. I sat on a rotting log and could smell the decaying and dead leaves all around. I wondered what Lonnie was doing right at that moment. I lay on the leaves and remembered when I was little running and jumping with my brother into a pile of leaves we had raked up in front of the house, and how we’d laughed and smelled leaves burning down the street. The woods were wonderfully quiet, and the leaves fell down on me, and I thought I could have lain there forever and not cared to get up.
I was out in the woods near the railroad track behind Sibley’s Lumber Yard with Ed Carey. He was 17 and I was 15. It was getting dark and I remember the wind stirring through the leaves. We met a guy who looked like a bum and a drifter who’d probably jumped off one of the freight cars. He walked a little unsteady. “Hey, asshole. You’re drunk,” Ed said. “You’ll never find your way home to your mama in here.” The guy was tall and thin and looked like he hadn’t shaved in a few days. He had on a suit jacket and pants that looked so old and beat up he’d probably picked them up at a Salvation Army store years ago. His shirt looked like it had been white but was so dirty you’d have to question whether it had ever been washed. He stopped and turned around after Ed talked to him and didn’t say anything for a few seconds, like he was trying to decide if he should just keep walking. He’d probably heard insults like that every day of his life. But maybe he was just drunk enough and just sober enough not to let it pass. “You want to make something out it, buddy?” he said. In a second his look had changed from a stumbling drunk to really pissed off. He looked straight into Ed’s eyes. “Yeah, maybe I do,” Ed said. He went up to the guy and pushed him to the ground. The guy got up and grabbed Ed and threw him down and they started fighting. Ed had a terrible temper, and it was pretty scary to me when he lost it. It was one of the things that made me hold him in awe. The bum pulled a knife out of his pocket and opened it. “Come on, punk,” he said. “Let’s see how tough you are.” He tried to stab Ed but he was too fast for him, and eventually Ed got the knife out of his hand, pushed him to the ground again, and stabbed him with it. I was so shocked I just froze where I was standing. I mean, I’d hardly seen anything more violent in my life than a cat getting run over by a car. Ed completely lost it and stabbed the guy over and over again. Blood was pouring out of him and getting all over Ed. I was horrified and fascinated at the same time. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I should have tried to stop Ed but I did nothing! I said nothing! I just watched more intently than anything I’d ever seen in my life.
For a while Lonnie and I spent almost all our spare time together. Sometimes at night we’d lie on her waterbed and talk for hours. Now that she knew me better, she liked to talk about her childhood, and sometimes she’d make things up the way she had that day we went bike riding. A lot of time we spent talking about rock music, because then it really seemed to matter. It was about the closest thing to a religion my generation had, though I can’t help but smile a little now when I think of it that way, because it sounds so pretentious now, the kind of statement you could only take seriously in the Sixties. We both thought the Beatles were the best band, but we argued about all the others. If we got into a particularly tough argument we tried to find the album we were arguing about and play it, so we could each make points in our favor. Lonnie liked going on walks and drives out in the country, and a few times she dragged me out of bed early to go walking in Beal Garden again. After we found out where a cider mill was, we went out there a couple of times to buy cider and doughnuts and watch the cider being pressed. Lonnie liked old movies, especially if they had Humphrey Bogart or Bette Davis in them, and because she tried to watch them whenever they were on TV or were shown on campus, I felt like an old film buff in no time at all. We had a few little fights but they didn’t last, and we didn’t go more than a day without talking to each other. We didn’t socialize much, though. A couple of times we went to parties or out with friends, but almost always we just went out with each other. I just took each day as it came and didn’t look ahead at all. Everybody was saying you shouldn’t care about tomorrow, and I didn’t, so it didn’t seem to matter when Lonnie reminded me that she never stayed with anyone very long, that her feelings could change at the drop of a hat, and that she was surprised she’d been able to get along with me as long as she had. She didn’t seem interested in anyone else and didn’t seem bored with me, so it didn’t appear to make any difference anyway. And besides, I was sure she didn’t matter that much to me, and I knew, in the end, that no one could.
I kept letting my school work slide, and then I did something that could have got me kicked out of school. I was in Dr. Tower’s class, and his lecture was even more revolting to me than usual, especially when he started telling this army story.
“When I was in basic training, when we had bayonet practice, the sergeant told us to yell ‘kill, kill’ as we stuck the bayonets into dummies, and everyone in my platoon did but me. I yelled ‘spill, spill.’ I wouldn’t let them brainwash me.”
“Why did you do that?” I said.
He looked startled. “Why? Because it would have been barbaric to yell ‘kill, kill,’ of course.”
“But why were you so different from everybody else? Did they have your I.Q. painted on your bayonet?”
I heard laughter.
“Just who in the hell do you think you are, buddy?”
By this time the whole class had turned to look at me, shocked or amused.
“I’m just sick of listening to all your goddamn bragging. If you were half as smart as you say you are, you would have kept your mouth shut about it. I’ve never heard so much pompous bullshit in my life. I paid good money for this class, and it was all wasted. As far as I’m concerned your Ph.D. from Michigan is as worthless as toilet paper.”
“Get the hell out of this class, you son of a bitch, and don’t ever come back again. I’m going to do everything in my power to see that you’re expelled from this university.”
I laughed at him, mockingly and defiantly, and got up and walked out of the room. But right away I regretted what I’d done. It was obvious to me that Dr. Tower had a tremendous inferiority complex, and that all I’d done probably is make him feel a little smaller and a little more scared inside. I was pretty sure that he wouldn’t try to get me kicked out of school, though. It would have been too embarrassing for him to explain what brought on my outburst, and he’d have had to guess that his bragging would come out if he tried to bring the incident before authorities. And I was right. He never did a thing. The only thing it cost me is that I flunked his damn class, but I was probably flunking it anyway because I hardly did any of the work.
One night a week or so later I went to Lonnie’s room to pick her up to go see Alice’s Restaurant. I arrived a little early, and she seemed surprised to see me.
“I hope you won’t be mad at me when I tell you I can’t go tonight after all,” she said.
“I have a meeting tonight on my psych project that I forgot all about until someone called me about twenty minutes ago. I was going to stop by and tell you on my way out.”
“Why don’t you just skip the damn meeting. It can’t make that much difference if you’re there or not. I’m all ready to go now.”
“I can’t skip it, John. The others are counting on me.”
“Oh yeah? Well I’m counting on you, too.”
“Why don’t you just go to the movie yourself? Or take Rhonda with you?” sarcastically, because Rhonda was someone she at least pretended to be jealous of.
“I don’t feel like it.”
Lonnie came over and hugged me and we kissed.
“Now don’t be mad, all right, love? I’ll give you a call if I get back before too late.”
Lonnie seemed a little cool and a little false to me, but I thought later that might just be something I was reading in that wasn’t really there. I went back to my room and smoked a couple of joints as I listened to some Cream and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Then I read Gulliver’s Travels for a while, which is enjoyable to read when you’re high, and fell asleep as I imagined the Lilliputians climbing all over Gulliver.
One thing Lonnie never was—not for anyone I don’t think—was reliable. That made it harder for me to tell how she really felt about me, because when she let me down about something, I couldn’t be sure whether it was on purpose, because she didn’t give a damn, or just because it was her nature to be that way, and that nothing could change her. Not that I was really all that worried about her. If she dropped me, I didn’t think it would bother me all that much. Still, I liked having her around, and she’d made things interesting enough for me that I’d decided school was tolerable. Best of all, she’d made me almost forget for a while about what happened that night behind Sibley’s Lumber Yard. So when certain things started to happen—when she forgot to meet me a couple of places she was supposed to, when my roommate told me he’d seen her out at a bar acting real friendly to some guy, when she seemed to be too busy with work to spend as much time with me as she’d wanted to at first—I was at least somewhat concerned.
Of course, if all those things had happened without anything to contradict them, a pattern would have been clear pretty fast. But it didn’t work that way. Nothing with women is ever that easy. Most of the time when we were together we got along as well as ever, and laughed as much, and she was just as affectionate. One night she even said to me, out of the blue, “I’m just wild about you, you know,” and marveled that we’d stayed together as long as we had. I made sure to keep both eyes open, though. And, of course, I knew in the end that it wouldn’t matter anyway.