Pictures of old girlfriends drifted into my mind like a lavender dream as I sat in my room trying to study or walked through the snow, and I’d remember something funny or something sad we’d been through together. More than all the others I thought about Mary Anne Hobart, who I’d gone with off and on for a couple of years in high school. She always seemed to be at the edge of my consciousness, and a day never went by when I didn’t think about her. The almost desperate love she seemed to feel for me still haunted me, and I’d remember the wild swings in her moods, from despair to ecstasy, and how they could change in a moment. The longer we were together, the more violent her moods seemed to get. She would cry a lot, and get jealous or mad over nothing, and pout for days at a time. Then for a while she’d seem like the happiest person in the world. She always seemed to be in trouble at home. Her parents were always fighting, and her father beat her sometimes, and a few times she ran away. Once she got serious about it and went all the way up to Bay City, where she stayed with a friend of hers who’d moved up there. Most of that time I think she spent crying, and we talked about running away together to California. But her father found her when a friend of hers squealed after she was threatened by Mary Anne’s father, and he brought her back home and beat her up bad to teach her not to do it again.
Finally, after I started college, I broke up with her, because I didn’t think I loved her and wondered whether I was capable of loving anyone the way she did, even as she seemed more desperately in love with me than ever. I didn’t think I could stay caught up in her desperation any longer without drowning in it, not when I was already caught in a whirlwind of my own desperation that she knew nothing about. I felt relieved after I broke up with her. Maybe I even felt like a big man. But now it bothers me, now I wish I hadn’t been such a jerk in the way I’d gone about it, now it keeps popping up in my mind. And sometimes when something reminds me of her, I feel a regret that cuts me like the winter wind.
When I came back to school for spring term, I moved into a different dorm, Mason Hall, which had a reputation for being laid back and hip, compared to the other dorms. I didn’t know anyone who lived there besides Jack, and I got a single room. I started seeing more of Jack, and one of the first nights of the term he and I and a friend of his, Michelle Mahler, took some acid together. In Jack’s room the three of us sat on the floor with the lights turned down low and a Jimi Hendrix album playing. I especially remember listening to “All Along the Watchtower.” While we waited for the acid to hit us, which we knew would take about an hour or so, we smoked a couple of joints. We got to laughing hard about rednecks, imitating them saying moronic things about the war and hippies. Then the acid hit us, and we went into a completely different mode of perception. Time and space and the shapes of things didn’t cohere anymore. When Jack went out of the room for a minute, I thought he’d been gone half an hour. The walls in the room curved and everything in the room curved with them. The words from a song drifted away off a record and disintegrated and then echoed over and over, and Michelle smiled and became distorted as if I were seeing her in a funhouse mirror. Jack had a reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell on his wall, and the weird creatures in it started walking off the canvas and laughing insanely.
After a while, after we’d listened to I don’t know how many albums by the Who and Frank Zappa and Hendrix, we decided to walk to McDonalds to get something to eat. As we walked I imagined everyone must have thought we looked terribly strange, like lunatics in rags, but the few people who were out didn’t pay any attention to us. We started laughing because we thought the trees were alive, like the trees in The Wizard of Oz, and were looking at us haughtily or scowling. It took us about five minutes to cross the street because the cars seemed so slow that we couldn’t guess how fast they were really coming at us. Behind the cars, taillights stretched out like streamers, like the taillights you see in time exposure photographs taken along a highway at night, and they curved when the cars turned.
When we got to McDonalds, we ordered a tray full of burgers and shakes and fries and sat down at a table. I was really hungry. When I sank my teeth into a Big Mac, though, I realized right away that I wouldn’t be able to eat it.
“This tastes like paper,” I said. “I’d better take it back and get a fresh one.”
“Talk to the manager, and if he won’t give you one, tell him you want to speak to Ronald McDonald personally,” Jack said.
“He’ll give you satisfaction,” Michelle said.
I went to the counter and asked for the manager. I told him what the problem was but he just looked at me disgustedly.
“What did he say?” Jack said.
“No dice. He said he’ll send the Hamburgler over here to kick our asses if we don’t stop causing trouble.”
Jack’s and Michelle’s laughter seemed freakish and drawn out. Then I thought everyone in McDonalds was laughing that way, and looking at us, and I got paranoid. I thought everyone knew we were tripping, and that someone would call the police and have us arrested. It seemed to me like we’d been in the restaurant for hours. Then suddenly I felt like I was glued to my seat and that I wouldn’t be able to leave until the police came to take us away. I stopped talking and felt isolated even from Jack and Michelle. When we left, needless to say, I really felt relieved.
Back at Jack’s place we listened to more music, only now we branched out from rock and roll a little, playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, some Pink Floyd, then Richard Harris singing on A Tramp Shining, which we got a good laugh out of because it seemed so strange to be listening to that kind of music during a trip.
When Jack tickled Michelle, it made her think spiders were crawling all over her. Then she thought there were spiders crawling on her brain, which scared the hell out of her and practically sent her into hysterics. She started crying, but Jack put his arms around her and she calmed down a little. I thought I should leave but I didn’t want to trip alone, so I lay back against the wall on a big cushion, closed my eyes, and tried to blend into the wall. “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane was playing, and it seemed even more bizarre to me than it usually did, and much slower. I closed my eyes and saw an enormous white rabbit hopping across a field of giant poppies. Then the poppies became faces without eyes which laughed malevolently.
When I opened my eyes Michelle was still clinging to Jack but Jack looked like he wished she’d let go. Michelle was looking out but you couldn’t tell at what, and she had a desperate, scared look in her eyes. She had streaked blonde hair that never looked washed and thin, waspish lips. Her complexion was oily and looked neglected. It was odd to see the look of fear she had on her face now because of the way it contrasted with her usual jaded expression, which made you think she’d tried everything there is in life and found it all boring or disgusting and didn’t much care what she did with the rest of it. She had a bitter, desolate look in her eyes most of the time that was beyond cynicism. She hated her parents, and said she’d tried once to run her mother over with a car. Her reputation was she’d go to bed with almost anyone, and because she had a great body, she had plenty of chances, but she ended up hating all of her lovers. All except Jack, that is. He was probably more like her than anyone she’d ever met, only he was better at hiding it.
I was starting to get tired of the trip. About four hours of a trip was all I could ever get into, but they always last at least twice that long. What I really wanted was to sleep. Michelle wasn’t getting much better.
“Why don’t you take a couple of downers?” Jack said. “They’ll make the trip end faster.”
“No, I don’t want any more damn pills!” starting to cry again.
“Let’s lie on the bed for a while then. You’ll feel better there.”
Michelle didn’t reply but tried to lift herself a little when Jack tried to move her up to the bed. She wouldn’t let go of him, though, which made it twice as hard to move her, so Jack motioned his head for me to come over and help him. Together we were able to get her up on the bed. I wanted to leave again, but I felt really down and almost immobilized. Michelle sat up on the edge of the bed after a while and put her head in her hands.
“I can’t get this out of my mind, this time I saw my father beat up my mother. He punched her and gave her a black eye, and tore half her clothes off. Then she scratched his face with her nails and he started bleeding, which made him fly into a rage. He just went crazy. He kept hitting her even though she was crying and begging him to stop and couldn’t fight back any more. He called her a slut and a whore and knocked her all over the room and wrecked half the furniture. I was in the room watching them and crying. Then she started screaming over and over like—like she couldn’t stop—and that scream echoed over and over in my mind and I couldn’t stop it and it wouldn’t leave. Then I screamed because he started coming after me.” Her voice trailed off into sobs.
“Take it easy,” Jack said. “Forget all that stuff.”
“My foster mother used to lock me in a closet and wouldn’t let me out. She knew I was terrified of the dark, but she did it anyway. I’d scream and cry and kick the door but she didn’t give a damn. It was like she was deaf, and sometimes I thought I could hear her laughing.”
“Lay off that shit, Michelle. It happened ten years ago. It’s not coming back. Come on, lay back down on the damn bed,” putting his hand on her shoulder to pull her down.
I closed my eyes, and waited for the trip to play itself out. I became completely oblivious to everything that was going on outside of my head. Jack and Michelle could have made love or left the room and I wouldn’t have noticed or cared. I heard a myriad of bats screeching wildly as they flew through a cavern that was my head. I saw bubbles sprout eyes and long noses and chatter to each other over a champagne sea. Becoming invisible, I climbed up a rainbow. My body became distended like taffy.
How long it was before we started coming down from the trip and went out to this Midnight Madness Film Festival on campus, I don’t remember. We came in during a W.C. Fields film, It’s a Gift. That’s the one where he inherits an orange ranch out in California. I laughed most of the way through it, and Jack laughed some, but Michelle didn’t laugh at all. Everybody else seemed to be laughing, too, but no doubt half the people there were either high on grass or coming down from a trip. That’s the reputation the Midnight Madness Film Festivals had.
After It’s a Gift they showed a film from the Twilight Zone series. It was about a man who falls asleep on a train on his way home from work, and when he wakes up finds he’s gone back in time to the year 1888, and that the train has stopped at a small town called Willoughby. This guy’s life is a mess. He works at an office in a big city where his boss gets on his case all day, and at home his wife nags him about not having enough money and not being successful enough. He’s always in a hurry. But in Willoughby everyone is friendly and the sun’s shining, and two kids who look like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer ask him if he wants to go fishing. When he wakes up, he believes this town really exists and he keeps trying to go back to it until everyone thinks he’s crazy. One day he jumps off the train on the way home from work when he thinks he’s at the Willoughby stop and dies. That film really got to me, and I thought about it for days afterward. Willoughby was just the kind of place where I wanted to live, even though I suppose I knew that towns like that never really existed anywhere.
I’ve forgotten the films that came on after that. And I don’t remember saying good-by to Jack and Michelle. I just remember walking alone across the campus seeing pink and yellow streaks in the sky and the last dirt-flecked patches of snow on the ground, thinking of my favorite lines from Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot, which led me to an overwhelming question…What is it?
When I got back to where Ed was it was completely dark out. He really was in a state of panic and I could tell he thought I wouldn’t come back. “Where in the hell have you been! Do you know what the fuck I’ve been going through out here!” He just stood there for a minute, but finally he grabbed the bag I was holding and tore the shirt and pants out of the packaging material. He didn’t seem to notice at all that they didn’t look anything like what he already had on. He took off the blood soaked clothes he had on and put the new ones on, then he took the bloody clothes and the bag the new ones had come in and the packaging material and some twigs and put them in a pile and tried to light them. His hands were shaking. The bag and the packaging material lit right up but he couldn’t get the clothes to burn. Then the bag and the packaging material were burned almost completely but the clothes were hardly burned at all. “This will never fucking work!” he said. “We have to get this shit out of here and put it in a trash can somewhere. And now there was the scent of the fire along with the Pall Malls that Ed kept smoking one after the other and the blood and the swampy dead wood.
About a week or so later, I walked into the Mason-Abbott Hall cafeteria and found that there weren’t any open tables. I was looking around for someone I knew when I noticed a woman sitting by herself in a corner, drinking coffee and intently reading a book. I’d never really met her, but we were in the same 20th Century American Fiction class, and I remembered us almost running into each other one day and smiling. I remembered thinking she seemed friendly and had pretty eyes. I was curious so I decided I’d go over to her table.
“Mind if I join you?” I said. “There don’t seem to be any open tables.”
“I think I can make room,” Charlotte Ramsey said.
I saw that she was reading The Sound and the Fury.
“You were supposed to have finished that last week, you know.”
“I know. I’ll tell you what: I promise I won’t tell Dr. Akers if you don’t.”
“Oh, I won’t. I haven’t even started it yet.” She laughed, in a way that seemed natural and happy.
“This is a strange book. It’s like the same story is being told by four different people, and each one looks at it in a completely different way.”
“I can think of a few stories I’ve heard that happen to. I’ve helped tell a few myself.”
“I’d like to hear them sometime.”
I looked into Charlotte’s eyes, which were big and warm and unusually calm, so that someone who was nervous or upset who looked into them would almost have to feel better. Her hair was brown and had a soft wave in it, and on her nose and cheeks were a few light freckles. She was a little plump, but that just seemed to suit her easygoing personality. I couldn’t have imagined her with a lean and hungry look. Her smile was as sweet as they come. We seemed to forget we had other things to do we got to talking so much, until we looked up and laughed as we realized that everyone had left the cafeteria but us.
Charlotte and I became good friends, and she started going out places with Jack and Michelle and me. Sometimes we went out alone, too, or she’d just come over to my room and we’d talk. Like one night when she was over and we were drinking wine.
“Have I told you about the horse I had when I was a kid?” she said with a comical look, like there was no reason at all for her to bring that up, but it just popped into her head and she wanted to tell me about it.
“No, I don’t think you have. But I’d sure like to hear about it,” winking at her.
“Well, if we’re going to be such good friends I really have to tell you. I’ll begin at the beginning. When we lived out in the country, I had a collie and a friend named Tina who lived down the road, and I didn’t get lonely out there like most of the kids did. I loved sitting by the fireplace at night and I loved watching the sunsets. But what I loved most of all was my horse, Aladdin. I’d always wanted one, and I’d even learned to ride, but I don’t think I ever believed I’d get one of my own. I begged my mother to let me have one, but she just smiled in her quiet way and said she didn’t think we could afford it, so I didn’t think it would ever happen. Then one Saturday afternoon a truck pulling a horse trailer came up to our house. Tina and I ran out of the house just as my Uncle Carl and another man were leading the horse down out of the trailer. When Uncle Carl told me it was mine, I could hardly believe it was true. I went over and petted it and put my arms around its neck and told Uncle Carl I’d love it and take the best care of it that anyone ever took of a horse. I rode it almost every day, with Tina because she had her own horse, too, and I fed him and brushed him and cleaned out his stall whenever I was supposed to. But next fall one of the worst things of my life happened: Someone shot Aladdin and killed him. We buried him out back of the barn and I’d sit by his grave and cry and cry. We never found out who did it, but I said over and over to myself that if we ever did, I was going to have him arrested and put in jail for the rest of his life. I can imagine what happened now. A bunch of drunk hunters were probably out shooting anything that moved. They might have even shot him for laughs.”
I tried to picture Charlotte at eleven years old. I imagined a skinny kid in pigtails with big, starry eyes, so it was hard for me to keep from smiling while she finished her story.
“That was the saddest thing that had ever happened to me, except for when my grandmother died when I was nine. I was too young yet to have fallen in love and have my heart broken that way, of course. That didn’t happen until I was in eleventh grade.” She stopped suddenly. “I’m not boring you, am I?”
“Are you kidding? I never get tired of listening to The Saga of Charlotte Ramsey.”
“Sure, sure. I’m going to tell you anyway, because you really must know these things about me. Now where was I? Oh, yes. That year a guy named Dan Kryzanski asked me to the Homecoming Dance, and the night of the dance we fell madly in love, or at least I was sure that’s what it was at the time. After that we were inseparable for months and did all kinds of silly things like gaze into each other’s eyes and go to drive-ins and make out like crazy. He had the most gorgeous brown eyes. I thought I’d melt every time I looked into them. He started losing interest in me after about six months, though, and then one night at a party a girl who was cuter and more popular than me came on to him, and he dropped me like a rock,” with a comical sigh. “I felt totally lost, and moped around the house for months. It was romantic, though, thinking of myself as the passionate, scorned lover. I read Romeo and Juliet five times while I was getting over Dan. But that’s enough of my big mouth for now. How about telling me more about you? You’ve been awfully quiet about your past so far. You’re not on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list or anything, are you?” furrowing her brow.
“No, the highest I’ve ever got to is No. 11,” laughing at the look she had on her face and thinking how in a way it could almost be true. “The fact is I’ve just led a dull life. I’ve always been a wallflower.”
“Oh, come on now. I don’t believe that for a minute. I’ll bet I can worm the real story out of you somehow.”
“You’re on and I’ll give you three to one odds you can’t. But don’t feel bad if you lose. I’ll probably seem more interesting if I just make you wonder.”
Probably the thing everyone remembers most about that spring was the demonstrations against the bombing in Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State. After Nixon made his speech telling everyone about the bombing and trying to justify it, and after the National Guard opened fire on the students at Kent State, it seemed to a lot of people—although not to me—like the country was ready to boil over into revolution and that Nixon couldn’t possibly last more than another week. There were marches and anti-war rallies at MSU every day then. Thousands of people gathered at Beaumont Tower park to listen to speeches denouncing the war and Nixon and Company. There were speeches by students, who would shout with rage and get the crowd shouting anti-war chants. There were speeches by ministers, who almost sounded like they were whispering after the stridency of the students, there were speeches by professors, and one by Linus Pauling, who was visiting MSU for some reason or another. Almost any time you went near Beaumont Tower and saw a crowd, you’d hear someone saying something like, “Mr. Nixon, you have overstepped your bounds, you have overstepped your constitutional powers by moving troops into Cambodia. And now you have legitimized murder at Kent State University.”
I went to the rallies every day, not because I cared about the war so much, but because Charlotte was fired up against it and wanted me to go with her. The biggest day of protest was the day of the march to the capitol, because that day protesters from all over the state were in town. By this time the campus was in chaos. A student strike had been going on for almost two weeks that had made a good-sized dent in the number of people going to class—despite the usual frustration among radicals who complained that the political consciousness at MSU was abysmal—a People’s Park tent city had gone up on campus that the administration hadn’t been able to get rid of, and the protest rallies, including one where protesters had tried to take over the administration building that had taken an army of state police to break up, were making it hard to do business as usual at good old MSU. Also, a couple thousand students had camped out on Grand River Avenue, the main drag through East Lansing, and blocked traffic, and they swore they weren’t going to leave until the war was over. A continuous party went on there, with rock bands that played for free late into the night.
Charlotte came over in the morning the day of the march to the capitol, and it seemed like just about everyone thought a revolution of love and peace was at hand. After the warm-up rally at Beaumont, the crowd marched to Grand River Avenue and started marching down it, chanting slogans like “Hell, no, we won’t go,” and “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fuckin’ war. Five, six, seven, eight, we don’t want your fascist state.” The crowd got bigger and bigger the farther we went, until all we could see were marchers as far as we could see up and down the five lane road that led to the capitol. Charlotte was beside me with a black armband on. We talked some, and every once in a while she looked over at me and smiled, like she just wanted to make sure I hadn’t slipped away. As with any protest march, some of the people were there because they were strongly opposed to the war, some were there because they thought it was a party, and some were there just because they were curious and wanted to be a part of something that seemed so significant. And one person was there because of Charlotte Ramsey.
“Your enthusiasm for this is overwhelming me,” Charlotte said with a look of understated amusement, about half way to the capitol.
“I can really feel myself starting to getting into it,” trying to copy her look.
“I thought the excitement of the crowd might get you into it more than you thought you would.”
“That could only make me get into it less.”
“You never realize how far apart things are until you try walking between them, you know it? Promise me that when we get to the capitol and it’s all over with, you’ll carry me all the way back. Five miles of walking is a little more than this out of shape body is up to.”
“I won’t do that, but I happen to know someone who’s a friend of the governor,” thinking of Lee. “I’ll see if I can get us a ride back in his limo.”
“That would look great, wouldn’t it?” laughing. “Marching to the capitol to protest the war, and then riding back in a limousine. Talk about limousine liberals.”
When we were pretty close to the capitol, a guy in a T-shirt came out of a bar.
“You goddamn communists,” he yelled. “You’re nothing but a bunch of spoiled brats. You’re scum.”
He looked confused, and drunk, like he wanted to punch out everyone who was marching but like there were so many people he didn’t know where to start and knew it would be hopeless anyway.
“I spent three years in a communist prison in North Korea. I was tortured by those bastards.”
Some of the marchers laughed at him. A small crowd, including Charlotte and me, had stopped marching.
“If you fuckin’ assholes think it’s so funny, why don’t you stand in front of me and laugh? Maybe if I grab one of you whores you’ll see how yellow the guys you’re with really are.”
He walked into the crowd and grabbed a woman by the arm and pulled her out.
“Get your fuckin’ hands off me,” she said, looking really scared.
A couple of guys who apparently were with her stopped and looked at the guy like they didn’t quite know what they should do.
“Why don’t you pick on somebody your own size, Mr. War Hero,” one of them said. “I thought you were supposed to be tough.”
The guy let go of the woman and was about to go after the guy who spoke up to him, but two of his buddies had come out of the bar, and they grabbed him to take him away.
“Come on,” one of them said. “It’s not worth it. Your ass is liable to end up in jail. Why don’t you just come back into the bar and finish your fuckin’ beer?”
They more or less forced him to go with them back to the bar after that, although he didn’t really seem to be putting up that much of a struggle. But he kept talking.
“You punks wouldn’t have nothing if it wasn’t for guys like me. Nothing. We risked our lives for this country and now you’re flushing it down the toilet,” and he kept on until the barroom door closed behind him. Then everybody who’d stopped to watch rejoined the stream of marchers.
At the capitol the marchers became a mob shouting slogans. A few state senators and representatives came out onto a balcony of the capitol and gave anti-war speeches. I could barely listen to them, though, because I’d already heard what they were saying a thousand times, so that for me it was almost like I was watching them in a silent movie. I heard only the cheers or heckling from the crowd, and even those seemed to me to be fading out. The crowd got to yelling for Governor Milliken, and finally he came out on the balcony. It was raining now, and dismal, but that seemed just the right setting as Milliken was shouted down, saying, “I agree with you that something must change soon. I realize that some of you may disagree with me on how best to bring about change—and even whether the system as we know it is capable of change. I believe it is.” I remembered that, because he was the only speaker all day who said something that wasn’t what the crowd wanted to hear. I was heavy bored by now, so I was glad the crowd broke up and I could head back to East Lansing with Charlotte. We hitchhiked and got a ride right away.
That night I went over to Bert Eisenberg’s, who lived next door to me in the dorm. I’d got to know him fairly well since I’d moved in, and would drop by his room from time to time. Bert was majoring in English, and hoped to become a writer. We weren’t talking about literature that night, though. That night everyone was talking about the war and what had happened during the march and demonstrations that day. The door to his room was open and we were listening to The Beatles’ Revolver. After a while his roommate, Ralph Denison, came in. Ralph was so straight—especially when he set his mind to playing that role to the hilt—he was like a caricature of a straight student you’d find in a radical newspaper. He was fat and wore wingtipped shoes and straight-legged pants with cuffs. His hair was short and he actually used Brylcreem on it. On his face there was always a hint of a sneer, and you could tell by the pock marks on it that at one time he’d had a bad case of acne. He was majoring in industrial engineering. I’m sure he and Bert would never have chosen to live together. A computer just happened to match them up. They got along OK, though, considering.