I stayed with that friend of mine until my court date, which was no sweat for him because he worked days and I worked nights and I offered to pay half the rent. I considered skipping out on the court date, just leaving the state and never coming back again. I was on the verge of doing it about five times, but I wasn’t exactly sure how serious the consequences of that might be, and I didn’t want to stiff Jan on the bail. I was concerned enough about what might happen that I went to a lawyer. He was a guy this friend of mine had heard was good, and he worked cheap. He just seemed bored by what I had to say, though, and didn’t strike me as particularly bright. Still, he said he was sure he could get me off without more jail.
After about a month passed I went to court. I quit work the day before because whatever the outcome of my trial, I knew I’d never go back. My lawyer was about as eloquent as a pig, and the judge looked bored and disgusted as he talked, so maybe it was because he didn’t want to listen to him argue anymore that he cut his remarks short and let me off with just two years’ probation and a fine. When the verdict was announced, I was tremendously relieved but tried to show no emotion as the judge pounded his gavel to indicate that the case was closed.
I went down to the bank the next day to convert what money I had into travelers’ checks, then went to my parents’ house to drop off the things that I didn’t want to take out West with me. Fortunately, no one was home, so I was spared having to do any explaining. On the kitchen table I left a note saying I was going out West to visit some friends and that I wasn’t sure when I’d be back. I wrote that I’d keep in touch.
Walking around the house, I was struck by its quietness. My memories of it were shaped by the noise there, and the people, my mother and father, my brother and sister, the neighborhood kids, I imagined reappearing like ghosts as I walked through the still rooms where the only sound now was the ticking of a grandfather clock. I heard, but more faintly than before, children’s voices tangled together, my father and mother fighting, crying and laughter, and in the background a sarcastic voice taunting me. I remembered with incredible clarity the night of the murder, so much so that it seemed like it had just happened yesterday, and I felt again the agony I’d felt as I lay awake all that night in my bedroom going over everything that had happened and trying to figure out what would happen next. As I was standing in the living room, I imagined everyone there like before talking and laughing, but like they didn’t know I was watching. Then the grandfather clock struck three o’clock, and the sound echoed in my mind as the voices and the apparitions faded away. The house hardly seemed real without them, and I felt the kind of foreboding and sense of loss you feel when you walk through a cemetery. Then suddenly I snapped out of my reverie and realized that if I didn’t leave pretty soon, someone was bound to come home.
I felt really funny when I finally got on the road. I began to have second thoughts about whether I was doing the right thing, about whether I really wanted to go so far alone with no real plans besides visiting Charlotte, and I thought of turning back. If it hadn’t been for Charlotte, I might have done it.
But as I began to get out of the metro area, past the drab little houses crowded in on each other and the factories and heavy traffic on I-94, my mood changed. Especially when I started getting into farm country. I’d always liked farms. I liked watching cows and horses graze, and wooden farmhouses with shutters neatly painted and barns out back, and I liked to imagine pies baking, and farmers sitting around woodburning stoves talking about the weather. I liked thinking that farmers and their families are happy and content. In the back of my mind I always knew that was illusion, that they were just as likely to be miserable or hateful as anyone else, but that didn’t spoil it, and it was always easy for me to pretend that they were just what I wanted them to be.
Along the way I picked up a freak and his girlfriend who were hitchhiking. They had some dope that we smoked that made the drive a lot less tedious, and after twenty miles or so we were like old friends, laughing as we swapped stories while rock music played loudly on the radio. By eight o’clock I’d dropped them off and was in Iowa. I stopped at a diner to grab a hamburger. It had a linoleum floor and bright lights, and the waitress was sullen and wore a bouffant hairdo that was ten years out of style. There were only two people in the place besides me. The waitress looked impatient, like she was just waiting for us to leave so she could close up and go home. Just to see if I could get her pissed off I smiled at her flirtingly, and it was easy to tell that annoyed her. In a minute she came over and said rudely, “Are you done yet?”
For someone who doesn’t get perturbed very easily, Charlotte was plenty surprised when I called her from a Conoco station in Clay. Apparently she hadn’t quite believed I’d ever really go through with it, that I would come that far, but she seemed happy that I had and gave me directions to her house. Her house was small, made of clapboard whose white paint was faded and stained. The lot was fairly large, with a few Douglas firs, but the lawn was weedy and needed mowing. A rusty Chevy was parked in the driveway. As soon as I pulled up, Charlotte came to the door and walked outside. She looked just the same, plainly dressed in blue jeans and a white top, with an easygoing look and smile, though I thought when she got close she looked somewhat careworn.
“Well, hello, stranger,” she said. “It’s nice you could make it.”
“Hi! I just moved in down the street and thought I’d drop by. Needed to borrow a cup of sugar for an apple pie the wife wants to bake.”
“I’ll give you some sugar, all right.”
She put her arms around me and we kissed.
“Let’s go in, John. I’d better have you meet my family before we get too carried away out here.”
In the living room a woman who looked to be about 70 and a teenage boy were watching the Mike Douglas Show. When Charlotte introduced me to the woman, her Aunt Velma, the aunt looked me over suspiciously and disapprovingly. “Why, hello,” she said in a measured tone. “Plan on staying in Clay long?” like she hoped I wouldn’t be.
“I don’t have any definite plans,” I said, which made her raise her eyebrows in deeper suspicion. She was thin and had wispy hair and her face was a sea of wrinkles. She seemed to cough about every 30 seconds. A look of suspicion and watchfulness rarely left her.
The boy, Charlotte’s brother Stan, stood up reluctantly and shook my hand, said, “Hi,” barely, and like he had had to expend a huge effort to do so, then sat right back down in front of the TV. He was tall and gangly, and I supposed that he was a real TV drone. Except for a few telltale traces around the eyes and mouth, he didn’t look much like Charlotte.
“Mama’s sleeping right now,” Charlotte said. “You can meet her later.”
I sat down and Charlotte asked me if I wanted anything to eat or drink. We talked sketchily about some of what we’d been doing since we’d last seen each other, but I felt crowded and uncomfortable and like I couldn’t really talk about anything. The room was gloomy and I already didn’t like Aunt Velma and Stan, and the drivel coming from the talk show and Mike Douglas’s jarring, repetitive laugh made it hard to listen. Also, Aunt Velma kept interrupting us to ask questions or make some dumb remark about what was happening on TV. It was obvious she couldn’t have cared less about what we thought. She didn’t even listen to our answers. She just didn’t seem to want Charlotte and me to talk to each other. The whole time I was there she kept an eye on me.
“My, isn’t he ugly?” Aunt Velma said. David Brenner had just come on the show. “His face looks just like a horse’s face, doesn’t it, Charlotte?”
Frowning, Charlotte looked over at Aunt Velma and shrugged her shoulders. David Brenner cracked some joke about getting mugged in New York City and Mike Douglas burst out laughing.
“Can’t we go someplace else?” I whispered to Charlotte. Aunt Velma’s ears perked up. Despite her frailty and supposed illnesses, her hearing was sharp as a dog’s. I could tell she didn’t like the whispering. “Why don’t you show me around town or something?”
She looked at me and we both almost laughed. “You took the words right out of my mouth.”
“I’m going to take John out for a look around town, Vel. We’ll be back in a little while.”
“What?” Aunt Velma said, furrowing her brow, forcing a cough. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. How could you when I’m being racked by this cough? You should stay here anyway in case your mama wakes up,” with a loud, phlegmy cough for emphasis.
“You and Stan will both be here if she needs anything. And we won’t be gone long.”
“Why don’t I go with you then? I could point out some interesting things I’m sure you’d miss, Charlotte. You’re so absent-minded,” which was hardly true. She got up. “Just let me put on a wrap.”
Christ, I thought. I’d rather take a Tasmanian devil along with us.
“No!” Charlotte said. “We’re going alone. We won’t be gone long. Now good-by.”
“I don’t like this one bit,” following us to the door. “You really ought to be thinking about Allen.”
“That’s my business, not yours,” Charlotte said, and shut the door before Aunt Velma had a chance to reply.
“Who’s Allen?” I said when we were in the car.
“I’ll explain later. Now for the grand tour of Clay, Oregon.”
Through the main street of the town we drove, past its stores and businesses and houses that looked a lot like the ones in Michigan. The only way Clay looked different than a small town in Michigan is that the buildings looked somewhat newer and there were mountains around it. And maybe more of the buildings were made out of wood. It even had a McDonalds. Charlotte waved at some of the people she knew and told me stories about some of them—about a woman who’d had a scandalous affair with the high school principal, about a man who’d been caught in an extortion scheme and spent three years in jail, about a bent over old woman who’d once been the prettiest girl in town.
When we went by Charlotte’s high school, she told me about the fun she’d had there going to football games and the senior prom and working on the school yearbook. She also talked about the boyfriends she’d had while she was there. She’d told me about them before, but I didn’t mind when she told me again about the red-haired boy named Jerry who was a track star and always jealous, and the bookish boy named Mike who was the first boy she’d ever had sex with. And of course about Dan Kryszanski, the great love of her high school days, who’d broken her heart. There was a slight coolness and aloofness in the way she acted toward me, though, that if it were tangible would have been as slight as the thinnest wisp of blown glass. The edge just seemed to be off the easy intimacy we’d once had.
After we had finished seeing Clay, we drove up into the mountains. When we stopped, we walked a little way to a big outcropping of rock, which we climbed up and from where there were great views of the mountains. Charlotte told me the names of some of them and pointed out in what direction were Portland and Seattle. We could see a couple of dozen mountains from there, snow-capped and covered with fir trees and cut by deep valleys. In a couple of places waterfalls twinkled in the sun. Then we turned toward each other and kissed.
“We really shouldn’t be doing this, you know,” Charlotte said.
“Is that what this Allen is all about?”
“Yes. It would be wrong if I waited any longer to tell you that I’m engaged and that I’m going to get married this September.”
Suddenly everything that had happened since I’d arrived fell into place and made sense.
“Yeah, it sure would.”
“I want to explain everything to you.”
“I’m not sure I want to know.”
“Well, it’s very important to me that you do know. I really feel bad about this. It all happened so fast and I’m terribly embarrassed. I hope I’m not the only reason you came all the way out here.”
“No, but it was a reason.”
“Everything’s changed, John. Everything’s different. I’ll never be the carefree girl I was back at MSU again. Mama’s very sick, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll have to take care of her. I need the kind of stability that Allen can give me. I need someone to lean on. I’d been seeing him on and off, but it wasn’t until about two weeks ago that I realized how important he is to me. Talk about bad timing. It happened one night when we were out for a walk. I talked about the things that had happened that day at the store and with Mama and Aunt Vel and Stan, and Allen talked about the life he plans to make for himself in Clay. It just hit me all of a sudden what a wonderful thing it is to have Allen care about me, to talk to when I feel down. It isn’t any wild passion. It’s just knowing we can count on each other and have a stake in what each other is doing that makes it mean something. He really does love me. We decided to get married just about a week ago.”
“That’s very touching,” sarcastically.
“I was just trying to make you understand better. I always thought I could be completely honest with you. I didn’t really know what to think about us anymore. I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again. If only you knew all that I’ve gone through,” nearly crying.
“I’m sorry, Char. I don’t have any right to get mad. You have your own life to live, and it’s completely different from where I’m headed. Why don’t we just go back now and I’ll leave?”
“I wish you wouldn’t, John. I’d like you to stay for a while and leave on a good note, and I’d like for you to meet Allen. He won’t feel threatened by you. I’ve told him all about you already. He’s very understanding—just like you always were. And you’ve come so far.”
“I can’t do it, Char. I’d be completely out of place. I’d feel like an idiot. Besides, if I stay here much longer, I’ll probably end up strangling your Aunt Velma,” smiling a little.
Charlotte smiled and then put her arms around me again. She looked up at me like she wanted desperately for me to understand.
“You know it would have been different if I hadn’t had to leave Michigan, if so much hadn’t happened back home. You know how much I care about you, how much I always will. I don’t want it to end with bitterness.”
“It won’t, Char, it won’t. You’re right about everything. I’d be the worst person for you now. You’re doing the right thing, I’m sure,” but not really believing that.
“That’s better. That’s more like the John Jones I remember.” She kissed me and hugged me tightly. “You’ll stay for a while then?”
“I’ll stay the rest of the day and leave in the morning. How’s that? I can meet Allen, and you and I can say everything we have to say to each other by that time.”
“Fine. That should work out nicely.”
I put on an act of being a nice, reasonable guy for Charlotte’s sake, but I was actually disgusted by the situation I’d put myself in and wanted to leave as soon as I could. I didn’t really want to meet Allen, and I certainly didn’t want to spend any more time with “Aunt Vel.” But I figured I could put up with anything for a day.
Back at Charlotte’s place, Aunt Velma acted just as bitchy as she had before, asking me inane, insulting questions and keeping a jaundiced eye on me always, like I was Charles Manson or something and might get up any second and slice her up. When I looked at her all, I could think of was a coiled rattlesnake, poised for a strike. I laughed when I first thought of it and she looked over at me and said sharply, “What’s so funny?” Finally, I stopped answering her questions and pretended she wasn’t even in the room, which really pissed her off, so that she told Charlotte she thought I was a rude, ill-mannered guest.
The only decent thing about that afternoon was meeting Charlotte’s mother, who had to stay in bed almost all the time now. Despite her illness, she struck me as warm and kind and easygoing, just like Charlotte. She looked almost from another world as she lay in bed, frail and wraithlike, her voice thin and sounding far away.
Allen came over late in the afternoon. He was cordial to me, but you could tell he wasn’t overjoyed I was around, and he didn’t seem nearly as together to me as Charlotte had made him out to be. He was tall and his hair was neatly parted, and he looked to me like he was in his late twenties. The whole time I was there he seemed mildly annoyed. I never saw him smile, and when he laughed it seemed more from disgust than amusement. He was dressed in gray suit pants and a white shirt, having just come from his office at Boise-Cascade Corporation. No romance or fire was in his eyes, and I couldn’t imagine Charlotte being happy with him for long. Aunt Velma looked at us like she expected a fight to break out between us any second, like she couldn’t understand why Allen didn’t just go over and punch me. But he was obviously much too docile to do anything more drastic than be annoyed. Aunt Velma made a big fuss over him, talking about the progress he was making with Boise-Cascade, asking him if he’d like her to bake him an apple pie and other such frippery. As for Charlotte, she seemed to be playing it cool with Allen for my sake, and the only sign of affection I saw between them was once when Allen called Charlotte “dear.”
When it was time to sit down to dinner, Aunt Velma went out of her way to make sure that Charlotte and Allen sat together. That meant I had to sit next to her. Charlotte had made Sloppy Joes, mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob. Aunt Velma, though, because of what she said was her tender stomach, had chicken broth, a rice cracker, kelp, and about twenty vitamin pills of every shape and color imaginable. Except for Aunt Velma, I think everybody at the table felt uncomfortable, so she was really the only person who did much talking.
“Have you heard, Charlotte, that Emma Dobson has come down with gout? I was shocked when I found out.”
“That’s too bad,” Charlotte said.
“I also found out more today about that tumor Ellen Curtis has on her liver. Dr. Block said it’s big as a grapefruit.”
“What do you do, spend all your time hanging around doctors’ offices trying to pick up bad news?” I said.
“I won’t dignify that crude remark with an answer.”
“Let’s all try to get along while we’re eating,” Charlotte said.
“Let me say something pleasant then. I was just thinking what a lovely couple you and Allen make. You’re going to be so happy as man and wife.” Charlotte turned red.
About that time Aunt Velma leaned over the table and brought the tureen of broth closer to her so that she could ladle more broth into her bowl.
“Here,” I said. “Let me help.”
I picked up the tureen and tipped it over in front of her so that the steaming broth spilled on her.
“Ah-h-h-h,” she screamed. “Oh, oh.”
“Accidents happen,” I shrugged. “I should have been more careful.” Charlotte looked at me sternly and then ran into the kitchen.
“That was no accident. You deliberately poured that broth on me, you filthy, stinking animal. Why a lovely girl like Charlotte would ever have anything to do with a bum like you defies imagination.”
By that time Charlotte had got some paper towels from the kitchen and was wiping up the mess. She gave Aunt Vel a cloth towel to wipe herself up with, then Aunt Vel sat down again.
“Ah-h-h-h,” she screamed again. “Call Dr. Block! I think I just passed a gall stone! Oh, Allen, do something, will you? Why don’t you take him outside and beat him to a pulp?”
“That would hardly help matters,” he said dryly.
“I guess you’re not as much of a man as I thought you were. I wish my Hector was still here. He’d have made mincemeat out of you,” glaring back at me now.
I was already walking over to get my suitcase, which I’d never unpacked. As I went out the door I didn’t look at Charlotte, but I noticed that Stan seemed amused by the hubbub in his bored way. Charlotte followed me out to my car. The sun was setting.
“Well, it was a pleasant stay,” I said, smiling a little. “Sorry I have to cut it short.”
“I’m sorry about this, John. We’ve treated you horribly, and I feel just sick about it,” very upset.
“Don’t worry about it. One person ruined the whole thing. You did everything you could under the circumstances. When I look back on this years from now, I’ll laugh.”
“I hate to say good-by this way. We might never see each other again, and now, when you remember me, you’ll always think of this,” crying.
“No, I won’t. Don’t concern yourself about it. As time goes by, we’ll only remember the good things. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?”
We stood apart in the twilight and looked into each other’s eyes, and I tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound idiotic. Then Charlotte smiled.
“I know you didn’t spill that soup by accident,” she said. “But I’m glad you did.”
We laughed, then Charlotte came close to me and we put our arms around each other.
“Your Aunt Velma’s watching us through the window, and I have a feeling she doesn’t like what she sees. It looks like she just turned her head around to tell Allen what’s up. I’m waiting for her to storm out the door with a broom.”
“Or get on it and ride. She can go to hell for all I care. I’m so mad at her.”
For a while we just held each other without speaking.
“You don’t even love him, do you?” I said, finally.
“It’s a different kind of love. It’s not like us. But it’s something I need right now.”
“Why don’t you come with me, Char? We can go anywhere we want, do anything just on a whim. I don’t know how you can stand to live like this, with these people. They’ll ruin your life if you stay here long enough. They’ll make you die inside.”
“You can’t know how much I’d like to. But you know that I can’t. You must know even in asking that it’s just a dream. Or maybe you didn’t believe me when I told you why I have to stay. There’s no one to take care of mama and no one to take care of Stan but me. Mama will probably never get better again, but she may live for years and years. It would be different if you wanted to stay here and get a job and settle down with me. Then I’d have to seriously consider leaving Allen. You have this vague idea you want us to be together, but you aren’t willing to give anything to make it that way. Allen is. You’d never consider staying here, would you?”
I looked away from Charlotte. I considered whether she was just bluffing about leaving Allen for me, and decided she wasn’t. I actually toyed with the idea of staying. I imagined myself married to Charlotte and living in Clay. I imagined us taking walks by mountain streams, talking quietly in bed. We’d have kids probably and live like we were in a Norman Rockwell painting. It seemed pretty sweet. But I knew, of course, that could never happen, even if I was capable of believing in that kind of thing, and I’d already pretty much blown the opportunity anyway after what had just happened with Aunt Velma. I imagined how Aunt Velma would react if the police showed up one day to arrest me, and I almost smiled. The dream of settling down with Charlotte disappeared like a puff of smoke.
“I would, but there’s something you don’t know about…” I couldn’t bring myself to finish the thought I had. “I’d rather be with you than with anyone else, but I can’t stay here. You’re the only woman I’ve been with who never tried to figure me out or change me. You always just accepted me.”
“I’m glad I could be that for you. But that doesn’t change anything. Let’s just say good-by.”
“Your aunt’s at the door. She looks like a broomstick with a rag nailed to it and a prune pasted on top. It’s hard to believe anyone that ugly could be related to you.”
Charlotte smiled a little. “Flattery will get you nowhere. Let’s forget she’s there.” We kissed, but broke off the kiss just as Aunt Velma came out the door.
Charlotte turned toward her.
“If you come one step closer, I’ll see to it that you’re never allowed to set foot in our house again,” she said. “Go back in the house. This isn’t any of your business. You’ve acted like a horrid bitch ever since John got here, and I’ll never forgive you for it.” I could hardly believe words like that were coming out of Charlotte’s mouth
“Well!” Aunt Velma said, drawing the word out so that you could almost feel the waves of indignation sweep over her. “This is the most shameful incident I’ve ever witnessed. And to think I just came out to tell you I don’t think I’ll have to go to the hospital after all. I think I can suffer through until Dr. Block’s office opens in the morning.”
“No, you didn’t!” furious. “You’re lying! You’ve been spying on us ever since we came out here.”
“You ought to be horsewhipped for saying that. What’s this world coming to? What a disgrace to the family. I don’t know why Allen doesn’t come out here.”
“Because he’s got too much class, that’s why.”
Aunt Velma threw up her arms and walked back inside. Charlotte took me by the hands.
“So long. I’m sorry, Char. I really messed things up for you here.”
“Don’t worry about it. In a couple of days, things will settle down to what they were before.”
I got into my car and rolled down the window.
“Write me after a while and let me know where you are and what you’ve been up to,” Charlotte said.
As I backed down the driveway, she waved, and I watched her as far down the road as I could, until my view was blocked by tall firs. I knew I’d never see her again.
Somebody driving by on Plymouth Road saw Ed and I come out of the woods on the night of the murder and told the police about it after they read the story in The Livonian. So about a week after the murder two detectives came to talk to me and I was absolutely scared shitless—I’d never been more scared in my life, not even when Ed committed the murder. When they came to the door, I immediately just assumed they somehow knew everything and that Ed and I were done for. It was almost the hardest thing I ever did to try to not look nervous. I wanted to appear cool but be as polite as possible. “Can you tell us where you were and what you were doing and who you were with on the night of October 9th?” “I was with a friend of mine, Ed Carey. We just walked around for a couple of hours talking. We do that a lot.” “You were seen walking down Plymouth Road about the time of the murder. Did you see anyone or hear anything unusual?” “No, sir.” I mean, it was obvious after a few minutes that they didn’t in any way think that I, a suburban kid with no police record and who lived in a nice neighborhood, had anything to do with the murder. As soon as I picked up on that, I felt tremendous relief. They really did just want to see if I’d seen or heard anything. As soon as they decided I hadn’t, they thanked me and got up to leave. One of the detectives left his card in case I heard anything or remembered anything later that might relate to the case. They didn’t have a clue about the truth, and my parents and my sister also weren’t the least bit suspicious. An hour after the cops left it was like the whole thing had never happened. In had no idea how much that visit would cost me someday.
I didn’t have the slightest idea about what to do or where to go next. My planning hadn’t got any further ahead than visiting Charlotte—I guess I just assumed I’d stay with her for a while and decide what to do after that. Because I couldn’t really plan for any serious future, I found it hard to bother planning for anything. I started driving basically nowhere, and I eventually ended up stopping at a park for a couple of nights and sleeping in my car. I was depressed and felt deadened inside. Finally, I decided I’d drive down to San Francisco to see if I could locate a friend of mine from my old neighborhood.
Morning fog was still on the palmetto trees when I got to San Francisco after driving most of the night—I’d crashed for a few hours at a rest stop—and it was heavy enough so that the Golden Gate bridge looked like it was suspended in air, like a bridge in clouds and fog, and it gave an air of mystery to the houses with the mansard roofs and gables, and creeped through the gothic tracery in the ironwork fences. Everything seemed magical and dreamy, the pastel houses that seemed like they could have been made out of candy, the hydrangeas, the streetcars that clanged up and down the hills.
Mike Katman had lived in our neighborhood in Livonia before his family had moved to California the summer before we’d both started 12th grade. Not that we’d been that good of friends. He’d been more a part of the main clique, with the cheerleaders and football stars and class officers, than I had, but we’d always got along OK, and he’d always seemed to like me. It was a crazy idea, really, trying to get hold of him, but I really had nothing else to do and knew no one else west of the Rockies, so I figured what the hell. All I knew was that his family had moved to somewhere around San Francisco. I hadn’t heard from any of them since, and for all I knew they weren’t even there anymore. But their name was just unusual enough that I thought if they were still there, I’d probably be able to find them in the phone book.
When I got to San Francisco it was too early to call, though, so I stopped at a coffee shop and downed some coffee and doughnuts while I read the San Francisco Examiner. I also checked out the local phone book, and there was a listing for Calvin Katman, which was his father’s name, but none for Mike. At that point I got a little hesitant. I wondered if I did get hold of him, whether I’d be able to relate to him at all. For all I knew he could still be super straight and already married with kids, or he could have freaked out, or just about anything in between. I thought he might just seem like a stranger to me, or not want to see me. I finally decided I didn’t have that much to lose by calling, though, and I was curious in an amused sort of way, so about ten o’clock I called the number that was listed for his old man. His mom answered. She seemed only mildly surprised that I was calling and wasn’t very friendly. But she did at least remember me, and gave me directions to the house where Mike was living. He didn’t, apparently, have a phone.
It must have been about noon by the time I found Mike’s house, which turned out to be located in Haight-Ashbury and made me strongly suspect what direction his life had taken. The place looked like it could have belonged to the Wicked Witch of the North. It was a big Victorian monstrosity, yellow and brown, with oriels and as much scrollwork trim and latticing as I’d ever seen on one house. I knocked on the door with the lion’s head knocker, and looked up and down the street as I waited for someone to come to the door. A few burned out freaks were walking around, but there were more blacks than there were of them, and the street looked run down and like there wasn’t much going on. It almost seemed abandoned. It was nothing like the Haight-Ashbury of a few years before that I’d seen on TV and heard about in songs. I imagined what it was like then, teeming with flower children and head shops, and the dreams and illusions everyone had brought with them. I imagined balloons and flowers, marijuana and Grateful Dead music. But I’d got there too late. That dream was already over.
Still, the place seemed strange to me. Nothing could have been stranger, though, than the feeling I got when the door opened. The guy who said hello had a wild looking beard and his hair was practically down to his ass. He was glassy-eyed and wore a beat-up psychedelic shirt and torn blue jeans. I almost asked him if Mike was there, but something about him was vaguely familiar. Then it hit me like a brick that the guy standing before me was once the president of the sophomore class at good old Franklin High, a letter man in football and track, on the Honor Roll. The kid with the perfect smile who every mother in town dreamed her daughter would marry. I thought I was ready for anything, especially after I saw where he lived, but I wasn’t really ready for this. I’d just been kidding myself. I felt like laughing the kind of laugh you get from a joke in a Vonnegut novel. I’d read about people changing like that before, I’d even seen people change like that before, but before I’d always been able to see the change taking place. It hits you a lot harder when all you see is the end result. This was too much like the kind of hippie stories you read about in Reader’s Digest. It was too much like a letter from a frantic mother you’d read in an Ann Landers column.
It seemed for a moment like he didn’t recognize me, either, but finally he laughed and said, “What the hell are you doing here, man? How are you doin’,” and put his hand out for a soul handshake. “Come on in.” It didn’t seem to dawn on him that I would be surprised by his appearance. From the way he acted he could just as easily have been standing there in white Levi’s, madras shirt, and penny loafers, after just returning from the barber shop.
We went up to his room, which had a doorway that was covered by strings of pink and red glass beads, while I explained how I’d ended up in San Francisco. Clothes were scattered on the floor of the room, the bed was unmade, and the air smelled strongly of marijuana, like Mike had just finished smoking a J when I’d arrived. On the walls were several posters, including one of a bearded man in a Cossack robe looking out at a medieval conception of the universe, and a fantasy that looked like the cover of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Tarkus. Mike said he shared the house with two other guys and two women. He asked me if I felt like getting high, and I said I wouldn’t mind. Then he put on an album of really far out rock by a group I didn’t recognize and we sat across from each other on cushions, with a water pipe between us. It was a big water pipe with flowers etched on the glass, the kind that you only buy if you really smoke a lot of dope. Mike took some grass from a baggie and put it in the bowl of the pipe, then lit the dope while I took a toke. Then he took a long toke, and I heard the water bubbling up in the well of the pipe. It was good dope and it hit me right away.
“It’s good to see you again, man,” Mike said after we’d smoked a little while without talking. “It surprised the shit out of me when I saw you at the door, though.”
“I was pretty surprised myself. You look like you’ve changed some,” with just the faintest smile.
“Nah, I haven’t changed a bit. I still wear my varsity jacket everywhere I go. You never lose that old Patriot pride.”
“Your hair’s not quite the same style it used to be.”
“I like to keep it short. My father told me it’s not good for business to have it long.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t married Cheryl Drumm yet.” She was Mike’s sweetheart at Franklin High School, where she’d been everybody’s favorite cheerleader.
“We’re still going steady, and she still wears my class ring. But she wants to make sure I can support her before we take the big plunge.”
“That’s good thinking.”
“By the way, you want to help me make some flowers for the class float tonight? We sure as hell don’t want those fuckin’ seniors to beat our asses again this year.”
“Hell no. We’ll make their float look like a cartload of shit.” We laughed hard.
“Right on,” holding up his fist.
We started sometimes to talk seriously about the changes we’d gone through since we’d last seen each other, but our conversation wandered and skewed and got sillier and sillier the more we smoked. After a while Mike and I went out and walked the streets of Haight-Ashbury. Later, we went down to Fisherman’s Wharf, with its clamor of tourists looking over oysters and red snapper, tart salt air, and the laughter and conversation drifting from people walking down the streets past the crowded restaurants and bars. In Chinatown, we walked past neon ideographs that seemed to dance around the stolid Chinese faces and the chickens plucked and hung upside down behind store windows. Then the next thing I remember we were back at Mike’s house, and I was sitting with him and the two guys and the two women he shared the house with. In a room lit by a red lamp we were smoking dope and talking quietly, listening to some Jethro Tull, and a woman with long blonde hair I couldn’t take my eyes off of stood up and was bathed in the red light. Mike and I never got around to talking about the past again or how we’d changed since the last time we’d seen each other. Everything became hazy, and it seemed like we’d been high for weeks. Time seemed to stand still.
Mike ended up inviting me to stay with him for a while, and a lot of the days were like my first one there. Mike’s brother Dave dropped by one afternoon and ended up inviting Mike and me to come to a party he was throwing. Mike didn’t want to go because he thought it would be too straight a party, and there would be too many people. I didn’t think I’d go because I hadn’t known Dave all that well in the old neighborhood—he was a few years older than me—and because Mike didn’t want to go. Dave was about the only person in Mike’s family he saw much anymore. He was barely on speaking terms with his parents, who were disgusted by the way he looked and the way he lived. I figured that Dave probably didn’t think I’d really go to the party. But when the night of it came I was ready for a change of scene and decided I’d give it a shot.
With gold corduroy pants on and a light green silk shirt with dark green embroidery, I thought that I would fit in OK at the party. I felt funny anyway, though, because I didn’t know anyone there but Dave, and I didn’t know him well enough to talk to him much. He introduced me to a bunch of people whose names I didn’t bother to try to remember, and I made myself a double Scotch and water at the bar he’d set up and had a look around. The townhouse was crowded. Everyone looked self-assured and stylish. Not a high fashion kind of stylish, but a casual, California kind of stylish. A couple of the men had coats and ties on, but most wore open-necked shirts that were tastefully designed and looked comfortable and well-fitting. I thought the cords I had on must have looked pretty passé. The women mostly wore pastel dresses or summer slacks. The youngest people there were about my age and the oldest in their late thirties or early forties. Most of the people seemed to know each other, and talked easily while music as diverse as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Duke Ellington was played on the stereo. I heard people telling dirty jokes, and jaded laughter. Before long people started talking to me, asking me why I’d come to San Francisco and things like that, and I told them whatever wild, improbable lies came to mind. I told one group that I was on my way to a safari in Africa, another that I was heading up to Alaska to prospect for gold. Nobody seemed to quite believe me, but it was like there was an agreement between us not to mention it.