My father is floor foreman of a casket company down in West Virginia and gets a call (as happens sadly) about a dead convict from Moundsville with no family, nothing, tonight’s one stabbed in the gut and heart and neck by a cellmate and the M.E. has finished with him and this time Dad says, “You wanna go over to the factory with me?” and I’m like Sure, and it’s 10pm.
On the car radio men and women sing:
“There’s not a guy alive who doesn’t thrive
On watching skirts blow free…”
–as we drive in rain gusts on rock walls which shine. Hass is the waiting carpenter who has already whacked together a pine box, big guy with the steel shaving eyebrows and square thumbnails like blackened tablets and Haas is chawing a wad in the cinder yard in the security floods and you can smell burnt metal and skunky ripsaw wood.
We hug ourselves and stomp. The penitentiary van brings the corpse, and we three carry him inside to a plank table, I help do this, I’m 21, and this is a shucked out man, black-umber in the hard light with a frenzied grin and white eyes and I see this, I see this, his split coverall and his dick and nuts and the gouged zippers X’ing his torso. Innards and organs are in a bloated polyurethane bag.
I tell Byrd about it on the phone, he goes, because he is odd, “You know what should have been on the radio was Death Don’t Got No Mercy or slide blues not some pantie song. If ever there was time for blues? And instead you’ve got, ‘Let’s look up skirts.’”
It is 1968 and Byrd and I do not take LSD anymore in West Virginia because in a Hudson car we are dosed one night parked at Coheeghan Dam in roaring rain and I hallucinate up on the mouse gray car ceiling a tragic history of the whole world.
Byrd gets flat. “Okay, you’re right, I see it too. Like a diagram of horror.”
I see a race war apocalypse bringing down everything and terrors reigning on school and child, woman and dog and donkey and robin and tick and tulip, river and field alike. Dread and flames. We both see awfulness in the furrows and nap of fabric where is really nothing.
I cannot even tell you whether Lanny Ponds took a lot of drugs with us as she has gone on from being Byrd’s and my girlfriend, back then, to such a big deal in the USA government. Besides, she won’t or can’t talk to me; her secretary just says, “Yes, I gave Dr. Ponds your message and she said to pass on her best wishes.”
But 1968, it was Lanny who said, “I think we need a rule—“
We go, “We know. We know. No more acid.”
Lanny, (her full name Atalanta, as her dad studied classical lit at Florida A&M ), was a beautiful girl in the chopped off Levi’s with long thighs and dandelion Afro listening to Smokey Robinson and MoTown and Blue Cheer, the loudest band in the world, and The Velvet Underground. We three talk Montaigne and Truffaut and Celine and the New Novel, the New Wave. We needed to be French was our thought.
How we dealt with the racism thing was thus: Maybe she would call my house, midnight, and say, “Are you awake, Bobby? I’m calling to see if you’re still a white person.”
“Let me turn on the light here and yes, yes. Still. So, this raises the question of your negrosity.”
She would say she was checking and Yes she was still a negro and now we should call Byrd and see was he still a lowborn hick.
He wasn’t, he came from a coal family with a lawyer dad who walked into the front of a moving train when Byrd was 13 and Byrd sought solace outdoors and lived in a grieving tent with the bud of distress and doubts in him, but got prodigious about being Outside, getting socialist/Catholic like Peguy, and learning plants and fish and trees. He lived outside? Yes. Byrd just shoved deeper into a sleeping bag on snowstorm nights or used mosquito netting from the Army Surplus in August.
He led people as an Appalachian Trail guide or downstate as a white water raft guide for money and Byrd with girl long hair could not do the impersonations like Lanny could do. She could mimic teachers and the Kennedys and stars, movie stars like Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe even hard ones such as Elizabeth Taylor and of course I loved her of course I did.
She graduates Magna Cum Laude (her joke always, “Magna Cum Lawdy, Lawdy,”) from the Carnegie Mellon and is going to Yale Law school soon, and I loved such a person very bad, only her, and she was devoted to sad Byrd. This was no happy time in the USA with assassinations, a civil war, but we had the strength of ourselves. Three people.
Who all liked speed anyhow. I liked the speed for the torrents of talk, the rush of it, the interest in the knowing and saying.
We drive over to the Carnegie campus, as Pittsburgh has better dealers than the ones in Wheeling or Athens or even Stuebenville, Ohio, at that time, especially for amphetamines, especially from a criminal we know on Forbes Avenue, where is riverboat house architecture, tall gabled places under old trees and shaded brick streets and steep yards and a big acorn tree is blossoming on the corner lot where sits our dealer’s three story.
“Lookit you three from hillbilly heaven,” this asshole says at the door in a leather hat and flowered blouse and Fu Manchu, and he scours Lanny from behind round indigo lenses. Still.
He spreads on the kitchen table pharmacy-grade Ritalin and Dexamil and these black Benzedrine and Blue Racer spansules. A sylph of great sexual beauty makes us hay flavored tea with gluey honey and is being fourteen leaning on the wall and Lanny looks at her like, “You will die young, and it’s sad.”
Dealer strokes his moustache, actually says, to Lanny, “Brown sugar, baby.”
Right. People say things to her, to Lanny in her Hell’s Angel jacket and wire spectacles, her braided rag bracelets. She used to have uncoiled licorice hair in a bell shape and Peter Pan collars and Ked’s pointy sneakers and cat’s eye glasses in high school and there are Whites Only places still and she knows squares and simpletons, men or woman, they cast her in their fantasy roles as jungle queen of insatiate sexuality or revolutionary who will burn their schools, but she is quiet with sprinter’s legs and arms well made, and formal in speech and she has a plan as we are leaving in the car:
- Driving on speed is fun
- We have my mom’s 1963 Pontiac Tempest to use
- Therefore we should rent a U-Haul trailer with hitch and put our bikes on it and pull them out to Los Angeles to live for a while. We do. We rent the U-haul trailer and pack and get money-we have some money–and on a morning of birdsong leave and the drive to 1968 St.Louis is horrid, small-road-slow and everlasting.
Whereas Route 66 across the USA is bottomless torture. Days of no sleep, (cannot afford a motel and they might not even take us, dangerously mixed race and we are dangerous with ideas, probably) so the car fills with paper coffee cups and we are smoking Kents and with Pepsi Colas and Byrd is going into one of his lowest-down places where nothing cheers him up but more speed but our hearts are already doing hinky tripping skip-beat deals.
It is banal. Don’t expect me to rhapsodize ala beatnik about the great American night or sad board houses, Bar-B-Q, diner, hospital, stoplight village, willows, filthy creeks gutting black fields and trackside sumac and bursting lilacs smelling so they registered as a mouth taste through the windows’ wind and the dogwoods, a blizzard from the dogwood branches, the oaks with gashes in the trunks where cars had blasted them, VETERAN OWNED car lots, the effects of speed and no sleep: itchy nettings across your face, maybe thread, maybe real, and maybe a real spider down your shirt collar, or on your tongue, and Jesus.
Dusk is good with the grinding car thumpingly lugging the U-Haul trailer where we had roped our bikes which were a BSA Victor 411, this tough motherfucker bike can go straight up a mountain, and my BSA Hornet, bigger, 650 cc, both made by Birmingham Small Arms of England and then the plains, which were in mind and memory and truth, a trial of nothingness for us.
A radio station plays Tighten Up, Chain of Fools, Sally Go ‘Round The Roses, with tumbleweeds out there somersaulting and bouncing in moon gravity, Lanny and Byrd sleeping and I see the night as flares and burning embers and meteors and bugs explode a foot from my face.
Near dawn, Byrd starts talking. “So I was a deaner up to Erie, PA. Did you ever know that? Well, I was a deaner for a while.” He lights a cigarette. The flying road is mist and pale grass through locust guts. “A deaner sews up dead people in a morgue. After everybody’s done with the remains. You don’t have to know anatomy or anything. I was hired by this pig-shaped woman and she said, ‘If you can lace your shoes and you got a strong stomach, you can be a deaner.’”
Nothing annoys and grates on me now as much as the premature cynical unimpressability of the bored young I teach. I could hover 2 inches off the classroom floor and zoom around the aisles they’d yawn. But I was like them at that point, all blasé. “Cool. You sew up car wreck people? Shit like that?”
I say this in wherever-the-fuck Oklahoma or Texas and we change drivers. I wake up in the red and purple desert, ecstatic, as irreality pertained, we’re stopped at a truck place and by the candy bar machine is a scorpion and then I see the purple boney cactus, orange mountains, I get happy with it all, take a Dexamil with coffee.
“I’ll drive. I’ll drive. I’ll drive.”
The Mojave and Sonoran and Chihuahuan hurt us. No car has air conditioning, almost none does, it’s the 1960’s, and the Tempest is overheating and straining to pull the U-Haul and needs water with the engine heat needle slanted far right red, the hoses smelling, and water for a car or to drink costs money out there where it’s 110 and we make it to a The Sidewinder’s Gas Stop and a handsome couple are bent over their tiny pet monkey, trying to get it water in their cupped hands, but it’s dying and this Navajo-looking guy is sipping a Coors and sells us many gallons of water for way too much and looks at Lanny’s form in a brightness so big it blackens everything.
“Hey, girly, you ain’t hot I bet,” Navajo goes, as in, the kinship of people of color and she says, “I’m from the Ohio River Valley not Kenya or the Sahara and I am hot enough to faint, Crazy Horse.”
Her sister Cleo lives above Sunset Strip and by then I’m seeing neon wires and blinking diamonds when I close my eyes and I open them to a fluorescent tube sky and an alley with laurel on flakey walls, a beat-to-hell-twisted-staircase, Cleo’s teensy rooms with enamel paint, green as limes, poster of Sartre and one of Marcuse and then Jimi Hendrix and a roach, or a brainbug, translucent, such as swim all over your view when you speed and speed and crash.
Cleo goes, “We are black people out here not Negroes,” and Lanny says, “We are black people at home now too and they even let us have books and library cards.“
“Oh, they let us in the doors now? Is that mountain near us still on fire? Come over here nappy and hug me up.”
So they embrace with fondness and laugh so I want a sister or a brother and I wonder if I have strength enough to unpack.
No. So I go down and out but the boulevard is swept by a hot wind and like a campus with no school near. Kids out all over. There are up-streets nearly diagonal with stucco cottages and lodging courts that were maybe for movie folks or families once but now are crash pads for hippies, not the LOVE sort but your rattlesnake hippie with a lab for brewing nitro and blasting caps in the attic. It is not joyful, the aura.
The stores do not sell groceries or hardware goods but loudspeakers and amps (louder, louder, I want to feel it like being slugged please) and some have meatless meat, sunflower crap and tie-dye plus the air within’s vile with spices, clouds of sweetness, joss stick vapors and posters and LPs. On Sunset, the cars freeze bumper to bumper, Valley kids out for the wild, and they want a party with mind-loss; the Whiskey A-Go-Go thumps bloodred.
Day One, the problem is Byrd cannot live in these little rooms and amongst crowds, so Cleo has a boyfriend, David, who you do not call a “barber” but a Men’s Hair Stylist, who has a shop where he sells wigs to straights so they can get balled on weekends and be far out and yet keep their jobs 9 to 5 and his partner is a pole necked Texan human mistake named Charley (who is later called “Tex”) Watson.
These two hair guys have a rented house on Topanga Canyon Beach and cannot afford it but will sublease it to us is their deal. For a fortune. A thousand a month. Byrd has saved from his jobs and pools his money with Lanny’s. She worked in a museum gift shop and a (it was so-called, I swear) soda fountain, mixing ice cream drinks and wearing practically a nurse’s uniform, which incidentally, you know? Was cute. And I will have to use the money I have and sell my bike next month and all for what? For this fact: THE PLACE IS WORTH IT.
You drive down that mountain from Santa Monica to the water and along the PCH in immense sloping winds, and then you go out and there are surfers and to your right cake-like mountainsides, soft, and to the left houses making a wall but just behind them the ocean. We are inlanders. We live in green or wintry mountains and here was the fucking ocean, from Asia, with octopi and sharks and coconuts.
You have to have this house. Inside it was like a boat, snug and clean and then back steps go to a sand porch with a warped Adirondack chair rusting at the nails looking out on the symphonic Pacific.
We lived there. So stupid were Byrd and I about the surf that we went in everyday, twice a day, despite rip current red flag warnings, despite the sharks, the storms, we were addicted because you go out to just beyond break point and bounce on your foot facing shore but looking back and here comes a glass-green mountain and you wait and if you jump just right she will catch you up like a twig and fire you at the beach.
We do that for hours, until we’re cut up and freezing. We can afford only Campbell’s soup and Saltines, eaten with small spoons to last longer and Kool Aid or Pepsi. At night we go to the Shrine Auditorium mostly, or Santa Monica Civic, sometimes, for rock and roll played in towers of sound. Lanny loves the Jeff Beck group because they are sexy and sleek and can knock over a can with a chord as with a gun shot. Because they are young and sexy and thin and powerful.
At night is heaven, in my bed, because it is summer which I hate but here it’s cold, and beneath me the romantic sea is bombing, gasping, gulping under the bed and its cold breath is in the room. I am worn to bliss and half deafened by Marshall stacks and in love with her and she will never, not ever, never even hold me, asleep in the other room, but love can be best when it is chaste, chivalric, idealistic, nobody touching, not the mess and wetness and work of it.
Tactless people ask which was with who and some people when you have three adults living together in the free love days think PILE UP, especially as one is obviously a Bohemian black panther sex machine…I am just, Screw those people. Really. We three are friends first and love the movies, the talk, the books the waves, the bands.
It is almost the happiest time of my life before or after, but the pole neck skeeze, Charles “Tex” Watson, keeps stopping by and taking stuff from the cost-a-fortune house he sublet to us, such as the sound system and TV.
Even in 1968, you graduate with honors, the credit card company sends you lots of plastic and Lanny has a wallet full of credit cards which get stolen from the Tempest with her purse and the battery is stolen from the Tempest same day; shit like that keeps happening. We call all the credit companies—8 hours work—and bills start coming in from the Roosevelt Hotel for a three day stay for five people with 50 dollar tips. I find in a drawer pictures of the house owner who is a hard looking woman standing next to Ernest Hemingway in Spain. So it’s her house.
Pole neck skeeze has these business cards all over from when he was a bulging teenaged hemorrhoid in Dallas, Texas. Charles Watson. That’s what they say.
Byrd: ”So he could remember his name. He had to pin them to his shirt.”
The sheriff of Marina del Ray calls and says they are holding people who are using Lanny’s credit card and who tried to rent a room with it and could we come at once? Which we do and to find these low thieving people but the Marina del Ray sheriff tells us, “We had to let them go. They had identification.”
Which of course they did! They fucking stole it!
Back on the PCH, days later, Charles Manson comes over once. I can’t remember why. He’s at the door with little fringe bangs and Davy Crockett buckskins and a goat man with him. Like an old Pan. Goat-like old man and this teensy moonshiner-looking fuck.
You got many such as Manson where we lived then. Rawboned and rat-made, rat handed and strung rodent-tight, feral and bursting with bullshit and thwarted love for mama and for killing everything. Tiny men. There was an animal that haunted the outhouses to eat what was drawn to waste and such an animal was Manson and so too Tex Watson.
Manson, at first (here’s a laugh) commiserates about the thefts, the venality of this city.
“You got to watch your ass,” he says. “Errybody loves peace and takes a piece of you.”
But he and I fight soon. I go, “It’s horrible here except for the ocean. The ocean makes it all right but the rest of LA is a fucking joke.”
And he blinks, Wha? Jolted. “Where’s so much better, man?”
I say West Virginia is better than crappy LA with crappy rich kids and nobody reads a book. There are no ideas. They’re tearing down the great studios and lots.
“I been in jails all up and down the Ohio Valley, man. I seen what the man tries to do to us. You wanna’ work for the man? You want ideas, this here is the manager of the Beach Boys, man.”
Maybe goat-man is the manager of the Beach Boys and maybe he’s just somebody sucking Manson’s cock at the time. I don’t know. Cleopatra Ponds—Cleo, Lanny’s sister, remember? has a lot of friends in LA and some are great, like Jacqueline Bissette, the Brit actress in movies who is beautiful and seeing Michael Sarrazin, the Canadian actor, now deceased, then handsome in black Levi’s and shirtless, living two houses down on Topanga Canyon Beach and he brought Bissette over one day to see the bikes, wait, wait…This story keeps running off the rails. Manson!
Manson says moronic shit and tops it with: “So you wanna go back be a nigger for the man, have a nice smooth trip man.”
He leaves and Lanny comes out from hiding in the kitchen and does an eerie impersonation of him, twang and maxims-for-morons and woman hatred and all.
She goes,”You wanna know who is pulling your strings man you gotta look up and see the puppeteer, man, you ain’t gonna see nothin’ lookin at the other puppets.”
She goes, “It’s all coming down in a reign of fire man, like the Book of John foretells us, and the black man will eat the hearts of the white…”
Byrd says, “The Book of John, right. I think he was trying for John of the Cross.”
We all think then about the car battery, the credit cards, we all think about what he took from us back when he and Charles “Tex” Watson and Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkle and the others were killing castaway kids and stray animals before the bigger spotlit atrocities.
Pole neck skeeze comes over for his mail, driving a Roll’s Royce that’s been cut in half and its roof cut off and it’s like some pearl purple iridescent beach buggy. Some kitschy joke that slaughtering sociopath rubes think is great. Charles “Tex” Watson wants his fucking mail.
“Thad be rill nice,” he says, laying into this sham accent.
But I say, “That letter is to the renters at this address, 112456 PCH, [or some such insanely long spy code address number] and we are the renters.” So I open it and it’s from the Hemingway lady/owner and says, “David and Charles, you were not to sublet my property and if you are, I will bring legal action and evict—“
Like that. But Charles pole neck “Tex” Watson rips from my hand the letter and I can’t read further and he goes, “You want my mail? Come get it!”
We are facing off and I’d like to say I saw something of the killer-mutant in his eyes but this was just a tall guy, taller than I, and not afraid of me, which was unusual but probably because he played high school football and was door-stop dumb, but Lanny says, “Stop it! Both of you. This is sickening.”
I’m like, “Why don’t you go the away and don’t come around here at all anymore for anything?”
Charles “Tex” Watson, terrorist, sociopath, neo-Nazi zombie, he says, “Yeah, I’ll go, man, this place is just bad vibes with you three.” He pauses and adds, “ Hey, [to me] you know those two are married? The nigger and your best friend? You didn’t even know that did you?”
I didn’t of course. And was there ever a more perfect serpent to deliver the apple of knowledge to my Eden? People say, “Well, c’mon, you had to know!”
I didn’t know and I went out into the Pacific tall waves and body surfed and could not sort out what hurt deepest. My friends lied-but that was to protect me, maybe, and my feelings and my dreams. That was in some lights even sweet. But. They were being intimate. Talking in bed to each other, knowing each other…those were the knives in the gut and heart.
My friend Ray was off in Vietnam by then. He wrote a letter. He said in the letter that in whorehouses guys put these tiny girls in baskets hung from the ceiling and twisted the baskets all round and then you put your dick into the girl and they let the basket go and it spun out like a high torque top, a girl spinning on your dick.
“We got married, Bobby, it’s true, but everything is all right,” Lanny says. “Nothing’s gonna’ change Bobby. We’re all just going home. It’ll all be all right, Bobby.”
Not true. Nothing was right again. We watched the Chicago Convention on the fuzzy TV.
There was suddenly death odor loose, an irrefutable truth of our being upright land mammals with no dignity, the end of our beginnings, our research into doing it all, living it all new. It wasn’t even the same with Byrd and her, no.
She’s long gone today, they divorced and Byrd is remarried to a nice person I’ve never met but withal, Byrd finds dignity in Rousseau, in William James, in his dark woods and his poets and he cooks up and publishes his essays on mysteries of bliss and goodness but we don’t hardly talk or email. We can’t talk of course to Atalanta, Lanny, named for somebody nobody could catch and hold but a god and even he needed an unfair temptation, an irresistible golden trick. You think about fame, immortality-
People die, beautiful and young and celebrated or anonymous, known by not even a house cat, and the deaner sews shut the bag of gasses and pulleys and valves and tubes we were.