California, 1971. Here we were. Frances smiled a little wanly, and not at me. At the thought of it, I guess. At all that lay ahead.
Three days—that’s what it took us to hitchhike from Illinois to Sacramento. Easy. We could count the number of rides on one hand. And Frances? I was still reeling from her revelation en route, there in the middle of Nebraska, that no, this wasn’t any ordinary trip. She’d be finding out what happened to Ned, the husband whose car wreck in Colorado last year had made her a widow at twenty. He’d been driving back to her; that was the story. But before that? Those months in California? That was a locked box, but there were people to talk to. And me, I was lucky—I knew that instantly—tagging along, right into an epic.
See, she said, I told you, you do need sunglasses here. That got me fishing the cheapo pair out of my pack, and I put them on. Sunglasses in March—like some movie star.
We didn’t wait long. Another hippie van pulled over, this one not so freshly or enthusiastically christened as such, with its blistering blue paint, its cracked window repaired with duct tape. The genuine article, I suppose you might say, clearly on the road for a while. We heard a voice: just get in the back! So we opened the rear double door and heaved up into the thing, settling down, looking toward the driver’s seat, past all the predictables: the sway of hanging beads on the windows, pillows and Indian print spreads piled high, Zap Comix and Rolling Stone magazines lying about, the Whole Earth Catalog on top of everything, its black cover floating our home planet seen far away, from outer space. We could make out the two in the front seat, their long hair, their T-shirts, thin leather strips around their necks, one in a Mao cap—the usual get-up, all of which spelled cool, spelled young. Then they turned around. News flash: they were old, nearly as old as my parents, I remember thinking. Some of their teeth were missing. They looked awful.
Frances elbowed me fast and hard. We were careful not even to glance at each other. I flashed on a new, abrupt fact: this has been going on for years and years out here. These were probably old Beats, Beatniks turned into hippies, right? This was history, an honest tradition by now in California. And I remembered another shock, a fact I discovered earlier that year: Allen Ginsberg was only five years younger than my mother. He could have been her little brother. Unlike the Midwest where all this seemed fresh and alive, out here it had been around for eons, along with much darker stuff. That meant Altamont and the Manson trial, and Timothy Leary busted for drugs, all—admittedly—a vague jumble in my head. I didn’t read the newspapers and had no TV. I felt it, though, a dramatic shift in climate.
Still, the woman turned to us the way a well-meaning aunt might have at the Thanksgiving table, polite, almost interested. Where you from? she asked.
Illinois, Frances said.
The woman looked uncertain. She might have been tuning in that puzzle we put together as kids, trying to find the piece labeled Illinois to pop into place somewhere in the middle of that busy map. I’d always been proud that my state was shaped weirdly, like a lucky rabbit’s foot, I thought, calling just enough attention to itself and no more.
The Midwest, Frances self-corrected. Not too far from Chicago.
Oh, Chicago, the woman said. I know that place.
You absolutely know that place, the man driving said, a great meaning in his voice.
I couldn’t tell if that was good meaning or bad, or something in between. Better not to ask. Besides, their being older made us shy.
Where you going? the man called back to us.
San Francisco, Frances told him.
We can take you as far as Berkeley, he shouted over the outside traffic. Or a little farther, to Oakland maybe, near the Army base, though it’s past where we’re going. I could drop you on the bridge there. Is that okay?
Far out, she shouted back.
Well, dears, the woman said, half-facing us again and giving a little wave, welcome to California!
We couldn’t see much through the windows of that van, with those beads shifting back and forth as we sped west that afternoon, then south on Route 80, through Davis and Vacaville, near Napa and past Vallejo. We saw signs for those cities at least, their flashes of green and bright sunlight. And then we were approaching, no, actually entering—clearly a detour, off 80—that most fabled place of all: Berkeley, epicenter of all things freaky and amazing and with-it. I pushed back the strands of beads and held them at an angle to get a longer look. Of course, it was exactly what I had imagined, because clichés are at least partly true: coffee shops galore there, bookstores, all manner of crazies in costume doing street theater, earnest -looking guys right on the sidewalk playing flute as young women, barefoot, in long dresses, swayed, stood still, and swayed again. Everyone seemed to be outside, busy with things, at least a fourth of them illegal. Imagine some very hip Richard Scarry cover, your usual postman and meter maid and kids on their bikes racing next to countless mom-sedans all traded up for this. Inside the van, our driver and his friend appeared oblivious, having slipped into their own universe, shoving into the tape deck the Stones’ first album, seemingly on endless return. It kept blaring away, that voice, as usual, getting no satisfaction.
I can’t believe it, I said quietly to Frances, Berkeley. We’re in freaking Berkeley, California!
The whole afternoon was in italics. We drove up University Avenue, toward Shattuck.
You two mind if we stop for a second? the driver called out. We have to pick up something.
That’s cool, I yelled. Was he kidding?
We pulled over in front of a fire hydrant. If this were Chicago and my father were driving, he would have leapt out, grabbed the tall bushel basket from the trunk, dropped it neatly over the hydrant, and gone about his business, thinking he’d avoid a ticket that way. But these two couldn’t care less, parking so illegally, dashing into a shop with clothes, books, rolling papers in all colors, a mishmash of things on display. A big yellow cat lay in the store window too, staring out at us. A sphinx-cat, its front legs out, perfectly motionless. It could hardly keep its eyes open. Frances and I looked at each other. We climbed out of the van too and stood leaning against it.
A young man was sitting alone on a wooden box over to our right, in front of a café of some sort. He started to sing, holding his guitar, hitting the strings now and then, not like he was interested exactly, more like he had forgotten something then almost remembered. He was dazed, his face wonderfully—what?—vacant, full of nothing. Rich with that nothing.
I should, he half sang, half spoke. And stopped. I should have known better with a girl like you. . . . Here he slowed, paused again. That I would love. . . . Love, he started and stopped, love everything that you—each word damped down now, languid, something secret and marvelous between each one—that you do and I do, hey hey hey—
It wasn’t song anymore, not even dream. Nowhere we could follow.
Their errand took no time at all. They carried a couple of small sacks into the van and did a big fat U-turn, right on University Avenue, and we were out of there, headed back to Route 80. We were approaching the bridge from Oakland to San Francisco, past where our driver had promised to go out of his way to drop us. I pointed this out to Frances, who just half-shrugged. Soon he was paying a toll, and before long we were back on land, headed up Market Street past those warehouses.
So where is it exactly you want to go? the driver shouted back to us.
We’re in Frisco, right? I said. Gee, thanks a lot. I know this is more than you bargained for. He kept driving. I felt guilty.
That’s okay, it all comes back. I swear it does. You two ever heard of Ram Dass?
Actually, I had. Later I’d learn more, about his dad for instance, who thought that Ram Dass was the stupidest name on earth, especially since his son had a perfectly decent name already—Richard Alpert—so he decided to call him Rum Dum.
Man, Ram Dass is totally in the groove, he continued. That cat knows every inch of the inner realm, how these things add up. Good makes good. He’s totally on the bus, you know what I mean? Our driver said that again, only slower, enunciating the phrase: on the bus. Not the searching, delicate way that young man sang his Beatles song. Here each word came down emphatic, a bull’s eye, like he was nailing a sign to a wall.
But you know how you said Frisco before? Here’s a tip: never, never say Frisco. Man, that’s like something out of Perry Como. Like a thing sleazy Frank might sing about. Well, he actually did sing that. You do know I mean Sinatra, don’t you?
Or San Fran, the woman added. That’s not cool either. She said it—San Fran—like she was picking up each word with a tweezers.
What was left to call it? But I didn’t ask.
Thanks for the info, I said, hoping info was an okay abbreviation. But really, I blurted out—then had to raise my voice over a sudden honking war outside, two or three cars’ worth—really, this is really really nice of you.
And that address you two girls want? he said.
Um, over near where Steiner crosses Broadway, I think, Frances told him after digging in her pack for a notebook with its addresses and phone numbers. Let’s see. Yeah.
Whoa, classy digs! the woman said. Pacific Heights? You related to those folks?
I figured she was rethinking their efforts to deliver us, their good will, their taking care of the bridge toll. Maybe this stocking-up-karma thing meant that helping the un-needy wouldn’t wash for points.
Old high school friends of my husband’s, Frances was saying. But no, I don’t know them that well. I haven’t seen them in, like, ages.
Husband, is it? The woman turned abruptly to look at us again. At how young we were, I suppose. Clearly a double-take.
So now it’s a husband we’re talking about. Really? You sure about that, sweetie? You sure you have a husband?
Sorry, Frances said. I mean, my dead husband.
I thought that fairly heartless, playing the dead husband card like that even though the woman was on the obnoxious side. But I didn’t say anything. We were standing on Steiner then, trying to scope out where these two lived, these old friends of Ned—Kevin and Joyce Sunderland. But I kept seeing her in my head, that woman rearing back like someone had struck her hard. Then she’d gone quiet. Someone had hammered her: Frances. When they dropped us off, I couldn’t quite read their faces: were they sad or angry? Embarrassed? I tried to be as grateful as I could, with more slobbering out the usual: really great of you, this helped us a lot, hope you have a nice evening, that stuff. Frances, for her part, said nothing more.
The building was Victorian. Beautiful. Well-kept. It was classy. That woman was right. It contained a handful of apartments, a regular mansion turned into those smaller spaces maybe thirty years earlier. Or I’m hallucinating here. No matter. It looked like a grand place to be, especially after those days on the road, cramped and curled up in a van, washing up at rest stops, eating crackers and apples and Hershey kisses, lulled or blasted to bits by the Doors, the Beatles down their Abbey Road, the Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, and that favorite of those boys from Lincoln, Nebraska, who drove us most of the way, an old song by then whose title was buried in the refrain they loved to scream along in unison, banging on the dash and the steering wheel:
And you tell me
Over and over and over again my friend
Ah, you don’t believe we’re
On the eve of de-struc-tion….
So Ned knew the Sunderlands in high school? I said to Frances.
Yeah. Well, you know Ned was older than me. By nearly four years. He dropped out of college, but Kevin, sort a whiz kid really. They were pals since third grade or something. Joyce too. She was in that same class in DeKalb, so she knew Ned pretty well. In grade school and high school. Kevin went through college in, like, three years, then law school. In Chicago, I think. And now he’s got this super hotshot job out here. Doing what, who the hell knows?
Hence these digs, I said.
Don’t worry. They’re expecting us. I called them about a week ago.
How long will we be here?
Not long. Oh, yeah, they’re putting us up too, Frances said. At least they’ll feed us good.
Joyce Sunderland was what we called straight in those days, before sexual preference had anything to do with it. It meant she wasn’t a freak, wasn’t even close to a hippie, that she was what her parents had dreamed she would be: well-groomed unto squeaky clean and upwardly mobile—a phrase of both description and derision then. Which, in turn, meant she probably hadn’t smoked much dope, if any, had gone through school without weeks or months or years taken off to find herself, hadn’t wandered, hadn’t done time in a coop or a commune. It meant she had a decent job and her stockings no doubt matched her blouse, that she probably hadn’t read Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki or Kerouac’s On the Road or The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann or A. S. Neill’s Summerhill or anything Gary Snyder had written, or Thoreau and Whitman, Scott and Helen Nearing, Hermann Hesse. And countless others, books we read with a thirst having not a whit to do with school, passing them on to friends who took everything the same way, with near religious zeal. Or maybe she did; maybe I’m not being fair.
But she probably never stayed up half the night arguing ideas found on those pages, and no, I’m almost positive she never sat-in or held a picket sign to rage against the war or for civil rights. I don’t imagine you could superimpose her on that crowd of kids after Kent State either, that moment in time when the riots spread everywhere. Three years later, after college when I worked as a graduate admissions clerk at Northwestern University, doggedly going over transcripts, recalculating each GPA, I’d get to spring 1970 where regular grading suddenly morphed—one term only—to a pass/fail option, school after school, big or small, the madness that universal. Back in Illinois that May, the frat boys in their Hawaiian shirts thought it would be a lark to watch the National Guard roll down the street in their jeeps—I remembered how even they were instantly politicized. Those business majors, all pepper-sprayed now and enraged, kept using the campus phones in the student union to call home. I’d overhear the same half of the conversation again and again: No, Mom, there’s no communists here! We weren’t doing anything, I swear to God. It’s the police. And the goddamn National Guard—they’ve gone berserk! Not that I’d be making such a call to my own mother, who had checked out of hearing about drugs, sex, rock & roll—or politics—most emphatically, and probably wisely, the minute my college years began.
But Joyce—the fact remained that she wasn’t the sort of person who would be shouting kill the pigs! anytime soon no matter how much craziness erupted. She had sold out—that would be the standard take on her. But in Joyce’s case, I’m not sure there ever was any yearning-to-be-free little heart in there to be sold. She seemed, quite gladly, to have accepted her straight-arrow fate from the start, to have happily entered what some people called the American Death Trap. But the good news, it occurred to me, was that in that trap she might have turned into one fabulous cook, as Frances had halfway implied. I was starving.
She was home when we rang the bell in the vestibule. We heard her cheery voice through the static of the old intercom, a little grille next to their names. I’ll buzz you in! she said. We’re on the second floor, the right-hand door.
Even the stairway, the public part of that building, was beautiful, pinned down by a thick oriental rug worked up lushly in intricate reds and blacks and light browns. The Sunderland flat was a wonderland: polished wood floors, heavy comfortable couches, oddly delicate overstuffed chairs, more oriental carpets, even in the kitchen. Money and taste. A rare combination, it turns out. But this was the first I ever saw such things almost brought together. The only apparent kink in all this was their books. They had lined up everything perfectly on a single tall set of shelves. Alphabetically, I realized. And nothing looked read, all the spines in perfect shape.
Joyce ushered us in with much graciousness and installed us immediately in the back bedroom with twin beds under powder blue spreads—the guest room, she said with clear pride. She urged us to relax, take a shower, take a nap. Kevin would be home in about an hour. Kevin had a weighty deal pending, with Ajax. So perhaps we’d be celebrating tonight, she said in a particularly sparkly way, doing a quick whirling gesture with her hands, the sort common on TV. And of course there was so much to say about Ned. Here she looked thoughtfully at Frances and the moment slowed to a stop.
Then I was saying great! thanks! as Frances disappeared into the bathroom and Joyce slipped out of the room. That seemed to be my major function on the trip right now: saying thanks.
Get the hell in here! Frances hoarse-whispered.
I was sitting on the bed, having unearthed most everything in my pack. I was picking through my underwear and shirts, wondering which ones to wash out in the sink.
What? I said, walking through the bathroom door. Then: Oh my God!
Frances was pointing, but she didn’t need to. There was Ned looking gorgeous and dazed, hair out and out flying, as usual, in all directions. He was huge, and laminated somehow, stuck to the wall, the very center of what seemed like a million other pictures in mad rotation around him: Pete Seeger, Twiggy, Robert Kennedy, Woody Guthrie, Winston Churchill, that girl at Kent State, kneeling speechless with her mouth wide open. There was Gandhi, a young John Glenn stepping out of his space capsule, and below him Buzz Aldrin on the moon two years before, with the flag held straight out by a wooden rod sewn into its upper edge to make it fly right in that airless, breezeless atmosphere. Dorothy Day and Bob Dylan were next, then Jane Addams in the doorway of Hull House, and definitely Gene McCarthy, the Beatles sweet-faced and waving from The Ed Sullivan Show, Martin Luther King still standing in Memphis, Robert Frost at Kennedy’s inauguration. And so on. And on. All of it overlapped, so where Gandhi’s cheek gave way, say, Twiggy’s ear began, below her startlingly short hair. If you used the toilet, you’d be staring right into this spectacle. In fact, you’d be looking straight into Ned’s eyes, which someone had pencil-colored green. The rest was in black and white.
A tribute maybe? I said after a moment. Think of it that way, Frances. I mean, look at the company he’s keeping—Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, Robert friggin’ Frost, no less.
It was picture after picture, a wildly crowded wheel of time and energy, both dark and full of light. We stood there, transfixed by everything. At least I stared that way, adrift and overwhelmed.
But Frances hadn’t taken her eyes off Ned’s eyes for a second.
They were blue, light blue, she was saying. Blue, like some really quiet place in the ocean. And fuck them, they knew Ned. How could they get that part wrong?
I kept thinking about that collage, which was, in fact, a rather popular thing to put together then. A very hip friend of mine in the dorm, a girl who insisted on wearing sandals all winter, minus socks even, had done the same thing, searching through various publications—Life magazine always a good bet—for pictures that would make years of people and experience leap out of the wall with an electric, exuberant force. But it was doubly remarkable, there in the Sunderlands’ bathroom. Because it was very cool, making one of those, a wall flooded with various cultural heroes, people off the grid inventing whole new grids. I was sure something odd and quirky remained in those Sunderlands after all, something of the rebel. Here was evidence. Maybe Ned was at the heart of that. At least, on the wall he was.
So when Kevin arrived—not an hour later, more like two—I didn’t know what to expect. Frances was particularly unhelpful.
I know jack shit about the guy, she told me. I met him at our wedding. That’s when I met her too. I only know Ned stayed with them here, and they bought him a bus ticket home. Oh yeah, in case you haven’t guessed, they didn’t like what he was doing either.
A bus ticket, I said, when was this? So he came home?
No, he didn’t come home. He hung around the bus station a while, and cashed in that ticket. Then he hitched down to Big Sur. He called to tell me that about a week later. Eventually, they phoned me up—me, I hardly fucking knew them—and demanded I fill them in. I mean it was fairly obvious. Like, Ned wasn’t back, right? He was still calling me from California. They got pissed. I know they’ll bring up that stupid ticket again.
Frances had collapsed on the bed after her shower and after putting on clean clothes; she was staring up at the ceiling. Big Sur, she said. That’s one of our stops, you know. Hope that’s okay.
Fine with me.
It’s just this conversation, she added, here, with these guys. Let’s say I’m steeling myself.
Frances! So Kevin burst into the room. I looked up to find—predictably—a fully straight-looking guy in a pin-striped shirt, a suit, short hair. He had a little mustache—his concession to the world outside mostly falling apart—and he was taking off his jacket, loosening his tie, unbuttoning his collar.
It’s so good to see you. He took a breath. I’m so sorry about Ned.
That sounded, on the face of it, like the bullshit everyone says. But the way Kevin got those two sentences out, I don’t know. It seemed a heavy weight inside him connected to each word with the thinnest wire, about to break. Some badly jerry-built grief machine in there. Now the sight of Frances had kicked it on again. I felt sorry for both of them, even having to have this conversation.
Hi, Kevin, Frances said gamely. What’s going on?
Well, for one, dinner’s going on. Joyce has made a feast for us. Come on.
And then we were walking down what we called in Chicago the snake bladder part of those old apartments, the narrow hallway that opened, by turns, into rooms and, at the end, one big widening which was, to the right, the start of a kitchen. Everything was gleaming in there, the light hitting their shiny toaster as Joyce smiled broadly, waving her dazzling metal spoon at us from the stove. With slow ceremony, she took off her apron and folded it carefully, smaller and smaller.
The four of us skipped the real dining room and ate in that kitchen. I can’t remember quite what. A rice something, with peas. A fish something. Salad with greens I never saw before in my life, ultra curly ones, and bitter. Tomatoes like you’d get in Illinois but only in July or August, the fresh-picked time of year. Not in March. Certainly not in March. And chocolate cake. With whipped cream made from real cream, not the sort in an aerosol can that my brother would find in our mother’s fridge and stand there in the open cold of it, pushing the little nozzle to the left, spraying that stuff straight into his mouth.
Frances hadn’t said much. We were well into dessert now, and mainly they’d been spouting maudlin generalities about Ned. When that wasn’t clogging the air, I’d been doing my job, chatting up those two, asking how they liked San Francisco—not San Fran, not Frisco—(they did, a lot), what their jobs were (Kevin: a corporate lawyer, but a ways away from making partner—not that I knew what that meant. And Joyce: a part-time secretary at a marketing firm right now but maybe occupational therapy—she’d have to go back to school for that—because it would be so much nicer to help people fix their problems, wouldn’t it?). They showed zero interest in our trip, who had given us rides, how it looked, the brilliant early evening sun coming down on that endless, about-to-green-up-in-a-month-or-so prairie, all of it going sepia as day turned into night. And then those mountains. Just as well. I’d never have been able to tell them. All of it would dissolve into what anyone would say. Finally, as Frances predicted, they got around to the business of the ticket.
I just can’t believe Ned did that, said Joyce, his hugging us goodbye, watching us drive merrily off. And then stepping right up—he really did!—cashing that thing in for whatever it was. Almost a hundred dollars, wasn’t it? I forget. She looked at Kevin.
Well, Joyce, that’s water over the dam. We are so sorry about the accident, Frances, he said, facing her now and taking her hand. Such a loss. It must have been a terrible way to go. I hate to think about that moment, right before. I know he went straight down into a canyon, out there in Colorado.
So we all had to think about that moment again, that high ridge in the Rockies. Even me—who had never really pictured it before. I saw that red hair flying. I saw Ned frantic at the wheel, jamming the breaks, realizing in a sick flash how profoundly he’d fucked up.
Suddenly Frances looked up. So what happened to Ned, Kevin?
What do you mean?
It all flooded out of her then. I want to know, she said, how did he seem here, what was he talking about? His state of mind, I mean. You knew him so long, Kevin. Can’t you tell me one fucking real thing?
Here, she glanced at me. She was holding back tears. Then she straightened up, fearless.
Joyce started to say something, but Kevin held up his hand. Everything hovered there, in that kitchen. I could hear their clock—one of the great old Seth Thomas jobs—ticking away. I could hear people down in the street, one calling a dog, and kids laughing. After all, the windows were open, the weather perfect, about 65 degrees. It was supper time, when everyone in the world is kicking back.
It’s a very sad thing, Frances, he said. It really is.
How Ned was.
That’s what I mean, Kevin. How was that?
The story began then and kept going. How Ned showed up on their doorstep, disoriented, talking gibberish. How he’d come down from Mill Valley where they really messed him up.
You two certainly must know how that is, Kevin said.
Sure, I thought, right. But it wasn’t the moment to share that with Frances.
He claimed Ned’s eyes didn’t focus in the usual way. Maybe they were dilated too. Kevin couldn’t remember. He was no doctor, of course, though it was clear that Ned kept staring straight at things, then doing double-takes, shaking his head.
Like maybe rattling his brains around? Like that would help? Joyce said lightly, tilting her head right and left in that stock loony way.
Joyce is just trying to lift the mood, Kevin said. But no one said a thing for a moment.
Well, then, she went on between dainty bites of her chocolate cake. To be perfectly serious, Ned refused to eat a thing at first. But Frances, we insisted he sit down to three squares a day. That’s the house rule, I told him. I just had to do that, didn’t I, Kevin? Lay down the law.
We gave him soup, Kevin said. Chicken, beef barley, mushroom, you know, Campbell’s finest. He finally agreed to take some of that.
And saltines, Joyce added. But for a couple of days, he threw up nearly everything in the bathroom—and not only the bathroom. Such a mess! Well, I just have to say it—that was truly disgusting. We could hear him day and night. Good thing we never gave him anything with tomatoes in it. Oh God.
It was the drugs, Joyce, you know that. It was entirely a matter of those pills he was taking, said Kevin. He was taking pills, Frances. I’m afraid it wasn’t just your normal everyday weed he was into anymore.
What kind of pills? said Frances.
Kevin shrugged. You think I know? Different—two or three colors. And sizes. Not that many, I guess. But Ned was pretty upfront about it. Of course we tried to take them away from him but he had hiding places. I didn’t go through his stuff. That didn’t seem right.
Ned had looked skinny. Kevin was certain he had lost weight since he’d seen him last. Not that he ever was a hulking type guy.
Yes, said Joyce, never that, recalling how he had tried out a couple of times for football in high school, Kevin already a star on that team called the Barbs—DeKalb being the place where someone invented barbed wire—and was always told no, he never weighed enough though he was pretty fast, a good runner.
I tried to think that through, Ned even wanting to play football—such a taboo then to anyone on the other side of that countercultural divide. It seemed impossible, making that luminous, beautiful face stuck to the wall in the bathroom fit such a wish for violence and cheap triumph. A massive dumbing down. If true, remembering that must have been an embarrassment of staggering proportions to him.
And the gibberish? Frances asked. You said gibberish before. What was that about?
Your guess is as good as mine, said Kevin. He was talking the usual—excuse me—the usual bull, you know. About karma and light years and who we were in the past and in the future, and how it was all happening at once. Blah blah blah. All that nonsense, that ridiculous talk about being and who are we really? and when we look, really look at things, what do we see; and color, why is blue blue and not red; and do we hear silence or sound the most? You know, stuff like spaceship earth—and here Kevin made a little sci-fi echoey sound as if to put it in quotations—that kind of thing, he said, what people like to dribble on and on about these days.
Well, some people, Joyce said. If it wasn’t so heartbreaking, it would have been funny. Oh, and that hair of his. Really.
Just the way she said that—I hated her then. Not a little, a lot.
It took us five full days to talk him into going home, back to Illinois, Kevin said. By that point, he was eating okay, not sick anymore. He looked better.
You could say he perked up, Joyce said. He was starting to make sense, talking about you, Frances, about getting back to DeKalb.
What did he say about me? Frances said. It must have been a hard thing to ask.
Oh, I don’t know. Like, how much he loved you. How much he liked being married. How really great you two were together. You know. She got that semi-moony sympathetic look.
Even Frances, as much as she wanted to believe that, must have seen this was Joyce spinning her wheels, making nice so in the story of the story she’d be one of the good guys. Or maybe she was just giving a sideways cue to Kevin about all the things she hoped he’d whisper in her ear.
Finally it seemed the right time to take him down to the bus station, Kevin said. We sprang for the ticket, of course. No problem, that. I mean, we have the money. But Ned seemed into the idea, more and more. He talked about the fascinating people he’d meet on the bus trip and whatnot. He was acting normal, close to normal anyway, and said something about seeing us at Christmas if we were coming back to visit the folks and all. I said we’d think about it. That we probably would. And Frances, believe me, he was very, very grateful to us.
Yes, and then it was just your normal bye-bye talk and everything, Joyce said. Who knew?
Who ever knows, I thought.
She is such a bitch, Frances said, such a grade A, fucking double duty bitch and a half.
We were under our matching blue bedspreads, in that little guest room, which we knew now to be on the other side of the apartment, the farthest point from the Sunderlands’ bedroom. So it was safe to say such things. No one would hear us. It was late too, about eleven thirty or so.
Not a bitch, I said. That word had been forbidden in our house. My mother’s distaste for it had rubbed off on me. Anyway, bitch implied evil and planning and gravity. I wasn’t sure Joyce deserved such credit. She’s just vapid as hell, I said, a dyed-in-the-wool twit.
Yeah. She’s not that smart. But way worse than that—she’s a friggin’ genius at being an idiot. She should get a prize or something.
Clearly, I said.
We both lay there, watching a fly intent on exploring the overhead light which was turned off. But this was a city. You never got rid of that glow outside, seeping in. So we could still make things out.
You know what? They know nothing about Ned, Frances said. They don’t. He’s forever the bad boy to them, the fuck-up, the loser. I knew that before tonight. It’s just a story to them. And flattering, really. It’s like they did this social work on him or something and now they’re so proud. He makes them feel better about themselves. Their shitty little empty selves.
Maybe, I said. But I think there’s something in Kevin that gets what happened. Some little part of him anyway. I think he loved Ned.
Sure, he loved Ned. But that just means Ned loved him. And Kevin still feels that and has to give it back. These things hang on, you know. That’s how it works with old friends.
What about that collage in the bathroom? Kevin did that, and that alone has to mean something.
The collage? You want to know who really fucking made that? Frances sat up now, looking fiercely at me.
Yeah, you were taking the plates over to the sink and stuff, talking to the twit. And I asked Kevin about that, I did.
And he said . . .
He goes, oh, that was Ned’s project. His exact word for it: project. You know, like something you’d do in kindergarten. Only for Ned, it was “to get his head together” those four days he was here. That’s what Kevin said.
Frances put quotes around that phrase with her fingers. Get his head together, she repeated with acid all over it. Christ.
No way. I don’t buy it. How could Ned put his big self up there, right in the middle of that wall? He was a pretty modest guy, wasn’t he? That’s like the ultimate egomaniac thing to do.
He was modest, said Frances. And shit, yeah, he would never never put himself up there. But that’s the thing. He started up that circle of pictures, first doing the outer rim of it, moving in, adding person after person, toward the center.
And he never got there.
Fucking A, he never got there. All of a sudden they were taking him down to that shit-ass bus station. Honestly, they just wanted him out of here. So Ned left a big hole—for sure. And then Kevin colored up those eyes, the wrong color. He had taken that photo the first day, when Ned showed. And later, he blew it up and stuck it there, right in the middle. I can just see them, can’t you? Oh Kevin, Joyce goes, this is so cool. Then he goes, yeah Joyce, we’re so creative! I bet that’s what all their friends told them too. Cre-a-tive, she said again, the word coming out of her with particular irony. It drifted there, in the window’s dim light for a second.
Screw their grief or this being some tribute, Frances continued. It’s all part of their goddamn good taste thing. They’re just using Ned to show they’re so hip and with-it, even though they’re complete, 100 percent corporate sell-out fucks.
There wasn’t much to say after that. The small room grew immense, empty, even the poor fly at the end of something, circling up there, knocking himself senseless where the ceiling met the wall.
A big hole, I said, trying to imagine Ned with scissors and glue, searching the pages of magazine after magazine, deepening into all those remarkable spirits, fixed on them, some still alive but others lost, under the sod: Martin Luther King, Robert Frost, John Lennon and Paul, Gandhi, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day.
Got that right, Frances said, a very big hole.
We were polite enough as we left the next morning. I said how good it was to meet them; I wished Kevin luck on making partner and hoped that Joyce would find some really dynamite occupational therapy program someplace close. I thanked them, of course. Joyce nodded, smiling. Kevin was smiling too, telling Frances to come back anytime. Whenever she wanted to talk about Ned, or any other thing for that matter. Where were we going now? he asked. But Frances wouldn’t commit. She told me later she didn’t want their vibes coming after us. Staining us. Putting a bad trip on us. The whammy. The evil eye. He offered her fifty bucks but she shook her head.
We were, in fact, going up to Mill Valley where Kevin claimed Ned had been truly screwed over. I sort of know some people there, Frances told me. But here is where my memory really breaks down—and probably my curiosity at the time. How did she know them? All of it seemed pretty sketchy to me, even then. But I knew my place. I was—as my brother would say as a kind of mantra for years—just happy to be here.
And I was happy. I mean, we were in San Francisco—Frisco, San Fran, whatever you dared call it—which seemed the center of the world somehow, real and imagined. We walked west on Broadway, put our thumbs out, and made our way down to the fabled Golden Gate Park, the bit of it closest to the coast. The ocean, here it was!—heaving and lying back endlessly, making its fantastic noise. The Sunderlands had given us a bag lunch. We found a pretty spot higher up, on a ridge, and by ten thirty we were digging into those sandwiches, watching little long-haired kids running around and various dogs on the loose too; people frolicking, playing Frisbee, panhandling, toking up; couples going at it; intent-looking sorts playing guitars and flutes even this early. One group down there, apparently doing nothing, sat in a circle, laughing wildly here at the start of the week, just a Tuesday. That was an LSD thing, I thought, or a mescaline thing where, with luck, they wouldn’t need to move a muscle to be intricately entertained for hours.
I don’t know why I’m on this bullshit trip, said Frances suddenly, looking out into the water which was mindless, which wouldn’t quit moving until it hit China. It’s colossally stupid, you know? she said. And depressing as hell. Dismal.
About Ned, you mean?
The who-he-was part, she said. Like, I know the part I knew. But what am I supposed to do with that crap from those two last night? Kevin and Joyce. This is so awful. Poor Ned. Jesus. What friends. Great. Perk up! Give him soup! Oh, I don’t know.
I didn’t feel like defending the Sunderlands. But I remembered something.
I can tell you a story.
Frances lay back in the grass. Why not? she said, closing her eyes. Shoot.
It wasn’t a story story since it actually happened. In real life, as they say. But I started anyway in that vein because that’s what memory does. So the brain can pick up what took place once and carry it other places. So the mouth can find words for it. So it gains weight and casts a shadow. It’s an illusion that a thing has a beginning and an end, that something not utterly pointless runs through it. Some reason. Or maybe just one person breathing. You breathe—no big deal—as you’re telling a story, bringing some bit of your life back so oxygen gets in. The red blood cells light up. But really it’s dark there, not a speck of daylight or moonlight, and what we think is bright red is actually worlds quieter and stranger, a blue we’ll never know the color of, locked in the past of that body.
Anyway, I saw this sign last fall, I said. To go caving. And I thought that would be cool, you know? The idea of mucking about in a cave. So I called the number on the sign—this was at school, it was a university club. They said, sure, show up and you’re in. No sandals. Wear decent shoes. We have the other stuff.
I went on, making a short story longer as my mother would say, my mother who loved to screw up clichés just enough so they’d still be recognizable. I told Frances how I talked my roommate Nell into coming, and then I asked this deathly shy boy in my history class, tall, skinny Greg, painfully awkward, who always sat next to me with nothing to say. Wanna go caving? I asked him. He nodded. And he showed up too. That’s pretty much all I know about him still. That he was willing, and that he did.
So we piled into a car, two cars, early that morning. Maybe eight or nine of us, including two full-of-themselves sorts who ran the thing, who seemed to be our leaders, holding forth on various caves en route, fighting in the car about which one we might go to as we drove south and west into Missouri, cave capital of the U.S., it turns out. Like, the whole state has a basement and sub-basement, tunnels and mountains down there, much of it never explored. So I guess we did have a lot of options. Forget that back in Champaign people thought we were going—no getting out of it—to one specific already decided site. Because we changed course in the car. I mean our two fearless leaders—Jeff and Maria—changed their minds and we ended up, three hours later, at a bent and battered garbage can lid just lying there, in an old bean field. It was October, everything picked and cut back. No farmer in sight. Late morning by then.
Where’s the damn cave? Nell said, my roommate Nell, who would never quite forgive me. We were putting on these helmets. Each had a soft lick of flame jetting out in front, once you lit it. I never learned what they were called. But you could put your hand right through that fire and it wasn’t hot. It wasn’t even that warm.
One of the leaders—Maria—stepped forward and lifted the garbage can lid. We stared at the man-size circle of darkness there in the ground. That was the hole we would enter. That was the cave.
It’s called vertical climbing, the first part, Maria told us. She had this deadpan voice. Okay, campers, she said, hop in. Now drop.
Was I boring Frances to smithereens? What was I telling this for? Off shore, out on the ocean, I saw ships. I saw men shrunk by distance pulling on ropes, some just standing on deck. I guessed they were smoking cigarettes, dreaming off, taking a break. So I stopped too.
Frances opened her eyes. So what the fuck happened next? she said. That’s not it, is it?
Shit. You actually did it? You went down that hole? Shit and a half, I would have been out of there.
What? You kidding? And sit in the car in the middle of bean field nowhere for eight hours, waiting? That was the only alternative. But believe me, it did run through my head.
So Frances closed her eyes again and I kept on with my story, how we all took turns and lowered ourselves down, into that ladder-like descent. Into that honest-to-Zeus underworld. And slid down and caught ourselves on stony footings, then slid, then caught, until—whoa! we were there, rock bottom for real. And a massive room opened up. A whole mountain range, miles of it. I’d never seen anything so astonishing in my life.
Hey, it was dark down there, right? Frances had turned on her side, propped up on one elbow. What I mean is, how could you see anything?
Those helmets and their flames, I said. They cast pretty good light, especially when we got behind each other in a wobbly, half-assed sort of order and started climbing those mountains, all dark, but it was glorious and bizarre, kind of heart-stopping. You could see this line of lights ahead of you, one by one strung out along the high ridge as we moved forward. Like we were one big linked animal or something. Really, it’s an entire universe down there.
Like, mainly you just hiked, like in some ordinary state park? Frances said. I knew she was thinking of Starved Rock in Illinois or Turkey Run in Indiana, each with its canyons and ravines the glacier once rooted up everything to make and leave there, by way of its ancient drag and spill.
Yeah, mostly. Only we were really down there; it was dark, so everything had this eerie, surreal ghost thing about it. Not all of it was mountain range. Sometimes the trail—if you can call it that—would thin out, rock face close on either side and we’d be inching along some endless, small passage, forcing ourselves through openings and under outcroppings you wouldn’t believe. And life down there, too.
You mean, like creatures?
I mean like the smallest frogs, and ultra cool little crawdad guys in the water which pooled out in places. Only the thing is, because of the darkness, they’re all translucent. You could see right through their skin or whatever it’s called. You could see their organs, fluids moving in there, flashing from one to another, tiny little hearts beating.
That’s damn cool, Frances said.
Damn right it was damn cool. But after three or four hours, Maria and Jeff said, okay guys, let’s turn back. So we did. But that’s when the trouble began.
Don’t tell me.
Yeah, see, I guess it was raining outside. And apparently that changes the look of the cave, inside.
You got lost.
Lost? We got seriously, death-knell lost. Then it was Jeff and Maria, those lunatics, fighting every second: how did we come, this way or that? This narrow passage or what? Like, this right turn or straight ahead? Yeah, well, so much for leaders, right? The rest of us stood around, soaked now, plastered with mud, popping lemon drops.
That was the other thing. We had no food, not much water. I guess they had counted on a three or four hour hike, max. I told you, they were total dimwits.
But you’re here, Frances said. Like, obviously you got out.
Sure, we got out. But that was an accident, pure luck. Really, an out and out miracle. We basically kept walking—that kept us warm—saying sometimes how yes, that ledge looks familiar or yeah, I remember that little pool, that streambed. But it was all horseshit. Room after room down there, it all began to look the same. And then someone pointed out that no one back at the University even knew we were in this particular cave. So then it happened.
It began to sink in: we’d never be found.
I figure not many people my age then, ones I knew anyway, had had such a moment, sure they were done for, over, kaput. As I told my story to Frances, I realized I hadn’t thought about it much. It rattled me to put it out there, in the air like that.
So you had this bunch of people who all thought they were dead meat? Interesting, she said.
Frances was trying to picture it. I don’t think I was doing a very good job at helping her. It was a little difficult, given where we were, up on that ridge overlooking the vast blue Pacific, one of the most lovely spots on earth. That’s the trouble with a place like California. It ruins you for calamity. For complexity.
It got way past interesting, I told her, thinking how each of us sucked in this news, that we might never get out of that cave, never go back to Illinois, how it fell through us, that we—the motley few of us there—might be the last human beings we’d ever see, all stuck by this terrible turn of events. That we’d die slowly together.
I bet some of them started bawling their eyes out too, Frances said.
I don’t know, I said and then went quiet myself. Because that’s the odd part. There was this hopeful thing and it sort of changed shape as we walked. Sometimes you could work it up bigger, take a bellows to it. Sometimes it got really little, hand-sized then, at best it might balance on the tip of your finger. But it got smaller and smaller. Sometimes it blinked right out.
Hey, so then what? said Frances.
Some started crying, you’re right. Others kept joking, dumb jokes like promising we’d see a McDonald’s just around the bend or something. Like, oh man, we’d be laying our teeth into a juicy old cheeseburger in a minute or two. They were the best sorts to have along, though the jokes were bad, not jokes at all, I guess. We got pretty goofy, stupid-goofy. Some people went hysterical. Or dead quiet, like Greg, that poor guy from my history class. But he was practically mute to begin with; he just got muter. I was surprised at what happened to me.
You got hysterical, I bet.
At first, sort of. I felt this panic begin to rise in me. And rise. And rise. And then I got all reasonable, like, I’m only twenty. What the hell. I’m not married, I don’t have a kid. There’s no one depending on me. This is probably all right. Nobody will miss me for long. And then I was okay with it. I really was.
You’re kidding. That is weird.
Well, it was weird. But there it is. We kept walking anyway.
And you got out finally.
Yeah, finally. We were all dragging along, hungry, pretty chilled, and we felt something in the air. A rush, a sudden different kind of something. Cooler, newer air, with the smell of trees in it or old vegetation, something sweet and rotting. We looked up and saw the hole. The hole. And man, we were up that sucker in a flash.
Whoa, that’s way trippy, said Frances.
What I remember most, I told her, was the second I came out of there, when half of me was still sunk in the hole. It was night by then. That’s how long we were in that cave. It was raining like mad. I could make out a very thin line of trees, like something inked in then blurred by a brush, and the sky just a paler shade of the same dark color the earth was. Nothing impressive, not the sort of thing anyone in their right mind would want to paint.
But shit, there it was, Frances, the most fucking beautiful field of my life. There it was, I heard myself say again, like someone else was whispering those words to me.
We just sat there for a while, a few minutes at least. The people in a circle below, the ones who had probably downed some mescaline, were silent too, a couple or so hunched over, studying blades of grass, others lying back, staring with great attention into the leafy shade. I remember doing exactly that once, outside of Champaign in Allerton Park.
Well, Frances said, quite a story. Remind me never to go caving.
I’m sorry, I said. I thought you might want to know about it.
I understood she was in a better state of mind now, though I couldn’t think why I even told that story, why I thought it might answer something. It did have a semi-happy ending. Maybe that was it. As we liked to say later about any scary, unsettling movie that finally turns out okay, locked in a gladder place: it was pure Jane Austen.
No, it was good to hear that, she said. I’m into those fucking hopeless cases, the ones where all the parts come together at the end. I liked how you felt that wind, and smelled it. Trees and shit out there you couldn’t see yet. I guess sometimes it really is like that.
But I couldn’t stop. We never had a clue, I said, as if it needed a postscript, some big P.S. to underscore something. It was a surprise, I added needlessly. And kept sputtering like I couldn’t give it up, so kept saying these lame things. Because I wanted to stay in that terrible story, keep figuring what really happened down there in that netherworld. It was Frances who saved me from myself, changing the subject.
Look, we better split. We better hit the road.
So it’s Mill Valley, I said as Frances stood up, lifting her pack into place.