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Wisdom's Maw (a book excerpt) by Todd Brendan Fahey
published in Volume 3, Issue 1 on February 8th, 1996

Jack Kerouac stepped off the plane at San Francisco International, everything he owned in a rucksack, a scowl pinching his sunparched face. Raising his eyes to a stewardess, he started to say something but couldn't get the words out, and settled instead for an embarrassed shrug and the involuntary flapping of hands at his waist. The lights of the terminal hurt his eyes, which were moist in their sockets and rimmed in shades of vermillion. He lit a cigarette and shuffled slowly to the entrance of gate 42, where Neal and Carlo would be waiting for him, if they weren't still sucking each other's cock at Carlo's apartment, or off speeding God knows where, oblivious to the haggard traveler from Long Island with phlebitis in his legs and a heart so heavy it felt like it could sometimes damn near fall out through the stomach floor.

The writer grimaced as he pushed his way through a thicket of spades blocking the exit. Everywhere he looked, some foreigner, a Jew, sat savoring an evening in an America he used to have doing tricks for him through a hoop. He walked past a man in a turban and caught a waft of body odor so bad that he spun around and screamed at the man to take a bath or get out of his country, for Chrissakes. The man stared, saying nothing, until Jack waved him off, muttering something about being poor once, too.

Seeing only a seething, unfamiliar mass, he sped to a jog and ducked into the nearest cocktail lounge, where he tossed his sack under a barstool. "Y' gotta Jameson's with 'ol Jack's name on it?" he slubbered.

The bartender nodded slowly. "I've got forty two kinds of liquor, with blanks for just about every name in the book. Jack's as good as any, I guess."

Kerouac leaned forward. "Bet'cha never poured Jameson's for a living godblessed author."

The bartender set two ounces of whiskey down in front of Jack. "Last week I served a creme de menthe to Saul Bellow."

A flush of violet passed over Jack's stubbly jowls. He slapped his hand hard on the counter. "Saul Bellow, well, well! I wish I coulda been here, barkeep. You gotta tell me, was Saul with the other rabbis? Herbert Gold, maybe? Ha!" he bellowed, drawing stares from every direction. "Piss'n their creme de menthe. Another whiskey for the King o' the Beats!"

Carlo and Neal heard Jack raving from two gates away. By the time they reached the lounge, the bartender had cut off their friend's tab and was threatening to call security. Carlo pulled Jack off the stool, while Neal flung the heavy sack over a shoulder with a snap of his left wrist.

"H'lo Carlo, Neal," the dharma bum grinned sheepishly, staggering out into the terminal. "Guess I kinda made a fuss back there, huh?"

Neal Cassady was nursing one of his long silences. He walked with Jack and Carlo, bobbing his head every so often until reaching the parking lot, where Jack laid a sodden stare on a mint condition two-toned Hudson, complete with spare tire affixed to the trunk.

"Thought you said you was broke," Jack gaped. "Damn, that's a beeeuuuuuutiful machine, where'd you steal her from?"

Neal said nothing, just nodded and shrugged.

"We put a down payment on it Friday," Carlo answered. "Neal got a small settlement from the railroad for ruining his thumb."

Jack looked down and noticed for the first time a huge dirty bandage covering half of Neal's right hand. The tape was unraveling, and a section flapped against his wrist.

"He broke the thumb at the nail. Infection set in," Carlo frowned. "Neal's pace isn't conducive to injury, I'm afraid."

Neal pointed at a tube in the breast pocket of Carlo's shirt.

Carlo shook his head. "You've had enough already, Neal. You're wired." Then he offered a tab to Kerouac, who hesitated briefly, before popping it into his mouth.

"This isn't going to be some big queer session, is it?" Kerouac muttered. "I don't go in for that stuff anymore. Wasn't big on it to begin with, y' know."

"I know, Jack," Carlo nodded, and began the drive down the coast.

Jack stared out at the water, feeling the amphetamine course through his veins--a chill that ran clear through to his fingertips. The late October surf smashed against the cliffside, turning to foam, then out again, gaining strength to beat down upon the jagged rocks. Jack rolled down his window. The frigid air whipped his overheated forehead and snapped his neck back stiffly. He inhaled deeply, but instead of sea salts drew in a stinking, vaporous iodine so vile he grabbed at the handle and reeled the window up furiously. The scent he kept to himself, but the reaction sucked him down into the passenger seat and saw him pulling his coat tightly around his chest as Carlo sailed down Pacific Coast Highway, dragging heavily on a joint and bobbing his head to a John Coltrane riff blasting out of the radio in the dash.

Neal straightened up from the back seat, pushing his head over Carlo's shoulder. "Can you hear it? The reed vibrating so perfectly, so acutely aware of the moment, not the past or what's going to be two seconds from now, but NOW, right this very heavenly second, when the tongue and the teeth come in contact with that stiff li'l reed and BLEEEEEEAAAAAUUUUUUWWWW!!!"

Jack Kerouac smiled for the first time in many weeks. "Good to have y' back, Neal, you crazy angel."

Neal patted Jack on the shoulder and kissed him fast on the cheek. "Never gone, m'friend, just restrained from the spoken element of the moment. Every once in a while even a motormouth like your's truly needs a li'l calm and respite in his life."

Jack reached down into his sack and grabbed a bottle of whiskey by the neck and gulped down the last two or three ounces. "Know've a good liquor store 'round here, Carlo? Looks like I'm outta sust'nance."

Carlo shook his head. "Try some of this," he smiled, passing him a joint.

Jack shrugged several times, then began to whimper. "Oh...c'mon, pal. I'd score you a lid if you ran out of smoke. Y' know I would. C'mon, I'll just be in and out. Look, I've got my own money," he nodded, pulling out his wallet and flashing two hundred dollars in crumpled bills. "I just cashed my check from Esquire for the piece I wrote on what's left of us Beats."

Carlo smiled but kept driving as the Hudson sped smoothly down the California coastline, thick masses of fir enveloping the hillside toward Big Sur.

Neal leaned up and over Jack, sticking his broken Roman nose out the window. "Heaven can't smell much better than this, m'friends. And in fact, it would not surprise me one tiny iota to find at the inevitable moment that the Pearly Gates open up right here to where it is we're going. What about it, Carlo?"

Carlo chuckled, mumbling something about a poem in Neal's primitive Christian instincts: "`A Heaven on Earth, and Its Name is Big Sur,'" Carlo giggled.

To Jack it felt like Hell. Every so often, he would dig deep into his sack, just to see if he might have smuggled some lone mini-bottle from the airplane. Defeated, he finally took the joint from the ashtray and began frantically sucking its marrow. The station on which Coltrane was blowing his horn fell to static in the fog of the wriggling coastal highway. Jack tried not to hear Carlo and Neal laughing at him, or notice the big, sinister trees at the sides of the road, like something he had seen once as a child under a high fever, gnarled, hairy arms stretching over and fondling the stolen Hudson, dropping bits of nature's filthy decay onto the windshield.

"Hurryup," Jack grimaced. "There's cops all over this road. One look at us, and we're on the inside fr'at least a week."

"Alright, Jack," Carlo said calmly, sensing Kerouac's desperation. "We're almost there."

Neal put his hands on his old friend's shoulders and began rubbing them, filling Jack with nausea at the memory of his sporadic homosexual encountersnights of stoned youth, stumbling back to some grungy North Beach rooming house he had shared with his road partner, full of wine and gage and the tender euphoria of Neal Cassady fucking him in the ass. Jack pushed Neal's hands aside and crouched forward into a rumpled ball.

The Hudson pulled to a soft dirt trail and came to a stop in front of a rambling, splintered cabin. "Ours for the weekend, Jack. Isn't she lovely?"

Sack clutched tightly in his fist, Jack bounded out of the Hudson and stretched his legs, breathing the fragrant mists of Bixby Canyon. A bluejay hopped down a thick bough and began screeching at him. He cringed and ran into the unlocked shack and almost over a stately, silver-haired man who sat in the livingroom, drinking a glass of port. The man recoiled upon seeing his friend's bloated red face.

"Jack!?" he smiled, an eyebrow raised askance.

The traveler nodded distractedly, then began rifling through the kitchen cupboards for something stronger than wine.

Carlo and Neal entered the cabin, whereupon the former apologized to Harve Serengeti for their friend's general lack of decorum. "He's in terrible shape, Harve. I hope he won't ruin your taste for hospitality."

Serengeti shook his head and was silent for a long moment, watching helplessly as Jack poured more than a pint of whiskey down his throat. He loved Jack. They all loved Jack. Crowds of noisy street-poets in front of his Holding Hands bookstore in 1954 filled Serengeti's memory. Carlo standing full of nerves and wine, letting out for the first time the majestic stanzas of Growl, the unruly audience falling into an anxious calm. In the stillness, Jack had raised his jug of burgundy, and began chanting, "Go, Go, Go..." And then Neal intertwined his own methedrine rap, and within minutes Harve Serengeti was host to the birth of a revolution--Carlo Marx stripping off his white tunic and dancing naked at Broadway and Columbus, dozens of pipes sending a pungent cloud high into the air and into the straight world only a street away, and Jack, sweet Jack, clapping so oblivious, and not one policeman intervened.

"How long has he been like this?"

Carlo shrugged and shook his head. "He's been living with his mother on Long Island since '61. He doesn't speak to anyone. It's really nearly a miracle that something in Neal's letter got him out of the house."

Jack screwed the cap back on the bottle, smiling through a bleary mask, then hugged Serengeti tightly around his shoulder. "Don't worry, 'arve, I'll pick up a coupl'a replacements. Jack's no freeloader, y'know. Not like Neal," he spat. "When'sa last time you paid fr'yrown liquor, Neal? Bought y'rown pills? Huh!? Nobody ever called Jack a freeloader, no, no."

"I think it's time for some food," Harve whispered. "I thought we'd go the café at Nepenthe."

Neal shuffled through his pockets, then scratched his chest. "I'll...yass...stick around and watch the house, Harve. How a-bout that?"

"Let's go, Neal," he nodded. "I'm sure there's a couple times I never paid you for watching my store. We'll call it even with dinner."

Neal's head bobbed spasmodically, his face brightening as he threw one arm around Harve and the other around Kerouac. "I know you don't mean it, Jack. You've been, and will always be, my brother."

Jean Louis Kerouac sobbed quietly and continuously from Serengeti's cabin to the restaurant, wiping the tears furtively and frequently on the sleeve of his flannel shirt. The cafe at Nepenthe reminded him of an old wine-and-coffeehouse in North Beach, where he used to write for blocks of ten hours at a clip, after cracking open a couple benzedrine inhalers and dumping the camphorous strips into a cup of black Turkish coffee. Neal would come over to his table all excited, pointing out the shortest skirts, and Jack would shoo him off like a dungfly with his left hand, still pounding out fifty-words a minute with his right. He finished On the Road in twelve days. That was 1952. Now his stomach turned just thinking about that nasty paper.

A cluster of long-haired men sat laughing and passing a joint around their table on the sundrenched redwood deck. "Bet they're communists," Jack mumbled to himself. "That, or fairies."

A table was waiting for Serengeti near a window which overlooked a forest of thick scented pines. Neal nodded appreciatively, rubbed his stomach and squeezed Serengeti by the bicep. Harve patted Neal's shoulder and smiled.

Kerouac refused a menu from the waitress. "A fifth of Canadian Club and a bucket'o ice," he growled.

Carlo leaned forward. "How about a hamburger, too?"

Jack crouched in his chair, grimacing. "Quit looking at me! All I want'sa goddamn bottle of whiskey! Jeez, y'racting like Mom."

Carlo started to say something, but Harve waved him off. "There's nothing anyone can do," he smiled thinly.

Jack nodded his head furiously. "Thass right. Nothin' anyone can do f'r'ol' Jack. Pity don't work, can't get any respect from the critics--the Jews. Y'wanna know how much I made last year? Huh?"

Serengeti lifted his shoulders in an embarrassed shrug, but said nothing.

"Eighteen hundred dollars, thass what! Nobody buys my books anymore. Kids steal 'em, the Jews call 'em trash. Say I'm a imbecile, brain's gone soft," Jack shouted, his eyes full of tears. "I just got so tired of waiting, 'arve. Took the Jew bastards five years to figger out On the Road was some kind'a genius. They said they couldn't take it, 'cause it was written on a big roll of teletype paper. Said it looked like a salami. Said it was weird. Five years. A man loses part of his spirit wait'n 'round that long," he whispered, raising the glass to his lips. "Gotta get some comfort somewhere."

After dinner, Carlo rubbed his huge beard, then his tummy, and told the men of his standing invitation at the Esalen Institute, and of its 24-hour redwood hot tub. Jack shrugged and nodded, breaking into something of a smile. The Hudson rolled south down Highway 1 about seven miles, then fell abruptly down a steep driveway overlooking the great, rippling blackness of the Pacific. Esalen availed itself as a week-long session in self-discovery to those who could afford it. But neighbors said strange drugs were used; there were hints of orgies, and muted howling could be heard on clear nights.

Carlo looked at his watch and walked into the lodge at 9:45 p.m., where he recognized Milosz Grosz, the Czech émigré who served as Esalen's staff therapist. The poet approached the doctor with a smile, hand outstretched. "We met last year at a symposium for the American Academy of Psychedelic Therapy," Carlo said.

Dr. Grosz nodded distractedly. "Of course. You are poet-revolutionary with unfortunate surname."

Carlo laughed loudly and clapped his hands. "Maybe some day no one will need names. Tonight I've brought some friends, and we'd like to make use of the hot tub, if--"

Dr. Grosz shook his head. "Make yourself comfortable." He took notice of the three companions, then turned again to Carlo. "You must excuse me. I have work. A pleasure to meet you again, Mr. Marx." The doctor trotted into a conference room, closing the door solidly behind him. General William Creasy sat at the head of the oblong table, surrounded by most of the staff of Project MK-ULTRA. "Most unusual visit, General," he said. "Two of the famous Beat writers wish to bathe in our tub."

The word "Beat" snapped Creasy's head upright from where it had hung over a pile of clinical profiles. "Who?!"

"The poet Carlo Marx and three of his friends. I know only Mr. Kerouac, not the others."

Creasy giggled like a child on his fifth Twinkie. "Doc, do we have any LSD on the premises?"

Dr. Grosz shuffled in his seat.

"Get it," Creasy grinned. "And give it to every one of them. Slip it in their drinks. I want to see what happens."

The doctor hedged.

"Goddamnit, I've been left out of the loop for nine years now, and I demand to see results."

Dr. Grosz left his seat and picked up a phone in the corner of the room. After some whispering, he cradled the receiver and returned to the table. "I will leave before it takes effect. I do not approve of this type of practice."

Creasy waved off his complaints, and returned to a thin folder. "You've studied the file, doctor. What can we expect from Franklin Moore?"

Dr. Grosz opened a copy of the chart from the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital. Nodding slowly, an upturned crease developed in the center of his gaunt face. "Young Mr. Moore is amazing patient. He possesses almost perfect control under tremendous psychological strain. His verbal and mathematical skills while under LSD-25 are the highest I have ever had the pleasure of analyzing. Will you have him as part of your government, perhaps? He is born leader."

General Creasy smiled. "He'll be well-placed, doctor. Thank you for your concern."

"If that is all," Grosz nodded, "I will retire to my bungalow. I wish to know nothing of the activities of Mr. Marx and his friends," he frowned, then slipped out a side door and walked in the moonlight through a thicket of trees to his cabin.

Carlo, Harve and Neal each slid completely out of their clothes and into the hot tub, leaving Jack in a well-worn pair of boxers, pacing back and forth in indecision. His bloated stomach stood as grim testament to years of excess--no longer the stocky athletic build of his football years at Columbia, but almost corpselike in its advanced state of putrefaction. He coughed violently, registering to the painful spasms in his gut. Before a handsome waiter could kneel to serve the men in the tub, Jack swiped a glass of wine from the tray.

"Compliments of Esalen," the waiter shrugged.

Carlo smiled back at the man, winking through his heavy black frames. "Care to join us?"

The waiter issued a professional apology, placed a stack of oversized towels on a chair, then disappeared inside the lodge, leaving Carlo somewhat anguished.

"It's hell getting old," he said. "I used to be able to attract the loveliest menall over the world. I remember in Tangier--"

Neal moved closer and laid his head on Carlo's hairy chest. "I'll help you out, if you need it, old friend. Can't count the times you've parted your various orifices for me in my times of desperate carnal need."

Harve smiled at the two, then excused himself to savor his wine on a reclining deck chair, wrapping himself in a towel. Jack had polished off his glass in two gulps and was looking fruitlessly around for more. He finally sat down beside his patron and publisher.

"Bright little buggers," Jack said, staring up at the crowded, blinking sky. "Feels like they're talking to me," he giggled. "`H'lo up there. H'lo...whadd'ya think they're trying to tell me, 'arve? Must be pretty important, for all the chatterin' they're doin'. Look at 'em."

Harve Serengeti stared at Jack Kerouac, then into his own wine glass, feeling the trees beginning to come alive...the sounds of the ocean more restless as the LSD entered his brain. "It's okay, Jack. Have fun with it," he said, then whispered to Carlo and Neal, who were heating up the tub. "Do you feel something? I think our drinks are salted."

Carlo smiled, his head resting back upon the lip of the redwood tub, Neal's bandaged hand pumping vigorously beneath the water's surface. "Oh, yeah. I feel everything."

Jack continued to talk back to the stars, his mind racing from one delirious tangent to the next, trying to make sense of the insanity that had overcome him without warning. "Yeah, well, whadd'you know!" he shouted to the sky. "V'you ever been lonely? Fuck you! Not like them. Was never a communist, thass who's after Jack. It's 'cause I won't lay down for the Reds, like m'friend Carlo. Makes 'em mad. Well, fuck 'em every one of 'em!!" he shrieked.

Jack dropped his head and shrugged to Harve, who was paralyzed as equally by the acid in his own drink as he was by the chemical schizophrenia to which he was bearing witness in one of his oldest friends. Jack stripped off his shorts and walked toward the hot tub. He swayed uncertainly at the steps, then stepped back in horror as thin strands of sperm floated to the surface and Carlo sighed and Neal hopped out of the tub with a hard-on.

"Goddamn fruits, m'best friends are fruits. Everyone's got it out for Jack...aaaAAAUUUGGGGHHH!!!!" he whinnied, gripped in a terrified dementia. His clothes clutched wrinkled in his paw, the Beat avatar ran up the driveway and out onto Pacific Coast Highway, and kept running.

Neal stood puzzled, oblivious to the nature of the foreign sensations in his body and head. "What spooked him?"

Ten minutes later, the lights of Neal's Hudson flooded the shoeless, stumbling, and dazed form of Jack Kerouac. Tight in his grip was an almost empty quart of whiskey, which he finished off while blinking at the Hudson from a shoulder of the road. Carlo jerked him by the wrist into the back seat, where he belched what smelled to be the essence of his bile duct.

"How 'bout it, Carlo? How 'bout a blowjob, f'r'ol Jack," he sputtered, unzipping his pants and pulling out his organ. "One f'r the road. HA, HA, HA...haacckkksshhppt," he chortled, coughing up a thick wad of mucus. "Put'cher head right down 'ere'n do what'cha do best. C'mon. I'm old and fat, and haven't had a decent girl for years. Juss whores. Whadd'ya say, Carlo?"

"You're drunk and you're sick, Jack. You should be drying out in a hospital with healthy food and some rest."

Jack scoffed, calling Carlo various derivatives of "cocksucker," until they arrived at Harve's cabin, where the rest of the group went immediately to sleep to distance themselves from the odious presence.

When they woke the next morning, a great form sat slumped over a kitchen table littered with at least two gallons' in empty bottles, including the cheap sauterne Harve normally used for marinating the local trout. The body twitched uncontrollably and the mouth whispered unceasingly about pain and all manner of death, the eyes wide like half-dollars. Harve gave Jack a big glass of water and half of a mild tranquilizer, then carried him over to the sofa and sat down and cried as the dharma bum fell asleep.

At five o'clock that evening, Harve Serengeti drove a groggy Jack Kerouac to the airport and deposited him onto a plane back to Long Island. "Try not to let him drink," Harve said to the stewardess. "He's a sweet man, but he has no control."

Jack nodded and shrugged, held his friend briefly, then left California sick, desperate, a word, beat.

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