published in Volume 5, Issue 2 on June 1st, 1998The letter came on a Thursday two weeks before Memorial Day. After work, I held the mailbox's contents between my legs as I sped uphill to the house in my poop-brown subcompact. I had already read the return address on the only piece not bound for the recycler. I grinned.
It was from Houghton, Michigan. It was from Carl.
Carl Billings was one of my roommates senior year at a socially-okay midwestern college. Back then he thought correctly that a BS in chemistry would get him nowhere in the dim job market. His mother, who did not want Junior coming home to stink up the house with his patchouli and three year-old Chuck Taylors, agreed to help pay for his master's degree. He chose Michigan Tech because it was cheap, close to the wilderness, and far from the nearest DEA helicopter.
He got so stoned at his undergrad good-bye party that he forgot where he put the keys to his pickup and couldn't leave for Houghton until his mom mailed him the spare set. They were in Laura Kurp's apartment under Laura Kurp's underpants.
Carl always had the best drugs, and the best thing about Carl was his generosity. No apartment party was right without Carl's wafting Humboldt charms. All the guests marveled at the stuff and bit their lower lips in grief when Carl rebuffed their offers to buy. He was no pusher, he said, just guy with an overflowing baggy.
I deposited the heap of junk mail and bills next to the telephone and candled Carl's envelope egg-style against the setting sun coming through the kitchen window. The thing glowed various shades of orange, the darkest portions falling where the letter was thickest. The postage stamp was nearly opaque, as was a patch in the opposite corner.
"My man Carl, the mind reader," I muttered as I carefully tore off the stamped end of the envelope and held its open mouth over the beige kitchen counter. After a quick shake the prize fluttered out: two small attached squares of thick paper bearing two tiny but remarkably accurate images of the Starship Enterprise orbiting some strange, new world. I drooled.
With my sick voice the next morning I thanked Monica for her sure-shot flu cure. She knew that I wasn't really sick, but would submit the Sick Leave Request Form # 8855 to my boss, Personnel, and Payroll anyway. She knew I would reciprocate on the next sunny Friday. I put down the phone and cooked an egg.
Friday bloomed with promises of freedom and chemical joy. I planned to head for the beach, but, being new to the San Francisco Bay area, I didn't know exactly how. I had heard that the coast from Monterey to San Francisco was littered with them. After a moment's thought I decided to just load up the car and go, starting fifteen miles away, in Santa Cruz, then driving north, looking for beaches along Highway 1 until I found a secluded one. There I'd plant my towel, sit down with some beers, crack good book, and, a few miles from the mixing place of the first jug of Electric Kool-Aid, do the proper California thing by chemically going where no man has gone before.
Except that all my good books remained in storage after my move from Chicago two months ago, so I would have to stop for one in Santa Cruz.
After filling a cooler (something important enough to warrant dragging out of storage two months earlier) with ice and beers and stowing it in the tiny trunk of my tiny car, I fed the cat, drove past the mailbox back down the hill, and turned south onto the twisted asphalt that connects San Jose to Santa Cruz. Singing Gilbert and Sullivan out loud, I sped, determined to become the merriest of sun-and-otherwise-baked pranksters.
The Tome Home was the first book store I saw in Santa Cruz. It held a small window front next to a grocery store along Highway 1. Thinking it to be a common strip-mall top-seller-only type book joint, I almost passed it by. But on the way out of the grocery store I noticed a young bookseller pushing a knee-high cart of worn mysteries onto the sidewalk for quick sale.
I lost grip of my grocery bag. Two cans of beer hit the sidewalk at her feet. One popped and sprayed a thin stream of foam. With three pale fingers she picked up the unbroken one and put it back in its proper brown-paper home. "Here you go, clumsy." A yard away, she faced me. At that moment, every resident, tourist, and passer-through in Santa Cruz should have groped for sunglasses to shield their eyes from her smile's radiance.
"Appreciate it," I mumbled. I could tell she was looking straight at me, but assertiveness drew a blank and left me there, blushing. My shoulder blades felt like they were sweating from the inside. Sure any words would come out in stammers, I fled for the nearest shelter: an atlas the size of Poland in the reference aisle. She rummaged around the front counter for a rag.
My eyes peeked over the top of the olive leather-bound volume to absorb her form as I regrouped. I squinted at her dark brown hair over the Isle of Man. I dizzied at her legs as I flipped from Columbia to Cuba. When she finished the wiping up, she wheeled a second cart outside. Her eyes reflected midday sun through a pair of grandma glasses. Finished with her tasks, she took her spot behind a dark wooden desk beside the shop's front window.
I carefully worked my way to the classics section and picked out the first thing I that caught my eye. It turned out to be Huckleberry Finn, (Merry Prankster serial number 00001). Then, carefully inhaling, I approached the desk.
She had her feet up. Her chair worked as a recliner, allowing her thin green tank top to fall revealingly over her midriff. She put down a well-worn copy of an A.E. van Vogt book and looked up.
Shit. She reads science fiction.. Perfect!
The coffee's effects returned at that moment, and I found, despite my usual awkwardness around pretty people, that I could look her in the eye and speak without a stutter.
"I love van Vogt. Have you ever read The Weapon Shop?"
She stood up, bagged Huck, and drawled with a fading grin. "Van Vogt was a misogynist creepazoid and an L. Ron Hubbard butt-boy."
We stood in tepid silence for five seconds while I regretted my birth.
"The Weapon Shop, like most sci-fi, is patriarchal crap. That'll be seventy-five cents."
My face must have darkened as my eyes fell to my sneakers. I paid her and fled.
As I drove past the store on the way out of the parking lot, I paused to get a last look at the woman I'd scared away because I was, at least in her medium-green eyes, a male-chauvinist sci-fi-loving geek. She stood in the doorway with her arms folded, squinting at the highway.
But I was a prankster, dammit! There was a whole psychedelic day ahead of me. I would not let one glitch spoil my good time.
Except that the encounter had made me very horny, since I hadn't had a kiss since leaving the Midwest.
And she was just my type, nearly. She worked in a bookstore. She was beautiful and friendly, at least until my Mr. Spock side arrived and took over. Yes, she sent rabid ferrets down my backbone.
Then again I was a prankster who could forget about the coquette and plow on.
But why was she reading van Vogt if she didn't like the man? Gah.
It didn't take long for me to find a beach. The first one was a placid stretch of beige set against mottled rust-brown sandstone cliffs. Its problem came from its proximity to Santa Cruz: It was starting to fill, and the guy at the gate wanted four dollars for parking. (Pranksters don't pay for parking.)
I had similar luck with the next beach: serene water beside broad, sheltering cliffs. But the crowd looked a bit much. I saw buzz-stompers with whiny, litterbug kids and sooty charcoal grills as well as vapid types poised to ask for beer and suntan lotion. Above the sea spray, the place looked like a bad trip.
After ten more minutes of Highway 1, I reached a roadside niche labeled Bonny Doon. The sun lingered at its zenith; I was running out of time. The place would have to do.
I climbed over a large berm next to a narrow but deserted parking area. The wind there was severe, but the beach's raw good looks, invisible from the road, drew me in. Strangely and wonderfully, the beach was empty. As I descended a very steep bank the wind died. The beach curled around with the cliffs to form a sheltered cove. I dropped the cooler, placed my shoes on opposite corners of a red-and-white striped towel, and sat down. A quick breeze kicked up a little sand as I opened the cooler, and I had to spit out my first crunchy mouthful of beer. But the sun apologized. I sank into Twain.
Then, taking the tab from an empty cigarette pack, I wet-docked the Enterprise.
In college Carl had introduced me to the stuff with great care, knowing its powers could unbalance a steady personality. He handed me my first tab on as gorgeous a day as Wisconsin sees in June. We played guitar and walked for miles through the deciduous woods near the University at Madison campus as the trip set in. Over the entire five-hour hike we saw little more than a few students, several birds of prey, and a perhaps a dozen squirrels. Carl knew the area was mostly private during the summer and, in taking me there, made sure that a bad trip kept its distance. Coming down that night, we spoke softly on his uncle's urban back porch while splitting six-pack of Elk Deluxe.
Just after tagging the seventeenth page of Huck with a sweaty fingerprint, I heard people approaching. It proved to be a couple, fortyish, with a Sheltie they called Chump. A floppy hat half covered the woman's face as she threw a foot-long piece of sandy driftwood into the water and called out. Her tan sizzled. When Chump returned, the man put down a picnic basket, spread out an oversized purple towel and unfolded two nylon-webbed chairs. Then, after embracing wet dog and tanned woman at once, he took off his shirt, sandals, shoes, socks, shorts and boxers.
She reciprocated and smiled, inviting private moles onto melanoma's porch.
"Half the buzz comes from the placebo effect. Just knowing that you're tripping is a trip in itself. Respect the chemical, grasshopper," Carl had once told me. I respected it. Since that afternoon in a Wisconsin park with Carl, I had dropped acid only twice. Both times I was alone with no prospects of seeing anything or anyone that could send me down anxiety's gritty waterslide. Off work for four straight days, I made sure to have enough food, toilet paper, beer, and cigarettes to last a week so I wouldn't have to drive. I had a stack of Grateful Dead tapes and Mahler records. I disconnected the phone and unplugged the TV. Carl had taught me how to ride the chemical tsunami without getting wet.
On the beach this tsunami hadn't yet risen as I squinted at the naked pair in front of me. They were not hallucinations. Nor were the five bare oldsters that soon planted ten yards to my left. Before I could open my second beer, three extremely well-formed young men ran up and dropped their skivvies on the sand. I swallowed and grinned as my eyes fell on the woman with the dog. I reached for my sunglasses. On the leading edge of a trip that would keep me from escaping (by car at least), I had entrenched on my first nude beach. Not wanting to be some kind of freak, I dropped trow as well.
Then straight at me from nowhere came a woman's jarring voice: "I could tell you were coming here 'cuz you had sunscreen and weren't wearing any underpants." I hadn't noticed any chemical special effects until that moment, when I heard the bookseller's stark words in my right ear. "You know I was kidding about the van Vogt, right?" It came back. A stripe of pale wonder appeared in the corner of my eye. My eyebrows dove.
Suddenly it hit. My head filled with the sound of sand grains dropped one by one onto a sheet of rice paper. I became physically unable to speak. It was my tell, my way of knowing that the trip had begun. Anxiety ate my ego and burped. At the edge of consciousness I saw Carl shaking his head and canting in some would-be Sigmund Freud voice, "Das ist aber ein Bummer, dude. You are haffing einen bad Trip. Except that this wasn't that bad. I was just imagining the naked, flirtatious, Princess Charming next to me.
"Are you familiar with the phallic undertones of Huck Finn?" she asked, tilting her non-existent head. Not wanting to let on to the other bathers that I was experiencing the Pacific coast's most gorgeous hallucination, I turned my head only slightly to bring her into full view.
I put my beer aside and flipped onto my stomach.
The image sounded disappointed. "Well, I see we took our unfriendly pill this morning."
Minutes must have passed. It seemed like five, but tripping time is, well, different.
"Hello?" The vision scowled at me. Another pause inched by. Her slick lips slid against each other: "Well, you had your chance, Mr. Science Boy. Have a cool life." My eyes delicately swept her frame as my brain made her walk away.
Whew. Had the beachgoers seen me making a pass at a hallucination, they would have called for the big net, and pranksters don't eat without knives and forks.
Three or four beers went by before I had the courage to really look up again at the other bathers. The sun grew low, my skin pink, and the beach empty. An older gentlemen with a Celtic-knot tattoo smiled and waved a lighted joint at me. Two shaved, tough looking women pulled on tank tops before leaving. A small spot of green disappeared over a dune at the far side of the cove. Everything looked normal. My trip, a short one, was over. I spent an awkward moment pondering the proper way to rerobe after a naked day. Do the shorts go on first or the tee shirt? Should I wait for everyone else to leave? Is there a polite way to get this sand off my butt?
On the return trip I stopped at the Tome Home to catch a peek at the real thing. A thin young man in a black turtleneck stood behind the counter. I asked him about the woman with the grandma glasses. "Oh, you mean Jesse. Yeah, today was her last day. She's moving to Santa Monica or San Marcos or San Mateo or something like that." He couldn't remember which one.
The cat greeted me loudly at my front door. As I sped to the cupboard for the bag of Kitt'n Krunchies I saw Carl's letter next to the sink. On picking it up I found the yet-unread postscript page stuck to the inside of the envelope.
I read it.
I dropped the cat food. Tiny pieces of star-shaped soy protein found their way under the refrigerator and stove.
P.s.: Like the blotter? I got it from a comp-sci major buddy who made it on his very own color printer. Cool, eh? There's no acid on it, since things are kinda dry up here right now, but since you're a California dude now, I'm sure you'll find some Berkeley hippie chemist to soak it for you.
P.p.s: Getting any?