A Vietnam era veteran must choose between letting the remains of his marriage decay or trying to resurrect them one last time and recover his once carefree love, before the draft intervened. He hitchhikes across the country seeking support from friends he met on Adak, a desolate cold war outpost, where Seabees bravely defended their country with joints and LSD. Along the road he confronts Texas Rangers, amorous witches, new age cults, and a host of lonely losers and good Samaritans, all offering their own paths to redemption. The story is seeped in hippie optimism, Vietnam Era tensions, revolving relationships and drug-induced fantasies.
Here are the first few pages of the completed novel.
No sooner did I decide to hitchhike to California than I got a surprise call from Rick Winwood, one of my buddies from the Navy. He was in Boston, up from Texas to deliver a load of Mexican marijuana. He would swing through Binghamton in a few days. Did he want company on his drive back to Fort Worth? You bet. Hanging up the phone I was already gone, off on my first lucky ride, a thousand miles of interstate from my wife Ronnie’s affair with her boss.
Rick pulled up in front of our apartment, the top floor of a rundown triplex, on a Wednesday evening. The family of Jesus freaks who lived below us was already asleep, but I saw Grandma Roller peeking through her bedroom curtains when I went out to help him unload. There wasn’t much to witness that night: just Rick in his blue jeans, unbuttoned white shirt, three empty Coke cans in one hand, his wild, thick blonde hair flopping over his John Lennon glasses and scruffy, pale beard. He leaned over the trunk to drag out his Navy issue duffel bag stuffed with marijuana and dirty laundry.
The hood of his old ’64 Ford steamed under the street lamp, its red paint flaked off from the heat, revealing the gray primer underneath, as if it had been driven through licks of fire. I listened to the faint cracks of metal and escaping air as the huge machine began to cool. Made to run hard, with hot forged steel, thick joints and beams, a car to drive all night long. Rick could tell I was ready to leave right then, but he wanted a bed and a smoke. We were quiet, not to wake the rest of the neighbors, but we shook hands and hugged like brothers, spilling his Coke cans on the soggy lawn. One of the things that always impressed me about Rick was how he could chug a Coke with one gulp, smile, and ask for another, his one bigger‑than‑life Texas habit.
“Hey Flash, good to see you out of the suck,” he said.
My friends called me Flash because of my uncanny good luck and because I was often slow to make decisions. I liked to check all the angles, as if my life were plotted on one vast astronomy chart. Rick glanced up at the porch.
“Ronnie’s working late tonight, but she should be home soon.”
Rick and I retreated to our rusty kitchen table, eating ginger snap cookies and drinking a pot of deep black coffee brewed in the electric percolator, our only luxury, purchased at a discount from my dad’s company store. I retrieved a bottle of Tang from the cupboard.
“Remember all that Tang we drank when we were stoned?” Rick asked, recalling the time we were stationed together on Adak in the remote Aleutian Islands.
“The official beverage of astronauts.” I stirred a heaping spoonful into a jelly glass and downed it, smacking my lips.
I cleared space on the table and lined up baggies in front of my chemist’s scale while Rick retrieved my pound of Mexican from his duffle bag. “How about $105?” he asked. “My Seabee discount.”
“The best GI benefit,” I nodded, calculating how I could sell ounces for twenty and finance my trip with the proceeds.
We dumped the pound out of the large freezer bag and admired the brick’s silver rectangular shape, a loaf of dope wound in duct tape. I tore off the tape. The weed had an earthy smell, one tangled dark mass with flecks of mold. We broke up the clumps and threw away the big sticks, some of them thick as pencils, and most of the seeds. We made sure each ounce was equal and good count. The pound weighed out 15 1/2 ounces, not bad for a Mafia score.
“I’ll make up the difference,” Rick said. “It’s not like I’m short of dope.”
“Nah, we’ll probably smoke the difference before we hit Texas.”
Rick rolled a joint from his private stash of well over a pound of sifted marijuana packed in a clear plastic bag like the one we just emptied, large enough to store a turkey. We assessed the character of Rick’s weed like Ivy Leaguers tasting daddy’s wine.
“Smokes dry,” Rick said. “Has a nutty taste.”
“Good quality,” I squeaked in my high hit-holding voice.
“No distinctive bouquet.”
“Table dope,” I said.
When Rick headed for the shower, I took the dog outside. I had liked Bobo better when he was a puppy before Ronnie countermanded all my attempts to train him. She claimed he was a free spirit with all the inherent rights of existence, and it was not our place to discipline him; he should answer to his own being, not what we wanted him to be. He was his own dog. And ever true to his own sense of purpose, he raced for the neighbor’s garbage can as soon as I let him loose. Bobo gathered his momentum and launched himself like a canine Evel Kneival, a small white and black stunt dog, hurling himself over the rim, expertly catching the edge and tipping the can. Before I caught him, he had torn a hole in the plastic garbage bag and pulled out a chicken carcass that smelled worse than anything I could imagine. He growled ferociously and shook it back and forth. I finally managed to grab his collar and drag him back to the clothes line while I collected the remains of his feast.
I stood up from the pail of garbage and scanned the overcast sky beyond the streetlights, trying to catch a fresh breeze to chase the putrid odor of rotting potatoes, sour coffee grounds and blackened hamburger packages. Spring was oozing down the hillside, and the wind smelled of dead leaves and wet mud, a mildewed smell. Under the thickest stands of spruce the dirt was still frozen in an icy crust, though it was the first week of May. The sky never brightened, but it seldom rained, just a dreary intermittent mist changing to snow if the temperature dropped. Only a few buds had cracked on the trees, and the pale gray branches merged into the gray canopy of sky. I wondered if the trees and flowers would ever bloom.
For our converted triplex, ugly in any season, it was the worst time of year. Without the seasonal blankets of snow or leaves, the old house revealed its poor upkeep. A large farm house successively remodeled by generations of handy men, it sprawled up and back from the street like the abandoned shells of a colony of mussels. Green shingles of varying shades from moss to canned spinach covered the roof. Looking over the old farmhouse apartments and the gray sky made me want to leave all the more and head south, where it was sure to be warmer and brighter, and then west to the sparkling Pacific.
While I had waited for orders to Alaska, Ronnie and I had lived on the beach in Ventura, where my friend Jack now lived. We spent most nights on the warm sand watching plankton erupt in neon tubes of blue light, spreading across the breakers, only to fade, like an idea you can’t quite articulate. Then the blue would ignite again and spread across the next wave and the next, a strange, ethereal presence.
Spying my neighbor’s light, I decided David would be my first sale. I found him lying back in the Lazy Boy recliner he had salvaged from Volunteers. David was about my height and just as thin, with a sharply chiseled face and rough complexion. His hands were wide and strong, with calluses and blackened scratches from his night job fixing cars. He carried himself with an air of mystery, which had to do with his tour in Vietnam, but he only mentioned it late at night when he might recall the hot mud or the superior smoke. The skinny joints he rolled were holdovers from Southeast Asia, but given the quality of the Mexican marijuana we usually scored in Binghamton, each one was only about as intoxicating as a Camel.
I rolled a thick joint. After a few tokes, David’s expression turned serious. “Ronnie told Janey she’s not happy about your trip.”
I took a hit and held it, shrugging my shoulders. David’s wife Janey and Ronnie were fast friends, closer than David and me.
“She says you’re leaving her with no money.”
“She can take care of herself.” I waved the joint, trying to read David’s blank expression to see how much he knew about Ronnie and her boss Mr. Bardeen skipping lunch most days to rock and roll in the backseat of Bardeen’s family Buick. “So what about the smoke?”
David was a tough sell, but I knew he would bend. He bought a quarter pound for $60. I rolled another joint to seal the bargain, a thin one this time.
“Seriously, Flash, if Ronnie needs anything, all she has to do is ask. She’ll be up there by herself.”
I paused at the door. “You could help her sell some weed if I don’t sell it all.” We agreed he could have an ounce in payment if he sold three for Ronnie, and if our old Plymouth broke down, he’d fix it for free.
Back in our apartment Rick and I finished off the pot of coffee, waiting for Ronnie. About eleven she appeared clutching a bag of Mother’s Ginger Snaps, my favorite, replenishing our supply. She wore the brown plaid poncho she had worn since college, which always made her look sexy, hanging down to her thin waist and accenting her full breasts and long legs. Her pixie haircut had grown long and untrimmed, and the tips brushed her shoulders. Tilting her head in the questioning smile she often used, she held out her hand to Rick. Although she appeared athletic, her manner was careless and unpracticed, as if she might slip at any moment. Rick reflexively leaned in her direction as I often did.
I felt my pulse click up a beat. This was the old Ronnie, the one I thought of as Ronnie the Rebel, the carefree woman I fell in love with, not the woman who now worried about our impending lack of money once the GI checks ran out. We had one more check coming for the semester and I had plenty of time to find a summer job when I came back from California, if I decided to come back.
To be continued….