The Less Than Merry Pranksters
Kesey, who was at the far end of the room, walked his barrel of a body straight over, pulled out a chair for me, and said, “Well HELLO. What do we have here? A triple A tootsie.” It was the first time I’d seen him not in a photo or at some Oregon literary event. The closer he came, the more nauseous I felt. But when he got right up to me, I could see the former wrestler in his shoulders and chest. His face was moon pie round, his cheeks vividly veined and flushed, puffy with drink. His hair seemed like cotton glued in odd places on a head. His smile: epic. His eyes were transparent blue. Like mine.
While everyone was laughing about the tootsie remark he leaned down and whispered in my ear, “I know what happened to you. Death’s a motherfucker.”
In 1984, Kesey’s son Jed, a wrestler for the University of Oregon, was killed on the way to a wrestling tournament when the team’s bald-tired van crashed. My baby girl died the same year. Close to my ear, he smelled like vodka. Familiar.
He handed me a flask and we got along and bonded quickly the way strangers who’ve seen aliens can. That’s all it took. No one ever questioned me, least of all Kesey. It was brilliantly incomprehensible to me. I loved it.
I was 25.
At a reading at U of O during that year Kesey stood on a table and screaming into the microphone “Fuck You, god, Fuck You!” The crowd of about 500 burst into cheers. He believed in spectacle. In giving people the show.
My distinguishing characteristics felt like tits and ass and blond. Sexual things. All I had.
In the winter of the year of Kesey we all went to his coast house near Yachats together. A run down old place with wood paneling, a crappy stand up shower, a table with some chairs, and no heat. But the front windows looked out onto the ocean. And of course the rooms were filled with Kesey. We drank, we walked on the beach, we listened to Kesey stories. Look I’d tell you the stories but you already know them. And he’d say the same ones over and over again. We were, simply put, a pile of new ears. At the coast house we listened to stories about Tim Leary and Mason Williams and Jerry Garcia and Neal Cassady. At the coast house we got high, some of us fucked some others of us, we wrote in little notebooks. We slept on the floor in sleeping bags. We waited for something to happen.
It wasn’t until the following year, the year that was not the collaborative writing class, the year after the book we wrote that was not very good came out that made me feel like we’d utterly failed Kesey, the year after he’d ended up in the Mayo clinic for his affair with his lover, vodka, we met once at his coast house by ourselves.
That night he boiled water and cooked pasta and dumped a jar of Ragu on it and we ate it with bent old forks. We drank whiskey out of tin cups. He told life stories. That’s what he was best at. Me? I didn’t have any stories. Did I? When it got dark he lit some crappy looking ancient candles. We sat in two wooden chairs next to each other looking out at the moonlit water. I distinctly remember trying to sit in the chair older and like I had been part of history. Which amounted to extending my legs out and crossing one ankle over the other and crossing my arms over my chest. I looked like Abe Lincoln.
Then he said, “What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you in your life?”
I sat there like a lump trying to conjure up the best thing that had ever happened to me. We both already knew what the worst thing was. Nothing best had happened to me. Had it? I could only answer worst. I looked out at the ocean.
Finally I said, “Swimming.”
“Why swimming?” he said, turning to look at me.
“Because it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at,” came out of my mouth.
“That’s not the only thing you are good at.” And he put his huge wrestler writer arm around me.
Fuck. This is it. Here it comes. His skin smelled . . . well it smelled like somebody’s father’s skin. Aftershave and sweat and whiskey and Ragu. He’s going to tell me I’m good at fucking. He’s going to tell me I’m a “tootsie”—the nickname he’d used on me the year of the class. And then I’m going to spread my legs for Ken Kesey, because that’s what blond clueless idiots do. I closed my eyes and waited for the hands of a man to do what they did to women like me.
But he didn’t say any of those things. He said, “I’ve seen a lot of writers come and go. You’ve got the stuff. It’s in your hands. What are you going to do next?”
I opened my eyes and looked at my hands. They looked extremely dumb. “Next?” I said.
“You know, in your life. What’s next?”
I didn’t have a plan. I had grief. I had rage. I had my sexuality. I liked books more than people. I liked to be drunk and high and fuck so I didn’t have to answer questions like this.
When I got home I cut all the hair off on the left side of my head, leaving two different women looking at me in the mirror. One with a long trail of blond half way down her back. The other, a woman with hair cropped close to her head and with the bone structure of a beautiful man in her face.
I never saw Kesey again. His liver failed and he got Hepatitis C. In 1997 he had a stroke. Later he got cancer and died. But I’m of the opinion he drowned.
There are many ways to drown.