Duke Haney left Los Angeles sometime during the afternoon. Having struck out through the rain from the city bus, he was already soaked by the time he sat on the Greyhound.
I imagined Duke pinned up next to some Joe straight out of prison or a VA hospital. “Looks like we may be headed into snow,” he texted. I wondered if he at least had a window seat. Didn’t matter. It soon got dark. The bus probably reeked of wet clothes as it shot into the mountains.
Soon I would be headed to a bookstore. Duke was on his way to co-teach the Random Writers Workshop. He had written more than twenty films, and “Banned For Life,” a novel as dirty and raw as any bus ride over storm-soaked mountains.
I thought about our crossroads. He was Dead Generation—like me in a way: MTV sucked rebellious youth of the 80s. Rebellious and dead. No war back then, just rebels everywhere not even knowing what the hell they were angry at. We were all angry. Only I pictured Duke back then cursing at his television, telling Duran Duran to “fuck off,” while I was out buying U2’s “War”. Forget that new wave bands behind the scenes were friends of punks, or like the Go-Gos, who some say were wallowing in shit and dirty needles with Darby Crash before selling out. It was cool to be punk. But punks hated the mainstream. DIY, bitch.
I should have checked the weather. The Tejon Pass was closed. Duke’s bus was rerouted and the 4,190-foot Cajon Pass wasn’t looking much better. I tried to tell him to get off the bus in Lancaster. “What can I do? Bus doesn’t stop till Bakersfield,” he said.
Before I went to Russo’s Books, I prepared to read from Duke’s magnum opus. He was coming to talk about “setting.” I told him he’s a master of it. I flipped open to page 165. There was the imaginary Peewee and Jason under the big New York steel sky, on streets as bare and ashy as a fire-bombed market: The park itself was pitch-black, and some of the surrounding buildings were burnt-out hulks, and people would pass us with scarred faces or missing eyes…
I imagined the Greyhound caught in a snowy grey apocalypse in the dark. Barreling aluminum bullet. Duke unnerved, wanting to shove whoever sat next to him straight out into the night—the burned-out night of dead summer—and all those August ash clouds from raging LA fires still somehow caught swirling beneath thunderheads, finally tangling with frozen air and falling, drifting past Duke’s freezing bus window.
Inside the bookstore, a hodge-podge of chairs sat empty. I smiled at Jeannie Hart who soon sat with her laptop hanging wide open, her social commentary novel filleted like a prose fish, pages open and words like delicate guts and bones on her computer screen.
I lost hope. I couldn’t stop thinking about driving from Las Vegas to Bakersfield in 1998. The normal four-hour journey turned to thirteen because of the dead Cajon Pass. Time then had become near-frozen winter ants moving in slow motion. Flies, lethargic in the freezing air. You can catch them with your hands. That kind of time. And my mother dying in Bakersfield from an exploded aorta and I couldn’t reach her. DOA.
“I’ll let you know when and if we make it through the pass,” Duke said.
The chairs filled and I started talking about “setting” in fiction and film. I blah-blahed and there was Duke’s bus, barreling down the 58, shooting past the Mojave Spaceport—the current last frontier of everything—and then toward the hump of the Cajon covered in broken, burst windmills, and a cement factory in a field that could have doubled as the factory in “Outland” with Sean Connery. Even Jack Kerouac talked about that goddam cement factory, which sits across the freeway from apple orchards and the city of Tehachapi. And here was Duke on a bus, weaving through it all—the big bus bouncing down the freeway like a yo-yo pulled into the valley where Bakersfield sat like a wet baby, tugging it.
Here I was at the workshop talking about weaving characters and setting and action. I read some about storms from my own stormy book. Dust, rain, fog was even tempest-like. We all felt creepy.
And then just as if that baby gave one last huge tug toward the Great Central Valley, and the bus went tumbling through the air, Duke flipping out of it, here he came walking in. His torn orange hoodie and his gangster hat and blue clothes’, dulled by rain, and his face really looking starburnt, like he’d been somewhere, like he’d really slapped the cold out of his way hyperspacing to get somewhere.
Soon everybody was laughing. About fifteen of us. A guy I call Prose Junkie, and Patty Wonderly with her pink-tipped hair—her wolf book heavy on her heart. She was laughing too. And this was one of those blessed moments. The Nervous Breakdown, the Dead Generation, wet L.A. and wet Bakersfield streets and prose all smashed together.
I soon got Duke talking about movies. We talked about the famous death scene he wrote about a girl getting killed in her sleeping bag. “I used to fantasize about doing it [sleeping bag slaughter] to my sister because she annoyed me so much,” he said. We all roared and wondered why kids in horror films have a death wish. I secretly realized: They’re like writers, every one of those filleted kids in horror flicks. We do it to ourselves. We walk right into the goddam monster. The bus ride. Duke walking into the storm. Fucking idiots. Neither one of us checked the weather…
And just then, and afterwards when we all sat around at a restaurant eating, it all made sense, especially when Zara Potts called, her New Zealand accent sounding like it could have sprung flowers from Duke’s phone. She was right there for just a moment. Three points of the TNB generation flashing into a moment in time.