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.

Who.

Am.

I.

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.



JC: I met Eric Rickstad a few weeks back, when he started following me on Twitter, believe it or not. I read his fantastically brutal book Reap something like a decade ago and, if you are into stories in the Tom Franklin – Poachers – Donald Pollack – Knockemstiff – Russell Banks – Affliction mode you ought to go ought and find a copy. When you read the County Fair scene you’ll be happy you did.

Here’s what Eric had to say about what turned him into a reader and writer.

When We Fell In Love – Eric Rickstad

I could make a good long list of crushes that come close to the real thing, but in the end rise only to the equivalent of steamy backseat makeout sessions. Writers who moved me in one way or another, that made me want to do what they did: stir readers with images conjured with words. It was magic. Mystery. The writers who strike me most don’t make me want to just keep reading them, they make me want to put their book down and write.

I could go back to Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World or Stephen King’s Night Shift, Poe or O’Connor’s collections. If you’d asked me in third grade, I suppose I would have said I loved the Encyclopedia Brown series. The Great Brain. There were the serious affairs with Hemingway and Faulkner and Welty and the experimentations with Kesey and Vonneguet and Philip Dick, JG Ballard… the list is long. I’ve since fallen for Proulx and McCarthy and Deb Eisenberg. But, as Robert Hayden wrote in his poem “Those Winter Sundays”:What did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?

When I truly fell in love with a writer I was in a beat up convertible 1970 VW Bug, primer gray, my sister’s boyfriend’s prize possession. It was the summer of 1978 and the writer was not a novelist, or a short story writer, or a poet. Not technically. Though his words resonated with more life and romance and tragedy and pain and moodiness than anything I’d ever read. His stories were the best I’d found, told with a conviction that reached me even at the age of 12. I fell in love with storytelling, and the urge to tell my own stories the second my sister’s boyfriend popped in the 8 track of Born to Run and I heard the first few notes of “Thunder Road” and then the lyrics

The screen door slams/ Mary’s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

I saw Mary. I saw her dress. I felt her aloneness. The narrator’s aloneness and desperation and sincerity. As the album continued, I felt the earnestness and vulnerability and fleetingness of youth and love and promises. I felt the hot sun and the dark nights. The complete freedom simply of driving with no place to go. The windows rolled down. I’d never yet even lived any of this myself. But the words, more than the music, reached me. The pain in them. The lust and sadness. The struggle. The triumph. The loss. I did not know then but I see now that album connected with me because of a sense of loss in myself, but also the need to search. My father had left my mom and three sisters and me when I was eight and that void was filled by Springsteen’s words somehow. I bought the album and I played it over and over and over again. And I’d crack it open, the jacket was one that opened, with the lyrics on the inside of the cover, and I’d read as I listened. Each song was a short story unto itself. They conjured vividly and concretely images that haunted me. I did not know who Springsteen was. I was too young to know about his stint on TIME and Newsweek  in the same week or of his carrying the mantle of Dylan. Hell I didn’t even know who Dylan was. But imagery like

Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge / Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain

Or

The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all / They just stand back and let it all be

Or from the song “Backstreets”:

Remember all the movies, Terry we’d go see / Trying in vain to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be / When after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest…

they cut to the quick with the spare beauty and lyricism and simple truths.

For my money, no short story, not Joyce’s “Araby” or Updike’s “A&P” or Hemingway’s “Indian Camp”, or Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish“, sums up the moment of lost youth as succinctly, poignantly, or heartbreakingly.

No matter what other words a writer may use, how he or she may put it, the loss of youth comes at the moment of realizing we’re just like all the rest. It’s crushing. Staggeringly so. It makes one feel weak and small and disillusioned. To look around and recognize that all the ways you’ve tried to walk or talk or dress differently are in part what make you the same. You’re the same in the ways you try so hard to be someone you are not. And it is in vain.

I went on to get every album up till then. And I found in them all gems. In the following years, I’d go to sleep listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Nebraska” and “The River”.

Songs such as “Stolen Car”, “Atlantic City” and “Meeting Across the River” had all the economy of Hemingway, the American Gothicism of Flannery O’Connor, and the poignancy of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

Much later, I learned in an interview Springsteen did with Walker Percy’s nephew in the magazine DoubleTake, that Springsteen was more influenced by novels and books than by other music. “Films and novels and books, more so than music, are what have really been driving me since then.” He’d steeped himself in the work of Flannery O’Connor, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Steinbeck. These were all writers I’ve come to love. I guess I am predisposed to a certain kind of storyteller who is able to tell stories of violent and desperate and lonely people with a certain quiet lyricism. I try to do that in my own writing, my novels and short stories. When I am writing at my best, I don’t have to try. Springsteen’s stories were the first that made me want to do it, to write. To reach out that way. I’m sure there are many others who can say the same thing. The lyrics hold up today for me as much if not more than they did then.

Eric Rickstad Springsteen said in that DoubleTake interview, “Songwriting allows you to suggest the passage of time in just a couple of quiet beats. Years can go by in a few bars, whereas a writer will have to come up with a clever way of saying, ‘And then years went by. . . .’ Songwriting allows you to cheat tremendously. You can present an entire life in a few minutes.”

And that’s what he does best, as well as any novelist. He presents entire lives in a few minutes.

I think he has it wrong though. He never cheated anyone with his storytelling.

Bio: Eric Rickstad is the author of the novel Reap, a New York Times Notable Book first published by Viking/Penguin. His short stories and articles appear in many magazines. His latest novel Found is forthcoming in 2011.