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.


When I was three, maybe four, my parents moved from a basement apartment in Skokie, Illinois into their first house, built just for us, in Buffalo Grove. My sister was just over a year old. In the apartment, we shared a bedroom, crib-to-crib on the yellow shag carpeting, and I remember peering up from the mattress to the ceiling-high windows. The sidewalk bisected the pane, and I would watch the meditative parade of winter-booted feet stamp the snow dirty, the orange of the streetlight pooling like the color of memory itself.

I remember listening to my sister sleep, breathe, as orange coins fell from the unseen sky, landed on the sidewalk, and called themselves snow. Perhaps, still in close proximity to the womb, this age and this scene rested, and still rests, in some escaped safety, the kind we spend the rest of our lives, in vain and occasional depression, in more than occasional delusion, chasing.

We left that apartment with my mom one morning, leaving the tiny kitchen where our toys were kept on the shelf that most people would have used for spices; where my parents stored only four glasses, one for each of us, mine a plastic yellow cup, my sister’s a plastic green; where, in the living room, on that same shag carpeting, I lay on my stomach watching Sesame Street, and pissing myself. My mom, when recounting this story, overused the word engrossed.

She had long, straight, middle-parted brown hair, a high forehead, coffee-coaster glasses tinted rose like wine, and wore wool, button-down sweater jackets, sewn with orange and blue diamonds. My father had then peaked at 240 pounds, his curly nest of brown hair and full beard that ran from bottom lip to Adam’s apple, underlining his role as sleepless podiatry student. Everything about his appearance exemplified the words internship, residency… and perhaps, as I later learned, prescription drugs. Together they looked like a 1970s-era Diane Keaton and her sasquatch lover leaving the Skokie apartment landlorded by the Papiers, an elderly Polish couple who survived the Holocaust, and who would sing opera together upstairs, my mom holding me by the armpits up to the radiator vent to hear.

My mom drove northwest with my sister and me to check out the Buffalo Grove house in its skeletal stage, a two-story raised ranch, done in what my mom referred to as “mock-Tudor style.” I confess I don’t know what mock-Tudor style means. Either it’s Tudor style or it’s not. I also confess that I frequently imagined a series of hecklers pointing and laughing as Henry Tudor fought the War of the Roses. This was only after I learned to read though.

With my mom, my sister and I tramped along the floors and stairs—still in their plywood stage—of what would be, and still is, my parents’ home. During the first couple years of home ownership, strapped for cash, my parents took in a boarder. She was beautiful, in an elfish sort of way—large mahogany eyes, large ears, and large hoop earrings through which I would snake my four year old fingers, pulling just gently enough to watch her lobes droop, then snap back into place. I remember she had a freckle on one earlobe, left or right I can’t be sure. And I remember raking my pointer over it, marveling at the way it would catch then release the fingernail like some small speed bump of the body. She must have been in her early twenties and wore her brown hair short and bobbed, down to her ear-tops, and bangs that sometimes ran into her eyes. She would blow them out again with her breath, her bottom lip extended, pink and a little frightening. I remember her without a name, though it could have been Susan, and with a received sensuality that I couldn’t have possibly felt at four, could I?

But I remember lying with her in her room—the room that my father would later turn into a tribute to exercise, with a dumbbell rack, rowing machine, treadmill, weight bench, where he overzealously designed and lorded over my sister’s and my workout regimen, which began at age five. But before this strange childhood horror, I would lie with the boarder on the high bed that my parents supplied her, with frilly-edged sheets and blankets and pillowcases of the same orange and blue of my mom’s sweater jacket. We would lie on that bed of petticoats and talk and touch each other’s skin, before my mom would call me upstairs for dinner. She seemed then my touchstone, my point of entry into the world. She stayed with us for about six months, I think, and then was gone. I don’t remember saying goodbye to her. One day she was there, and the next, she was not, the bed empty, soon to be sold at some garage sale.

Though I didn’t speak of the boarder again for many years, until I was probably about her age, twenty-six and poised to marry Louisa, I recalled her fondly, breezily at intervals throughout my life, in some hazy and delicious sense of loss, so sweet it hurt, some engine driving perhaps, the wanderlust that led me from place after place after place to my wife. When I brought her up aloud, Louisa and I were having dinner at a steakhouse with my parents, my sister and her fiancé, my mom beginning to feel the stirrings of illness that were for so long misdiagnosed as polymyalgia or “general malaise.” Perhaps it was this upsweep of togetherness, of having arrived as a family at some sort of initial platform of…well…arrival, of love, of partnership, of complicity, of medium-rare ribeyes and loaded baked potatoes the size of footballs, of rocks glasses filled with whiskey and vodka, of blue cheese-stuffed olives and the silverware din that releases the mystery endorphin responsible for over-indulgence, but I asked at that table, if my parents knew what became of my beloved boarder and her elastic earlobes. I imagined her happily married to a lucky, lucky man.

A little drunk, my parents laughed and wrinkled their foreheads, confused, my mom’s eyes snapping open and looking healthy for the first time in months. Swallowing, they told me they never took in a boarder at all. That I had imagined the whole thing. It became a joke at the holidays, during Louisa’s and my once-a-year trip into Chicago. Have you talked to the boarder lately?

I can’t explain this. Whoever or whatever she was, she ignited something in me, some sugared longing that Mexico helps put into context. Here, wandering the middle of the night streets of Mexico City, full of food and aphrodisiac elixirs, out of sorts with the love of my life, the world seems full of ghosts. They are almost pedestrian here, not one of them dominating another, and all we can do is submit to their distant sirens, flashing Zócalo lights, legless beggars, orange stone churches, silent bells, Aztec sun gods perched at the dark rooftops.

I take Louisa’s hand and we walk back to the cavernous Rioja. I wonder what is real and what isn’t. I wonder what Louisa sees, strokes, says goodbye to, that I can’t. At a certain age, the world’s radiator vents close themselves, climb too high, and we’re far too heavy to be lifted by the armpits. I wonder what I’m looking for up there anyway, or down there in that inscrutable bedroom; where, in this life, I have yet to board. A wild energy runs into my legs and Louisa must feel it too, thick as crude, because we simultaneously quicken our pace, rush like erogenous ghosts back to our room of echoes. We pass two ancient Aztec women, hunched and tiny. They whisper secret operas to each other, hiding their answers, and perhaps ours too, in the thick black of their braids.

Last Train

By Steve Sparshott

Memoir

There was a figure on the wrong side of the railing. Hunched, legs dangling over the water, left hand on the edge of the brickwork clutching a smoking cigarette. I kept an eye on him as I passed; he raised the fag to his mouth with a sudden movement, inhaled and put it back down just as abruptly.

These days, Hungerford Bridge is a riot of shiny white suspension poles and pretty blue lights; back then it was a wide railway crossing with a poorly lit walkway stuck on the east side which shook with the passage of trains. The tubes stopped running at midnight so I was on foot, heading down to Waterloo to catch the last train out of London, the 1:05 AM to Surbiton, where I shared a three-storey semi with five friends. I was crossing the last of the bridge’s huge cylindrical brick pilings when I saw the guy sitting there, out on the edge. I walked on a little way, then turned back and watched him swig from a half bottle of vodka. There was nobody else on the bridge. “Alright?” I called. He looked over his shoulder to see an ageing indie kid in a seventies ski jacket.

“Alright, mate,” he replied.

“Admiring the view?” I asked brilliantly, a Friday night’s worth of beer swilling around inside me.

“Something like that,” he said, any implication that I might have asked a really stupid question going right over my head.

“Let’s have a look then,” I said, climbing over the railing and crossing over to sit down next to him, both of us dangling our legs over the Thames. Actually the view wasn’t bad at all, Waterloo Bridge and the buildings on the north and south banks artfully lit and reflected in the water.

Clark (“Like Superman, yeah?”) was a good-looking black bloke in, I guessed, his early twenties, whose girlfriend had just committed suicide. They met at a drop-in centre where they went for methadone and counselling; they hadn’t been together long but he said the relationship had given both of them a lot of much-needed support.

Uh huh.

“So…what happened?” I asked, aware despite the beers that I was in at the deep end of a situation far, far outside my experience.

They had a fight. “But we were always fighting, y’know?” he said.  “Every day.  But this was a big one, and then she killed herself the next day.”

Oh.

Shit.

Even sober I’d have been in no position to offer any expert counsel. What I wheeled out, I realise now, were platitudes; like how she was still living in his memory and if he jumped he wouldn’t just be killing himself and so on. I thought I was being highly original. We shared the vodka and, because I didn’t think it would be clever to say Actually I don’t smoke, a packet of Benson and Hedges.

He stated plainly, early on, that if anyone was around he wasn’t going to jump, so I zipped up my jacket and settled in. The conversation went round several times, returning to different what ifs as he berated himself for inattentiveness, inaction, indecision and so on; always things, I insisted, for which he couldn’t take the blame. Eventually we managed to get onto lighter subject matter; he was surprised that I knew the spike below his lip was called a labret piercing. Common knowledge now, perhaps, but arcane enough back in 1998. One of the few times my trivia reserve proved genuinely useful.

Three hours on, the effects of the beer were compounded by vodka and half a pack of Bensons and, while I could keep talking crap, I couldn’t work out how to get Clark back over to the right side of the railing. I was freezing, and becoming unnerved by the long drop and my increasingly unstable perch.

The few people who came along weren’t much use; the occasional pissed-up group invariably shouting Don’t jump, mate! and a homeless couple who knew Clark from when he lived rough and who confused me by calling him John and saying they’d been in Jerusalem taking pills. Jerusalem’s a big noisy bar in Rathbone Place; I didn’t know that at the time.

About half past four no-one had come by for a while. A couple of girls came stumbling along, arm in arm, singing. They saw us and stopped. “Hello,” said one.

“Morning,” we both replied. One of the girls squinted at us in an exaggerated fashion. “Clark!” she exclaimed.

“It’s Clark, look,” she said, drawing the other’s attention, and they both climbed over the railing. “Come on. Gimme a hug,” she demanded, and Clark stood up and obliged. I’d been trying to work out how to get him away from the edge for three hours; she did it in two seconds.

Who would be the ideal people to turn up just as I was despairing of ever getting Clark to stop contemplating a cold, wet death? (Actually, by this time, a cold, sticky, muddy one). How about a couple of psychiatric nurses (albeit spectacularly drunk ones)? How about a couple of psychiatric nurses who worked at Clark’s drop-in centre? Yes, they’d be just about perfect, and here they were, heading over to the all-night burger van by the station for a cup of tea.

So we joined them, all sitting in a row on a bench, safely inland, drinking impossibly hot tea from polystyrene cups. I can’t remember their names, or what they looked like, or where the drop-in place (open all hours) was, but I remember the four of us piling into a minicab to get there, and I remember watching Clark walk up the brightly lit tree-lined path into the building.

I think that went pretty well.

A few months later I was looking at a copy of The Face; a new 24 hour supermarket had opened near the Complex in Islington and they’d gone in to interview shoppers at about 4 AM. I recognised one of the faces looking out of the page, not smiling but certainly not dead either, labret spike shining.

Who are you?

Clark, 24, unemployed.

What are you buying? (“What was he buying?” people ask.  “Razor blades?”)

Apples.

Apples. So fuck off.

I’m not under the illusion that I saved his life; when I arrived he’d already been sitting looking at the water for a long time. To be honest I’m not really sure what I did, except that it was, in a stumbling, roundabout way, the right thing. The best thing I ever did, in fact. People use that phrase to mean the most personally advantageous thing; buying a villa in Spain, that sort of thing. By best I mean most good; the most…honourable, most decent thing I ever did.

Another time I found a fifty pound note in the gutter as I was heading down towards the river. And I caught the train. Not a villa in Spain, but not bad.

“Urban Rhapsody” from BRATZ: The Musical

The scene: Cloe, Sasha and Jade have just snuck out of the house after an all evening bender of vodka mixed with V8 Splash, stolen from Jessica’s mom.  Jessica, a precocious 5 year-old with the propensity toward long tantrums followed by consecutive days of bottomless joy, has been their caretaker ever since she got them for her birthday the previous year.  She is currently sleeping soundly under her Hello Kitty bedspread in the corner of the room.  The curtains flutter playfully in the open window next to her head…

[sung to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody – click here if you would like the tune in the background, you’ll need to open it in another window so you can karaoke it…]

Is this the real life –

Is this just fantasy –

Caught in a manslide-

No escape from reality-

Open your eyes

Look up my thighs and see –

I’m just a po’ ho, I need your sympathy

Because I’m easy come, easy go

A little bi, little ho

Anytime you need a blow, doesn’t really matter to me,

To me.

(8 count)

Cloe:

Mama, just met a man,

Got drunk and pressed my luck

Pulled his trigger, now I’m fucked

Mama, a new life had just begun,

But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away –

Mama oooh,

Didn’t mean to make you cry –

Doc said I’ll be back again this time tomorrow –

Carry on, carry on, passion’s all that matters –

(8 count)

Sasha:

Tuesday! My time has come!

Does anybody have a dime?

Body’s aching all the time

Goodbye everybody –

I’ve got to go –

Gotta leave you all behind and drink some 40 proof –

Mama – ooo – (any time you need a blow)

I don’t want to die,

I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all –

 

Jade:

I see a little silhouetto of a man…

Gotta douche! Gotta douche! Where did that damn man go?

Butter, carbs and shortening – very very frightening me –

Ass of J Lo, Ass of J Lo,

Ass of J Lo, Ass of J Lo

Paris, Britney – magnifico –

But I’m just a po’ ho and nobody loves me –

She is just a po’ ho from a po’ family!

Spare her this life from this life on the streetz!

 

Easy come, easy ho, will you let me go?

Shut up, bitch, no! We will not let you go – let her go –

Shut up, bitch, no! We will not let you go – let her go –

Shut up, bitch, no! We will not let you go – let her go –

We’ll not let you go – lemme go!

We’ll not let you go – lemme go!

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no means yes!

C’mon mami, c’mon papi, c’mon mami lemme go –

Snoopp D-O-Double-G has a place in his crib for me, for me, for me!

 

So you think you can bone me and spit in my eye –

So you think you can love me and leave me to die –

Oh baby – can’t do this to me baby –

Just gotta get off – just gotta off right here –

 

Oooh yeah!  Oooh yeah!

Passion’s all that matters,

Any 6-year-old can see,

Passion’s all that matters, passion’s all that matters to me,

 

Any time you need a blow…