WHEN I WAS A KID I SAW a white dot of light suddenly appear in my room and expand into three robed, bearded figures appearing before me with the one in the center closest, and with both hands held forth palm up. Then the glowing vision retracted and disappeared.
Around that time, when I was eight, I had an ongoing story that I told myself aloud on the paper route about tiny people that lived in another world who rode rabbits and could come into our world through drainage tunnels. I didn’t realize how loud I was saying this until the neighbor lady told her daughter to tell me she liked the story, but could I keep it down because I was waking her up. That was also around the time that Yvonne and Pat used to ask me to tell them an ongoing haunted house story during recess. Just for fun. Encouraged the hell out of me. They had no idea.
A few years later in high school, I spent a lot of time writing Bladder Magazine, and that one I did eventually have to burn. But good God, those were the years my brother and I constructed a life-size dummy, and were all set to drag it across the far end of the football field during Homecoming halftime, except on our trial run we saw there was just no way it would work, and so wound up chucking it front of his ’74 Gran Torino going forty on the Avenue one night, except, oops, it wasn’t his car—somebody else hit the dummy instead—and kept on going—and that kind of thing would never have happened if I hadn’t shared my Bladder with my brother and my friends, everybody enjoying it just fine at the time.
Eventually, I got hooked on poetry.
Oh, editing and writing for the Cub Reporter, doing the same at College of the Redwoods, and again at Humboldt State University, and writing for This Week News and Review, and even writing for the last ten years with The Independent—Southern Humboldt’s Only Locally-Owned Newspaper—none of that honed my craft as well as several years of that private and devout exploration of the self and the universe through language called poetry.
Which I generally can’t stand to read. And I never sit around writing poetry anymore, ever since I started sitting around writing short stories, novellas, screenplays, reviews. I don't own a TV. I’m a writing addict, springing through garish discords of chiaroscuro, rays of a cinnabar moon playing vociferous necromancy upon bedizened timber, double-dyed, all polychromatic. Hell yeah, that’s what I do. Well, plus I toolbelt-up, thrummin’ through those prismatic spinneys.
And I’m here to tell you. On account I’ve been to the cave. On account I’m close to the forest.
Look, something’s going to ruin your life.
May as well be art.
Barney started a woodworking business when he was just a couple units shy of graduating with a degree in Basket Weaving, or whatever. He called his business The Burl Barn, and for many many years he said he'd go back and finish up that degree. Not that a college degree would impress the tourists who buy his journeyman carpenter redwood burl slab tables, mirror frames, bowls, chests, and chainsaw carvings. It's probably for the best he never got it. Knowing him, the same stuff sold by Barney, Ph.D., would automatically get jacked up to twice the price.
I found myself working for Barney when I was fifteen after my dad, a highly skilled carpenter himself, had taken a few minutes after teaching one afternoon to walk across the street from the high school and talk with Barney. I didn't know if Dad went over there with the express purpose of lining up work for me or if it just happened, but the immediate result of their conversation as I saw it was the loss of my weekend trips to Africa. Dad had also been the one to introduce me to the hardback copy of Tarzan of the Apes crouching up in the shelves of the high school library some years earlier.
I did not feel lucky to have the opportunity to work part-time in a burl shop. Sure didn't look like no Opar to me. If I impressed him with hard work after a test run weekend, he might be inclined to keep me on part-time for awhile. I had had other part-time jobs before. Lawn mowing, pool cleaning.
When my well-knit body strode, Adonis-like, down the driveway my first Saturday morning at 8 am even though "Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle" would be on in only a couple of hours, I saw a guy with messy hair, high-water pants and suspenders standing in the shop doorway holding a steaming cup.
"You're late," he said, holding his hot cup up to his face and sounding like Phobeg in the dungeons of the City of Gold. "I'm Barney, put the signs up." This he said with a wave of his hand as he gulped from his mug and went back in.
I wasn't sure I heard him correctly. What exactly did "put the signs up" mean? I looked behind me. Near the road, on the left hand side of the wide drive lay something that looked like an overturned sign. I walked over to it and turned it up. In big arching letters the sign read THE BURL BARN. Beneath the letters a nineteenth century-style hand with a cuff at the wrist pointed to the shop. Seeing no other overturned signs, I walked back down to the shop. How I longed to take to the trees, and search for the spoor of Horta, the boar. I was annoyed at what was evidently a test of Barney's authority and my capability, and resented being put in a position where I had to endure games, but I was both too young and too old to refuse the job.
Beyond an open Dutch door with latticed windows various redwood items neatly filled the display room. A short length of chain demarcated this room from what was at that time the larger and less tidy shop area. Barney leaned behind a wooden counter with the cup between his hands like an Irish guy in a pub. All so very European.
"You're late," he said again.
"I thought I was supposed to be here at eight."
"That's right, you were," he said, raising his voice and launching into a lecture. "When you go to work you should show up at least ten minutes early, at least. That's just how it works in the real world and that's how I run my shop." He walked around the counter, removing one end of the chain from a nail as he passed, then returning it, and walked out of the shop, motioning with a finger or two for me to follow.
On the right hand side of the drive next to a telephone pole lay a piece of scrap wood, on the underside of which I saw after Barney propped it up bore the message OPEN. This he did with an air of superiority that, again, a commencement speech would never have helped, every fiber of his very being saying, "See, stupid?" Come to think, he actually did say that. I thought he was stupid to assume I knew where some stick was lying in the dirt. Then he swaggered back down the drive like Phobeg or Buto or Duro, down into a little grove of trees in which was piled a mountain of redwood burls. He chose a small one which seemed to have strayed from the mountain and heaved it several yards away, where it landed in dead leaves and yellow grass.
"This pile of burls needs to go over there," he said.
"I can't afford to throw my back out messin' around with this." It sounded more like a lecture than instructions. A lot more.
"Gotcha." I grabbed a biggie and tossed it where he'd thrown the first.
"Don't break 'em! These things make me money. This is how I earn my living. Do I go over to your house and break your things? I don't want you to walk 'em over either. It'll take you forever. I don't like paying people to do things the wrong way. I've been running this business for a buncha years now. You were probably in diapers when I started this."
I had in fact recently fashioned a loin cloth. From a pillow case. And worn it down at the bridge.
After inspecting for a little bit, Barney swaggered back into the shop.
Amazingly, I found myself enjoying the work--mostly because he wasn't there--working up a sweat, getting paid to workout. I felt like a character from Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read somewhere Burroughs stayed at the Benbow Inn. What about a guy raised by Bigfeet? I wondered. Putting my body on auto-pilot, I stared into the Pelucidar of my pineal gland.
I remembered Barney from years before. My buddy Mike, a red-haired smartass, had spent the night one fall Friday, and the next morning we got up early to have fun. We played ping pong and dorked around at the Whispering Woods Motel until we got bored. Then I told Mike of the fun we could have down in the forest throwing spears and knives and making rope swings. We intended to get a couple of Cokes and some candy at the store, until we noticed two things: that neither of us had any money, and that there was a dark mass of smoke billowing over the trees at the north end of town. Figuring we could maybe do a little work to make some snack money, we walked down to where the smoke was and saw a gigantic burn pile. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Where there had always been a mass of tick brush and poison ivy, that was all gone. Now it was dirt and trucks and guys throwing debris onto what looked like a two-story burn pile.
Mike asked a man if we could help out, and the man said it was okay with him, but we should ask Barney.
"He's over there," the man said pointing with a shovel. "The one with the suspenders." He needed them, with that big gut. Without suspenders, it would've been like trying to put pants on a giant egg.
Barney stood on the side of the smoldering pile yelling orders to a man operating a skid loader trying to drop a tree on top. When Barney hopped down, Mike said out of the side of his mouth, "Okay, ask him."
"You do it," I replied to the side.
Then the man with the shovel appeared.
"Hey Barney!" he said. "You got a couple of boys here want to do some work."
"What do you want to do?" Barney said to us.
I looked at Mike.
"We just want a little money for some Cokes and a couple of candy bars," Mike said in a manner both dismissive and hopeful. "Just a couple of bucks. Maybe five bucks."
"Each?" Barney said incredulously.
The man with the shovel laughed. We smiled like ballsy little imps. Things looked good for us.
"Tell you morons what," Barney said, scooping up a rusty strip of metal at his feet. "I need the trash around here picked up. Pick up crap like this, and any wood you see like that"--he grabbed a splintered stake lying in the dirt--"and toss it over there out of the way. I want all this crap cleaned up." He tossed the rusty metal and the splintered stake in the direction he'd indicated and said, "Then we'll talk about pay."
Afterwards, Mike and I agreed that Barney was a dick.
We kicked a few things around trying to look like we were working hard for about twenty-five minutes before someone said it was lunch. After awhile, Barney reluctantly parted with four ones, reminding us not to tell our folks he'd let us split a Coors. Warm.
He was standing in the doorway again now, with yet another steaming cup. Smoke rose from the shop chimney. Under the trees I barely noticed the gray morning drizzle.
"Break-time," Barney said. It didn't sound friendly, but more like an order. As though I were a machine he figured couldn't go the distance without rest.
"I'm not done," I said all friendly-like, pausing with a ridiculously big burl in my grip, aware that I was holding it as if it were lighter than it was. Not for nothing had I read all those Tarzan books.
"It's 10:30," he said to my surprise. I couldn't believe how fast the time had flown by. "You do a man's work, you take a man's breaks," he said.
"That's okay," I patiently replied, chucking the ungainly chunk to the top of the new mound with the speed of a striking panther. "I'm almost through." By that I meant I was halfway through. Yes, let the Tarmangani retreat to the civilization of his coffee and his shop, I thought. And next time, don't interrupt a man when he's working.
Decades ago living away from home for the first time and going to college--attending the very institution for which I would eventually teach (at the lowest possible level while yet receiving the greatest honor, though not in terms of money)--my housemates threw a party. I didn't understand how to live with other students sharing a house, and didn't know that I didn't understand until after awhile they told me.
My housemates were two young women. We'll call them Velma and Daphne. Velma's parents down in Los Angeles gave her the house, kind of. We paid our rent to her directly. She was always nice to me. I liked Velma. Daphne, being particularly desirable, of course had a boyfriend. Gunter was from Norway. He was a blonde guy who looked like a surfer and smoked cigarettes all the time. Together we listened to the Beastie Boys and AC/DC. Velma and Daphne eventually said they thought it was weird how I'd hang out in the kitchen. And it was true, when I was making my dinner, often I would see one or both of them making their dinner as well. Instead of spiriting myself away to my room, I'd try to make conversation. They let me know how weird they thought that was, until they realized I was trying to make friends.
We lived up a hill in Arcata within walking distance of Humboldt State University. The city was just beginning to develop that hillside area at the time. The four of us in the house trekked up around in the woods often, never dreaming how fast those woods would go. On the night we held the rager, all around that quiet residential loop cars filled the hill. Gunter and I had Who Made Who on vinyl blasting away early to kick things off. Eventually the girls required their turn though, and switched the record selection over to Depeche Mode, Midnight Oil, the soft crap.
Strange faces floated all around. Music loud, bodies close, everybody trying to maintain foamy keg beer in red plastic cups. A joint or two was going around. There's always a joint or two going around. But these weren't growers. These were college students, most of whom came from afar. Certainly we'd all seen Animal House. Ours was the party. We were the ragers. We knew exactly how to act.
Amazing things happened I'll neverremember. SometimesIfelt notsogreat. But dammit I had to continue, had to...press on. I would arm wrestle anyone, and I always won. The Road Warrior t-shirt I wore I picked up in Santa Cruz the year before on a post-senior prom excursion to the Mustang Ranch whorehouse which sadly or fortunately fell through around the Bay Area because my buddy and I had left spontaneously at midnight and were just absolutely dead tired.
Daphne appeared at my elbow. "You see that girl over there?" I could see the one she meant. The pretty one in the chair. "You should go talk to her," she said, pulling me toward her as she said so. Daphne introduced me to a beautiful young woman who looked like Jane Seymour, only more intense. Her face was remarkably heart-shaped, framed by dark perfect eyebrows. She sat on a sweater that she had tied around her waist. Forgetting all about that Daphne person, we found ourselves engaged in animated conversation.
Jane, as we'll call her, had arrived rather late. She lived around the corner in a housemate situation just like ours. After awhile we noticed that almost everyone else had gone. Loathe for her to leave, I escorted Jane around the block while she walked with her ten speed bike.
Not long thereafter, an acquaintance from the party appeared at the house one afternoon. One of Daphne and Gunter's friends. Velma didn't much like him, but that seemed like because he rebuked her. He came over all excited about this acid he knew he could get. Not just LSD. Mushrooms, too. These were famous drugs. These were our road to the '60s. We were in college now.
The only sticking point with me was price. Sure, I had enough dough to rent a VCR player and a couple videos of a weekend, perhaps Mutiny on the Bounty or The Maltese Falcon. But my means were meager. I had to stretch the value of my drugging dollar in a most responsible manner. Then I found out it was only two bucks a hit. Holy shit! Once I learned that, I signed on for four bucks' worth.
That night, I couldn't wait. I looked at my two little pieces of paper, and I thought, "You know, I sure do have a strong constitution. Gosh these pieces of paper are small. Sure would like to get my money's worth. What the fuck, down the hatch."
So I waited. About fifteen minutes. Then I called up Jane.
"Jane," I said, "you wouldn't believe what I just did." We talked a little bit and she said to come on over. So I walked around the block, all excited to see Jane again. She came to the door as soon as I knocked. Standing in the doorway she looked in both directions before pulling me inside. "Quickly, to my room."
For some reason, or no reason, we couldn't be seen. I think she didn't want her housemates to know. She was afraid they'd ask if I was her boyfriend. Fine with me, because it meant we were right up next to each other listening to the Beatles. She told me all about the story of her Help! album. Her sincerity still overwhelms. Many items held tremendous importance. Baby, her ten speed bicycle, listened to much from Jane. For no particular reason she seems to me now like a character in a Hayao Miyazaki film.
Sitting next to each other, we began to get closer. But she was shy, and I had to drain the lizard. There was no hiding it now, and verily a man did exit Jane's very room with strong intent to set used beer free. Didn't see nobody, neither. Silly trepidation for naught. When lo, haha, the floor tile seemed to move. I watched the patterns crawl around while I relieved myself, laughing. Couldn't wait to tell her what I saw.
When I came back in, all happy and proud at what I'd accomplished, she welcomed me with open arms in a lime green button-down shirt and we kissed on her bed so sweetly, so gently, with innocent ardor and inexperienced lust. Every now and then I'd stop to look at my fingers waving before my face and laugh at the colors that they left.
All of this took about an hour. Jane expressed her pleasure, and her reservation. "Wow, that is really interesting. Wow. I have to get up early tomorrow, though." It was time for me to go.
Wow indeed! That was fun! I very much enjoyed it. Acid, you're a-ok with me! Thanks for that good time. Heading back around the block I felt like a walking chunk of Americana.
So, sending one last smile to the stars for the eventide, off I trundled to me quarters fer a bit o respite as it were sir, none the worse for wear.
Opened the door, shh, all quiet as I closed it, went on down the hall, into my room, turned on the light, felt queasy while I looked at the homework on my desk next to my bed. I had to sleep. What a day. I took off my clothes, turned out the light, and got in bed.
At first I felt okay. Just a little queasy still. Perhaps that was to be expected on one's first acid trip, taking two hits, at night, alone. But then...then, somehow, I knew that there was a gigantic spider dangling from the ceiling in the dark directly over me. It was impossible. But it was there. Huge. I withstood this as long as I could, until I couldn't take it any longer. Leaping up, I turned on the light.
Suddenly the entire room moved around in weird ways. Posters on the walls rolled up and down. Everything took on a meaty look, an unreal look, like things in the Claymation world of Gumby or some other form of stop motion animation. The striped lines of the wallpaper on one wall blew outward and curled back in like party favors.
I open the door to my room and enter an Oz-like world.
The color is incredible. Everything is incredible. I understand things now that I never understood before. Never needed to before, and never will again. I go over into a corner and look at some books. Holy shit why do I not do this more often? Look at what is available unto the human mind. We are here in time and space. Fascinating.
I go back to my room. Have some adventures there. Do all kinds of things. Then I happen to notice the time is 12:00 midnight. Neat.
So I go back out there unto the living room and now I see one of my housemates. How wonderful! And I have adventures. All sorts of amazing things happen. Until eventually I wander back into my room and I see. The time.
What? One minute? After all that, and only one minute has passed? It's not possible. It's not possible.
I go to take a shower. As soon as I get in, snakes and blood and terrible things come flowing out upon me. Spiders and frogs down at my feet move like the tile earlier. When I get out I am sparkling scarlet, beet red all over. Looking at my face in the mirror I tear apart my flesh and see my skull.
Probably I had turned on the hot water only, because as soon as I get out of the bathroom--and I'm amazed I managed to put on pants or shorts or anything at all--soon as I leave the bathroom, I see Velma, her expression of horror and confusion still etched in my mind. She's asking if I'm okay. She's asking if I've done any drugs. By way of reply I stomp a hoof twice.
"Shumendy lo bapa." Color zipping. Her mouth moves. "Shumendy du baspa?"
While I'm on the couch being red, and Velma's trying to get my sister's phone number out of me, Daphne and Gunter walk in the front door with their dog. They have strange expressions on their faces as they walk in, then they stop. They reverse motion. They walk back out through the front door, backwards. The dog walks backwards, they walk backwards, the door shuts. Then the front door opens again and in they walk, looking at me. Now backwards. Door shuts. Door opens. In they walk in again. Looking at me. My mind replays this over and over.
Eventually my sister appears with her boyfriend. They try giving me food. They try walking me around the block. Flailing and blithering I try to comply. At some point after an eternity of sheer hell I finally throw up in the hall on my way to the bathroom. Last thing I remember, I'm lying in bed with my sister crouched on the floor next to me holding my hand.
When I woke up, I saw my sister's boyfriend sitting on the floor against the wall with his eyes closed. My sister was still on the floor next to me. Every part of my being rang with incredible pain. Through the room's single window, the first rays of dawn began sifting in.
"How do you feel?" my sister asked.
Everything hurt so much. World's worst hangover. "Like I died," I said.
"You should drink some water and have something gentle on your stomach."
"I remember throwing up."
"Yeah, you bolted out of bed and threw up in the hall. You almost made it! Just a few more inches and it would've been on the linoleum. Well, a little bit was on the linoleum."
"It's all right. Velma did most of the cleaning."
"Oh my god. Never again."
"You should thank her."
"I'm so sorry."
"She was really worried about you."
Many years later I told a friend about this episode and he said he doubted it was actually acid that I took. May well be true. I've talked to people who said they've taken literally hundreds of doses, yet never experienced anything like what I went through. I always figured I got lucky. One rotten night of hell and I was done with that shit forever. Now every time I pass by a TV I see a prescription drug commercial touting the wonders of getting back into life by popping some pill with side-effects, including blindness, organ failure, depression, suicidal thoughts, paralysis, death, and not only vomiting, but severe diarrhea, as well.
Once after I stopped my car in the street, walked back to the one behind, and without a word inserted my fist in the driver's puss I got back in, parked in the lot and walked across campus to the room where I sat waiting for students to drop in for writing help.
I remember thinking, Here's one for the cosmic camera. I thought it was easy for people to talk about restraint when they don't have a choice. Electric Celtic warriors on foot and horseback roared behind me overhead, flanked by two calm Druids. Sometimes your best friends, I thought, are the dead and the unborn.
I went berserk on a guy in the university library before class because I didn't like the way he looked at me when I was walking downstairs with a small blonde babe who would one day come to deny I had in fact channeled my Chi and coldcocked that sucker square on the jaw and sending his sorry ass sprawling though she could not have seen me do it because she was not yet down the stairs and I knew the only reason she denied it was because we were at a party of Graduate English students and this one butt-ugly jealous hog could not cope with my manhood, so the small blonde babe, having had a few, sided with her to irk me, but nothing can change the fact I had indeed kicked his ass, decisively, without bolster or bluster, all the more righteous since it was his face and his alone of which the library workers were alerted in the inner sanctum as he was known to harass young women to the point where campus cops had recently escorted one to her car at night to get away from the bully I bullied, and that by God is the unembellished truth no matter what anybody says now, and we all know damn good and well what makes my admitting this so distasteful is that the hero is not supposed to sing his own song, but I go ahead and do it anyway because in addition to being brave and noble I am also mean and nasty, too, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
In recent years I learned from my dad and my sister talking of a holiday evening in the dining room that one time traveling through New Mexico in a mall when I was around seven or eight years old I didn't like the way some stranger, a grown man, was treating my older sister, and I pulled a knife on him and he backed off. I barely have the memory of it, although I do remember the time when I did pretty much the same thing when I was fourteen for my little brother in Santa Fe. So weird. It's like all my life sometimes I just turn off and go on some sorta auto-pilot.
Sometimes in my dreams I try to howl but nothing comes out...