Tony and I went out delivering late one spring morning. As we stood on the edge of the Panhandle waiting for a gap in the cars speeding down Oak Street, Janis Joplin drove by in a convertible, hair all over, waving to people she’d pick out.
“I’ve never seen her in that car. What is it?” I asked.
Tony knew cars. “A Nash Metropolitan. Don’t think they make them anymore.”
“We should see her again.”
“Absolutely, man. ‘Ball and Chain.’” He walked up Oak on his route. My first stop was uneventful and I continued around Buena Vista Park for my second.
Jerry let me into his three-story Victorian. His parents had died and left him the house and not much else. After finishing college in Maine, he started his own mail-order business, with a clientele of friends back east buying lots of LSD.
He had a workroom in the basement stocked with different sized boxes, wrapping materials, and all sorts of stuff from thrift shops—hats, photos, books, kitchen things, etc.—to add to the boxes. Some Jerry would wrap as presents; the rest just had brown paper. He’d address them from legitimate addresses in the city, and drop them at post offices near that address or somewhere downtown.
Months ago, I told him my paranoia that he’d send one from the home address of one of the mail handlers and they’d catch it. He switched to only using expensive addresses.
Jerry always looked close to straight—brown hair barely over his ears and a clean-shaven serious face, not too unlike me in that regard. But he was close to homely, with bushy eyebrows and a chin that never quite separated from his neck.
After he paid for the four hundred tabs, Jerry had news for me.
“Mark, I’m quitting all this at the end of summer. I got accepted to law school last week.”
It was a shock for me, but we made arrangements for next time, and I left wondering how to replace him. He was a reliable quarter of the business.
Tony was at the Here and Now, this macrobiotic place he liked on Haight at Scott. There was never much choice for lunch and I ordered brown rice with squash, and an apple juice.
I asked, “Do we come here because they don’t have the food you don’t like, or because they have the food you like?”
He grinned, before turning serious. “I never see straight people here, or loud people, or smelly people. Just people devoted to macrobiotics. And us.”
It wasn’t bad today; they hadn’t turned the squash to mush.
“Jerry’s quitting in July or August.”
Tony wasn’t concerned. “Don’t worry. We’ve replaced people before.”
“But this is different. He’s our most reliable.”
“I know two people who want in. You can meet them and we’ll talk. We have time.”
He was right; we had time, plenty of time. What neither of us mentioned was what we had even more of now: risk. Having to replace someone added an extra layer on top of all the other everyday risks we had to keep our eyes and ears open for.
After we finished lunch, we stashed our cash at our flat and headed back to the street. All sorts of people visited the Haight, most with no intention of staying long. Today, one group interested us: college chicks on break. Some had boys with them, but many were unchaperoned. They came in twos, threes, or fours. They drove from Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Michigan, Ohio, and most delightfully once from Kansas. They came curious about the Haight, about hippies, about a world away from white bread, and most of them, even if they wouldn’t say it, came looking for drugs and sex.
Most visitors in cars drove either up Haight or up Masonic, and then turned onto Haight. We’d hang out in a strategic spot, catch the gossip, and observe the cars with out-of-state plates. If they turned us on, we’d follow, hoping they were looking for a parking spot. Today, a Jeep from Montana drove by and parked near the Straight Theatre, but they gave us an odd look, and it wasn’t worth the effort to change their minds. Then a Volvo with Wisconsin plates and two chicks of definite interest went by and turned right on Stanyan. We lost sight of them when they turned again, but we hustled and saw them parallel parking on the Panhandle side of Oak. As we reached them, they were stowing things in the trunk. They had sense enough to lock things out of sight, but not street antennae to catch us approaching.
Tony asked, “Did you drive all the way from Madison, or you going to Berkeley?”
They looked us up and down and smiled with none of that uptight East Coast stuff. The blonde answered, with wide lips and an almost goofy grin. “Madison. Stayed in Reno last night.”
I asked the obvious and unthreatening. “Came to see the Haight?”
“We’d heard it had gone downhill, but we wanted to see it anyway, and there’s a Quicksilver concert tonight.” She looked at her brown-haired friend and then back at us. “I’m Emma, and this is Irene.”
“I’m Mark, and this ugly guy is Tony.”
Emma defended him. “He’s not ugly.”
One issue out of the way; we knew who’d go with Tony. I pulled out a joint. “Bet you didn’t get a chance to smoke on the trip.”
Dark-haired Irene spoke up with a suggestion of a smile. “No, and Madison’s been dry.” I could like her. Her confidence, her angular face, her serene eyes.
We found a grassy spot in the Panhandle and lit up. We’d been getting our weed lately from two North Beach chicks who must have taken lessons from Cubans, because they rolled these sweet, evenly burning joints. There were different kinds of weed; almost all made you hungry. Most worked on your head making you think you were the brightest cat in the universe, just made things more exciting, or worst, made you paranoid. Some weed worked on your body and mellowed you out. The chicks separated theirs as best they could into their mind-blowing joints and their mellow joints. The mellow ones put a governor on my normally racing mind, letting me notice small treasures. This was definitely mellow.
We sat cross-legged, sharing the joint, while the fog and sun randomly shared the sky. A little breeze kept flitting around and through Irene’s hair and the little tufts around her ears had a curl that gave me shivers. She took off her jacket and the tiny hairs on her arms moved just ever so. When the joint was gone, I settled back on my side toward Irene. She stretched out her long legs and leaned back, resting her upper body on her forearms, without moving any further from me, maybe even an inch closer.
Tony said, “Mark’s favorite band is Quicksilver. Think we could go with you tonight?”
The girls glanced at each other and smiled at us. Emma asked, “We could, but where do you guys live? In the Haight?”
Tony pointed out our building on Fell and told them about our lodge in Lagunitas, building it up with the solitude of the forest, the fresh air, and Big Brother and the Holding Company living there before us.
The girls took in Tony’s answer and smiled at us, relaxing into the calm of the pot. Then Emma stood up, and shook her hair all around. Her blue eyes sparkled as she said, “I feel like running.” And she did, down the Panhandle toward Masonic, Tony chasing, Irene and I following. At Masonic, we grouped up and went on a tour of the Haight. Recent arrivals asking for spare change. Street dealers eyeing us. Local cats and chicks hustling along to get off the street. Unwelcome overnight smells mixed with oversweet incense. A tour bus rolled along, bulging with camera-snapping voyeurs.
When Emma and Irene had enough of the street, we went to our flat. They wanted to know what to wear and Tony said, “colorful.” Emma wore leather boots, a red and black exploding African dress, and a big coat with a furry collar. Sort of the hip African tundra look. Irene had slipped into tight jeans and a purple turtleneck. A knit sweater balanced on one shoulder.
I said, “We can take two cars, so you can go off on your own, if you want, after the concert.” Didn’t want to take two, but better let them decide.
Irene didn’t look at Emma, just at me, with a new and stimulating smirk. “Let’s take one.” We ate dinner at a seafood place on Polk Street and then walked to the Avalon on Van Ness for the concert. Some dealers hung out with bands, giving the stuff away for a chance to bang the groupies and bask in the fame. Too high-profile for us. We paid our way in.
Used to see lots of psychedelic princes and princesses on Haight Street. Not many these days. But here were hundreds of the turned on and tuned in, dressed like birds and peacocks in heat. Tony and I did our part. He wore black and white striped pants and a big-collared purple shirt. I was sedate with dark blue plush pants, a collarless striped shirt, and a red plaid cap.
Inside, we breathed in the music of the first band. Irene didn’t want to dance, so she and I went up on the balcony to watch the bands and the pride of the counterculture. I’d long dropped my teenage reluctance to put a protective arm on a girl, but you had to pick your moments. Twice, I held back with Irene. Wasn’t sure why, until I realized she reminded me of a girl I’d rather forget. Had to break through that barrier, and I draped an arm around her shoulders, hand and fingers spread along her upper arm. Then, Quicksilver grabbed our attention with “Who Do You Love.” The first few notes kick-started your bass inner drive and then the rhythm jumped in. Below us, some danced wildly, but most everyone on the floor was in long lines facing the stage, swaying and stomping to the music. Bo Diddley popularized it, but Quicksilver made it into a thrilling sensual swirl that left you needing someone to hold when it was over.
Irene edged closer. “God, I love that song.”
“Sure you don’t want to go down on the floor?”
Downstairs, we found a place in a line, and swayed and swirled until the last chord of the last song. Emma was raring to go to Lagunitas and we fetched their car to caravan north—Tony and Emma in the Volvo, Irene and me in my Olds Starfire.
On the Golden Gate, Irene wanted to look at the ocean, so I hugged the row of orange cones separating traffic. Still, she couldn’t have seen much of it with the bridge all lit up. We headed up 101 and west out on Sir Francis Drake. In America, you get roads named after you if you were an English knight, even a bloodthirsty slaver and pirate. The road made a big left in front of the Orange Julius, with its concoctions of mystery orange flavoring, dairy residue, and ice—the stoners’ cure for macrobiotic ills and smoker’s throat. If the local narcs had any cultural understanding, they’d stake out the Orange Julius and grab the entire stoner population of Marin in a week.
“What do you two do?” Irene asked, as we headed up the hills outside of Fairfax.
“Sociological fieldwork on the revolutionary aspects of psychedelia and sex.”
“What do you really do?”
“How about revolutionary entrepreneurs specializing in psychedelia?”
“Emma and I let ourselves be picked up by two drug dealers?” I couldn’t see her face very well in this light, but she didn’t sound indignant.
“Two thoroughly groovy and charming ones.”
“I can see that.” She ran her hands through her hair, releasing a bouquet of sweet flowers and vanilla.
“Could we stop before we get to your place?”
“Sure, but there isn’t much open but McAuliffe’s Pub.”
“I don’t need anything. I just want to talk.”
She’s got cold feet. Damn! I passed the pub and pulled into the post office lot.
“Do you pick up a lot of girls?”
“Only when I see one I’m really attracted to…”
“How often is that?”
“Well, not every day…”
Saw her face in the headlights of a passing car. She was praying in the young women’s church of controlled sensuality. “Tell me why you like me.”
“I like the way you are quiet and speak confidently. You’re assured about yourself and just controlled enough to go about wisely in this world.” Did she move slightly closer? “I like your serene dark eyes and the way you tilt your head slightly when you’re thinking. I love the way the little hairs move around your ears. I love the name Irene. Eye…Reen, Eye…reen. The vanilla in your hair is pulling me toward you.”
A most welcome smile and, “Let’s see the lodge.”
The Starfire responded to my foot and I caressed the steering wheel around the curves and hills until we parked behind the Wisconsin Volvo. “I have the cabin out back.”
“Let’s see it.”
Thankfully, I’d left the place neat and had made the bed. Hell, I’d even shaken out my rugs. “There’s no heat, but it’s warm under the covers.”
“Don’t worry. I’m from Wisconsin.”
She wasn’t cold, but she stood by the door, looking around at my chair, my writing desk. More second thoughts? Sure didn’t want to say goodnight. I had to jump into the breach. Took off my jacket and undid the buttons on my shirt one at a time, until her eyes said keep going.
Next day, the Wisconsinites, Tony, and I dropped a full tab each, with our housemate Rachel watching over us. Tony and Emma took blankets into the woods and we didn’t see them until the next day. Irene wanted to stay out on our big deck under the canopy of pine trees, so I brought out a quilt and pillows.
She stretched out those long legs, and propped herself on an elbow, head toward me, blinking as the sun moved through the clouds. She’d put on the olive work shirt an old girlfriend had given me. Months ago, I wouldn’t have let anybody wear it, but it looked fine on Irene, especially with the sleeves rolled up, exposing the little hairs on her forearms. I asked, “Can I see your foot?”
“My foot?” she laughed. “Which one?”
Her sock and boot off, I caressed her strong lean ankle and massaged her arch.
Kissed her toes, until she laughed.
Released her foot, and stretched out next to her. “Were you a ballerina?”
“In The Nutcracker.”
“Dance for me, little mouse?”
She absorbed my request pore by pore, the acid opening up all the geography of her brain. Her words rolled out as she stood. “Limber up with me!”
Mimicked her stretches, sunlight rippling off our bodies, acid pumping, pulsating through flexing limbs. She danced. Enthralled and trying to follow, I tripped, clattering to the deck. She radiated smiles and danced around me.
Irene, I.R.E.N.E. Letters bursting in the air, as she sat. I saw her heart pumping. Red, red, deep red. Pumping, pumping, outside her body. I stopped breathing, started to panic, but she touched me. Touched me, and I breathed again. Slow and deep, breathing again.
Rachel appeared on the deck by the window. Then she was next to us, freckles dropping all over.
“Muffins… and… lemonade… for… you.” She set down a tray. “Muffins… are… warm. Warm.”
Irene watched Rachel leave, turned, and looked through me to the other side. My hands wrapped around a cool moist mug and put it to her lips. She sipped; her eyes opening so wide, her face disappeared. Lemon trees danced all around.
A muffin wouldn’t let me take it. I got down, eyeball to muffin, staring at it glaring back at me. Irene’s hand flashed and took it. “Wow!”
She put some in my mouth. Warm and crumbly. My tongue moved it all around and I breathed again.
I spread out, flat on the deck. Soft guitar notes tickling me, Irene’s head on my chest.
She moved away and my heart revved. Held it in my chest and a big red and white sign said “Stop.” Oh, Irene, Irene.
Lost in swirls. Fading… Dozing…
Felt my shoulder under blankets. Words appearing at my ear. Hair tickling. Body moving.
“It’s… getting… cold.” Rachel’s face spilling sounds.
“Let’s get up… and go inside.”
Rachel and Irene way, way up there.
Feet strong, attaching, holding onto the deck. Grabbed the light every step to the lodge. Every small step. The door, still the tree it was, looked at me and yielded to my muscle.
Inside, angry old trees threw out sparks from the big stones and the light flashed off Irene. She was warm, oh so warm. I shook and released. Released some more.
Rachel appeared, carrying bowls with magic steam. Happy seeds ran around green and yellow chunks on top of hundreds of brown pulsing bits. We ate with teeth avoiding tongues. Chests warming. Bellies calming.
Fat glass with juicy red on the table. “I brought you wine. Small sips. Small.”
Irene’s hand rippled to the wine. She drank, and her body jiggled all the way back into the sofa.
I let my hand go to hers and wrapped around the glass. She smiled at me and I took it, lips puckering, and raspberry jammy wine sluicing though me.
Rachel, mother Rachel. “Let’s go to your cabin.” She walked us over, gave us water, closed the door and we dissolved into each other under all the blankets.
Awoke into Irene’s dreamy gaze. Smiled from inside, feeling her leg astride me. Wouldn’t need much in this world, if she’d just keep looking at me like that.
Her lips moved. “Hungry?” She broke her own spell.
I found cereal and milk in the kitchen and brought it to the cabin. Refreshed, we took a walk through the cool, chattering forest.
“So what can you do other than deal?”
“I’m good in bed.”
“I already know that, Romeo.”
“Used to write poetry and read at recitals, but I stopped and threw away what I’d written.”
“Lost my muse.” Almost said, “There’s an opening.” But then an old betrayal came to mind.
She interrupted my mixed-up memory and asked, “So, who did you like?”
Glad for her question, but couldn’t really focus. “Whitman, Rimbaud, Cummings. You?”
“I read ‘Howl’ because of the controversy and I’ve read some Sandburg. Physics majors don’t get to read a lot of poetry.”
“A physicist. Impressive!”
She found a flat smooth tree stump and sat, knees pulled up, hands pressed into the stump near her hips. I stretched out on some leaves.
“I’m not a physicist yet, but I want to be one even more now. You work on these problems and they are all so abstract and mathematical and then yesterday happens. There was time and then there was no time, fast time and slow time. The light was expanding and shrinking and switching colors and then space… I can’t even begin to formulate what I felt and saw.”
I wish I knew something about physics. Anything to talk about with her. Had an idea almost in my mind, when she slid off the stump and lay alongside me, face to face. “I’m so glad I could do it with you, in this place, and with Rachel to watch out for us.”
Now I didn’t know what to say at all. Didn’t know what to say because I felt something for her. No mistake. It was there. Hadn’t happened since Lauren and Clare. I wanted to reach out and hold her, just to hold her. Did I want to ask her how she felt about me? I didn’t have to think long though, because when she turned her eyes away and gazed up to the treetops, I knew I’d have to clean up my act before I could have a woman like her.
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.