A woman’s screams woke me at four in the morning, just as they had the night before. There were no words, just a long shrill wail like that of an injured infant, terrible to hear from a grown woman. I buried my head under my pillow, but it wasn’t enough to muffle another person’s agony. I wondered what demons came to her every night; what horrors stalked her dreams. The soft squeak of rubber soles hurried past my door, and after a few minutes the shriek broke up into blubbering sobs, then whimpered reluctantly into silence.
I was still awake three hours later when the day nurse came in with the medication cart. She handed me a glass of water and a tiny paper cup containing a single oblong red tablet.
“One lousy red?” I complained. “On the street I used to take a half-dozen of these at a time, or three or four black beauties, just for the buzz.”
“This isn’t the street, Brian,” she said. “And this Nembutol is to relax you, not for fun and games.”
“I’ll say. I can’t even feel one lousy red.” But I popped it anyway, disdaining the water. After she left I got dressed in my tie-dyed tee shirt and ragged bell-bottoms. I pulled my hair back in a rubber band and shuffled down to the common room.
There were only a couple of other patients there this early. Harry was in his usual chair in front of the TV. He looked like a high school quarterback, big and blonde and good-looking, but he hadn’t spoken in the two years since he’d gotten back from Nam. His face was impassive, but he was rocking intently as he watched Cal Worthington and a sad-looking muzzled bear hawking used cars. Carl, tall and black and thin as a licorice whip, was already at the table where he spent every waking hour, patiently working a huge complex jigsaw puzzle even though everybody knew there were dozens of pieces missing.
Neither of them looked up as I came in. I pulled a dog-eared John D. MacDonald off the shelf and flopped into a big worn easy chair. At eight one of the orderlies called us to breakfast. The other patients emerged from their rooms and the dining room was soon filled with conversation and the clatter of plastic plates on metal tables. I held my book in one hand as I forked soggy pancakes.
“Hi. Can I join you?”
I looked up at Abby standing beside me with her tray. She was a petite blonde, quite pretty, and one of the few patients around my age — she looked no more than sixteen, but you had to be eighteen to be admitted to Eight East.
“Sure,” I said, putting down my book and sliding over to make room for her. I was pleased — she seemed quiet and shy, but I’d noticed her watching me ever since I’d been admitted. I’d been looking at her too, of course -— she was the only attractive girl on the ward.
“You’re Brian?” she asked as she sat down close beside me.
“Yeah. The new kid. And you’re Abby?”
She seemed pleased that I remembered her name from the quick introductions when I was admitted. When I smiled at her she dropped her eyes shyly, so we both concentrated on our food as we talked.
“Was that your parents that came to visit yesterday?” I asked.
“I guess,” she shrugged. “They always act polite and pretend like it’s perfectly normal to be visiting their daughter on a mental ward. But they’re always really nervous when they’re here. They don’t know what to say to me. They think I’m crazy.”
“I’m schizophrenic,” she replied around a mouthful of pancake.
“Schizophrenic? Like split personalities?”
“No. Everybody always thinks that. There’s lots of different kinds of schizos. Multiple personality disorder is just one kind. I’m one of the other kinds. What about you?”
“I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Yeah, right. ‘Just visiting,’ like in Monopoly?”
“It’s all a mistake. These straights just don’t understand me. I’m saner than they are, but they just don’t see it.”
She glanced quickly at me, making eye contact for the first time.
“Listen, Brian,” she said. “Don’t go into a big denial trip on me. You’re new here. Let me tell you how it is. You’re on a psych ward. Every one of us is here for a reason. Some are raving loonies, like old Gordon over there.” She pointed with her chin at a gaunt wild-eyed man with tufts of long black hair sticking out from his head. He was stabbing at his food with his fork clenched in his fist. “They’re here because they can get dangerous,” she went on. “Some are just severe depressives, like Fat Alice and Jimmy and poor Wanda there, here for their own protection. Harry’s shell-shocked from seeing too much in Nam. Most of the rest of them are schizos or autistics or some kind of neurotic. Their families got tired of trying to deal with them, or they don’t have families. But everybody’s here for a reason. So what’s yours?”
“I’m a political prisoner,” I said. “I’m here because I’m a hippie. I’m too liberal, too free. The government put me in here because they were afraid of me.”
“Oh, paranoid delusions. Okay, I can dig that.”
“Listen,” I replied angrily, “you don’t get it, do you? I’m a member of the underground. I turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, like Leary said. I do dope, I proselytize, I resist the war machine. I’m a social revolutionary. I have committed the ultimate sin in America: I am not a consumer. What I do is illegal in this country. My own government plots against me and they lock me up when they catch me at it. That’s why I am here. These are not just paranoid delusions and I am not crazy.” I must have raised my voice, because two or three of the patients turned to look at us.
“It’s okay, man,” said an intense-looking young dude across from us. “Chill out, okay? You don’t have to pretend here.” I glared at him.
“Peter’s right, Brian,” said Abby. “There’s not too much good about this place except for one thing. You don’t have to try to cover it up any more. In here, it doesn’t matter. Here we can be ourselves.”
“This is myself. I am not a psycho.”
“How’d you get here then?” asked Peter.
“Look, last year I was still in college, pretty heavy into the dope scene. There was this big circle of people doing the same thing, and we’d be going around from one room to another, doing shit and making out and listening to music and having deep talks. And there was this one dude around the scene, kind of a nerdy little guy. He was another student like me, going to classes, taking lots of dope. We did a trip or two together, always with other people. He was just another guy, you know? Anyway, one time he heard I’d gotten some mescaline and he asked me for some. So I sold him a cap for five bucks and forgot all about it. That was a year ago. Then last week I’m in Jersey and I called home to talk to my folks and they tell me there’s a warrant out for me. Turns out the little guy was an undercover narc, and he turned over the names of everybody he’d dealt with all year. Thirty-four of us — just about everybody I knew. It was all over the local papers, how the cops had finally cleaned up that nest of Commie agitators and hippie pot heads out at the college. Feelings were running really high against us. Most of the people on the list had already been arrested in a series of big dramatic dawn raids; a few were already convicted. They were getting hard time: mostly three to five, but a couple had gotten five to ten.”
“Oh, man,” said Abby. “What did you do?”
“Well, I wanted to head to Canada, get the hell out of reach, but my parents really thought I should come home and turn myself in. They said they would bail me out right away and they’d hire a good lawyer. Unlike the other defendants, I was a local kid. I didn’t have a record. My parents were well known in the community; they knew the sheriff personally. They’d talked with him. He wouldn’t cut any deals, but he said if I turned myself in voluntarily, he was pretty sure I’d get a suspended sentence.”
“But no guarantees, huh?” said Peter. “You can’t trust the Man, man. They’ll take your balls if they can.”
“So what did you do?” asked Abby again.
“I thought about it for a long time. The lady I was with was really supportive, and we talked it over. She was a lot older than me, and she was a mom. She thought I should turn myself in. She said she’d never sleep knowing her kid was on the run from the law. I thought it over and decided to do it — better than being a fugitive the rest of my life. So I called my folks and agreed. They sent me bus fare and I came back to Ohio last Friday. They made me call the sheriff myself and tell him I was coming in. On Saturday morning my parents drove me over to the courthouse and I turned myself in. That was about the hardest thing I ever did.”
“What happened?” asked Abby, her eyes big.
“They booked me and brought me up to be arraigned right away. As soon as my charges were read, the sheriff requested a conference with the judge and my parents.”
“But not you?” asked Peter.
“No. I had to stay in the courtroom.”
“Bad scene, man. They’re going to mess with you.”
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t too worried. I figured they were just going to agree on the conditions of my bail or something. Anyway, a few minutes later they come back out. My parents looked really freaked out. I thought at first maybe the judge had set the bail really high or something. But then the judge sits down and asks if anyone present will pay my bail. And there was this long, long, long silence. I looked at my folks, kind of wondering what the delay was. But neither one would look at me. My dad was just sitting up straight, looking straight ahead. My mom was crying real soft. They didn’t say anything, and the judge remanded me into custody pending trial.”
Peter slapped his hand down on the table. “I knew it! They will fuck you over every time.”
“Oh, man, that’s cold,” said Abby. “Why’d they do that?”
“Because they’re straight and I’m hip. Because I believe in being free and making love instead of war. Because I rejected their religion and their politics and everything they always believed in.”
“So what happened? How’d you get here?”
“Well, I’m sitting there in court feeling lower than whale shit, wondering just what I did to deserve this. Then the sheriff gets up and says he doesn’t want me in his jail; that he has reason to believe I’m insane and a danger to myself and others. So here I am.”
“Come on,” said Abby. “They don’t throw every busted druggie in the looney bin. There must have been something else.”
I pushed a sausage around on my plate. “Well, maybe I did get a little melodramatic.”
“Aha!” they both said. “How?”
“Well, that last night before I turned myself in I was really scared, you know? I mean, the suspended sentence was no sure thing. I could still get ten years in the pen. It was an absolutely terrifying thought to me: to never go outside again, never go to a beach, never be alone, never get high, never get laid. Ten years is a god-damned lifetime to a twenty-year old. So I felt that my life was in the balance. I figured I was like Damocles, you know, that king with the sword hanging by a thread over his head? So to dramatize the point, I hung a big butcher knife by a thread over my pillow.”
“Oh, wow,” exclaimed Abby. “Did you sleep under it all night?”
“Yeah, sure. But it wasn’t going to really fall. It was a symbol. Anyway, after I’d gotten up my mom saw the knife over my bed and freaked out. I guess she thought I was going to cut my throat or something. So they decided they wanted me locked up for my own safety. They called the sheriff and told him about it and he said he didn’t want some stoned-out druggie messing with the other prisoners or hanging himself in his nice clean jail. The only way he’d take me was if I could be locked up in solitary so I couldn’t hurt myself. That scared my parents all over again, thinking they might have to stand a suicide watch or something, and they decided they wouldn’t bail me out after all. So in the conference the judge came up with a plan. He gave me the choice of staying in solitary until my trial, which could be months away, or coming here for a week of evaluation. If the medicos said I was okay, my parents would pay the bail and I’d be released to them. So it was solitary or the nut house, my call. That didn’t take me long. I’ve been in the can once or twice before. Jail sucks, man, it really does. I said I’d take a week in the hospital any day. I was in and out of that jail in an hour, boy.” I chuckled smugly at my cleverness.
Abby shook her head. “I’ve never been to jail,” she said. “I hear it’s pretty bad, but I’m not so sure you made the right choice.”
“Why not?” I asked in amazement. “Anybody’d tell you a hospital is better than jail. The food’s better, the rooms are nicer, they give you free drugs, and there are girls here. Even really pretty ones,” I added with a grin at Abby.
She smiled at that, but shook her head. “At least in jail you know when you’re going to get out. You could spend the rest of your life here.”
“Hey, I haven’t been committed or anything. The judge just sent me for a week’s observation. I already talked to a shrink yesterday, Doctor Warner. He seemed pretty cool. We had a nice rational talk. When the week’s up, they’ll release me back to the sheriff, my parents will bail me out, and I’ll be on the street next week, awaiting trial.”
“Oh, Brian, you don’t know how it is,” said Abby with a pitying look in her eye. I felt my smugness evaporating.
“Listen to the chick,” said Peter. “I came in ‘just for observation’ too. But the doctors decided I needed treatment and wouldn’t release me at the end of the week. That was three years ago.”
My blood ran cold. “Hey, listen, man,” I said. “Look at me. I’m perfectly rational and coherent. I’m no looney. Anybody can see that.”
“Can you prove you’re sane?” asked Peter, poking his fork at me.
“How can anyone prove they’re sane?” I replied heatedly. “The docs have to prove that I’m insane. They can’t just keep me here forever!”
“What’s to stop them?” asked Peter with a careless shrug. “You obviously don’t have the picture yet, friend. See, in a trial you’re presumed to be innocent; they have to prove you’re guilty. Here it doesn’t work like that. This isn’t a court, it’s a hospital. The doctors decide when you’re sick or well, not you, not the judge, not your lawyers. If you ever want to get out of here you have to prove to them that you’re sane. It’s all up to your psychiatrist. And remember: to him, you’re just another inmate on a psych ward, one of dozens he has to evaluate every week. There must be something wrong with you or you wouldn’t be here, that’s the way they think. There’s nothing you can say. And dig it, brother: if he says you’re crazy, then as far as the state is concerned, you are. There’s no trial, no appeal, no review. That’s all she wrote, brother. You’ll be weaving hot pads and doing finger paints until you’re old and gray.”
“But they can’t do that! I’m perfectly sane!”
“Sure, man,” said Peter wryly. “We all are.”
“I’m not,” said Abby angrily. “And neither are you, Peter. You’re paranoid. You always think the whole staff is out to get you. Leave Brian alone. You’re freaking him out.”
“Just telling it how it is, little lady,” he shrugged.
“Is that true what he said?” I asked her. “Can they keep me here indefinitely?”
“Yeah, that part’s true. They’ll keep you here until they all agree that you’re okay to be let out.”
“Shit, man. You mean I have to convince a whole bunch of straight shrinks and nurses and whatnot that I’m normal?”
“Oh, Christ. Look at me. Look at my hair; they way I’m dressed. Dig it, people, I’m a hippie. Do you know what that means? That means I don’t think like ‘mah fella ‘Merkins,’ as Lyndon Johnson calls them. And that means most people think I’m weird. People think I’m crazy just for having long hair and wearing hippie clothes. But that’s nothing compared to what’s inside. I am in the Resistance Movement. I take illegal drugs, I avoid the draft, I refuse to pay taxes. I’m working against the government and its thought police and its storm troopers.”
“Wow,” said Abby. “Why?”
“Because they are doing evil in our names. I believe the United States is crushing out democracy in the third world. I believe the FBI murdered Kennedy. I believe the war in Vietnam is a creation of the arms industry. I believe the CIA smuggles cocaine to finance death squads in Nicaragua. I believe drug laws are political weapons to eliminate free-thinking citizens.”
Abby stared at me thoughtfully, obviously taken aback. But Peter just snorted.
“Well, I don’t know if any of that stuff is true or not,” he said. “But if I were you, I’d keep my mouth shut about it. On the outside those opinions are just something to argue about over a beer. At the worst, they could earn you a punch in the nose in most bars. But in here, I’d say they’re a lifetime pass to the funny farm.”
“Oh shit,” I moaned. “I should have taken solitary.”
“That’s the first thing you’ve said that sounds sane to me,” Peter replied.
“Dammit, Peter,” said Abby. “Can’t you see you’re terrifying the poor guy?”
“Okay, okay,” said Peter. “Don’t you get on my case, too. I was just giving him some advice.” He picked up his tray and moved off, muttering “Man, why is everybody always coming down on me?”
I sat with my head in my hands, my food forgotten. What had I done? Had I just made the biggest mistake of my life?
“Hey, Brian, it’s okay,” said Abby. She slid over and put her arm around me. It felt like a sisterly hug, but I was very aware of the warmth of her breast pressed against me. My body responded and she must have been aware of it, because she leaned closer. Lot of good an erection was going to do either of us in this place, I thought. But it felt good to have her there with me. I smiled gratefully at her.
“Not so close, you two,” came a voice from behind us. I looked up to see a muscular young black man in a white smock.
“Hey, we were just talking, man,” I said. “Back off.”
“Back off yourself, man,” he said. With one effortless shove he slid me two feet down the bench. “Hey!” I began indignantly, but one look at Abby’s face told me all I needed to know about the wisdom of objecting.
“We were just talking,” I growled. “The lady wasn’t complaining.”
“The lady isn’t likely to, is she?” he said with a nasty laugh. “But I am. Keep your distance from her or you’ll be confined to your room.” He glared at me until I looked away, then he moved off to the back of the room.
“Who the hell is that Nazi?” I grumbled after he left.
“That’s Ray, the orderly,” she whispered. “He’s always watching me. He thinks he’s my protector or something. Don’t mess with him. He’s bad news.”
“What’s he going to do? Work me over with a rubber hose or something?”
“No, but he reports to the psychiatric evaluation committee. If you ever want to get out of here, don’t get on his bad side.” She got up and took her tray to the window. I finished my breakfast alone, feeling cold dread slowly grow inside me.
At eleven I was led to a tiny consulting room. Dr. Warner was a slim young man in jeans and a jacket over a turtleneck. He didn’t fit my image of a psychiatrist, and I’d felt comfortable with him at our first session the day before. He was writing on a yellow legal pad when I came in, but he looked up when I sat down.
“Hi, doc,” I said. “What do I have to do to get out of this place?”
He gave me a level look. “Are you in a hurry to get out now? You seemed happy to be here yesterday.”
“I’ve been thinking it over — my decision to come here, I mean. I’m not so sure I knew just what I was getting into when I agreed to it. I just want to know how it works. Is that some kind of secret or something?”
“No, not at all. There is a psychiatric evaluation committee that meets once a week. They decide when you will be released.”
“Who’s on this committee?”
“It consists of the psychiatric staff of course, plus representatives from the hospital administration and from the nursing staff. We review each patient’s case. We hear a brief report from his therapist about their sessions that week, and we talk to the nurses and orderlies about behavior they have observed on the ward. Often…”
“Wait a minute,” I cut in. “Let me get this straight. All these people on this committee, some of whom I’ve never even met, they make the decision for me? I don’t even get to express an opinion?”
“That’s right. You must see that we can’t allow the patients to have a voice in the committee. As the therapist assigned to your case, I represent your interests and your opinions to the committee.”
“So I take it, Doc, that as my therapist, your opinion will carry the most weight in this evaluation committee. You basically make the call, right?” He shrugged and nodded.
“I make a recommendation and most often they go along with it, yes.”
“But they all have to agree if I deserve to live the rest of my life?”
“The committee has to concur with me that you no longer need to be confined, yes.”
“All of them?”
“The decision doesn’t have to be unanimous, but if one member has a strong objection to release, the others are unlikely to override him.”
“So you all have to agree I’m sane?”
“Well, sanity is an inexact term. We don’t use it ourselves. But yes, we all have to agree that you are not a danger to yourself or the community. That you’re functionally more or less normal.”
“Yeah, that’s what worries me. What does normal mean? I mean, whose concept of normal do I have to meet? Look at me, I have long hair, I wear hippie clothes, I take dope, I’m against the establishment. Lots of straight people would say I’m abnormal just for that.”
“This isn’t a police state yet, Brian. You’re still free to dissent. This country was founded by dissenters. ”
“Yeah. But I think most people don’t see hippies in quite the same light as the founding fathers.”
He chuckled. “Refusing to conform doesn’t make you insane, Brian. We’re looking for evidence of psychological disorders — hallucinations, delusions, compulsive behavior, severe depression.”
“This place would make anyone depressed.”
“But it doesn’t,” he said, leaning forward intently. “Haven’t you noticed it in the other patients? Some are deeply disturbed, of course, but many of the others, the ones who look quote normal unquote — they often aren’t depressed about being here at all.”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I did notice that. I guess I expected people with their hands in their coats claiming to be Napoleon, but still raging against the injustice of being locked up. I guess I expected everybody here would deny being crazy.”
“Like you,” he said with a sly grin.
“Ouch, touché. But I talked to Abby this morning and she admits that she’s not sane. She seems to think this is the right place for her right now. She talked about how she doesn’t have to pretend in here.”
“Yes, I think that’s it. Many lay people seem to think mental illness is something that just happens to you, like a stroke or a heart attack. You’re cruising along perfectly fine and suddenly you go insane. But it’s not like that, not for most people. Of course, sometimes it does begin suddenly, as a result of some trauma. But most patients feel they’ve always had their condition, have always known they were different. They spend their lives denying it, fighting it, attempting to hide it. For them, the appearance of sanity is not a natural state but a disguise, one that is always crumbling and falling off. For such people just moving about in society, interacting with others, is a constant effort. It’s a struggle that drains their energy and leaves them with not enough to battle the real causes of their disease. Finally it gets to be too much. When they come here, they often see it as blessed relief. They don’t have to pretend to be normal. Here no one looks down on them if they talk incessantly or retreat into silence or spend the day rocking in front of the TV. Nothing is expected of them. Finally they can be themselves and perhaps work on a solution to their problems.”
“But that’s not me,” I said. “Sure, I always felt that I was different from most people, but I thought that was good. One look at a newspaper should tell you that the world is not being run by sane people. People are building bombs for world peace; they’re killing people for liberty. This is not logical behavior. When I was growing up I thought I saw the world more clearly than most people; that I understood more. I knew I was different, but I never thought I was insane.”
Dr. Warner watched me attentively, and I wondered what he was thinking. Did my arguments make any sense to him, or did he think I was only rationalizing? Perhaps he thought I was raving. Gathering my nerve, I asked the question that was haunting me.
“So do you think I’m nuts, Doc?”
He rolled his pencil between his hands, considering.
“I’m going to be frank with you, Brian, more so than I would be with most of my patients. You’re a very bright young man, well-read and well-educated. But in my opinion, you were borderline delusional when you were admitted. You weren’t violent, but you were withdrawn, defensive, and depressed.”
“Look, doc,” I replied. “Here’s my situation. Last week I was living with a beautiful woman in a lovely house in the woods of New Jersey, high as a kite and happy as a clam. It was a very exciting time in our relationsip. We’d been eyeing each other for weeks, each secretly wanting the other and afraid to speak up, and then finally it happened and it was great. It was that wonderful time in a relationship when you’re just exploring each other sexually and everything is incredibly intense and exciting. Anyway, I felt happier than I had in way too long. So I decided to call my parents and tell them that; I hadn’t talked to them in months and I knew they must be worried. So they tell me that my whole damn college has been busted and all my friends, these lovely gentle people, are going to jail, some of them for a long, long, time. A warrant has been issued for my arrest.
“Well, that brought me down fast. I was a wanted criminal. My picture would be in the post office. I could get twenty years if I were caught. Even if I were never caught, what would life be like? I couldn’t leave the country, I couldn’t vote, I couldn’t go back to college, I couldn’t buy a damn car. My American dream, my pursuit of happiness, had been stripped away forever. And for what? Did I kill or rape or sell atomic secrets to the Soviets? No, I sold a man a pill he asked me to sell him; and I smoked a common roadside weed. I was bitter, I was angry, and mostly I was really, really scared. And my new lady is devastated, too. I mean, she meets a new lover, and then a week or so later she finds he’s a wanted felon. But she was great. She just sat down and started trying to work out what I should do. My folks wanted me to turn myself in, and she finally came to agree with them.
“I couldn’t decide if that was a good idea or the absolutely stupidest possible thing I could possibly do. I had an image of me sitting on a cot in a cell, with all these guys laughing and smacking their foreheads saying, “You mean the cops busted you while you weren’t there and you walked into the cop shop?” Har, har, har. We did a lot of thinking and talking, and I finally decided that for once in my life I was going to do the right thing, the sensible thing, even though it would probably mean doing some jail time, which frankly scares the crap out of me. So I come home to turn myself in, and I find that my grandfather is visiting my parents. He’s this nice gentle old man in his eighties who’s always been very nice to me. But he’s as straight as J. Edgar Hoover. He’s old, he’s from Germany, he’s a minister. He doesn’t have a clue about what’s been happening in this country in the last few years. He doesn’t know about hippies and drugs and draft resisters. And he sure as hell wouldn’t understand about me selling drugs. So my parents haven’t told him what’s going down; they told him I’m on my way back to college, and they make me promise to not let him know or it might kill the old guy.
“So there I am, having dinner with mom and dad and grandpa, and I’m thinking that this is probably my last night as a free man for the next decade or two. I am scared absolutely shitless, not at all sure that I’m doing the right thing. I could really use a good long talk with my folks, or somebody. But we can’t even mention it. Grandpa is asking me what subjects I’m taking and how my grades are and if I’ve met any nice girls. He’s asking me about my love life and I’m thinking the next sex I get will be four big black dudes holding me down across a toilet. These reflections did not make me a sparkling dinner guest.”
“I can see that situation could be hard to take,” said Dr. Warner. “Did you say anything to your grandfather?”
“No, man, how could I? How could I ever explain any of it to him? I sat there and ate and smiled and lied to his face. Mom and dad did, too. We told him I was majoring in geology and I expected to graduate in June. We lied and lied and he nodded and smiled. After dinner we played cards, man. Mom and dad and I all knew what was going down in the morning and none of us said a word. We played fucking cards. That was the longest damn evening of my life. I just felt dirty, you know? Unclean. Like I’d slipped a turd in the old man’s dessert and he didn’t know it and he was eating it up. On top of the lying, I felt like my life was ending in the morning and I couldn’t even bring up the damn subject.”
“Is that why you hung the knife over your bed?”
“Yeah, I guess. We couldn’t talk about it, but I wanted something to mark that this was not just another night. I felt this terrible doom rushing toward me and there wasn’t a god-damned thing I could do to avoid it. I felt like I was on death row, just waiting for my execution at dawn.”
“No one gets executed for drugs, Brian. There’s still a good chance you’ll just get probation. You haven’t even been convicted yet.”
“I sold dope to a narc, man. That tiny blue tablet I sold that little shit last year is now in a baggie marked Exhibit A. What am I going to do — deny it? Pretend I didn’t know it was illegal? Plead temporary insanity? There’s no possible defense, no hope of getting off.”
“They could let you off with a fine and a warning.”
“Not in this county. The sheriff got elected because he promised he’d clean out the ‘outside commie agitators and drug pushers’ on the college campus. He’s making his career here. He wants to make an example of us, burn us so bad that it will scare all the local kids away from drugs forever. He’s asking for the maximum sentence for every one of us. That’s twenty years. I’m twenty-one, doc. I’ll be in my forties before I get out. To me that’s the same as a death sentence. And it’s all completely out of my control. It’s up to a jury of my peers. Who are my peers? Do I get twelve hippies to judge me? No, I get middle-class white burghers, the kind that glare at me on the street and won’t serve me in their restaurants. I keep thinking that there are these people I’ve never met and probably wouldn’t like if I did, and they’re going to decide if I get to have the rest of my life.”
“I can understand that you have reason to be anxious. So do you feel that all of this is the cause of your depression?”
“Depression? Look, Doc, this has not been the greatest week for me. In the last seven days I’ve been busted, forced to leave a wonderful new woman, ordered to lie to my grandfather, been betrayed by my parents, sent to jail, kicked out of jail because I’m psycho, and locked up in a mental hospital. This is not my idea of a good time. Of course I’m depressed. Who wouldn’t be depressed?”
“Depressed enough to consider suicide? Apparently your parents thought so, the sheriff thought so, and the judge thought so.”
“Not true,” I said decisively. I hesitated, then decided to explain. “I’ve thought about it, sure. Sometimes when things are all fucked up and I get really depressed, I think about it. Who hasn’t? I always know that if things ever get bad enough, I could take that way out. I’m not afraid of death, not of being dead anyway; I think it’s just the end of experience. I mean, I don’t believe I’m going to hell or committing a sin or anything. But in a funny way knowing I have the option gives me the strength to go on, take a few more slings and arrows, you know? It’s like I say to myself, ‘this is pretty bad, but I can still take it. And if it gets too bad, I can just step out the exit.’ It makes it easier to bear the hard stuff. But I have no intention of dying yet. There’s still too much I haven’t done. I’ve never even been close to exercising the option.”
“And yet you continue to take massive quantities of illegal drugs, fully aware of the dangers. You told me yesterday you’ve had several friends who’ve died of overdoses. Perhaps you’re trying to tempt fate? Putting yourself in the way of an accident would still be suicide, you know.”
“I’m not trying to kill myself with drugs, I’m trying to find myself. Of course people can get hurt with drugs, but not many actually do. You hear so much about bad trips and people never coming down and so on, but it very rarely happens. The vast majority of drug users take them all the time with very little ill effect. They wouldn’t keep taking them if they didn’t enjoy them. Of course there’s a risk. But race car drivers and mountain climbers take risks and no one thinks they should all be locked up. Do you think they all have pathological death wishes? Why should taking a potentially dangerous drug be particularly irrational?”
“They’re also illegal. Aside from any question of the health dangers, they’re still controlled substances. If you’re caught using them you’ll go to jail, possibly for a good part of your life. You’ve been arrested before, the idea of prison terrifies you, and yet you persist in taking them. Is that rational behavior?”
“I think it is. I think certain drugs are important. They allow us to learn things we could not know by other means. I think it is immoral that the government tries to deny them to the people who want to use them. We don’t make cars illegal when someone has an accident. We don’t make planes illegal because one crashes now and then. People are going to take drugs; they always have, in every culture, all the way through history.”
“Drugs are dangerous. People have been terribly damaged, even killed.”
“If drugs are bad for you, and some certainly are, it should be a medical issue or an educational issue, not a legal one. We’re not harming anyone else. It’s supposed to be a free country. Whose concern is it but ours?”
“Many people feel drug use is a disease.”
“If it is a disease, why do we put its victims in jail? Treat those who request treatment. If it’s not a disease, it’s just a social custom, and what business does the government have trying to tell us what to smoke or eat or drink? The police should be catching murderers and rapists and burglars and stopping domestic violence, not pretending to be students to trick people who aren't hurting anybody. I’m not standing around school playgrounds pushing dope, for Christ's sake. I sell it to friends who ask me for it. I’m supplying a social need. Didn’t the first Prohibition teach us the law has no business trying to dictate what people put in their bodies? All criminalization does is put the trade in the hands of gangsters and make a bunch of good people outlaws. And it drives the prices up so high people do illegal or immoral or dishonest things to be able to afford them. How many girls would be turning tricks to get dope if it cost two bucks at any liquor store? When drugs are outlawed, only outlaws will use drugs.”
Doctor Warner could see he’d touched on a sore subject with me. He gestured for me to calm down. “So why do you take so many drugs?” he asked. “To escape those slings and arrows of reality?”
“I’m not trying to avoid reality, doc, I’m trying to divine it — in both senses of the word. I want to divine the truth about reality, figure out just what the hell it is; and I also want to make it divine, to imbue it with some higher meaning. Surely this whole beautiful elaborate world wasn’t created just so we could sit around eating TV dinners and watching Lost in Space reruns. I want to see God, or be Him, or at least ask Her some questions. I’m trying to understand, if that’s possible.”
“Trying to understand what?”
“It. Everything. Why we’re here. How we got here. What should we be doing with our time here. What could be more important than the answer to those questions? I see psychedelic drugs as a tool — a vehicle for exploration. I see myself like Captain Cook -— you know, ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before.’”
“Wasn’t that Captain Kirk?”
“James Cook said it before James Kirk.”
“Did he now?” He made a note on his yellow pad. I tried to see what he was writing.
“Hey, doc, I said I was like Cook, not that I am him. That was an allusion, not a delusion.”
“I know, Brian,” he chuckled. “I was noting down that bit of trivia for my Star Trek friends. So that’s why you take drugs? For a religious experience?”
“Not always. Sometimes it’s just for fun, or as a social thing at a party of something, you know. But usually, yeah, it is for a religious experience, though I don’t usually call it that. I am not a religious guy; I don’t have a spiritual bone in my head. I think all these hippies going on about the tarot cards and the I Ching and whatnot are nuts. Basically I believe in the scientific approach. But when I trip I see things I’ve never seen; understand things I’ve never understood before. I become aware of relationships I’ve never noticed before; levels of meaning become clear. There’s nothing empirical about it; it’s just a flash of pure comprehension. It’s true experiential learning. And it works. It really does. I’ve had scores of these experiences. But every trip is completely different. Sometimes it’s just fun. Sometimes it’s to really get to know somebody, maybe some chick, you know? Sometimes it’s just to experience being alone with yourself with all barriers down, all constraints removed. You always see new stuff, but which stuff you get into depends on where you are, who you’re with, how you’re feeling. It’s the setting, as Tim Leary says. It’s different every time. But always it feels like you’re raised above the ordinary plane of existence.”
“I don’t know exactly,” I said. “Every tripper knows what I mean, but it’s hard to put into words. It’s nearly impossible to describe to someone who’s never experienced it.”
“Well, I don’t really know how. It’s like trying to describe what a banana tastes like to someone who’s never had one. We don’t have the words for it.”
“In what way do you feel different?”
“Everything is different. You feel different, but also the whole world around you seems different, too. You could just be sitting in your room like you have a million time before, but now the experience is completely new. There’s a sense of significance, an immanence that pulses and glows in everyone and everything. You feel connected, however briefly, to a reality infinitely higher and deeper and more resonant with meaning than the everyday world.”
“That’s very moving, Brian. You put it poetically.”
“There’s no other way to talk about it. That’s why people use music and poetry to try to describe it. Listen to Jimi Hendrix or the Grateful Dead or the Stones or the Beatles or the Jefferson Airplane. They know.” I watched him scribbling hurriedly and I suddenly became anxious. I remembered that this was a psychiatric session.
“Hey, does that sound crazy to you? Are you writing that I’m spaced out, irrational? If we were just two guys talking about this you might agree with me or disagree and it wouldn’t matter. But you’re here to judge me. If you disagree with what I say, you could write down that I’m crazy and I’d be stuck here forever.”
“I am not writing down that you’re crazy. I noted that you have experienced hallucinations. You don’t deny that, do you?”
“No, but only when I’m tripping. Look doc, these are powerful drugs we’re talking about here. Some researchers call them psychomimetics; they say that they mimic a psychosis. I don’t know enough about psychosis to know if that’s true, but I do know about tripping. I take a pill, my perception changes, and I see things I don’t normally see. For want of a better word, you call them hallucinations. But is it a temporary psychosis, is it a glimpse of God, or is it a window torn into a higher plane of being? I don’t know either. I’d like to find out. That’s why I take them.”
“But still,” he said. “The fact remains that you have experienced hallucinations recently. That could be symptomatic of other psychological conditions. I can’t ignore the possibility.”
“I don’t like the term hallucination. It implies illusion, falsehood, seeing something that isn’t there; in short, madness.”
“It’s all right, Brian,” he said reassuringly. “Anyone can experience hallucinations. It’s not always a sign of mental illness. Any number of stimuli can cause us to see things that aren’t there — trauma, exhaustion, fever, psychosis, trance, drugs. The illness lies in not being able to tell what’s real.”
“But maybe some of them really are there, but we just normally don’t see them. Like phosphenes, those paisley patterns on the surfaces of our eyes. If you stare up at a blank sky and look for them, there they are, right in front of you all the time. They’re like little iridescent paramecia and spinning starbursts. We noticed them when we were children, but our parents told us they weren’t real and we learned to ignore them. But trippers temporarily lose the ability to filter them out. They see them everywhere they look. And they’re really beautiful — that’s why paisley prints have come back into style. That’s a hallucination. But it’s real too. There really are patterns on our eyes.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Do you contend there may really be pink elephants in the bars?”
I sighed. “That’s not LSD, that’s the DT’s. No, I don’t believe there are pink elephants flying around in bars. But tripping has taught me to be more tolerant of other people’s perceptions. I’ve experienced altered perceptions myself, so I know how real they can be. I’m no longer so sure that what I see at any one time is the whole reality. If a drunk tells me he sees pink elephants flying around, I don’t believe they’re really there, any more than I did before I started tripping. But now I might put a hand over my drink, just in case.”
He chuckled. “So you deny the truth of the drunk’s hallucinations, and yet you seem to feel that your own have some deeper significance. How do you reconcile that?”
I considered for a minute. “The experiences are different in kind. Okay, here’s a case in point. One winter evening I was tripping by myself in my dorm room. Sometime in the middle of the night I decided to see what it was like outside and I went out on the porch. I found to my surprise that it was snowing heavily, and the snow was a deep blood red. Red flakes drifting down, deep red drifts on the ground and on the bushes. Was that a hallucination?”
He nodded. “Sure. Snow is white.”
“Not that night, it wasn’t. See, we had a red porch light on the dorm.”
“Oh, I see,” he smiled. “You didn’t mention that. So it was really white snow, but with a red light on it.”
“No, it was red snow. Look, if you took somebody who’s never seen snow out on that porch and asked him what color the stuff on the ground was, he wouldn’t hesitate for a second: he’d say it was red.”
“But he’d be wrong.”
“No, he’d be right. There’s nothing intrinsically white about snow. The color of an object is just the wavelength of light reflecting off it. Snow reflects all colors of light that fall on it equally. We normally say snow is white because we usually see it in white light. But that night that snow was reflecting red light, so it really was red snow. If we weren’t tripping, we’d look out there and see the red snow, but our minds would say, ‘Wait a minute. Snow’s not red, it’s white. There must be a red light shining on it.’ But because I was tripping, that internal conversation never happened, and the snow remained what it truly was — red. That’s the way I think psychedelic hallucinations work. The drugs break down the filters we’ve erected between ourselves and the world and allow us to see things we’ve been trained to ignore.”
The doctor had laid down his pencil and was staring at me. I realized that in my enthusiasm for my subject I had gotten carried away again.
“Uh, listen, doc,” I said. “You did ask me to tell you about drug hallucinations.”
“Yes, I did, and I would very much like to hear more, but we’re out of time for today. Brian, this drug craze that’s sweeping the country, it’s new to this area. We’ve had very little experience with these street drugs here in Dayton. I venture to say that nobody on the medical staff of this hospital knows as much as you do about them. I mean about their street names, why people do them, what they feel like, how people react when they’re on them. I think you could do us a huge service by telling us whatever you can about the drugs and their effects.”
“You mean acid in particular, or just any drugs?”
“Anything you want. Why don’t you make a list of all the drugs you’re familiar with and then in our next session we can go over it and you can tell me whatever you think might be useful about each one.”
“Should this list be like a dictionary?”
“Whatever format you want. Will you do that?””
“Sure, man. That’d be fun. It’ll give me something to do.”
“Great. Let’s call it your therapy for this week.”
The screamer woke me up at four again. I lay rigid in my bed, listening. It was excruciating to be able to hear her naked terror so intimately without even knowing who she was. It was embarrassing, too, like listening to somebody throw up. No one should hurt like that alone in the night. Part of me wanted to get up to see if I could help, but much stronger was the sense of relief that I didn’t have to go to her, that the nurses would deal with it. I tried to picture what they were doing in that room. Were they talking with her, comforting her, or were they just ramming more downers down her throat, trying to get through their shifts without further disturbance? Was she being restrained? I was glad I didn’t have to be there, in the presence of such pure misery.
It was impossible to get back to sleep. I kept turning, tugging the sheets into knots, trying to find a position that would let me rest, let me drift back into the agreeable dreams I had been torn from. Long after the sounds had faded away I lay staring at the ceiling, reflecting that, as difficult as my life had become, there were depths of pain I had never even glimpsed.
That day in the common room I studied the women, trying to guess which was the screamer. Wanda, the nervous frightened little mouse? Fat Alice, with her darting, suspicious eyes and ponderous hips? Or was it Beryl, the scowling unfriendly black woman? Hard to imagine any of them shrieking like that.
When I went in for my session with Dr. Warner, he asked me how my drug dictionary was coming.
“Pretty good. I started with grass cause it’s the easiest.”
“Yeah. Sometimes called pot or weed or Mary Jane or hemp or smoke or shit or most often just plain dope. It’s the dried leaves of a common roadside plant, Cannabis sativa. There’s also Indian hemp, Cannabis indica.”
“How does it make you feel?”
“It depends on how you’re feeling. Usually just happy. A lot of times it makes you kind of giddy and giggly. Sometimes kind of thoughtful and pensive. Sometimes mystical. It really enhances your senses. Food tastes absolutely great, smells smell wonderful, colors seem brighter. A lot of times I’ll get high and just listen to music for hours, and it seems like I can hear every note. I can listen to the same record over and over and each time I listen to a different part. I’ll listen to the lyrics and the way the singer sings it, then I’ll listen to the lead, then the bass, then the drums, then the rhythm guitar. You really get to understand the whole music that way. And sex is usually way better.”
“It doesn’t interfere with sex?”
“Occasionally if you’re really stoned out it can get in the way, but usually it intensifies the sensations. Sometimes the silliness gets in the way. I once saw this list of the ten dangers of marijuana. The first was that it ruined sex, as in ‘Oh darling, your pickles are nuppered.’”
Dr. Warner laughed out loud. “I can see that might change the mood.”
“I also really enjoy having a smoke and then going for a walk in the woods. Just being by myself in nature feels so perfect.”
“I see. And you smoke it, right?”
“You can smoke it or eat it. Smoking it comes on real fast. Eating it takes longer, but it lasts longer and it’s stronger. It tastes a little like hay, so it’s better ground up fine and cooked with something stronger tasting. It’s great in brownies or chocolate cake.”
“Does it come in different kinds?”
“Oh, sure. Mexican dope is stronger than the California weed. And the stuff from Southeast Asia seems to be the strongest. That may be the only good thing that’s come out of the Vietnam War. There’s Acapulco gold and Vietnamese black and Panama red and lots more.”
“It’s different colors?”
“Not really. But the buds are kind of hairy, and the colors refer to the color of the fuzz. The stuff that grows around here is generally light green.”
“It grows around here? I thought it was all smuggled in.”
“Nah. It grows great around here. It’s a weed. It grows naturally in the fields and along the roads. It used to be very common everywhere until they made it illegal. Now it’s all been pulled up, either by the cops or by the heads.”
“Why do you think it’s illegal? Don’t you think that indicates that it’s dangerous?”
“Nah. People have been smoking grass all through history. But when Prohibition ended there were all these drug agents that would have been out of a job. Since they couldn’t bust into peoples’ houses and smash all their bottles anymore, they jumped on the next most popular drug and made grass illegal. That’s the only reason. Until they started this big campaign against it in the thirties, it was a common household remedy. People used it to help them relax or to relieve pain. It’s supposed to be good for hypertension and glaucoma, too.”
“So does that about cover marijuana?”
“Are you kidding? I haven’t even started on hash. That’s hashish, made from the pollen and resins of the flower of the hemp plant. It mostly comes from the Middle East or southern Asia. The legend is that young girls cover themselves with oil and run naked through the pot fields to collect the pollen. It comes in blocks. Some is soft and crumbly, almost like light-brown dried mud. That’s Lebanese brown. Others, like Afghani black, are hard and sticky, more like tar. Nepalese hash is very hard and shiny, you have to shave it off with a knife. Some people stick a chunk on a pin and heat it. I usually put a little bit on top of a pipeful of pot. It has a wonderful smell when it burns and gives a more intense high than grass.
“Then there’s THC, tetrahydrocannabinol. That’s the active ingredient in grass. It’s pretty strong, but a hassle to extract so you don’t see it around much. Then there’s hash oil, a liquid form of hashish, and Thai sticks, which are the dried flowers and buds all tied up in little skinny bundles. Oil and sticks are both very strong.”
Dr. Warner watched me a moment.
“Okay,” he said. “So have you covered marijuana now?”
“A brief overview. In a nutshell.”
“I can see that this drug dictionary is going to be a bigger effort than I thought.”
“Is it too much?”
“No, no. It’s all very useful. Be sure you get it all written down. But I hadn’t intended for it to take up all our time. We’re nearly out of time for today.”
“We can talk about something else if you want. You’re the doctor.”
“No, it’s fine. I suspect for me to understand where you’re at in your life right now I’m going to have to know about the street drugs. I tend to think of them as a symptom, an indication of a deeper problem that I have to get to. But with you, they’re not just an escape. They seem to be pretty central to your life style.”
“They are central. I mean, there’s this whole hippie thing going on these days, and it has many facets. There’s the usual rebellion of the younger generation against the older, there’s the whole anti-war movement, there’s this resistance to the cold war space race military establishment thing, there’s the civil rights thing, there’s an unwillingness to just get a boring job to make the payments. Young people everywhere are refusing to follow the courses their parents laid out for them. The Provos in Paris, the Prague Spring, the East Village, Haight-Ashbury, Carnaby Street, Soho… it’s happening all over the world. But I feel that it’s all really held together by this discovery that people have made about drugs — that they can open your mind. And the communication medium is the music, the rock’n’roll. The Beatles put out a song that tells you to turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream, and kids all over the world do just that. Jimi Hendrix asks Are You Experienced? and millions of people scream back Yes! In this case, the medium really is the message. The drugs are not just recreational. They are both the medium and the message.”
“So if I want to know what makes you tick, I guess you better tell me what you know about them. Keep going on your project. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Paranoid Pete and I were playing a game of gin rummy that evening. I was counting up my points when someone leaned against my back. I looked up.
“Hi, Brian. How was your session?”
“Okay. He has me writing up a paper on street drugs for the medical staff.”
“Cool. Sounds like more fun than my therapy.”
“Yeah. It should be interesting.”
“That’s not therapy,” said Peter.
“What do you mean?”
“They’re never going to actually use your paper. It’s diagnostic. They just want to see just how wigged out you really are.”
“Hey, I’m not wigged out. You talk like I’m some spaced-out junkie or something. I haven’t had so much as a joint in ten days and I’m not climbing the walls or anything. I like dope, sure, but I’m not dependent on it.”
“Maybe so, but they’ll figure anybody as much into drugs as you are is unable to cope with the real world. ‘What is he trying to escape?’ they’ll ask.”
“I don’t take drugs to escape. I try to push the limits, to see what’s out there beyond the horizon.”
“That sounds looney even to me, and I’m a looney. If you’re not really careful, they’re going to get you for sure.”
“Oh, Peter,” said Abby. “You always think the staff is out to get us.”
Peter looked at me in disgust. “That’s the trouble with being paranoid,” he grumbled. “Everybody is always picking on you about it.”
We both laughed and he left in a mock huff. Abby ran her hands down my shoulders and over my chest. I pressed back against her softness with a sigh.
“Why do you do that?” I whispered. “You know how it turns me on, but it’s hopeless in here. Besides, if Field Marshal Ray sees us we’ll both be in trouble.”
“To hell with Ray. He’s off duty now.”
I looked around. The only attendant visible was Mercedes, the little Puerto Rican nurse, working with Weird Mary at the modeling clay table.
“Do you wanna mess around?” whispered Abby in my ear.
“Sure, but we can’t.”
“Don’t you find me attractive?” She pressed her breasts into the back of my head.
I sighed in pleasure. “Well, of course I do. What do you think? But we can’t do anything in here and I don’t want to fuck up our chances of getting out.”
She jerked away from me. “It’s your chances you’re worried about, not mine,” she cried. “You don’t give a shit about me!” The other patients turned to look at us.
I spun around in surprise. “Hey, what makes you say that? I like you, Abby.”
“Yeah, sure you do. Because I’ve got nice boobs, right? That’s the only reason you’re around me. I know your type.”
I stared at her angry face in amazement. “What is that supposed to mean, my type? Hey, what brought all this on?” I said. “I didn’t do anything. Weren’t you coming on to me?”
“So I have to make all the moves? What’s the matter, can’t get it up for me?”
“What the hell are you so mad about?”
“Because you ignore me. You’re always pushing me away.”
“I’m not. I think you’re great. I like you and I think you’re hot. If there was a chance we could get away with it I’d be on you like a goat. But in here there just doesn’t seem to be any point in getting ourselves all worked up.”
“But you like it when I flirt with you, don’t you?”
“Sure I do.”
“Why do you like it if I come on to you, but you never try to hit on me? Do you just like playing hard to get? You like being pursued for a change?”
“Well, yeah, sure. It’s kind of fun.”
“You ask that question a lot, don’t you?”
“I’ll keep asking until you answer. Why do you like to feel pursued?”
“Well, I don’t know. I guess it’s flattering. It makes me feel good. I mean, everybody wants to feel wanted, don’t they?”
She stared at me, but her expression had changed. Her flash of anger was gone.
“Do they?” she said, in a tone that made me realize it wasn’t a rhetorical question.
“Well, yeah. Sure. I mean, I think everybody does.”
“So it makes you feel good about yourself if a girl comes on to you?”
“Of course. Well, not any girl. I mean, not if she’s a hooker or really ugly or something. But if a nice chick gives me the look, man, that’s a great feeling.”
She came over and swung her leg over the next chair. She rested her chin on the back and looked at me with her head tilted.
“What about me?” she asked.
“What do you think, Abby? You can’t tell I find you attractive? I develop a limp every time I walk past you.” I lowered my voice even more. “Want to know the truth? Every night since we met I’ve made love to you through about six walls.”
She giggled. “Really?”
“Sure. Why should you be surprised? You’re smart and funny and you know what’s going down around you. You’re out front and you don’t take no bullshit. Not to mention you’re beautiful. You’re a foxy lady, Abby. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that?”
She stared blankly for a second, then met my eyes.
“No,” she said. “No one ever did.”
“Come on. You must have guys chasing you around all the time.”
She nodded emphatically. “There’s lots of guys that want to fuck me, that’s for sure. But no one ever told me I was a ‘foxy lady.’”
I laughed. “You can’t ever say that again.”
She smiled, but her eyes were distant again. “No, I guess I can’t, can I?”
Whatever had caused her anger seemed to have passed. We sat in companionable conversation for a half hour or so, then it was bedtime. I gave her a gallant bow and offered my hand to help her up. She laughed and leaned close.
“What you said?” she whispered. “About making love to me when you were alone in your room?”
“Yeah?” I replied with a blush. I was suddenly sorry I had mentioned it. What if I had offended her?
Then she was gone, down the corridor to the women’s section. Just before she disappeared, she gave me a lecherous wink.
The screamer woke me as usual the next morning, but after listening for a few minutes I fell back to sleep. When I woke up I thought back on it and wondered if I were growing calloused or simply getting used to life on the ward. I wanted to ask somebody who the screamer was, but I didn’t feel that I could. I had noticed that, while many patients spoke quite openly about their own psychological problems, they rarely discussed those of other patients. Carl worked on his puzzle with fierce intensity, Harry rocked and watched inane television, Lucy walked around wringing her hands and berating herself; but they were neither gawked at nor shunned. It would have been considered rude of me to ask Carl why he worked on the hopeless puzzle. No doubt the other patients would have come to his defense, even though they might have never exchanged a word with him. In the same way, no one ever mentioned the screamer. She had a right to scream. After all, if you can’t scream in a madhouse, where can you scream?
I spent the morning working on my dictionary of street drugs, then got up a game of hearts with Abby and Peter later. They were both intelligent perceptive people and it was an enjoyable conversation. Peter was angry with his therapist, who had been trying to explain to Peter the difference between normal anxieties and the kind of paranoid delusions that kept Peter terrified of life outside Eight East.
“But what he couldn’t tell me,” he complained, “was how I was supposed to differentiate between the two. I mean, I’m afraid there’s going to be a nuclear war and we’ll all be incinerated. Is that paranoid?”
“Yes,” said Abby, just as I said “No.”
She looked at me in surprise. “You really think that could happen?”
“Sure,” I said. “It has to. There’s thousands of nuclear weapons, targeted at every major city, with people sitting with their fingers on the triggers. How long can that possibly go on? Ten more years? Fifty? One day either the Soviets or the Americans are going to decide it’s better to give than to receive, especially if you get your licks in first. They already talk about ‘acceptable losses’ of a hundred million casualties.”
“Or someone’s going to crack,” said Peter. “All those military types sit there year after year, running their fingers around those buttons, thinking about it, wondering what it would be like. They control the most powerful boy toy in the world and they never get to play with it.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Or what about those guys who shoot up a restaurant full of strangers before they kill themselves? What if one of them loses his house and his wife is cheating on him with their Schnauzer and that night he goes on duty in some missile silo in Omaha?”
“Hell, what if there’s just a malfunction?” asked Peter, excited by having someone agree with his fears. “Those things are all computerized. Computers screw up all the time. Some day one of them is going to burp and signal a general launch. Oops, sorry, humans,” he added in a flat robot tone.
“Face it, Abby,” I said. “The only way we’re not going to end up as radioactive ash is if the leader of either the Soviet Union or the United States one day says, ‘Look, we can’t stand it any more. We’re going to dismantle all our weapons and leave ourselves at your mercy. Please don’t shoot us.’ That couldn’t happen. His own people would shoot him.”
“Okay, okay, you two Pollyannas,” she said. “So we’re toast. Is it paranoid to worry about it?”
“No,” said Peter, at the same instant I said “yes.”
“Why is it paranoid?” he demanded. “You just agreed it’s a real danger. We have good reason to be frightened of nuclear annihilation.”
“Of course we do, and we are. But it’s paranoid to let it paralyze us. We’re all going to die someday, and we’re afraid of that, too. But if we let that fear rule our lives, if we protected ourselves from every possible danger, we’d miss life and we’d die anyway. The only sensible thing to do is to go on living and try to enjoy life in spite of the fear.”
“Until we all get blown up,” pointed out Abby.
“Exactly,” I agreed. “That’s a given.”
“How can we not be paranoid about death?” asked Peter. “To me, that seems really crazy.”
“What is death?” I asked airily. “To sleep, perchance to dream…”
“With apologies to the Bard,” said Abby. “That’s a load of dingo kidneys. If we’re dreaming, we’re not dead — we’re just asleep.”
“Right, and nobody’s afraid of sleep,” I added.
“Speak for yourself,” said Peter. “I’m sometimes afraid of sleep.” Abby gave a quick vehement nod.
“You’re right,” I acknowledged. “I guess I was speaking for myself. I forgot about the screamer.” Peter and Abby exchanged a quick uneasy look, and I realized I’d broken the unspoken rule against discussing other patients behind their backs.
“Abby’s right,” I went on quickly. “If you’re dreaming, you’re not dead. Dreaming is part of life.”
“Dreaming is all of life,” said Abby.
“Dreaming and waking,” Peter amended.
“Same thing,” she insisted.
“No,” said Peter. “Dreaming is illusion. Waking is reality.”
“That’s an arbitrary distinction,” I said.
“Do you believe there’s no difference between illusion and reality?”
“If there is, I don’t believe we are capable of making the distinction.”
“Yes, we can,” Peter insisted. “One happens when we’re asleep; the other when we’re awake.”
“But when you’re dreaming,” put in Abby, “you don’t know it’s a dream. It appears to be reality.”
“Yeah, I know the old Chuang Tzu paradox,” said Peter, holding up his hand like an Oriental sage. “‘Here is question, little grasshopper: Am I a man dreaming I’m a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?’ Well, that’s crap. I know I’m a man dreaming I’m a butterfly. I wake up from the butterfly dream. I walk around and talk to other men. We have this discussion about dreaming. We may have all dreamed at one time or another of being butterflies, but in fact we are all men. Present company excluded, of course,” he added with a nod to Abby.
“You know,” she said, “my therapist told me something interesting about that the other day.”
“She told you you were a butterfly?” I suggested.
“No. She said that they’ve been doing these studies on dreaming people; you know, mapping the activity in their brains. They find that dreaming seems to be a conversation between the interpretive center of the brain and the emotional center. It’s like they’re just tossing thoughts back and forth. Like one’s saying, here, suppose this happened, how do we feel about this? What would we do?”
“Cool,” Peter said. “It’s almost like we’re practicing hypothetical scenarios, working out how to deal with them.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “That makes evolutionary sense. So we’ll be ready for new situations when they happen. That’s neat.”
“It gets better,” Abby went on. “They also mapped brain activity in waking people. As you would expect, the sensory areas suddenly become active because there’s all this new input — the whole visual cortex just lights up. But the rest of our thinking is exactly the same. The same dialog continues, exactly the same as when we’re dreaming.”
“Oh, wow,” I said. “So dreaming consciousness and waking consciousness are exactly the same thing. It’s like we’re always dreaming.”
“Yes,” she said, “except that our eyes are open. Our brains are still making up hypothetical situations, but our waking dream is constrained by what we see and hear around us. We’re no longer free to dream anything at all, as we can when we’re asleep. Now we have to dream a dream that matches what we can see.”
“And what do we see?” asked Peter with a victorious crow. “It can only be reality. Not a dream. An external reality.”
“Not necessarily,” said Abby, shaking her head emphatically. “Not at all. It simply forces us all to share the same dream. Because we all experience it, by consensus we call it reality. But some people see a different world, or at least they interpret it differently. They refuse to accept the consensus; they dream their own dreams. It’s completely subjective.”
“So you’re saying there’s no ultimate yardstick that defines reality?” asked Peter incredulously.
“Cool,” I said. “I like it. A shared dream. That would explain why hallucinations seem so real. They’re just as real as anything else.”
“Reality by consensus,” said Abby. “It’s just everyone’s collective interpretation of what’s real and what’s not.”
“It’s like paper money,” I added. “It only has any value at all because we all agree that it does.”
Abby looked down suddenly at the cards forgotten in her hand.
“Or that we value ourselves only as much as others value us,” she added in a low voice. “If everyone around us despises us, we can only assume that we must be despicable.”
“Man,” said Peter. “This is the heaviest card game I’ve ever been in. I think I’ll go worry about something less deep. Like what’s for lunch.” We laughed as he got up and wandered off. A few moments later I was called to see my shrink.
“Hello, Brian. How’s the dictionary coming?”
I handed him a few more pages of notes. “Here’s the next chapters. All the pot stuff we already talked about, so I went on to the opiates.”
“We use those medically, so I’m more familiar with them.”
“Okay, so I’ll just run quickly through what I know. First is opium itself, made from the sap of the opium poppy flower bud. It starts as a white liquid but turns into a dark-brown sticky paste. It’s usually smoked in a pipe, but a lot of heads smear it on a joint or smoke a dab of it on a knife. It tastes very smooth and good and gives a dreamy, pensive high. The movies always make opium dens out like they’re full of these stoned-out people unable to move, but actually it’s possible to function fairly well on opium. It’s just that you don’t feel like doing much. Most of it comes from the Middle East, especially Turkey. It’s a relaxant and pain-killer. It was common in a lot of medicines until recently. It’s still in paregoric, which is an over-the-counter medicine for colicky babies. You have to boil the paregoric to evaporate the alcohol, then freeze it to separate the opium from the camphor, then shoot that. Opium is usually called ‘O’, or just opium. You don’t see it much around here, but it’s fairly common in New York. It’s a very nice relaxed high but it’s really addictive if you use it a lot. If you purify it you get morphine, which you’re no doubt familiar with as a pain reliever.”
“Yes. It seems to be very effective.”
“It is, but it doesn’t just numb you like an anesthetic. It’s a lot like opium, only much stronger, You wander off into dream worlds inside your mind and get so distracted that you simply forget about the pain. It works much the same for psychic pain, too. A lot of really depressed people get into it — poor people, hopeless people. It takes them out of their depressing lives for a while. It’s even more addictive than opium. I never really got into it myself. I’ve usually seen it in pill form, but I hear you can smoke it, too.”
“Then there’s heroin.”
“Right. It’s called ‘H’ or horse or crank or skag. It’s opium that’s further refined and concentrated, so it’s the straight stuff. It comes as a powder, from white to dark brown. The effects are much the same as morphine only much more intense. It’s possible to snort it, but most people dissolve it in water and inject it. It doesn’t dissolve easily, so you put it in a bent teaspoon and heat it over a match or candle. Even then it doesn’t all dissolve and leaves crud in the mixture, so you have to strain it through a bit of cotton to get the lumps out. Syringes are hard to come by, so most junkies make their own fits. They use the barrels from eye droppers, but then attach them to the nipples from pacifiers because they hold more. You need something absorbent to seal the needle to the dropper, so you tear off a little strip from the edge of a dollar bill and wrap it around it. It’s just the right material. You can always spot a shooter because his bills have all these torn edges. When you shoot, you use a tourniquet to get your veins up, then just tap lightly on the pacifier until the needle pops in. You can tell when you’re in the vein because a little squirt of blood swirls up into the dropper. It’s called ‘getting your flag.’ Then you squirt it in, stopping just after the last liquid disappears so you don’t shoot an air bubble and give yourself an embolism. Junkies get all these little rituals about their fits and their techniques. It gets almost sexual, like fetishes. Some people can’t shoot themselves; others can only hit other people, so it often turns into a communal shooting scene. There are these sleazy little apartments on the Lower East Side where people just go to shoot up. They call them shooting galleries.”
“What’s it like? The effect, I mean.”
“Very, very intense and very fast. A big hit comes on like a ton of bricks, before you can even get the needle out. I’ve seen people lying around with their fits still dangling from their arms. It’s creepy. You feel swept away, like a big wave just smashed into you and swept you off your feet, head over heels so you don’t know what’s happening. That’s called the rush, and it lasts from a few minutes to maybe twenty minutes for a really big hit. A really strong rush is an incredible feeling; it’s a little like an orgasm. I’ve heard a lot of junkies say they prefer it to an orgasm, so you know it’s pretty good.Then you just feel really, really mellow for a few hours.”
“Do you feel happy? Is that why people do it?”
“I wouldn’t say you feel happy, but you certainly never feel bad. I think it’s mostly an escape for people who aren’t happy with themselves or what’s going on in their lives. It can be pretty self-destructive. Depressive people sometimes really get into it, pushing the dosage higher and higher until they OD. And crashing from smack is the worst.”
“Coming down off a high. You feel sick and weak and nauseous and even more depressed than when you started. You can’t avoid crashes, and so when you start to come down you start to think about how bad it’s going to feel. And of course the only cure for a bad crash is to do some more and get the rush back. Then after doing two in a row the crash is going to be twice as bad, so you do more to put it off some more. It’s easy to get into a run, where you just stay high day after day. The longer your run goes on, the more reluctant you get to face the terrible crash you know is waiting for you. But the more you do the more you need to stay up, so you start doing these huge doses, doing five or ten hits at a time. That’s how people overdose.”
“It sounds really dangerous.”
“It is. Another problem is that there’s no quality control. All smack is cut with other stuff; often every dealer it passes through has mixed in a little more lactose or something to increase his profits. So when you buy some on the street you never know what’s in it or how strong it is. If you ask, the dealer always says it’s the strongest shit in the world. So you just have to guess at how much to take. If you get used to doing a spoonful of some deep-cut smack and then you do a whole spoonful of pure New York White, it’s going to kill you for sure.”
“It’s a wonder junkies stay alive at all.”
“I know. Most of the anti-drug propaganda is just bullshit. Every kid has heard that grass rots your brain and is addictive and ruins your health, and half the kids in the country do grass all the time and know that all that is a lot of crap. So they think the stuff about smack is a lie, too, but it’s not. Medically heroin is not very harmful to your system at all, not like methedrine or glue or something. If you had an unlimited supply of quality heroin you could do it all the time and stay reasonably healthy. But if you ever have to come down, watch out. It’s a very dangerous drug indeed. It’s intensely addictive and very hard to kick. It’s all too easy to get trapped into the cycle.”
“It sounds awful. Is this something you do a lot?”
“Oh, no. I’ve done it maybe twenty times at the most. Too scary. But if you think of yourself as a doper, you’ve got to try it to see what it’s like. It’s like being a mountain climber and passing up a chance at Everest. It’s the big one, no doubt about it. There’s all this romantic lore about junk, and the scene in a real shooting gallery is all enticingly sordid and gritty. Watching a lot of junkies get off is an amazing experience. Everybody does it a little different. But it’s not my thing at all.”
“What is your thing then?”
“Tripping, without a doubt. Do we have time to go over tripping?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
I flipped over a few pages. “Well, let’s skip over the synthetic opiates then, and move right on to the psychedelics. I did the synthetics like STP, MDA, and the various tryptamines first. Then I did the organics like acid, psilocybin, and mescaline.”
“But LSD is a synthetic.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s not a great distinction. All three have been synthesized and that’s what people usually take these days. But they also occur naturally. LSD is lysergic acid diethylamide and it was was first found in fungus and then in morning glories. Psilocybin is from mushrooms, Psilocybe mexicana. And mescaline comes from the peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii. Each of the source plants has lots of other psychoactive alkaloids, so eating them is very different from just taking the extracts. But either way, they give a completely different trip from the man-made drugs. Nobody could ever mistake them.”
“How are they different?”
“It’s hard to describe. The organics feel organic. The hallucinations tend to be living things. Except really good strong acid can be pretty edgy and neon, too, almost like a tryptamine trip.”
“What are these tryptamines? I’ve never heard of them.”
“They’re what they call designer drugs, invented especially to get you high. These organic chemists analyze the organic psychedelics and figure out which parts of the molecules actually lock onto receptors in our brains. They find other compounds with similar shapes and they tweak around with them until they find others that gets you high. The tryptamines are a related family of drugs: DMT is dimethyl tryptamine, DET is diethyl, DPT is dipropyl.”
“What does it look like? I mean, how does it come?”
“I usually see it as a powder, white or pale yellow. Real fine and cakey, and it sticks together, like flour.”
“How do you take it?”
“I sprinkle it on a little pot and smoke it in a pipe.”
“What’s it feel like?”
“It comes on really fast. The organics take a lot longer, an hour or more, and they come on gradually. But if you smoke a pinch of tryptamines, in just a few minutes you’re flying. It’s a great rush, like going up in an express elevator.”
“How long does it last?”
“It varies. DMT is real quick, up and down in maybe half an hour. They call it the businessman’s lunch because you could take it at lunch. DET is more like an hour or two. DPT I only did once and it seemed to go maybe four hours. STP, or angel dust, is another related drug, and it goes on a real long time. Too long, maybe twenty or thirty hours. A lot of people freak out on STP because it just goes on and on and they think they’re never going to come down.”
“Do you like these drugs?”
“Sometimes. They’re not my favorites. DMT and DET are so quick they’re like candy. They’re fun for a party or a little extra kick with a lot of other drugs, but I can’t take them too seriously. You’re not tripping long enough to get into any heavy stuff. It’s just for a bit of fun, you know. I mean, nobody’s going to get cosmic on them. And STP is too much. I only did it once and wouldn’t do it again. It was just too exhausting. The land of psychedelia is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”
“How do they compare to the other psychedelics?”
“The organics? Like a nursery rhyme compares to a symphony. They’re both tripping, but the experience is completely different. And the organics are really different from each other, too, so it’s hard to compare them.”
“Tell me about the organics, then.”
“Well, acid is by far the most common around here. I only had psilocybin twice and mescaline maybe a couple of dozen times. I just don’t run into them often enough. But acid’s everywhere and really easy to score.”
“What’s acid look like?”
“Usually it’s in pills. Tablets most often, but sometimes in capsules. There’s this guy in California, Stanley Augustus Owsley III, who makes the best acid pills around. It’s always pure and it comes in distinctive shapes so you know how much you’re getting. He makes lots of different kinds: these wide flat ones called Purple Haze, and funny-shaped ones called Orange Wedges, and also White Double Domes. They’re all good. Occasionally the acid is just dripped on something, like sugar cubes or little bits of paper or something.” I laughed. “For a while there was some going around on the Lower East Side that was soaked into little bits of cloth that you sucked or soaked in a cup of tea or something. The story was that a dude was bringing it in from Europe in a mason jar inside his sports coat. After he got through customs he flipped the coat over his shoulder and the jar fell out in the airport and smashed. There he was with a hundred thousand five-dollar hits of acid in a puddle on the floor. So he wiped it up with his sports coat and cut it up into little pieces and sold those. They called it houndstooth acid. It was really good, too. Supposedly it was pure USP quality, right out of the Sandoz lab in Switzerland.”
“He had a hundred thousand doses in a jar?” asked the doctor. “How big was the jar?”
“Just little, I imagine. Maybe a half pint? Acid is one of the strongest drugs known. An average dose is maybe a hundred micrograms. I mean, think about it. That’s one tenth of a milligram, not enough to see. One aspirin has five hundred times more active ingredient in it. The pills are tiny little things like a BB, but still they’re mostly all filler, like milk sugar or just chalk, just so there’s enough to make a pill. In its pure form, a teaspoonful of acid could get thousands of people high. Really high. That’s why the cops are always freaked out that somebody’s going to put some in the water supply of a city. It would be really easy to do.”
“Do you think that might happen?”
I shrugged. “Who knows? There are a lot of weird people out there. I’ve heard some heads saying it would be a good idea, that it would loosen people up. Like if we could get LBJ on a trip maybe he’d stop the war.”
“What do you think would happen?”
“It would be total chaos. A disaster. People would be freaked out. I heard about a guy once who slipped some in his girlfriend’s drink, kind of like a joke or something, but it was awful. She didn’t know what was happening when it started to come on and everything began to change. She thought she was going crazy and ran away from him and jumped off a bridge.”
“Did that really happen?”
“Who knows? It’s an urban legend. But as much as I love acid I wouldn’t want somebody to slip me some without telling me. When things really start happening and you’re hanging on to reality by a fingernail, it’s really comforting to tell yourself, ‘This is all just the result of my taking a pill and it will be ending in a few hours.’ I can’t imagine what it would be like to just have shit that bizarre start happening for no reason.”
Doctor Warner looked at his watch in surprise. “Oh hell,” he said. “This has gone well past your time. I’m supposed to be having lunch.”
“I do rather go on about it, don’t I?”
“No, it’s great. Very interesting. I’m fascinated. I can eat any time.”
“So should I keep working on the dictionary? I can do a lot more if you’d like.”
“Yes, certainly. Whatever else you can add would be very helpful.”
“Hey, listen. Is this really for the staff, or is it just therapy for me instead of making coil pots?”
“It’s both. I thought it would give you something to do, maybe distract you from your legal worries for a while. Discussing it with you will give me opportunities to learn more about you, perhaps help you. But I really do intend to make it required reading for the psychiatric staff, and probably the ER people as well. If we start getting people on bad trips, those people should at least know the names and effects of the drugs. So it could help somebody in trouble.”
“That’s cool. I’m enjoying doing it. I just didn’t want to waste my time doing busy work you were just going to throw away.”
“No, it will be put to good use.”
I worked on the dictionary the rest of the day, scribbling hurriedly at a little scarred wooden table in a corner of the common room. That evening after dinner I went back to it. Peter wandered over after a while.
“Feel like cards tonight?” he asked. “I’ll see if Abby is up for it.”
“Not tonight, man,” I replied. “I’m in a groove on this thing now. I want to get it done.”
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Great. Writing is really a blast when it’s rolling like this — when I’ve got something I want to say and I know how to do it.”
“Can I see?” he asked, pointing to the growing pile of sheets covered front and back with dense handwriting.
“Sure, go ahead. Keep them in order, though.” I went back to my writing.
He read for a while, and I heard him pick up a second page a moment later.
“Wow,” he said after a few minutes. “Is all this shit true?”
“Sure. Some of the info about the drugs isn’t really scientific; it’s just stuff I heard from other heads mostly. Some of it’s probably crap. But I wanted to put it all in here, everything I know about each one.”
“I don’t know, dude,” he said, tossing the papers back on my stack. “You’re admitting that you’ve done all these illegal drugs, and in writing, no less. What happens if they give this to the police?”
“Nothing, I think. I mean, I can’t very well claim I don’t do drugs. I sold shit to a narc, for chrissake. I can claim that it was entrapment, but that’s not much of a defense. They know I’m a head — I mean, look at me. And this bust is for this one specific sale, one little blue pill. It doesn’t matter if I do other drugs, too.”
“It could affect your sentence. They could wave this under the judge’s nose and say, ‘See what a despicable character this man is! Do you want him selling pot to your little girl? Better give him hard time.’ They’ll put you away, man.”
“Doctor Warner said he wouldn’t give it to the police.”
“And you believe him? He is the Man, man. Like the hospital authorities are the Man, and the cops and teachers and lawyers are the Man.”
“What about doctor/patient confidentiality? He is my therapist.”
“They’re the worst of all. Listen, they tell you to trust them, to help them to help you. So you lay out your whole fucking life to them, spell out every painful terror, open your poor little bleeding heart up like a book for them, and what do they do? They write up a report that says, ‘This patient has paranoid delusions and chronic debilitating anxiety and is not ready to rejoin society at this time.’ Wise up, Brian. Your shrink is the last guy you should trust.”
“What? That’s bullshit, Peter. He’s your doctor, he’s getting paid to try to help you. Maybe he can, maybe he can’t; but it doesn’t make sense to hold back.”
“Maybe I don’t want his help,” he snapped. “I’ve talked to plenty of shrinks, and most of them don’t know the first thing about what I’m going through. They’re my problems and I’ll deal with them myself.”
“Look, if you could get through this shit on your own you wouldn’t be in here, would you? You need somebody to work with you, to try to find the way that’s going to fit best for you, help you get through it. To do that, he’s got to know you, know what makes you tick. If you hold back from the one guy who’s trying to get you out of here, who the hell is going to do it? It’s like a guy who gets burned in love and says he’s going to stay away from girls until he stops feeling so bad. How the hell can he start feeling better without opening up to people, taking another chance? Sure, he might get dinged again, but what’s the alternative? Staying unhappy?”
He stared at me for a moment. I thought he might be angry, but then he grinned.
“Christ, I must be crazy,” he said. “Listening to advice from a god-damned long-haired hippie.”
“Yeah. Like people come to me for sage advice on how to live an impeccable life, right?”
“Yeah. I can just see your face on an ad: ‘Learn wisdom at the feet of Sri Brian Baba. Would you trust this man?’ Oh, preserve us.”
I laughed as he wandered off. I returned to my writing until lights off.
When the screamer finally stopped that morning and I lay awake, I distracted myself by thinking about what I wanted to add to my dictionary. I waited anxiously until I could get back to the common room to work on it. Except for breakfast, I worked steadily on it until it was time for my session. I put the manuscript together in a rubber band and showed it off proudly to Dr. Warner when I entered the room.
“Making good progress,” I said. “I’m enjoying it; more than I thought I would.”
“Good. I’ll look it over later. How are you feeling otherwise?”
“Okay, I guess. Anxious to get out of here.”
“Is it so terrible being here?”
“No, not terrible. Most people are nice. I’m even starting to make some friends.”
“I’m glad to hear it Which ones?”
“Well, Peter and Abby mainly. They’re both bright and not too obviously weirdo. We had a good talk yesterday about the meaning of reality.”
“What did you conclude?”
“Abby thinks reality is subjective. Peter believes in some kind of absolute reality, independent of our perception of it.”
“And which do you believe?”
“Generally I side with Abby. I’ve experienced enough alternate realities to have developed real suspicion about this one. But deep down I have to believe that there is some underlying basis for it all. Our perception of it may be flawed, may even be dead wrong, but I can’t believe there is nothing but illusion.”
“But you couldn’t convince Peter of that?”
“No. I think Peter’s just too uptight to let go of the comfortable framework of ordinary reality. He’s strictly Cartesian.”
“Cartesian?” he asked, looking up over his glasses.
I nodded. “Orthographic. Straight lines, right angles, formulas to explain everything, everything in its place. With most people I think a good heavy acid trip would be good for them, force them to re-evaluate their assumptions. But some people aren’t ready for that. It would terrify them. Peter is a guy I would not recommend acid for.”
“What about Abby?”
“I don’t know. The shifting realities wouldn’t bother her, she’s used to that, I think. But she seems so… I don’t know… insecure about herself. I’m not sure she’s ready to see herself as she really is. See, one thing tripping does for you is strip away any illusions you may have about yourself.”
“In what way?”
“Well, it’s impossible to be cool when you’re tripping. No matter who you are or how cool you think you are, if you trip with somebody, they’re going to see the real you. You’re going to forget what you were saying or go ‘oh wow’ about all the pretty colors and look like a real dork.”
“You don’t mind looking like a dork?”
“Well, sometimes it can be embarrassing, especially if I’m trying to make some chick or impress somebody. But in general I think it’s good for people to experience that. It keeps us from thinking we’re so smart and important, and it allows us to see behind the masks people usually wear.”
“So you think people are all wearing masks?”
“Most of the time, yeah. Like right now you’re wearing your shrink mask.”
“I really am a psychiatrist.”
“I know. But that requires you to wear a mask, especially when you’re talking with one of your patients. But if I went home with you and met your family and we sat around drinking beer, you’d be different. We’d talk differently. You wouldn’t be asking me all these questions, trying to draw me out, find out what makes me tick. We wouldn’t be doctor and patient anymore. You wouldn’t have your psychiatrist mask on, but you’d have another one for that situation. The good host mask or the loving husband mask or whatever. I’m not saying it’s phony, or even that it’s bad. It’s just what people do. But if we dropped acid together, it would all change. At first we’d just change masks. You’d be the novice and I’d be the experienced professional. But pretty soon we’d just be two guys giggling and getting cosmic together. It’s not that the masks are always deceitful, but they are necessarily false images. They keep us from really seeing each other.”
“Are you wearing a mask now?”
“Of course, my ultra-cool street-smart druggie intellectual rap mask. We all have our collections of masks we’ve made for ourselves. We wear one mask when we’re talking to our parents, another with our friends, yet another with a lover. I mean, when I was a kid I kept waiting to grow up. I thought growing up would be a transformation, that one day I’d find myself wise and mature and responsible and knowing all the things that grown-ups know. But it didn’t happen that way. Other kids started acting grown up, but nothing seemed to happen to me. I just got bigger and my balls got hairy, but I felt the same as I always had. As I got older I started being embarrassed that I was still a kid. I started pretending I was growing up too, pretending to like the taste of beer, trying to develop adult mannerisms, have adult discussions. People started buying it. They accepted that I was really growing up. Girls bought it. I started getting laid. I was constantly improving my adult mask, stealing bits from people I admired, learning what worked by trial and error. One day I realized that I didn’t know any other way of behaving except with the adult mask on. The mask had become so good that it had become the only face I had. I realized that there wasn’t going to be any goddamn epiphany or anything. I let the mask grow onto my face, because I didn’t dare ever take it off again, or people would discover I’m still just a little kid inside. And I realized that that’s what growing up was: not a metamorphosis, but a permanent deception.”
“But when I started tripping it became too hard to maintain it. Things get to happening so fast and everything is so strange that you literally forget how to act. You start fucking up, making a fool of yourself. You get distracted, forget what you were talking about, start to free associate. It can be very embarrassing. But then I realized that everybody I tripped with was doing exactly the same thing. I’d meet these guys I thought were so hip and cool, and I wanted to be like them. Or I’d see some beautiful intelligent woman I idolized. They seemed so mature, so self-assured; like they’d always been adults. And then we’d trip together, and they’d blow their cool completely. They’d act like little kids, giggling at silly stuff and staring at pretty things.
“That’s when I found out that everybody else had done the same thing — faked it until it was real. It was great. I’d be having this sexual exploration with some woman, you know, seeing if we’re going to get together, and we’d drop some acid. And suddenly, instead of being a sexy babe and a cool cocksman, we’d giggle together like little kids about the silly games we’d been playing. One time I scored some acid from this really heavy dealer dude in this sleazy brownstone walk-up on the Lower East Side. He had this big long black beard and was covered in tattoos. I’d been scared when I came in; I mean this guy had guns and heavy drugs and money and contacts all over the world. I felt like this adolescent country hick next to him. But then we dropped acid together and spent the night talking about the smells that came in our bedroom windows at night when we were kids.”
“Did you lose your respect for him?”
“No, but I lost my awe. I found that the people I had admired the most were the ones that survived the unmasking the best. I had seen them naked and defenseless and they didn’t mind. Now that’s real self-confidence. I admired that even more. The people who get terrified when their personae are stripped away are the ones who have something small or mean or selfish to hide. It’s a great litmus test for a person, how they react to that stripping away of illusion.”
“So you think most people should take acid?”
“Hold on, now. I never said that; I never urge anyone to take acid. It’s a powerful, life-changing experience and not for everybody. I’ve told lots of people of my experiences and how important I believe it is. Some of them ask me if they should try it. Some I tell no; some I tell yes. I even volunteered to guide some people on their first trips.”
“How many people have you guided?’’
“I don’t know. Maybe fifty?”
He looked startled at that. “But listen,” I went on. “I’m not an evangelist. I’m no dope pusher. I have never pressured anybody to take it, and I’ve told many people they should stay the hell completely away from psychedelics. I tell them, whatever they fear in themselves, that’s what they will meet on their trip. Acid will show you the truth, not necessarily what you want to see.”
“Is that what you would tell Peter?”
“Definitely. He’s too afraid of too many things. I would never offer to guide him. He’s a candidate for a real bad trip.”
“What about Abby?”
I considered for a moment. “I’m not sure about her. She seems insecure, unsure of herself. I’m not sure she’s ready to see herself as she really is. But maybe, with a very experienced guide who really cares about her, it’d be good for her. Yeah, I might consider it. She’s a real fox, and she seems so horny all the time. I’ll bet we could have some outrageous sex on acid.”
“Has she approached you?”
“Oh. Well, she’s friendly,” I hedged, unwilling to tattle on her.
“Well, yeah. She seems to like me. But this is a lonely place. She’s been here a long time, I think.”
“Nearly a year.”
“Well, who wouldn’t be lonely? If I were here that long I’d be fucking the donuts.”
“Abby is a very disturbed young woman, Brian. If she comes on to you, I have to ask you not to encourage her.”
“Hey, listen,” I bridled. “She’s a nice girl. I like her. We’re both adult, healthy, and single. What’s so bad if we’re attracted to each other? I can’t control my hormones.”
“No, and neither can she. I can’t discuss her problems with you, Brian; I can only say that you could do her terrible harm if you encouraged her fantasies about you.”
“What harm could it do? Loosen up, doc. This isn’t the fifties. It’s 1968, the era of free love. Personally I think it might do both of us a lot of good if you just gave us a room together for the night. She’s lonely and insecure and needs comforting. Maybe a good fucking by someone who cares about her is exactly what she needs.”
“It most assuredly is not. She was raped, Brian, frequently and brutally, by her own father, ever since she was a child. It has taken years of therapy to get her to the appearance of normality she exhibits today. It could set her back years to have a casual liaison with another patient.”
“I… I didn’t know,” I stammered.
“No. But the attachment between you two has been brought to my attention. Knowing both of you, I was afraid that you would find some way to get together. Some kind of sordid, awkward, secret sex in a bathroom stall might seem like an amusing adventure to you, Brian, but it could do irreparable harm to Abby. If you care for her as you say you do, you will find polite, friendly ways to refuse her advances.”
“Advances? You talk like she’s a nympho or something.”
“That’s exactly what she is, Brian. She makes no secret of it, so I’m not betraying her confidence by telling you.”
I stared at him in surprise. “She really is a nymphomaniac?”
“Do you know what that means?”
I shrugged. “It means she really really likes sex. I always thought a nymphomaniac is a woman who feels about sex the way a man does.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong. She hates sex. But she was always treated as a sexual object, and she has come to see that as her only value as a person. She thinks that if a man desires her he must love her, so she is constantly trying to get men to have sex with her. But it’s love she needs, not another ‘good fucking.’”
I was silent. My flippancy was gone.
“I only told you because I was afraid you would give in to her, and because I trust you to do the right thing if you know the truth. She is very vulnerable. You must not take advantage of her misfortune, Brian. Will you promise me that?”
“Yes, of course. I understand.”
“That’s all I ask.”
That evening I finished my document about drugs. Abby came and sat down with me as I finished the last page and put the bundle of sheets together.
“So, is it done?” she asked.
“Yeah, that’s all I can think of.”
“No one will ever read it, you know.”
“Doesn’t matter. It kept me entertained.”
“So are they going to let you out?”
“Well, on Saturday it will have been a week, but there’s no guarantee. Hopefully they’ll let me know tomorrow.”
She laid her hand on my arm.
“I almost hope they don’t let you go,” she said quietly. “I’ll miss you.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll miss you, too. But I’ve still got a trial and sentencing to face. It could be a long time before I’m on the street again.”
“You’ll beat it, Brian. I know you will. They’ll let you off.”
“I hope you’re right.” I looked at her, saw a wistful look in her eyes. “When do you think you’ll be getting out?” I asked.
She looked down. “I don’t know. Not very soon, I think. It doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean? Don’t you want to get out?”
“Well, it would be nice to be free, you know? To be able to do what I want. But it’s scary, too. I’m afraid of being on my own. I don’t know what to do when I’m alone. I need to have people around me, people to tell me what to like, what to do. I’m just weak, I guess.”
“Bullshit. You’re neither weak nor shallow, Abby. You’re brighter than most of the people I knew in college. You have your own opinions. You think you need someone to validate them, but you don’t. You just need someone to love you.”
“Yeah, I guess,” she said, twisting a strand of her hair. “But I always seem to attract the wrong kind of guy. They don’t treat me the way I’d like.”
“Yeah, or they’re jailbirds like me. But it’s up to you how they treat you, you know. If they’re jerks, tell them to fuck off. You don’t need them or owe them anything. There are lots of guys out there, Abby. You’re smart and pretty. Don’t sell yourself cheap. The right one will come along.”
“Do you really think I’m pretty, Brian?” She looked so small and defenseless, like a frightened little girl. My heart went out to her, and I wanted to put my arm around her. I just patted her hand.
“You can’t tell?” I said. “You’re a beautiful, intelligent woman, Abby. You’re well-read, you’re sensitive and insightful, you have a quick mind, you’re funny. You have things to say. Any man would be lucky to be with you. You don’t have to settle for a jerk.”
She glowed at the praise. “I’d settle for you right now, Brian,” she laughed, putting her hand on my thigh under the table.
“Huh-uh,” I said, removing her hand. “No hanky-panky here. I don’t want to mess up now when I’m getting short.” She gave me a pouting moué, but she didn’t seem hurt by my rebuff.
After dinner that night we all watched “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” on television, a truly bizarre experience in a nuthouse. People laughed at all the wrong places, especially at the Big Nurse. The consensus was that Kesey had never been on a ward.
I slept till breakfast call and awoke refreshed, hopeful that this would be my last day on the ward. Surely I had demonstrated to the doctors that I wasn’t crazy. Still, an iron band of doubt hung heavy around my heart. Lots of these loonies thought they weren’t crazy. Half of them probably woke up every day thinking they might be released. If I wasn’t released today then clearly my best efforts had failed. How do you prove you’re sane? What can you possibly do or say to change the mind of someone who’s convinced you’re crazy?
I had a vision of myself still here twenty years from now, still thinking I wasn’t crazy, still unable to prove it. Of course, by then I really would be crazy and I wouldn’t have a chance of getting out. I had no appetite for breakfast and avoided the others as I waited for news. I was a nervous wreck by the time I was called for therapy.
“Good morning, Brian,” the doctor began, clicking on the tape recorder.
I handed him my drug compendium. “Here,” I said. “I finished it.”
“Thanks,” he said, leafing through it and scanning a few lines. “This is remarkable. I can’t believe you’ve taken all this stuff and you can still walk and talk.”
“Amazing, isn’t it? Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”
“So after trying all these drugs, which is your favorite?”
“Oh, that’s a tough one. Well, I always love a good smoke. Grass, hash, opium, Thai sticks, whatever. It mellows me out, makes everything really nice and pleasant. Good for a lot of laughs, great for listening to music. And speed is fun, too.”
“Speed?” he asked. “You mean stimulants?”
“Yeah. Benzedrine, Methedrine, Dexedrine, cocaine, whites, uppers, crystal. Wonderful stuff. You can eat it, smoke it, snort it, or shoot it. It makes you smart, it really does. It’s great for school work or doing some big project. You can think faster, concentrate better, have more ideas, and stay up longer. I once had to do a term paper on trilobytes for a paleontology class. As usual, I let it go till the last minute. Finally it was due in three days and I hadn’t started. So I started doing speed. Six hours of library research, eight hours in the lab going over specimens, sixteen hours to write the paper. I worked non-stop and turned it in on time. Got an A and my prof suggested I apply for a grant to develop my paper for publication. Best academic work I ever did. I really got into it after that. I like a speed rush even better than a heroin rush. You feel physically strong, mentally quick, incredible alert, and you have unlimited energy. I once ran all the way around the town in the middle of the night, just because it felt so good to run. I wasn’t even tired afterwards. It makes you feel like Superman. I love to stay up for two or three days, talking philosophy and religion and physics with a bunch of smart people. You wouldn’t believe what we come up with.”
“And these are pills?”
“The prescription ones are, but the home-made stuff is a white crystalline powder. It’s got a very bitter taste and it numbs your lips and tongue for a while. Most people snort crystal using a straw, like cocaine, but I really got into shooting it. You can’t believe what it’s like to go from a normal down state to that incredibly awake, alert, capable-of-anything, state of a speed high, all in a few seconds. Bit of a strain on the heart, though, I hear.”
“What about depressants?”
“I’ve tried most of the downers: Nembutol, Phenobarbital, black beauties, reds. Then the tranquilizers like Librium and Valium and like that. I’ve done most of the heavy-duty painkillers like Vicadin and Percodan, too.”
“What did you think?”
“Nothing great. Okay if you’re stressed out or something, but that doesn’t happen to me much. I can get depressed without help. I’m looking for good times.”
“So is speed your favorite?”
“Yeah, it’s right up there. But for sheer thrills and chills and cosmic truths, I’d take a psychedelic trip anytime.”
“What do you feel when you take a trip? How does it start?”
“Well, you drop the acid or eat the mushroom or whatever, and nothing happens for a long time. Maybe thirty minutes with ‘shrooms, an hour for mescaline, as much as two hours for acid. At first you’re all sitting there looking at each other, waiting for something to happen. But it takes long enough that you can’t just sit there. After a while you do something else: read a book, get in a conversation, have something to eat, listen to music, go for a walk. And then you notice this funny feeling way in the back of your throat, or maybe in your tonsils or something. Kind of a metallic taste. Makes you want to swallow, or maybe yawn. It’s neither pleasant nor unpleasant, just different. I can’t describe it, but it’s usually the first sign that the trip is starting, so I’ve come to really like the sensation. Like the bell for Pavlov’s dogs, I guess. It doesn’t really feel good, but it means good stuff is about to start. Then the trailing begins.”
“Yeah. Moving things leave trails behind them, like a cartoon rocket. A lot of times you see people dragging their hands sideways across in front of their face, like this. They’re checking for trails. When the acid starts to come on, your fingers look like they get real long when you do that. They streak out. That’s when you know you’re really on your way. Right after that the colors start.”
“What are they like?”
“Outlines around things, shadows, afterimages. With mescaline and psilocybin it’s usually browns and greens and like that. Earth tones. Maybe sometimes a pastel purple or salmon, but muted, you know? Subtle. Swirly, roundy corners. like the writing on the psychedelic posters. With acid it’s much brighter and in your face: dayglow reds and neon greens and hot pinks, a lot of electric blue. Like those cloth panels the Mexican women sew with all the bright colors and flashing mirrors. Jaggedy shapes, flashing, changing. And it gets hard to see edges.”
“Things get out of focus?”
“No, no. Just the opposite. Everything is clearer than you’ve ever seen it before, as if you’ve just cleaned your glasses for the first time in your life. The amount of detail is overwhelming, But you become aware that there aren’t lines around the shapes. We tend to think objects look the way we’d draw them, with a black line filled in with color. But that’s not the way it is at all. There’s no black line between that chair and that wall; the wall just ceases at one point and that defines the chair. The color changes and the texture and the light, and we see the relation between the two objects. When you’re straight you tend to categorize them: that’s a wall, that’s a chair. You’ve seen lots of walls and chairs; you understand them; there’s no reason to observe them. But if you’re tripping your mind doesn’t dismiss them so easily. You haven’t seen that particular chair against that particular wall before. The lack of edge between them is fascinating. It becomes filled with color. Now look at the shadow of the chair on the wall. What color is it?”
He looked. “Grey?”
“Sure. You can say it almost without looking, because you know shadows are grey, right? But look at it. The wall is sort of a light green, right? But the light through the window has a lot of dark green from the trees. You can see it moving as the trees move. And the chair is reflecting some kind of tan or yellow light on the wall, too. Do you see that? So that shadow isn’t grey at all, it’s a lot of different colors. A tripper would see them all at a glance. They’d all be so bright and distinct he couldn’t miss them. Everything becomes outlined with color, like you’ve taken a magic marker and outlined every object with two or three different colors. It’s very very beautiful.”
“It sounds distracting.”
“It can be really disorienting until you get used to it. I mean, you may see a tripper walking along the street and he’s going really slow and stopping and looking at things a lot. People think he’s all messed up, like a stumblebum drunk; that he can’t walk. It’s not that at all. He can walk fine. It’s just that there’s so much to look at. It takes a while to figure out which things you have to walk around and which ones you can walk through.”
“So is it just pretty colors?”
“That’s the way it starts. Sometimes that’s all that happens for visuals. But if you take enough, you start to see some special effects. With mescaline especially I’ve seen some truly bizarre shit.”
I thought for a minute. “Like one night I was tripping in the Haight and I stopped in this little diner, one of those long narrow places with all fluorescent and formica, you know? And I was having some difficulty reading the menu and deciding what I wanted and all. And the whole time there was this other dude at the counter next to me and his face was like dripping off or something. I mean, it was all droopy on one side and his eye was mostly covered with skin and his mouth was like this slit. And I glanced at him and I thought, ‘Wow, man, that guy’s face is falling off. This is some dynamite shit. Groovy visuals.’ So I thought nothing more about it, because plenty of other weird stuff was happening at the same time. But if I hadn’t known I was tripping I would have been freaked out, because it was really pretty gross. Then the guy pays his bill and leaves and the counterman leans over to me and says, ‘Wow, did you see that guy’s face? I guess the poor guy had been burned or something.’ The counterman must have thought I was crazy because I hadn’t noticed.”
“So you like to see people’s faces fall off? That’s fun?”
“No, not especially. But you have to learn to take whatever comes. Some of it is beautiful and cosmic and soul-changing, and some of it is dark and ugly and scary. You have to let it flow, kind of like a dream or something, you know? Let it flow over you. I tell myself ‘this is something my mind created for me to see and it must have a reason for it.’ I just take it all in and try to sort out any meanings later. You can’t analyze it while it’s happening. It’s too intense, too all-involving.”
“So what kinds of things do you see?”
I waved my arms helplessly. “I don’t know. Everything. What kinds of things do you see, doc?”
He laughed. “Okay. So aside from the visual effects, what is it like?”
“It can be mystical, it can be hilarious, it can be sexual, it can be sensuous. Me, I’m an outdoors guy. I like to go off for walks by myself, go for a hike in the woods, take a walk in the park. Nothing amazes me more than nature. I spent a whole summer day lying on a foot bridge over a stream, just watching the patterns the water made going over the rocks. Some of my heaviest trips have been up in the mountains or on a beach. I once tripped in an abandoned gold mine in the Grand Canyon, in complete darkness. Another time I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog.”
“Do you feel safe out by yourself?”
“Occasionally I’ll get a paranoid flash or something, but usually I feel real comfortable anywhere outside. I’m usually more nervous in a city. More bad stuff can happen. I’ve tripped in Thompkins Square Park in the East Village, surrounded by junkies and hookers and muggers. Even got mugged by a junkie while I was tripping. Bastard got my watch, but I later talked him into giving it back.”
“So you like to get outside, one way or another.”
“Yeah, usually. There’s more to see. For a while I collected state houses. I’ve tripped in six different state capitols. They’re pretty places. I also did the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial. Oh, and the Saint Louis Arch, whatever they call it. But I’ve also done a lot of indoor trips. They tend to get more philosophical or religious or sexual, depending on who I’m with, of course. Sometimes all three. But the common thread is that feeling of meaningfulness that I talked about yesterday. Everything seems to be dripping with significance. Every object seems symbolic, every person magical, every event seems to be an omen.”
“I don’t know. That’s just it. The drugs allow you to draw your own conclusions. They’re tools or windows or portals or something that bust you loose for a few hours from your usual routine, let you see things in a new way. But what you do with the experience, that’s up to each person. Some people get religious, some just go for the thrill, like going on a roller coaster. But everybody is changed by it. Everybody.”
He didn’t reply to that. He glanced at his watch.
“Time’s about up, Brian.”
I gathered my nerve to ask. “Are you going to let me go, doc?”
He looked up at me over his reading glasses. “Yeah,” he said. “I am.”
“Really?” I couldn’t believe it. He grinned at me.
“Yes. That’s what I’m going to recommend to the evaluating committee this afternoon.”
“Can they override your recommendation?”
“They could, but they won’t.”
“So you think there’s nothing wrong with me?”
He laughed. “I wouldn’t say that about half my friends. No, there’s plenty wrong with you, Brian. Your politics are extreme, your religious ideas are half-baked, you’re squandering your life and risking your health and your life taking all these drugs, and you think you’re Don Juan. I think you have a lot of growing up to do and you have some hard lessons still coming to you. But no, I don’t think you’re psychotic and I see no reason to keep you here any longer.”
“Thanks, doc. I am very relieved to hear you say that. I’ve been so scared. I know lots of people would think I’m crazy for doing what I do. Hell, my father thinks I’m crazy just for voting democratic. I’ve been afraid I’d have to pretend to give up every belief I have just to try to get out of here.”
“Being eccentric is not being crazy, nor is being a damned fool. If it were, everyone would be in here.”
“Is that it then? Are we done?”
“Yes, we’re done, unless you have anything else you’d like to talk about.”
“No, I guess not.” I started to get up.
“Oh, just a minute,” he said. “There is one more thing.”
“You must have said something to Abby.”
“Well, we had a couple of talks.”
“Well, whatever you said seems to have had a good effect. She was in a very good mood in our session this morning.”
“Good, I’m glad. She’s a nice chick. She deserves better than she’s gotten so far.”
Doctor Warner met my eyes. “She likes you a lot, too. I think she’s going to miss you when you go.”
“I know. I wish I could do something for her.”
“I think you have. You’ve accepted her as she is and appreciated her for her talents, not just tried to get into her pants.”
“Not that the thought didn’t occur,” I said. “It’s really hard turning away a good-looking chick. It ain’t natural.”
“I know. But I appreciate your caring enough to try to help her.”
Abby was in her group therapy when I returned. I told Peter and a few other friends the news and received fairly hearty congratulations. I put my handful of belongings in a cloth bag they gave me. Abby came in just as I returned to the common room. She glanced down at the bag in my hand and then to my eyes.
“You’re outa here,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Told you I wasn’t crazy.”
“I believed you,” she smiled.
I took both her hands. “Thanks. I know. It helped me a lot.”
“You helped me a lot, too. Just talking together. Just talking and laughing.”
“I know. It was fun. I’m really glad I met you. Now when I think back on my week on Eight East, I won’t remember the bad stuff — I’ll think of you instead. And years from now I’ll remember your face just like this, and I’ll smile.”
Her eyes flicked between mine, her face intent and serious. “Whew,” she said. “You know how to lay it on!”
“Yeah, I’ve been rehearsing that speech for the last hour.”
She laughed and slapped my shoulder, acknowledging my move to lighten the mood.
“Don’t suppose we’ll meet again, on the outside?” she said.
I felt my face flush. I didn’t want to give her false hopes, but I was afraid to shatter her delicate contentment.
“We’ve always been honest with each other,” I said. “I think it’s unlikely. I’m probably going to have to do some time. Even if I get off, I don’t want to hang around in this town. San Francisco is where it’s all happening now. I got to get back there.”
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s what I figured.” I couldn’t tell how she was feeling about it.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, I guess. I’ll miss you, is all.”
“I’ll miss you too, Abby.” Impulsively I wrapped her up in my arms. Her body seemed so frail, and smaller than I’d imagined. I gave her a long kiss on the lips. We broke at last and smiled nose-to-nose. She glanced past me, scanning the room.
“Fuck Ray,” I whispered.
She yelped with delight. “Yeah! Fuck Ray and all his fascist friends.”
After this tender farewell we ended up spending another two hours sitting and waiting while my paperwork was processed and a marshal drove over from the county seat to pick me up. We talked about music, had a pleasant argument about free will with Peter, talked for the first time about our families. Late in the afternoon the marshal arrived and signed for me. Abby and I stood and watched the little ceremony, and I was reminded of a slave watching his bill of sale being signed. The marshal turned to me and I held out my wrists. Abby looked on in disgust as he tightened the handcuffs.
“Yuk. How medieval,” she said.
“It doesn’t hurt,” I said. The marshal clipped the cuffs to a chain leash attached to his gun belt.
“It’s degrading,” she said. “I hate seeing you treated like an animal.” She gripped my hand as the marshal opened the door.
“You helped me, Brian,” she whispered. “You helped me a lot.”
“Good. I can tell. You smile more. You move easier.”
She nodded. “I feel easier. Do you know this is the first night since I’ve been here that I didn’t have the nightmare? Thank you forever for that.”
“Goodbye, Abby!” I called. Then I was out in the hall. The door swung closed behind me. I felt as if I were in a dream. I stumbled along awkwardly. The marshal paced stolidly beside me. It wasn’t until we were in the elevator that I thought about the screamer and what Abby had said and it all clicked into place.
copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford>