by Ray Aldridge
By the second day of the sandstorm, Rob Owen was nearly dead. The old man had the lungrot, from breathing the chalky radioactive dust of the phosphate pits. We were locked in our hut until the storm broke, so I couldn't fetch the camp medics. It didn't matter; they would only have put him to sleep.
A coughing fit occupied him for a while. The deep bubbling sounds he made scared me. I was twenty years younger than Owen, but almost as sick; how long before I started to drown in my own disintegrating body?
He caught his breath, finally. "You know, John, we weren't all monsters. You'd be surprised; sometimes you couldn't tell us from real people."
"Oh?" I wiped the sweat from his face.
"Thank you," he said. "You've been kind."
"It's nothing," I said.
"No, no, it means a lot." He struggled to speak. "Did I ever tell you about the time my first wife and I went to see the Battery Man?"
"It was in Denver, you know...used to be a nice place to live, before the Big Dry--something fresh and, oh, adventurous about the place...you had the feeling that anything might be possible. Or maybe it was just that I was young....
"Anyway, I had a friend...sort of a skinny little sad sack, really, with bad skin and a squeaky voice and delusions of popularity...but Robert had good connections, which he'd go to any time I asked him.
"Robert told us stories about the Battery Man--he was supposed to be the biggest acid wholesaler in Denver. 'Wanna meet him?" Robert asked one night. 'He's a heavy dude.'
"Mandy--that was my first wife--she was a little reluctant. It's funny; she'd swallow or smoke or snort just about anything, but she wasn't physically brave. Once when we went camping in the desert, I saw a rattler in the middle of an arroyo. I watched it from a safe distance for a bit. Really, it seemed like an interesting critter; of course, I was high.... And all the time I stood there--I was a good ten feet from the snake--Mandy screamed her lungs out."
Owen stopped, coughed, spat something brown on the floor, smiled a thin crooked smile. "Figuratively speaking," he added wryly, and then went on.
"In those days people got their dope from their friends, so I'd never met a big-time dealer. They were almost legendary, especially the ones who dealt acid, just a step below the ones who made acid, which is to say just two steps below God.
"Eventually we all piled into my old truck and went over to a semi-seedy neighborhood behind the stockyards.
"The house was a shack, one of half a dozen tiny places clustered at the end of a dark road. Maybe they'd been little tourist cottages a long time before. But inside, the place was real nice, with phony tapestries on the walls and a lot of woody antiques.
"The Battery Man wasn't too pleased to see Robert, especially since Robert had been dumb enough to bring two strangers to his house. The Battery Man spoke to us in monosyllables: 'yeah, uh-huh, right.' He was small and wiry, with hooded eyes and a pointy black beard. Robert was visibly frightened, which didn't do much for my state of mind.
"On the other hand, the Battery Man's girlfriend seemed pleasant; she was a tall healthy blonde girl with big perfect breasts, which showed through her blouse, especially when she moved in front of one of the candles that were everywhere. I was sorta caught between being scared of the Battery Man and being fascinated by his girlfriend's tits."
Owen paused, gasping. I tried without success to imagine him as a lusty young man.
He went on in a thicker voice. "I guess part of the fascination was because Mandy was a little flat-chested. You know, she had a great ass, round and ripe and smooth as a peach, but those cute little bee-bite breasts. I thought they were beautiful, but she was always worrying they weren't big enough...." The old man trailed off, and I thought he might go to sleep, but after a minute he stirred, as if from a dream.
"Anyhow, we were getting more and more paranoid, when the girlfriend offered to make us some hot spiced cider. We all nodded and I guess my eyes were big as pies. 'Come in the kitchen,' she said and so I leaped up and trotted after her. My tongue was hanging out, probably. Mandy was right with me; she held my arm with both hands."
I stirred restlessly and Owen looked up at me, a faint twinkle in those sunken eyes. "O.K., John, I'm getting to the point of the story pretty soon now. On that old white-enameled kitchen table was about half a bushel of speckled pumpkinseed acid, thousands of tabs, spilling out of a big plastic bag. It looked like a sack of gold to us, and probably it was worth its weight in gold.
"The girlfriend seemed a bit worried all of a sudden, like she just realized she was being too hospitable. Careless. I glanced at the Battery Man, and he'd gone a little stiff. I thought I could see evil thoughts behind his eyes. Mandy was squeezing my arm, more from fear than from possessiveness now, and Robert looked pale under his blotches. Nobody said anything for a moment, then the Battery Man cleared his throat and suggested we go back in the living room until the cider was ready. 'Sure,' we all said, real quick. I could have sworn some dangerous message passed from the Battery Man to his girlfriend--and then she nodded.
"So we're back in the living room, sitting on the edges of our chairs, and no one's saying anything. The Battery Man's watching us like we're meat on a grill.
"The girlfriend calls from the kitchen, says, 'Help me with the cookie tray, would you, honey?'
"When he's gone, I lean over and whisper in Mandy's ear, 'Don't drink the cider, don't eat the cookies.' She nods. Robert looks over at us like he's wondering what's going on, but I don't say a word to him. He got us into this; let him get dosed to death.
"But what happened, John? We had to eat the cookies and we had to drink the cider, because both of them watched us like hawks. The cider was real good, with little curly sticks of cinnamon bark in the cups, and the cookies were homemade, butterscotch chip, I think.
"Our ears were buzzing with paranoia; I was almost dizzy, and I thought: whatever they've dosed us with is coming on. But it was just panic, John."
Owen took my arm in a surprisingly strong grip and raised himself a little. "That's the point, that's the point. In one of those propaganda films you people were always making, what would have happened? Eh? We'd have ended up raped and mutilated and murdered. The cops would have found us wrapped in bloody sheets, our legs sticking out of a dumpster in some alley. Right? Right?"
He released me and fell back on the cot. "All that really happened was we went home full of cookies and cider." His voice was soft.
After a while his eyes closed and he slept.
I thought about the old man's story. I remembered the beginning of the road I followed to this place.
I was sitting in front of the TV, watching the news. There was the usual story about the coming of the Big Dry, and then a story about Abdul Hamid, upscale crack dealer and AIDS vector. I watched cops in white decontam suits bring him out of his penthouse. He was shirtless, muscular; he didn't look like a dying man. He seemed swollen with dark energy, as if he might burst his manacles and fly away. His large beautiful eyes glittered. He grinned, showing strong white teeth.
The newshead's voice-over explained that Hamid had been arrested for crack distribution and felonious infection. He had cheerfully admitted trading drugs for sex. A datebook contained the names of two hundred young women. Secondary infections were estimated in the thousands.
I looked at my daughter, who was in her playpen playing with a string of big plastic beads, and a shudder of premonitory rage passed through me.
Then and there I decided to accept the speech-writing job lately offered to me by Stewart Carl, who was running for Congress on a tough-on-drugs platform.
Hamid died before they could execute him, but he outlived many of his victims.
In the night Owen woke raving. He thrashed about with uncanny energy, flailing at unseen enemies. He called out to them in wordless wheedling tones, as if begging for mercy. His ancient face looked like boiling oatmeal; his eyes were full of hopeless pleading. He didn't seem to see me.
After a while he fell silent and his breathing steadied.
Stewart Carl relied on me to furnish him with words, because he had none of his own.
Stewart Carl is nothing, no matter how high he has risen. He had the right face, the right body language--he looked good on television and that's why he's now acting chief executive of the United States. I suppose he'll hold that office for life. I can't imagine Stewart waking up one morning and deciding that the Emergency is over.
He'll live a long time, I expect. He has no vices.
I remember--with bitter regret--the day the old fisherman tried to kill him.
Stewart was just a junior congressman then, in the middle of his first term. Some months before, he'd managed to coattail himself into minor prominence by being one of six coauthors of the Drug Offenders Financial Deterrent Act, which substantially broadened the federal government's powers of seizure. A report had just appeared from the General Accounting Office, praising the Act's effectiveness in providing much-needed funds for enforcement, in tandem with a DEA report on the Act's effectiveness in flushing out drug criminals who'd attempted to take refuge in legitimate employment.
Stewart and I were celebrating beside my desk. I held a fistful of congratulatory media clippings. There was much praise for the boldness of DOFDA, the timeliness of DOFDA, the obvious necessity of DOFDA. Related stories detailed the obscenely sybaritic lifestyles of various bloated Colombian magnates. The reaction from Stewart's north Florida district was ecstatic: they hailed Stewart as a great statesman, battling the liberal bleederweeps for the hearts and minds of America's straying children.
I didn't yet have a full-time secretary, so the little man opened the door unannounced. He peeped diffidently into the room, saw Stewart raising a tumbler of non-alcoholic champagne.
"Mr. Carl?" he asked--though I'm sure he recognized Stewart.
Stewart frowned, lowered his champagne. "Ah...yes?"
The fisherman was dressed in an old-fashioned black suit, a little shiny at the knees and elbows, a suit he probably wore only to funerals. His face was full of that ruddy decay that comes from a life on the water.
As the old man came through the door, he straightened his arm, gave it a little shake, and a rod with a fat cylinder on one end dropped from his sleeve into his hand. He moved toward Stewart with a sort of glassy determination, obviously bent on murder. His weapon turned out to be a cut-down bangstick, a device used by divers to kill sharks--nothing but wood and high-density plastic, reloaded with ceramic shot, invisible to metal detectors.
Stewart made a bleating sound. As the old man approached, Stewart darted behind me. The fisherman tried to reach past me with the bangstick, but I slapped at it, knocked it away, and it detonated on the corner of my desk. A couple of pellets lodged in my calf; one hit Stewart in the foot. The old man dropped the now-useless stick.
I'll say this for Stewart: once the old man had taken his one shot, Stewart was a lion. He leaped over the desk and pummeled the old man to the floor, and then kicked him several times with his uninjured foot.
At the fisherman's trial, testimony was given that his deckhand had been caught in possession of marijuana. Under the "implied consent" provision of DOFDA, even though the deckhand had never brought drugs aboard his employer's vessel, the court had confiscated the old man's boat, ruling that the old man should have known that his employee was engaged in the sale or consumption of illegal drugs.
"It's not right," the old man had said. "It's not right to destroy a man for not being smart enough."
I attended the trial as a witness for the prosecution. It was an unsettling experience. The old man spoke with trembling dignity: Stewart was his congressman. He had not only promoted the law under which the boat had been taken, he had also refused to help when any fool should have been able to see how wrong the law was. What else could he do? Stewart had taken his life; he wanted Stewart's in exchange.
He was sentenced to death, as mandated under the new Violent Drug Offenders Act. When he heard the sentence, he stood silently, head bowed, all the fight in him used up.
Stewart's well-publicized bravery in subduing this assassin took him to the Senate three years later. The timing of the fisherman's execution--an excellent news peg arranged by Stewart's allies in the Federal Reformed Penal Division--helped put Stewart over the top.
Owen woke before dawn, lucid. His stirrings roused me soon after; I no longer sleep soundly. His voice seemed clearer and for a while I thought he might have recovered some strength.
"John," he said. "I'd appreciate a drink, if you'd be so kind."
I fetched a cup of rusty water.
He drank carefully, spilling only a little. "That was good, John."
He settled back against the bundle of rags that served him as a pillow. "Will there be breakfast this morning?" he asked brightly.
I listened to the shriek of the sandstorm. "No, I don't think so." The guards don't make their rounds when the sand blows; it's hard on their equipment.
"Ah." He didn't look very disappointed. "Well, too bad. I'll tell you another story, then, to pass the time 'til lunch."
"You've heard about Woodstock," he said, smiling toothlessly. "I know you have; all the old guys say they were there, except for me.
"Well, you know they weren't. But they saw the movie, and they think they know enough to pretend they were there, or else they wish they'd been there so much that they believe it now. I wasn't there; I was down in Mexico, pretending to be a smuggler. But that's another story.
"When the movie came out, I was over in Vietnam, loading naplam on airplanes. I went to see it half a dozen times when it was playing at one of the Da Nang base theaters. Awake or asleep, I dreamed about being back in the World and it was worse after I'd seen that movie, all those free happy people. I'd be out on the flightline in that pounding sun, and I'd turn my cap around so the bill hung down my neck. So my shadow would seem like the shadow of a guy who had long hair down past his shoulders. I'd look at that shadow and pretend to be someone else. Somewhere else.
"But this story isn't really about the movie, or about Vietnam, this story. Just a couple of weeks before I finally got on that freedom bird back to the World, Jimi Hendrix died. I overheard a bunch of brothers talking about it; they were standing around smoking Kools laced with heroin and telling each other that it couldn't be true, that Hendrix couldn't be dead. Their voices had that soft poppy comfortableness; listening to them I could almost believe it was just some publicity stunt.
"A month before, some kid I knew vaguely had bought a vial of liquid opium--runny dregs I guess--from one of the ARVN soldiers who hung around the barracks. The kid was showing it around the chowhall that evening, proud as a peacock, and the next morning when his roommate came off-shift, the kid was dead in his bunk. Drowned in vomit, same as Hendrix."
The old man's wandering voice rose and fell, and he paused frequently to get his breath.
"Now, when I was back in the World, and out of the service home visiting my folks, Woodstock came to the local drive-in. My little brother wanted to see it--my folks hadn't let him go when it first came out. Well, I told my dad it was a great movie, and it wouldn't hurt Billy. I talked him into letting me take Billy to see it. At the last minute, my dad decided to go along, in case it turned out to be godless commie propaganda or hardcore hippie porn, or something else that might warp Billy's soft little head.
"My dad enjoyed it, I think. Billy went to sleep in the back seat before it was over, but my dad was wide-eyed. He seemed real impressed by Hendrix, at the end, when Jimi played those vast crashing chords. That unearthly power."
The old man shuddered, and his eyes gleamed with some long-ago pleasure. For an instant he looked a great deal younger, and I almost wished I could feel what he was feeling. He sighed, then went on with his story.
"'How's he making those sounds?' my dad asked.
"'Just the guitar.'
"'He's dead, you know,' I said, trying to continue the conversation.
"'How'd he die?'
"'O.D.'d. Anyway, that's what I heard. Got so blasted that when he threw up, he breathed it in and choked to death.'
"'Jeez.' My dad was horrified, as much, I think, by the loss of that great talent--because how could anyone listen to that music and not hear greatness--as by the ugly way he died. 'What a waste,' my dad said.
"Well, I was always argumentative. 'Yeah, I guess so,' I said. 'But live by the sword, die by the sword.'
"'What the hell does that mean, Rob?" he asked.
"'Jeez, Dad,' I said. 'I mean... Purple Haze, it's dope music. Do you think Hendrix could ever have played it that way if he'd never dropped acid? Sure, he'd still have been a good musician if he hadn't been a head, but it wouldn't have been the same music.'
"My dad's eyes got funny, as if he were a little ashamed of me, and he said, 'Do you actually think it was worth it?' He looked away and didn't say anything else. Neither did I.
"But, John, it was worth it. I think back to that little guy with the opium, who died for nothing--that was a worthless death. Hendrix got something from drugs, he got a whole body of magnificent work, work that would never have been if he'd been a good boy. Sure, he died a miserable death and I wish he hadn't. But we're all dead in the long run."
His eyes bulged, strangely fervent, and a line of pink spittle ran down his chin. His chest heaved, his breath whisteled. His lips were tinged with blue. I thought he might die right then, but he didn't.
"What's your point?" I finally asked, after he'd recovered a little.
"My point is, my point is... John, you and I, we're dying from drugs, too. I'm like Hendrix, a little. I got something out of it: a strange and wonderful life, very different from the one I might have led, if I'd been a little more like you. I have a thousand wonderful memories....
"But you, John, what have you got? You're like that dopey little soldier boy, dying in his bunk before anything ever happened for him. I'm just saying it's not fair, for you.... The others here think you got just what you deserved. But you didn't. I'm just saying I'm sad for you."
He looked at me with thoe fever-bright eyes, as if he really were sorry. After a bit his eyelids drooped and he seemed to focus again on his own pain. He twisted slowly on his cot, groaning a little now and then. He was actually a very considerate roommate. Most of us go screaming and crying.
Finally he fell asleep.
I looked around the hut, my gaze sliding over the familiar decrepitude. The inner walls are cast foam, a scarred dun color; the roof is corrugated iron. In our eight-by-eight home are two bunks, two upright lockers, one chair. A ventilator sighs from the center of the ceiling, delivering somewhat cleaner, cooler air, which allows us to survive long enough to do useful work. The outer walls are steel, as is the door. A small television set hangs over the seatless toilet. Odd that we are allowed this diversion--it doesn't seem to fit the death-camp aesthetic. I suppose it's an inexpensive way to keep us content in our dying.
Our one channel shows nothing but old movies of the most innocuous sort. Now I watched one about resistance fighters in the Philipines during the Second World War. The film stock had a thick amber cast, as though the story took place in some jungly golden fairyland. The sandstorm's roar made the dialogue inaudible, but I didn't turn it up.
In the movie, one of the guerillas wore a black patch over his right eye, and I was struck by the potential awkwardness of it--he would be unable to aim his carbine from the conventional right-handed stance....
But then a firefight blazed up and I saw him with his patch over the left eye, blazing away comfortably.
After the engagement he spoke angrily (by his expression) to the colonel. The patch had migrated back to the right
In the next ambush the patch again covered his left eye.
For a moment, just for a moment, I was absolutely sure that this was more than coincidental ineptitude--that here was a message, though I couldn't read its meaning.
But there was no meaning, unless it's this: they are right about us. Our tainted minds are prey to dangerous fancies; we see meaning in empty things.
I shut my eyes tight. Slow tears seeped out. After a time I turned off the television and lay down to wait.
I woke from a dream of my former life. I remembered none of the details, just a sense of receding happiness.
My life was good in many ways. I had a beautiful and intelligent wife; she made a warm and comfortable home for us. My two daughters were charmingly precocious. As Senator Carl's chief aide and speechwriter, I had meaningful and responsible work. Stewart was appointed to the Senate's "New Approaches" Committee, a congressional cannon aimed at the accelerating drug catastrophe... and a safe rallying point for ambitious politicians like Stewart.
In that first year, Stewart, on my advice, got out into the field and made himself visible. We alternated between Capitol Hill and the darkest battlefields we could find. We went on "fact-finding expeditions" before the cameras of the hottest geraldos in the business.
In Tampa we went into a crack dealer's house and found a freezer full of bodies. At some point the dealer had strangled his wife and two little boys and folded them carefully to fit. He'd hidden his stash beneath the bodies, as if he had expected it to be safer there than under the frozen broccoli or the fish sticks. We got good footage of Stewart, handsome face pale, staring down into that icy tangle of blue-black limbs, wearing an expression of unbelieving horror. For all I know, his emotion was genuine, but with Stewart you could never be sure.
In Seattle we were present for the arrest of a woman who had set up a snuff palace, where the wealthy and badly bent could get high and kill someone. Most of the victims were Central American illegals, bought from a nearby sanctuary church. I've tried to forget the sights I saw in that place.
In the South Bronx, a vacant lot mass grave, full of one dealer's business rivals.
In Detroit a downtown cult, where the sacraments were heroin and human blood.
Stewart was there. We got good footage. His influence grew daily and he was credited with devising many effective new tactics in what came to be called the Good War. The list of his achievements is really mine; Stewart never had an original idea in his life.
We authored the Constitutional Exception Act, which allowed more expeditious investigation and prosecution of drug offenders...and which worked exceptionally well. Soon the prisons were bulging, murderers and rapists were being released at unprecedented rates to make room, and there was a mutter of discontent from the public. We converted that discontent into the Private Incarceration Initiative. Drug offenders could now be collared with explosive locator beacons and confined to rented housing for the duration of their sentence. If they could make a living at home, or if they had friends or relatives willing to pay their rent and bring them groceries, they often survived. If not, the law was unambiguous.
At first, terminal evictions were media events; public executions had returned to America. They soon became too common to attract special attention, though they continued to provide content for several syndicated cable shows.
Drug use declined dramatically, but still, many addicts defied our efforts. Then the big drug lords, who earlier had applauded our efforts to drive drug prices up, finally became worried. I suppose they'd thought the various enforcement agencies would always be their allies, would always preserve the symbiotic relationship that had been so good for both sides. But now the agencies fought the Good War with a kind of holy madness, with no thought of what their people would do once the war was won. The drug lords fought back, assassinating agents and judges and prosecutors.
Those were wonderful times for Stewart, and for me. Everything was going our way.
We designed the Neighborhood Informant Networks, which used the concept of weekly prizes. Technology came through for us, in the form of inexpensive miniature sniffers--which were eventually installed on every lamppost and telephone pole, and which forced the last users deep underground or out into the deserts of the Big Dry.
We closed the borders. The Air Force napalmed the coca and poppy and marijuana plantations. The DEA sent assassins to liquidate the drug barons.
We won the Good War.
Things weren't perfect; I guess they never are. Too many resources had gone into the war, we'd alienated too many other countries. The Big Dry was in full flower and food was short. The AIDS epidemic was gathering steam again, after the latest mutation.
Worst of all, we had used up all our scapegoats. Or so I thought then.
At some point I slept. When I woke it was dark and the storm was dying. Rob Owen lay on his back, staring at the rusty ceiling, as if he could see something interesting there. He was so still he might have been dead, until he spoke. "John? How am I?"
I thought he was raving again, but it was just his odd sense of humor, because he went on. "Not great, eh? Well, in a hundred years, it won't matter."
I sat up, coughing dusty phlegm. He turned his head to look at me and there was still pity in his eyes.
"John," he said, "if you'll bring me some water, I think I have one story left in me."
He drank a little of the water and looked up at me with an expression that was almost merry. "A story, then," he said. "Would you believe it? I've got a million stories you haven't heard yet--never will, now. But, last one's got to be a doper story too. Dope got us where we are today, right?" The old man's voice fell into an oddly formal cadence, as though he'd rehearsed his words a thousand times.
"I tried every high there was, when I was young," he said. "Some drugs were better than others. I was never much on speed--though once when I was down in Mexico I took a handful of black beauties and wrote a fifty-page letter to an old girlfriend.
"I always loved pot, but it wasn't a world-changer, if you know what I mean. And not good for the lungs." The old man coughed, made a rueful face.
"The poppy I was scared of. There's nothing better when you're sad or empty. Trouble is, it feels so good. Pretty soon you figure out a way to be sad and empty all the time, so I had to steer clear.
"Coke I could never really see the appeal of. You get a good buzz for a few minutes--you feel like King Kong--but afterward you'd know it wasn't true, if you had a lick of sense. And it was so expensive; for the price of a half-hour pump-up you could go on a trip that might change the way you saw your life. Acid, that was the real stuff, for me.
"So that's what I'm going to tell you about, John: a trip Mandy and I took together one night. Yeah, I saw the freezers full of bodies; I watched the evening news. But that was just one side, your side; and there was another side as beautiful as yours was ugly.
"The premier acid that fall was orange barrels, not quite as good as sunshine, but damn good. We split a four-way hit, up in that little Lincoln Street apartment, just the two of us, late in the afternoon. God, it was good, John. The rush had that sledgehammer head you got only with the best stuff. We had a poster on the wall across from the bed, the Cream. They had curly hair and paisley shirts and when the patterns started to wriggle, we knew we were coming on. A rush gauge, right? The patterns were swimming like a million tiny fish and Ginger Baker's eyes had sunk back into his head; he looked like a fleshy skeleton."
The old man was talking fast and breathless, hurrying. I felt a sudden stab of envy, that he had such a memory to retreat into, a memory intense enough to take him out of his failing body, away from here.
"You've never done acid, John, so I can't really tell you what it's like, but I'll try anyway. The world exists in pulses; visions come to you in waves--surf on the shores of perception. I said to Mandy, 'Jesus, maybe we should have chopped it again; this is heavy.' The room was full of cheap hippie decor, god's eyes and candles, posters and madras prints; now it was becoming alien, a room from the other side of the sky.
"We had a white husky mix named Fruitcake, and the dog seemed weirdly alert, every whisker standing sharp as needles, his eyes glittering with strangeness. Fruitcake must have sensed the unnaturalness of our regard and gotten freaked, but I translated his wariness into some more dangerous mood, so I got up and locked him in the kitchen alcove, poor guy.
"The surf was crashing, John, the surf was pounding. I was never so high, before or since. Our window opened on a fire escape, which overlooked the alleyway behind a strip joint. I watched a drunk tumble out the side door of the bar and crawl through the twilight to a wall he could huddle against, and it seemed an epic journey, a thousand years of struggle, in those soft gray-blue colors of dusk and old brick. I was ready to cry at the beauty of his persistence.
Owen looked at me, a slight smile twitching at his lips. "I know, John, foolishness, madness. But you can't know what it was like."
"No," I answered, and bitter regret scraped at me.
"I'm sorry for that," he said. "Anyway, when I turned away from the window, Mandy had taken off her clothes and was lying on the bed, looking like a naked golden Botticelli angel in heat. She smiled, she cupped one of her little breasts, then ran her hand slowly down her belly. She had beautiful long fingers. Each pulse of vision showed me a different, more perfect loveliness.
"When I went to her I must have looked a bit like Fruitcake, every whisker bristling.
"It seemed to last forever, every touch, every thrust bursting with sensation, so dense with pleasure... I can't tell you. I was so high I didn't know if I was mandy or Rob; I didn't know if I was being penetrated or penetrating. The boundaries of our selves meant nothing.... I don't know how many times we did it, but we were both sore the next day.
"That was the peak and then we knew we'd live through it. There's always a moment when you're sure you're going to die, if the acid is good enough, but that time, that time, we submerged the fear in little deaths.
"So there were still seven or eight hours left to enjoy. We listened to music, we laughed 'til our throats were raw, we made cookies for later, we pointed out pretty hallucinations to each other.
I remember looking at a book about wildflowers, illustrated with soft dreamy watercolors. I turned to a painting of a passionflower and it was a mandala, leading me deeper and deeper into some unvisited place of the mind. I saw into that painting a thousand miles. I can't explain to you what I learned but it made me better, more complete, happier.
"Years later I walked through a whole field full of passionflowers and none of them, for all their dewy pristine clarity, could compare with the one I saw that night."
The old man's face was a skull, skin drum-tight over the bone. He wasn't getting much breath.
"You can tell me more later," I said, though in truth I didn't want him to stop. I wanted the rest of his memory, second-hand though it was.
"Won't be any later, John; I have to hurry. At dawn we were coming down fast and there's this unpleasant thing about acid, a melancholy that comes with the physical exhaustion. The best thing you can do is get out and do something involving, something that forces you to maintain, so we decided to walk up to the Safeway on Colfax and get some breakfast stuff.
"It started to snow when we were halfway there and we were still a little strange. Walking through those thin drifting flakes, we met an old woman, out walking her old pug dog. Their faces seemed identical--crinkly and yellow--charming little antiques. Infinitely charming. Oh God...."
He stopped. His face glowed with light that didn't come from the hut's one bulb, and his chest didn't move for a long moment.
I stood over him. He saw me and the light went out, just like that, and he began to shout. "Sure, there were freezers full of bodies and worse, and maybe stopping those things was more important than the new worlds some of us got to explore. Maybe. But you'll never make me believe it! And look at us, Jesus, look at us...."
The old man was breathing like a faltering engine, shuddering, wheezing, cheeks sucking in, mouth full of blood. His eyes were stretched wide, as if to see everything, or maybe he was just fighting against the moment when his eyelids would sag no matter how much he wanted them to stay open.
"You should rest," I said.
He quieted, until each breath was like a sigh. "Yes," he finally said. "I'll rest."
He had lost all interest in me. His eyes shut. He didn't die right away, but I don't think he was ever really conscious again.
Now I remember my own moment, though it can't compare with his.
I was eighteen and no wiser than any other person of that age. I went to a party off-campus and drank too much beer, until I reached that wrapped-in-gauze stage of drunkenness. A young girl took my arm and led me to one of the back bedrooms.
I thought I had forgotten all this. I now remember it perfectly, a memory far clearer than anything that happened yesterday, or the day before, or on any of the endless days since I came to the camp.
She was beautiful, I remember. She had long black hair and her breasts were soft and white inside the loose neckline of her blouse. She held my hand to her breasts; I trembled with the pleasure of that contact.
When I pawed at the zipper of her jeans, she laughed and pushed me away. "Wait," she said, and produced a crumpled home-rolled cigarette. She lit it, eyes shining, and drew the smoke deep.
Her mouth was wide and red, one of those mouths that always look wet and always taste sweet. She said, "Take my breath," and put her lips to mine. I knew what she was doing but I didn't say no.
The next day I was terribly frightened, though not because of the pot--I'd been too drunk to feel anything from the drug--but because I couldn't remember if we'd used a condom. When I tested negative at my next checkup, I gave thanks and forgot.
I forgot for more than twenty years. I did good work and raised a family. I never again used an illegal drug.
Once I asked Rob Owen how he'd avoided arrest for so long, since he admitted freely to a long history of drug use. That was when he was still a strong old man, who looked like he might outlive all the younger inmates. He'd smiled, slapped me on the shoulder. "Why, John, I was just like you, in the end. I married again, started a business--we had children, two boys and a girl. I turned into Mr. Clean. I just had too much to lose, too many hostages to fortune. Hell, I haven't smoked a joint in twenty-some years."
We needed scapegoats, we really did. The country was sliding into ruin. The government was the largest employer and a large percentage of those jobs belonged to Good Warriors, who were no longer needed.
Once again technology came through for Stewart, who had a clear track to the White House if he could come up with one more good crusade.
A Good War thinktank discovered that the brain's receptor sites never forget, that their soft hooks are forever scarred by the not-quite-right shape of illicit molecules. They devised a simple test.
It became possible to tell if a person had ever used an illegal substance.
Stewart volunteered his staff for testing. Most of us came up dirty and Stewart converted that shock into the Unstable Persons Relocation Act.
And here we are.
In the morning the mirror-suited guards came to remove the body. They put it in a tight gray zipperbag, so that it looked like a pupating larva.
I remembered a thing he'd told me, not long after I arrived at the camp. "We were butterflies, once," he'd said, in a voice full of sad wonder. "But somehow--I don't understand it--we changed back into worms."
Copyright 1990 by Mercury Press, Inc. All rights reserved.
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