The Wish Bathers, Chapter Seven

Gilded Temptations Running in Circles

Chapter Seven

A fast tambourine bangs through the walls of my apartment and my head like the heartbeat of a curiosity that won’t go away. I search for the sound like a set of misplaced keys—under cushions, in cupboards, and drawers—only to find the still shadows of dust and random debris. That same tambourine continues while a vaguely familiar melody plays in the distance.

“Hello?” I say.

The music pulls me through the doorway and into a strange hallway. It has bright red carpet, tall walls decorated with hundreds of mirrors, and it appears to stretch as far as I can see. This is not what my apartment building usually looks like, so I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.

I walk down the hallway and into a large, pitch black room with gigantic, crystal chandeliers. A spot light shines above each chandelier. The air in the room is cold. The tambourine bangs again.

“Hello?” I repeat myself.

“Through the mirror of my mind, time after time, I see reflections of you and me.” A sudden spot light comes out of the darkness and shines on The Supremes, dressed in the same gown that I have on, and they are singing to me. Wait, The Supremes are singing to me?

The trio stands on a tiered stage that looks like the set on The Ed Sullivan Show. The applause of a live audience comes from the unlit parts of the room but a crowd is never revealed in the blackness. I am mesmerized by Diana Ross and her graceful charm and don’t even care that I’m in a world that makes absolutely no sense. I’m hangin’ with The Supremes, man.

“Hello, baby love. Do you know where you father is?” Diana says.

“You know my father?” I say. A loud siren disrupts our connection, and then I’m waking up to the sound of the telephone ringing next to my bed.

“Hey chick, did you see who’s on the cover of Rolling Stone?” Kat says.

“Who?”

“Joni Mitchell.”

“Man, that was weeks ago now. I think it came out around the Zeppelin show. There’s probably a new issue out already.”

“Oh, well, never mind. What are you doing?”

“Well, I was sleeping. But, anyway have you seen Midnight Cowboy yet? I hear it’s a ball.”

“Right on. Let’s go tonight.”

“Cinerama?” I rub the sleepy dust from my eyes.

“I dig it,” Kat says.

It’s been three weeks since the Grande night and I have been lost in a storm of uncool emotions. Kat, Greg, and Audrey’s sexual trinity quickly faded the next day after the magic of Quaaludes, and Boone’s, and reefer wore off. It was no big surprise to any of us, of course. I haven’t heard anything from Jazz or Sydney since that night and I definitely wonder if they’re ballin’, but maybe I don’t really need to know. The thought of them makin’ it just twists my mind and bends me in directions that are not comfortable.

On the bright side, the weather is getting warm and today the Motor City is hot; and I feel like having a date with a loosey downtown.

“Penelope,” Mr. Baxter’s eyes peer over the free press. He sits at the first counter stool so he can talk to the guy tending to the Coney dogs in the window.

“Thanks for the ride last time.”

“Oh, of course. I hope I didn’t upset you with talk of my son.”

“I don’t mind at all. What are friends for?”

“We’ve been missing each other at Aphrodite’s, I think. What have you been up to, young lady?”

“Getting into trouble.”

“Well, as long as it’s fun trouble. Is it fun?” He giggles.

“Some of it.”

“I say you must always have fun. Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know,” I say as I look down to my feet.

Ten minutes later, the place is packed for lunch—Coney dogs flying out every minute—and the long community table is bursting with laughter and commotion from all walks of life. The waiters are on top of every new customer and they take orders and tally bills with their sharp memory and smart minds; never wasting paper or pens or exercising their manly mental muscles.

“How’s yours?” Mr. Baxter says.

“Just what I needed today.”

“You know, I’m sorry I’m always blabbering away to you about my life. I don’t ask you enough about yours. Are you close with your family?”

“I’ve never met my old man and my mom lives in the city. I suppose we see each other in waves.”

“Have you ever tried to find your father?”

“I haven’t. I don’t know if I want to.”

“I hope he gets his act together. Any father would be proud to have you for a daughter,” Mr. Baxter says.

“Walter? Do you believe in the war?”

“I used to think I did, Penelope, but I don’t anymore. We were disillusioned in the beginning. It is not our war to fight.”

“Do you think they are really sending 25,000 home this year?”

“I hope so. Are you waiting for anyone to return?”

“Luckily, no.”

“Hey, what is purple and has conquered the known world?” Mr. Baxter puts his index finger up in the air.

“What?”

“Alexander the Grape.” Mr. Baxter laughs hard. “You know, I was thinking we could go for a walk since it’s such a nice day out.”

“That sounds like a grape idea,” I say.

You know, the thought of passing gas outside sounds safer for everyone,” he laughs so hard he holds his belly.

“Let’s cruise over to Eastern Market. I’ll drive. What do you think?”

“That sounds like a grape idea on this beautiful day.”

“How grape?”

“Alexander the grape,” we both say together.

The market is full of life and delicious things. Bountiful open stalls filled with the freshest ingredients—vegetables, fruits, spices, jams, honey, flowers, meats—line the aisles with smiles from toddlers, and grandmothers, and even some groovy heads in between. It has a neutral vibe where race and tension seem to be left behind and the local farmers can meet and greet the consumers of their labors.

“Do you need anything while we’re here?”

“I think I want to look for some honey. I haven’t been here since Mildred was alive. She loved this specific honey but the name of it has escaped me now. That’s what happens with age.”

“What?”

“Things escape from you—people, names, time, memories.”

“Is that hard?”

“It was at first, but now, it just feels like letting go. You can’t hold onto things if they don’t want to stay.”

“Fuckin’ A,” I get lost in my thoughts. “Oh, sorry, Walter.”

“It’s okay. I hear it all the time from your generation. You are a wild bunch.”

Mr. Baxter stops at a flower stall to smell a large bouquet of red roses. He pushes his entire face into the bouquet and takes a deep breath. The stall tender laughs at the sight of this cute old man stopping to smell the roses. The random passerby public also enjoys the view.

“Do you like roses?” I laugh.

“Mildred always wore rose perfume. It’s the closest thing I get to a hug now.” His eyes go distant and sparkly for a moment.

“Do you want to buy them?”

“Oh no, then I have to watch them die.”

“So, what was your son like?”

“He was a smart kid. He loved music and reading, too, and was the sweetest little boy.”

“Have you looked for him?”

“Penelope, I am too old and I can’t run around the city like I used to. He knows where I live. What about you?”

“I definitely run around this city.”

“No, I mean, why don’t you look for your father?”

“I don’t even know his name and it’s a difficult subject to discuss with my mom.”

“Ah, yes. Someday you will figure it out.”

“Walter, maybe things always escape us, no matter what age we are.”

“Perhaps, Penelope, perhaps.” He begins whistling and then stops when he sees something ahead. “There it is.” A jar of clover honey shines in the sun like a viscous jackpot.

“Is that the one you wanted?”

“It sure is.”

“It seems like Mildred is around today.”

“But, of course. She is always around.”

***

“So, what do you think Joe Buck is going to do in Florida?” Kat says. Midnight Cowboy is behind us.

“Man, that was depressing. I think he’ll find a way to beat the system.”

“Even if he ain’t a fo’ real cowboy?” Kat says in her best southern drawl.

“Yeah, because he’s one helluva stud,” I say.

“That party looked groovy, though, man. Does the Motor City have parties like that?”

“I bet we can find one. Dragonflower?”

“Let’s smoke some grass before we go in,” Kat says.

I pull into the Dragonflower parking lot and start rolling a joint. Carmelita is in the rear view mirror walking towards us. She looks upset and slightly intoxicated with the way she stumbles in her stiletto heels.

“Hola,” she knocks on the window.

“Hey Carmelita, how are you?” I say. Her face goes into a slow motion frown as tears well up in her eyes and mascara runs down her cheeks; disappearing underneath the curve of her chin and then plummeting into her scandalous chest. The right person could be envious of such tears.

“I am garbage,” she leans on the door and sticks her head into the car.

“Who are you?” Kat says.

“Sorry, this is Carmelita. That’s Kat,” I say.

“Mucho gusto,” Carmelita says. “You the next bitch in line?”

“What is she talking about?” Kat says.

“What’s going on?” I wonder.

“No love for me anymore. He’s grooming his next bitch. I’m the top bitch, you know, not that gringa. Darryl is all I’ve got.” She cries and falls back onto the ground. “You tell him chinga tu madre.” She slaps the pavement with her hand, sobbing, and then screams, “TELL HIM!” I get out of the car to help her, but she doesn’t want it.

The Gardener is calm at the front of the line; hands behind his back in a non verbal position of power, wearing an agnostic facial expression. The line before him is short and chatty and moving slow.

“Is Jazz working tonight?” Kat asks.

“I don’t know. When was the last time you talked to her?”

“Not since the Grande, I guess. You?”

“Same here,” Kat says with a sigh.

I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who is being ignored, or dare I say, betrayed. Inside the club, Greg and Jazz are doing their thing behind the bar. The vibe is bumping and the dance floor is packed.

“Hello, hello,” Greg says.

He glances at Kat in the honor of social graces trying not to be awkward but it is for everyone. I imagine something uncomfortable happened during their free love escapade the night of the Grande. I’ll wait until Kat’s had a few drinks before I start asking questions.

“So, how’s life, man?” I say.

“Life has been golden, you know, just busy,” Greg says.

Jazz stands next to him very quietly. She’s got a glistening gold necklace with a diamond circle pendant hanging from her neck. This is alarming for two different reasons: she does not wear gold and she does not like diamonds. I have no idea what to think.

“So, where have you been?” I stare at her pendant.

“I’ve been working a lot,” Jazz says.

“Is that how you bought that necklace?”

“This thing?” She grabs the chain like it’s a piece of ratty string, “It’s really old.”

“Are you still making that orange martini?” Kat interrupts. “I could use a drink.”

Greg hurries to combine the ingredients and serve her request up and chilled before any more weirdness is exchanged between them. It’s his non verbal way of smoothing the prickly feelings hanging around. A couple guys slide into the stools next to us just as Greg puts two martinis down on the bar. One of them has thin, combed hair and is dressed in a formal suit and the other has a shaved head and a bright colored shirt.

“I’ll be right back,” Kat says.

“Come on, Greg, spill the beans.” I say.

“Man, I just don’t know what to do.”

“About what?”

“It’s been weird since we all, you know, and I think I’m really into Audrey, man. I thought I was gone for Kat but me and Audrey, man, we just clicked. Has Kat said anything?”

“I know nothing.”

“Man, I’ve been worried,” Greg says.

Kat returns to her stool. I watch Jazz slip away from the bar and disappear into the crowd. The guys next to us are drinking gin and tonics and talking about Midnight Cowboy.

“Did you dig it?” I say.

“What?” the shaved head says.

“The movie. Did you like it?”

“Wasn’t Dustin Hoffman brilliant?” the suit says.

“I wouldn’t want people calling me Ratso, either,” Kat says.

“It’s pretty raw, man. New York is like that at night,” the shaved head says.

“How do you know?” the suit says.

The dude with the shaved head says he likes the movie, sips his gin and tonic, and then turns to the suit to discuss something else. Kat orders two more drinks and we head for our usual spot on the couches. We sit for a while and listen to the music before striking up anymore conversation. I’m dying to know about the Grande night and I can’t wait any longer.

“So?” I say.

“So what?” Kat says.

“What’s going on with you and Greg? That was weird.”

“Oh that. Something happened. I feel like he cast a spell on me.”

“What kind of spell?”

“Something clicked in me and I totally dig him now. He’s just so charming.”

“But he’s not Jewish.”

“He’s practicing. That counts, right?” She rolls her eyes.

“Whatever you say, Miss Stein. Are your folks still on your case about dating?”

“I’ve been burying myself in books and haven’t talked to them much lately.”

“Education is a productive distraction. Keep it up.”

“Do you think he’s into me?” Kat whines.

I can’t answer her question because then I’d be indulging in her annoying behavior. Maybe it’s rude, but anyway, Jazz hasn’t returned from wherever she disappeared to and Greg is working hard behind the bar by himself. The suit and the bald head drink their gin and tonics, and the more I watch them, the more I recognize the bald head; not the actual bald head, per se, because I don’t really know anyone with a bald head, but his profile reminds me of someone I used to know.

“Do you think they are midnight cowboys?” I say.

“Haha, I don’t know.”

At that moment, the suit grabs the bald head’s hand underneath the bar top and holds it like only a lover would do. He then slides up and takes a big squeeze of the bald guy’s butt cheek before he covertly returns to his drink. He probably thinks no one noticed.

“Scandalous! Oh my god, I think they’re coming over to us,” Kat says. The bald headed guy makes eye contact with me.

“Hey Penelope, please tell your mother I am deeply sorry,” the bald head says. “And for the record, I didn’t want to get you that bike.”

This news hits me hard. No wonder I recognized his face. I remember his profile from him sitting in the moving truck the day he left our house. Now I see he probably did my mother a favor leaving since he’s clearly into men.

“Who was that?” Kat says.

“Fuckin’ A. That was my step father.”

“Really? Maybe that was the guy your old lady caught him with.”

“Let’s go smoke some grass, man.”

I head for the hallway. Audrey meets us at the front door just as we’re about to go outside. She is dressed in a long, yellow kaftan and looks like an African queen. The night air is warm and friendly and strangely enlightening. A very hmm worthy night, isn’t it?!

In the mix of motor vehicles, Darryl leans over Jazz pressed against the Cadillac with one hand on the car and the other hand on her diamond pendant. They are too close for my comfort and are completely oblivious to the three of us walking by. We can only hear fractions of mumbling, lewd dialogue, but their body language is certainly easy to understand.

“I got a linotype job at the Free Press,” Audrey says and distracts me from Jazz.

“Right on. How’d you score that?” I say.

“It’s an internship for school.”

“Cool.” Kat says.

“Where’s Sydney?” Audrey says.

“I forgot to tell you that Simon called me the other day,” Kat interrupts like a thought fart.

“What? What did he say?” I say.

“That he misses me.”

Is she serious? Well, Simon really knows how to test my gag reflex more than anyone else, although Jazz is working hard for second place. I am at a cross roads and I don’t know what to do because, either way, I’m an asshole. No one likes the messenger or the snitch and I can’t survive on pleading the fifth forever. Or maybe I can.

“It’s never good to recycle the past,” I say. “Ditch that thought right now, man.”

“Yeah, sister, you don’t need him,” Audrey says. “He doesn’t deserve you.”

“He’s messing with your mind, you know,” I remind her how charming he is.

“Can we go back inside now?” Kat says.

***

One of the most peaceful times during the day is when I get into Aphrodite’s at 7am and the whole restaurant is empty. The echoes of laughter and conversations have faded, the hum of the coffee machines and kitchen appliances are gone, and there is a tranquility that fills the emptiness right before I turn the imminent switches and buttons to wake the place for a brand new day. Wake up, Aphrodite’s, rise and shine. The neon lights buzz and the coffee machines gurgle and things gradually start moving.

Pam and Deb arrive thirty minutes after I do to help me finish the opening tasks. Deb’s mouth is purple when she walks in. The death breath twins are cheery this morning.

“You drink Faygo this early in the morning?” I say.

“No, why?” Deb says.

“Uh, man, your teeth are purple.”

“Yeah, I know. They are stained. They’re always like this.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No problem. Most people don’t say anything. I completely forget sometimes.”

“You forget what?”

“That my teeth are purple.”

“That’s surprising.”

“It is?” Deb says.

Pam and Deb go back into the kitchen to punch their time cards. I continue sweeping the dining room floor. That familiar waft of cologne floats past my nostrils, again, and I know the boss is around somewhere.

“You better sweep the floor right this time,” the boss says.

I return to the mound of dirt on the floor and find his creepy, gold bracelet twinkling through the dust. I pick it up fast and put it in my pocket. If he asks about it, and I’m having a nice streak, I’ll give it to him. However, if he doesn’t say anything, I might just pawn it downtown for the money or give it to a stranger. By now, his fancy piece of jewelry is payment for my emotional anguish.

At 8 o’clock on the dot, Greg stumbles into a booth by the window, yawning and rubbing his eyes for an extended amount of time.

“Morning sunshine!” I say.

“Hey man.”

“You’re up early. Didn’t you close the club?”

“Yeah, but I thought you would like an early visitor.”

“Really? You don’t just want my advice?”

“Okay, man, maybe that too.”

“What happened after I left last night?”

“Sydney came in.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah and Audrey spent the entire time trying to score with Kat.”

“What is it about Audrey?”

“I don’t know, man. Kat makes me feel mediocre. I’ll never speak Yiddish or be Jewish and she just seems so perfect. Audrey doesn’t make me feel that way.”

“Did you talk to Sydney? I haven’t seen him in weeks,” I say.

“I didn’t because he and Jazz were in the middle of something deep.”

They were in the middle of something deep? Like, what exactly? Maybe I’ll ask Greg if he knows anything. Wait, maybe that’s not a good idea and I’m just being paranoid. I don’t know. Is this what happens when you, uh, really like someone?

“So, no more Yiddish or satin hats?” I blurt out.

“No, man, I’m over it. I can’t do it anymore.”

“Good to know your limits, Greg. What do you want for breakfast?”

“What happened to her mouth?” He laughs at Deb.

“She likes grape Faygo.”

“Okay, so, have you heard of any moon parties? It’s finally going to happen next month. Can you believe it?”

“No. Breakfast?”

“Right, sorry. I’ll just take eggs and bacon.”

“Groovy. Coming right up.”

I swivel around and head for the kitchen. I also need to go brew another coffee pot and collect myself. I know he’s not responsible for my scattered, possibly ridiculous, feelings. Weird ideas just invade my mind. Time-outs help. Pushing that ‘brew’ button also helps.

“Mr. Baxter was asking about you the other day,” Pam says.

“Yeah, I know. We hang out sometimes.”

“And do what?” Deb says.

“That’s none of your business. Go get your five bucks.”

“Man, that Sirhan guy didn’t get the gas chamber like he was supposed to.” Greg says. His face is stuffed into the crease of a newspaper. “What a load of shit.” He slaps it closed and puts it on the table.

“Sirhan Sirhan. What kind of a name is that, anyway?” I say.

“I believe it’s Jordanian.” Greg says.

“Right. Well, do you have a TV we can watch the moon landing on?” I switch subjects.

“I don’t but we have one at the club and I think Sydney has one. Maybe you need a little of my advice?” Greg says in a serious voice.

“Do I look that desperate?” I say.

“Hey, man, be nice.”

“Eat your eggs,” I put his plate down on the table. “And what advice could you possibly have for me?”

“Man, you gotta relax, you know. You’re like all wound up all the time.”

“Excuse me,” the boss abruptly grabs me and pinches my funny bone all the way into the kitchen.

“You’re hurting me. Cut it out!” I say.

“Listen,” he moves his hand down the side of my hip, violating me, and then points the same hand at my face. “I’m watching you.”

“Is that what your people call molesting?” He raises his hand as if he is going to smack my face but then runs his fingers through his stupid hair instead. “You know, Mr. Boss, you really should be thankful for all the business I bring into this grease pit. If they all knew how you treat your employees they wouldn’t come back. I’ve been here for years doing great work and establishing a strong camaraderie between Aphrodite’s and the guests.”

“Insubordinate waitresses are easy to come by,” he says.

That’s it. He’s not getting that precious, gold bracelet back now. His behavior is so gross. I need to get out of here.

“You can take the negroes,” Deb twirls the straw in her purple mouth. I guess she’s one of those people. I look over at the table to see Audrey and Josephine.

“Those negroes are my friends,” I say. “And if you have a problem, I’ll take all the negroes from here on out. Money has no skin color.”

“Did you get the money?” Josephine’s voice carries across the room.

“No, ma, daddy says he doesn’t have any more.”

“Is that what daddy says?” Josephine snaps.

“Hi you two,” I say. Josephine doesn’t recognize me. Audrey reminds her.

“I see,” Josephine says. “Pardon me, of course, but all you white folks look so similar,” she sticks out her hand to shake mine but positions her hand like I should kiss it and curtsy instead.

“You just missed Greg,” I say.

“Bitchin’.” Audrey sighs. “He’s been crowding my vibe lately.”

“Is Greg a nice, independent, black man?” Josephine says.

“What do you think?” Audrey says.

“Baby, I don’t know why you are wasting your time with these white folks.”

“Ma, you have to ask yourself the same question. I am white.”

“Don’t speak to me like that, child. The good half of you is black.”

“Uh, should I go or did you want some food?” I mumble in between their fight.

“I do apologize. I’m late for an appointment,” Josephine stands up, dusts off her outfit, and walks out of the building.

“Man, I’m really sorry about that,” Audrey says.

“No sweat. I get it. It’s cool if she hates me.”

“She hates me, too, so don’t sweat it. And I’m starving.”

Audrey picks up a menu and scans the options. I can see the disappointment in her eyes as she processes her mothers’ harsh words. It doesn’t feel good. She doesn’t even need to explain.

“Rice pudding always makes me feel better,” I say.

***

I drive up Woodward Ave to meet my old lady for lunch at Hedge’s Wigwam. The first time I saw Hedge’s I was 8 years old and I thought the place was a magical Indian temple. The building has a gigantic teepee on the roof and several Indian statues lining the perimeter. It’s different from all the other restaurants in town and I always got flutters in my stomach when I could see the teepee in the horizon and know we were near. I still do.

The inside of the restaurant is rustic and everything is made from wood. There’s Indian art hanging on the walls, covering the floor, and a cool gift shop with all sorts of ethnic charm. The tables are glass top with moss and butterflies pressed underneath like the prettiest science exhibits in picture frames. It wasn’t until I got older that I started thinking those beautiful butterflies were actually just poor, dead bastards killed for beauty and put on display in a twisted museum. Looking at dead bugs while you eat a delicious meal is a weird thing. Still, something is always special about it.

“Hi honey,” Valerie says. “Pot pie today?”

“Mom, the chicken pot pie is the best in town.” And it is. I look down at my steaming cup of coffee and relish in another part of the Wigwam charm. The coffee cups are decorated with a teepee that looks similar to the one on top of the building and the simplicity of the style is so homey.

“How is life, dear?”

“Life is great, mom.”

“Are you seeing anyone these days?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Penelope, I really wish you would settle down and do something with your life.”

“You mean, get married and have kids and buy a house with a white picket fence?”

“Honey, you make it sound so awful. I just know you have so much potential and you aren’t getting any younger, you know.”

“I’m only 25. Times are changing now, mom. I’ll be fine.”

“Well, how is work?”

“Steady and busy most days, so that’s groovy. I am looking forward to getting out of there soon.”

“What do you think you will do next?”

“I’m not sure but I want to do something different. I need an adventure. How are you?”

“Things are nice. I have my weekly bridge meeting and I’ve just joined a knitting circle. The neighborhood is quiet these days. You should come over for dinner sometime soon. Oh, and I meant to tell you that I’m sorry for leaving so abruptly the last time I was at your place. You just caught me off guard, I guess.”

“Mom, I don’t even know his name.”

“Your father?”

“Yes, mom, who else would we be talking about?”

“Most people called him Jack but to me he was always Jacky.”

Did she just say Jacky? The tone she uses sounds so foreign. It just makes me realize how disconnected I am from the man that makes up half of who I am, and to that woman sitting across from me that once loved him. Life is so weird.

“Do you have pictures of him?” I say.

“I have them somewhere packed away in a box.”

“Why haven’t you ever showed me what he looks like? I’ve never seen one picture.”

“I guess I was trying to protect you.”

“From what?”

“Penelope, do we really have to talk about this?”

“I feel like I’m old enough to know now. Can you please just tell me what is going on?”

“Your father had different priorities and they weren’t right for us.”

“Wait, they weren’t right for us, or they weren’t right for you?”

“Honey, you don’t understand how hard it is to raise a child. You were so little and I had to put you first. I had to make sacrifices.”

“What did you do?”

“I made him choose.”

“You gave my dad an ultimatum?”

“I had to.”

“You always ruin everything, mom. I can’t believe you did that.”

“Listen, I’ll be right back. I must use the powder room.”

My mother always excuses herself at the best times. The chicken pot pie is as tasty as usual but my appetite is lost, so I dig into the crust with my fork in search of something other than filling my empty stomach. Who is my father and what did he choose? What could possibly make him leave us, or selfishly, me? I am not impressed with this scenario and I don’t know where to stand. Are some people just wired so that they can make such decisions more easily than others? Is it because men don’t give birth so they feel more detached from their children?

I have so many questions, too little answers, and unreliable and absent sources to consider. All of this leaves me staring at the poor butterflies underneath my unwanted food, hoping that I may find some answers in their delicately, conserved wings.

“Hello, foxy,” Sydney voice pulls me away from the butterflies.

“It’s been awhile. How are you?”

“I know. I’m sorry about that. This is Will,” Sydney says, pointing to the guy next to him. “He’s my best friend I told you about in Vietnam. He got back a few weeks ago and we’ve been catching up.”

“Groovy. Glad you made it home.” I say.

“I heard I missed you at the club the other night,” Sydney says. “Let’s hang soon.”

“That would be cool. Greg was asking about moon parties. Do you have a TV?”

“Yeah, I do. It’s small but it will do the trick. Hey man, can you do me a favor? Can you give this to Jazz? I’m sure you’ll see her before I do and I think she’ll want it back.” He pulls that gold necklace with the circular diamond pendant out of his pocket and puts it in my hand.

“Of course,” I say.

“And who are these lovely gentlemen?” Valerie comes back just in time, of course.

“Sydney and Will, this is my mom.”

“Hello, Mom,” Sydney shakes her hand.

“Please, that makes me sound so ancient. Call me Valerie. How do you all know each other?”

“Will and I have been friends for years and he just got back from Vietnam.”

“Thank you for serving our country, Will.”

“I’m glad to be home. There’s nothing but bullshit happening over there, man,” Will says.

“Well, I never—” Valerie squeaks.

“It was nice to meet you. I’ll call you later, Star,” Sydney says.

Sydney and Will bug out of the Wigwam faster than a dream catcher catches dreams. I feel like such an idiot. Why didn’t I just give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was just busy instead of ignoring me? I mean, okay, so I have a little bit of an active imagination. My mother doesn’t seem to be too impressed, either.

“You are spending too much time with those long hairs, my dear. I hope you aren’t taking the drugs, too.”

“What did Jacky do for a living?”

“He was an accountant. Can we talk about something else now?”

“Are you giving me an ultimatum?”

“I think you definitely got his sense of humor,” Valerie says. I am stunned by her statement because now I understand a part of him, and I guess, me.

“So he was funny?”

“Well, some people found him funny.” She giggles and rolls her eyes like a squirmy teenager. I’ve never seen her this way.

Suddenly, my chicken pot pie is fuckin’ delicious, my old man is funny, and I’ve got gold and diamonds in my two front pockets. I feel like the ‘x’ that marks the spot that keeps moving around. Will I eventually be found by a band of pirates, or wait, pimps? I scarf down four more bites and then surrender to the remaining pie goop.

On the way back to my pad, I pull off into Palmer Park to ponder my life at the duck pond. It is a beautiful day and I’m feeling weird and the duck pond is quiet and the wind is warm. The wind is the kind of warm that makes me want to take off all my clothes and go skinny dipping, however, today I will refrain from soaking in copious amounts of duck poop and save this feeling for something else; something more liberating.

I step out of the bug and head for the water. There are three people sitting Indian-style on a blanket near the ponds’ edge and one of them is totally familiar. It’s the swinging amber pendant that gives him away.

“Hi Country,” I say.

“Hey man,” Country takes a huge drag off of a joint. “Do you want to seek the truth?”

Whoa, I need to seek the truth. That’s a complicated road for me right now. I didn’t expect to find this adventure at the duck pond of all places. And everyone says this is the place to be at night time. What do they know?

“I’m Harmony,” the woman says in a faded voice behind a pair of round, blue glasses. “Welcome to the truth.” She falls back onto the blanket after exhaling three powerful puffs.

“What’s your name?” the Princeton cut, straight looking guy says.

“Right man, you came with Sydney. Far out! How was your trip?” Country blows dope smoke into Harmony’s mouth very seductively.

“It was a blast, man.” I feel like I’m flying now. “So, what’s your bag?” I look at the straight guy for an answer.

“You know, the revolution and the experience, man,” he tokes and then chokes.

“Gotta cough to get off,” Harmony sits up and then falls back down, laughing hysterically.

“We should be making love, not war,” Country says profoundly, but funny.

“You can find the love right here, baby,” Harmony pulls Country down on top of her and kisses him. A few minutes later, he resurfaces for air and then takes off his shirt.

“Man, let’s pretend this blanket is a magic carpet ride to seek the truth,” Country’s chiseled muscles are tempting and his laugh is dangerous. He’s got the energy and charm of Fritz the cat.

“Only in our vulnerable nakedness can we find what we are looking for,” Harmony says. “Don’t you want to know the truth?”

Within minutes, we are flaunting our birthday suits like we’re advertising possibilities. Country hands each of us our own joint, because at this point, who wants to share, right? So we kick back and puff together while we bask in our naked glory and try to get there. Our nakedness becomes less sexual and more about openness and I find that having everything exposed cuts through so many psychological levels that we usually spend too much time in.

“Are you there?” Country says.

“I am there,” Harmony giggles.

“Where are we?” I say, laughing hysterically.

Sunbathing in the warm air with these strangers is something I’ve not done before. It feels a little awkward without Sydney but I’m not doing anything wrong. The sunshine on my breasts is worth it. I think I need to do this more often. Our group liberation party is quickly interrupted when a pig greets us with expected enthusiasm.

“No fornicating in public parks, you hippie bastards,” the pig says.

“Man, we’re just sunbathing,” Harmony says.

“Oh shit, all right,” Country stands up. “Keep it cool, man.” His truth seeking parts dangle in the wind.

“Your indecency is taking a toll on the children,” the pig points to the cars and the small crowd of distant spectators. “I should take you down to the station.”

Country remains calm and collected and pulls the pig into a deep conversation of power struggles and race issues while we gather our clothes and get dressed. By some esoteric charm, Country manages to level with the pig and avert proper lawful obligations. I take this as a sign to split before the mood changes and I’m hearing my rights and sitting in the back of a swine mobile. That’s not the truth I’m looking for so I hustle over to Gloria and make it out of the park and back to my pad before the pig even realizes I’m gone. Penelope Custer: 1; the Man: 0.


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