Then the river—we sped across a concrete span, past barges and fishing boats plying a broad conduit and confluence of waters. Admired the sweep and flow of her in the morning light, felt the tug of her continental significance, whereof history and commerce, a continual fluid border between one region and another, a line cleaving East and West, future and past. Whereas I was Mid-Western, an inhabitant of a kind of Middle Earth by way of woods and hills and running streams out of an American Gothic and this river was her running boundary, illuminated in lace and filligree of green leaves of old trees and water park flowers. A strong mother of gods, a father of waters, maker of men who had come exploring ... trapping, trading and killing, missionary conquerors whose names were made places like Lafayette and LaSalle. Did their spirits hover over these waters, and were they now reconciled with the natives whose annihilation they had foretold, just as their clay was enfolded in the constitution of the land? Were they even now watching over us, me and my Huckleberry friend? Rock on, mighty river, in all your green finery, while we trace the steps of our forebears, race headlong on a hundred horsepower drive down the highway to Chicago, city of broad shoulders and reputable poets.
—What are you thinking about? Jack wanted to know.
—Wondering what I'm doing with my life, I told him, heavy sigh.
—You are now entering Illinois.
—Do you think it's a sign?
—That would be welcome.
—You really can't help yourself, can you?
I had precious little money. A bum of the autodidactic, nonconformist, anti-authoritarian type, I'd paid my dues up through the next millenium. Along with legions of backpacking hippies, I'd renounced the material world, earned cultivated friends. I’d made acquaintances among learned persons, erudite madmen with whom I could discuss matters intellectual, scientific and aesthetic. Or just hang out, get high, and listen to tunes. And yet there was always the question of money, and of what was owed. I guess it's true like the song says, you can only fool yourself.
But then there was Jack. I'd known Jack since our student days when, emboldened by a golden Sunday morning in October, amid much smoke and thunder, he'd started up his big bad motorcycle in his dorm room. Now that had been a great noise. He'd torn down his bike and put it back together again all by himself, this honest to goodness angel headed hipster, who'd rode his renovated wheels up three flights in our building to pick up a girlfriend before roaring out of Dodge, leaving in his wake an audience of cheering fans and one resident authority figure who seemed a tad put out, if also somewhat amused by the whole thing, so she was cool. But then, you could not look at Jack but smile. He turned heads, he knew it, and he took it all in stride like some free wheeling Mr. Natural, you know? Jack cut a swell figure, plowed a deep furrow through the local subculture. Our gang on north main couldn't get enough of this latecomer who'd been camping out in the woods all this while, living out by the reservoir until a bunk had opened up. (Owing to a ridiculous and much discussed drug overdose on the part of a young dweeb who'd decided to push the envelope of psychedelia by way of a half-dozen doses of a popular hallucinogen and ended up enlisting in an obscure eastern religious sect, or the army, or both, shaving his head, acquiring multiple tattoo’s and taking off for parts unknown.
Jack and I had run together off and on throughout our college years. Mostly we partied, our social circles oddly cycling us through one another's orbits. I laughed the first time I'd heard his last name (Plowman) apologized, said it suited him, laughed again, higher than Jesus.
—What's your last name, Jack?
—Plowman, he replied, slowly lifting a beer to his mouth.
—Excuse me? I inquired.
—My last name.
—Your last name is ... Plowman?
—You put all that together yourself?
—Sorry! I don't mean to be disrespectful. So tell me, Jack ... Ha ha ha! Sorry!Ha ha ha!
—You very funny man! Ha ha! Very funny! Stop! You killing me! he pleaded.
In the here and now I had to smile. Amid miles of farm land in bloom and what with me all grown up into a young writer, tooling down the open road in a sweet little red sportscar, being free and unconventional and all that crap in the company of my excellent good bud ... what good would worrying do? Better yet, what could possibly go wrong?
Jack was easy as anything to get along with. In all the time we'd hung out together we'd never even really had an argument, though we argued all the time.
—I thought we'd stop in Chicago and check out Randy, said Jack.
—Yeah, you know, Randy?
—Shit. I mean, sure; yes! We are acquainted, Randy and I. You could say we are known, one to the other, said I.
—Randy's not your favorite person in the whole world, is he?
—He reminds me of Chinese water torture. No, I take that back. He reminds me of unrelenting Chinese water torture.
—But what do you really think? pressed Jack.
—He has his good points, continued Jack, seeking a conciliatory note.
—O, yeah, charming as the devil, that's what makes him interesting: Smart, rich, hip, Randy's just too cool. Yes, indeed, quite the piece of work, our Randy. Nor am I the least bit envious, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't so much as consider the possibility.
—Ahhhhh, Jack intoned, slightly bewildered, doing his level best to take all this in.
—Of course he thinks I'm too strange for words.
—Imagine that, was Jack's lament.
—It's protective coloration: When I get threatened I get weird.
—You must feel awfully threatened.
—Have I done my Christ-on-the-Cross routine for you recently?
—Maybe Randy feels threatened by you, suggested Jack.
—I sincerely hope so. You don't have any large guns with you, by any chance?
—Jack ... I've never even raised my voice in years.
—Yeah, well . . . you're a pretty big guy, sometimes that can be intimidating.
—Why, thank you Jack, it so happens that I ama big guy. Of course, it's my sensitivity as a human being that really drives the chicks wild. That, and the fact that I am hung like a bear.
—You know, that's good, Guy. I was just thinking, the last time I was in Chicago was for the convention.
—Quite the segue, there, Jack.
—Did you like that?
—Very much. Was this a literary convention?
—No, you know, the Democratic? 68?
—I saw the movie: THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING. Did you ever see Medium Cool?There's this scene where our hero, who's a big city dude and his old lady, who's a sweet innocent young thang from the country ... they're making their way through this disco and there's all these hippies decked out in their glad rags, and strobe lights going and that Frank Zappa song that goes "every town has got a place where phony hippies go to meet /psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street." Ha ha ha! I thought that was funny. Like Marshall McLuhan on acid, mannnnn.
—I don't think I ever saw that. Wow, that's amazing.
—Kind o' shoots the hell out of that for a conversational topic. What's amazing?
—How many words you can string together all at one go.
—I am quite garrulous, but I make up for it by being unusually loquacious.
—So, what are you saying?
—Nothing! It's the way I say it! he said confidently. Never mind. We will brook no babbling! Your turn.
—No, your turn to talk.
—O! Yeah, well ... anyway, I don't know think my buddies were actually planning on overthrowing the government; it was more like a big street party that kind of got out of hand.
—Like, everybody was having a riot. A lot of people were up in arms back then. O, the passion! The youthful idealism! Gone! On the morning wind! Sometimes it all seems like a sad joke.
—Doesn't a joke usually imply a humorous ending?
—Jack, you're really pushing my buttons here.
Gradually at first and then more quickly we were borne along on the highways, the major arterial routes that fed the city, bearing us inevitably into heavy traffic. Chicago was over an hour away but I was already there, preparing for our descent with overblown expectations of big time revelations, earthbound blues and the gangster mind below, in the streets and alleys of a dusky village, long time gone down to a cancerous blight on the land, exhaling an excretory haze, now looming on the horizon. I came to see her abstract towers, her fell and fallen powers, drifting beyond tragedy like a wasteland kingdom on a smudge of smog. But that was, perhaps, a too dark vision. Of what was, at the end of the day, an immense and thriving community. With sunlight glinting bright off soaring glasswork, stone, and steel matrix ... a geometric future world muscled up by burly brown construction workers. Raised by scheming money men in honor of their gods.
This was all a big mistake.
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