Penguin BooksCopyright © 2004 T. Coraghessan Boyle
All right reserved.ISBN: 0142003808
The morning was a fish in a net, glistening and wriggling at the dead blackborder of her consciousness, but she'd never caught a fish in a net or on ahook either, so she couldn't really say if or how or why. The morning was afish in a net. That was what she told herself over and over, making a littlechant of it-a mantra-as she decapitated weeds with the guillotine of herhoe, milked the slit-eyed goats and sat down to somebody's idea of porridgein the big drafty meeting room, where sixty shimmering communicantssucked at spoons and worked their jaws.
Outside was the California sun, making a statement in the dust and sayingsomething like ten o'clock or ten-thirty to the outbuildings and thetrees. There were voices all around her, laughter, morning pleasantriesand animadversions, but she was floating still and just opened up a million-kilowattsmile and took her ceramic bowl with the nuts and seeds and raisinsand the dollop of pasty oatmeal afloat in goat's milk and drifted through thedoor and out into the yard to perch on a stump and feel the hot dust invadethe spaces between her toes. Eating wasn't a private act-nothing was privateat Drop City-but there were no dorm mothers here, no social directorsor parents or bosses, and for once she felt like doing her own thing.Grooving, right? Wasn't that what this was all about? The California sun onyour face, no games, no plastic society-just freedom and like minds, brothersand sisters all?
Star-Paulette Regina Starr, her name and being shrunk down to fouressential letters now-had been at Drop City for something like threeweeks. Something like. In truth, she couldn't have said exactly how long she'dbeen sleeping on a particular mattress in a particular room with a carelesswarm slew of non-particular people, nor would she have cared to. Shewasn't counting days or weeks or months-or even years. Or eons either.Big Bang. Who created the universe? God created the universe. The morning is afish in a net. Wasn't it a Tuesday when they got here? Tuesday was musicnight, and today-today was Friday. She knew that much from the buzzaround the stewpot in the kitchen-the weekend hippies were on their way,and the gawkers and gapers too-but time wasn't really one of her hangups,as she'd demonstrated for all and sundry by giving her Tissot watch with thegold-link wristband to an Indian kid in Taos, and he wasn't even stating ather or looking for a handout, just standing there at the bus stop with his handclenched in his mother's. "Here," she said, "here," twisting it off her wrist,"you want this?" She'd never been west before, never seen anything like it,and there he was, black bangs shielding his black eyes, a little deep-dwellingIndian kid, and she had to give him something. The hills screamed with cactus.The fumes of the bus rode up her nose and made her eyes water.
She'd come west with a guy from home, Ronnie Sommers, who calledhimself Pan, and they'd had some adventures along the way, Star and Pan-likeLewis and Clark, only brighter around the edges. Ronnie stopped foranybody with long hair, and that was universally good, opening up a wholeworld of places to crash, free food, drugs. They spent one night in Arizonain a teepee with a guy all tanned and lean, his hair tied back under a snakeskinheadband, cooking brown rice and cauliflower over an open fire andswallowing peyote buds he'd gathered himself in the blinding white hills."Hunters and gatherers," he kept saying, "that's what we are," and everytime he said it they all broke up, and then Ronnie rolled a joint and she feltso good she made it with both of them.
She was still chanting to herself, the leaves on the trees frying right beforeher eyes and the dollop of oatmeal staring up at her from the yellowishgoat's milk like something that had come out of her own body, blown out,vomited out, naked and alive and burnished with its own fluids, when ashadow fell over her and there he was, Ronnie, hovering in the frame of herpicture like a ghost image. "Hey," he said, squatting before her in hishuaraches and cutoff jeans, "I missed you, where you been?" Then he waslifting her foot out of the dust, her right foot, the one with the fishhook-shapedscar sealed into the flesh as a memento of her childhood, and hekissed her there, the wet impress of his lips dully glistening in the featurelessglare.
She stared at her own foot, at his hand and his long, gnawed fingers, atthe silver and turquoise rings eating up the light. "Ringo-Pan," she said.
He laughed. His hair was getting long at the back of his neck, spilling likestring over the spool of his head, and his beard was starting to cohere. Buthis face-his face was small and distant, receding like a balloon swept upinto the sky.
"I was milking the goats," she said.
Two kids-little kids-blond, naked, dirty, appeared on the periphery,flopped down and started wrestling in the dirt. Somebody was banging atambourine, and now a flute started up, skirting and stopping and liftingaway like birdsong. "Good shit, huh?" he said.
Her smile came back, blissed-out, drenched with sun. Everything wasalive everywhere. She could feel the earth spinning like a big ball beneathher feet. "Yeah," she said. "Oh, yeah. Definitely."
* * *
And then it was night. She'd come down gradually through the course of along slow afternoon that stretched out and rolled over like a dog on a rug,and she'd worked in the kitchen with some of the others, chopping herbs,onions and tomatoes for the lentil soup and singing along to the Airplaneand Country Joe and the Fish. Somebody was passing a pipe and she took ahit or two from that, and she'd kept a fruit jar topped up with Spaqada rightnext to her throughout the cooking and the washing up and the meal thatwent on like the Last Supper while a guy named Sky Dog or maybe it wasJunior Sky Dog played acoustic guitar and sang verses he made up on thespot. The blond kids from the morning were there, naked still, lentil soupstreaking their torsos like war paint, and there was a baby in a wicker papoosestrapped to the back of a gaunt tall woman with eyes that were liketwo craters sunk into her head. People were everywhere, people she'd neverseen before-the weekend hippies up from the city-and her brothers andsisters too. Smoke rose from joss sticks, from grass and hash threadedmeticulously from hand to hand as if they were all collectively stitching aquilt in the air. A pair of rangy yellow dogs sniffed at people's feet and thrusttheir snouts in the bowls that lay scattered across the floor.
Star was perched up on a throne of old couch pillows in the corner, alongwith Ronnie and a new girl whose name she'd forgotten. She wasn't feelinganything but tired, and though the whole thing-the whole scene-wasfantastic, like summer camp without the counselors, a party that never ends,she was thinking she'd had enough, thinking she might just slip off and finda place to crash and let the sleep wash over her like a dark tide of nothing.Ronnie's leg lay across her own, and she could just barely feel the new girl'shair on her shoulder like a sprinkle of salt or sugar. She closed her eyes, letherself drift. The music began to fade, water sucked down a drain, waterthat was rushing over her, a creek, a river, one pool spilling into the next ...but then one of the kids let out a sudden sharp wail and she came back to themoment. The kid, the little boy with his bare abdomen and dangling partsand his missing front teeth that gave him the look of a half-formed littleghoul, slapped something out of his mother's hand-Reba, that was hername, or maybe it was Rena? He let out another shriek, high and mechanical,but that was the beginning and the end of it, because Reba just held ajoint to his lips and then sank back into the pillows as if nothing had happened.
Nothing had. No one seemed to notice or care. Sky Dog had been joinedby a second guitarist now, and they were working their way through thesteady creeping changes of a slow blues. A topless woman no one had everseen before got up and began to hump her hips and flap her enormousbreasts to the beat; before long, a couple of the commune's more or lesspermanent members rose up from the floor to join her, swaying in place andsnaking their arms like Hindu mystics.
"A tourist," Ronnie said, the syllables dry and hard on his tongue."Weekend hippie." He was wearing a Kmart T-shirt Star had tie-dyed forhim on their first day here, orange supernovae bursting out of deep pink andpurple galaxies, and when he turned to the new girl the light behind himmade his beard translucent. "You're no tourist," he said. "Right, Merry?"
Merry leaned back into the cradle of his arm. "I am not ever going back,"she said, "I promise you that."
"Right," Ronnie said, "tight, don't even think about it." Then he slipped hisfree arm around Star's shoulders and gave her a squeeze, and "Hey," he wassaying, caught up in the slow-churning engine of the moment, "you want tomaybe go down by the river and spread a blanket under the stars and make it-justthe three of us, I mean? You feel like it?" His eyes were on the dancingwoman, up one slope and down the other. "Would that be righteous, or what?"
And here was the truth: Star didn't feel like it. Nor, despite what she'dtold herself, had she felt like it that night in the teepee either. It was Ronnie.Ronnie had talked her into undressing in front of the other guy-or no,he'd shamed her into it. "You don't want to be an uptight bourgeois cuntlike your mother, do you?" he'd said, his voice a fierce rasp in her ear. "Ormy mother, for shitsake? Come on, it's all right, it's just the human body, it'snatural-I mean, what is this?"
The other guy, the teepee guy-she never knew his name-just watchedher as if she were a movie he'd never seen before. He was sitting there yogastyle, the very avatar of peace and love, but you could see he was all woundup inside. He was intense. Freakish, even. She could feel it, some sort of badvibe emanating from him, but then she told herself she was just being paranoidbecause of the peyote. So she lay back, crossed her legs at the anklesand stared into the fire. No one said anything for the longest time. Andwhen she looked up finally the teepee guy's eyes were so pale there were noirises to them, or hardly any, and Ronnie rolled a joint and helped her offwith her blue denim shirt with all the signs of the zodiac she'd embroideredup and down the sleeves and across the shoulders, and he was in his shortsand the teepee guy-cat, teepee cat, because Ronnie was always correctingher, you don't call men guys you call them cats-was in some sort of loincloth,and she was naked to the waist. The firelight rode up the walls and thesmoke found the hole at the top.
"Just like the Sioux camped on the banks of the Little Bighorn, right,man?" Ronnie said, passing the joint. And then time seemed to ripple a bit,everything sparking red and blue-green and gold, and Ronnie was on top ofher and the teepee guy was watching and she didn't care, or she did, but itdidn't matter. They made it on an Indian rug in the dirt with this cat watching,but it was Ronnie, and she fit the slope of his body, knew his shouldersand his tongue and the way he moved. Ronnie. Pan. From back home. Butthen he rolled off her and sat there a minute saying, "Man, wow, far out,"breathing hard, sweat on his forehead and a tiny infinitesimal drop of itfixed like a jewel to the tip of his nose, and he made a gesture to the teepeecat and said, "Go ahead, brother, it's cool-"
Outside, at the main gate to the Drop City ranch, there was a plywoodsign nailed clumsily to the wooden crossbars: NO MEN, NO WOMEN-ONLYCHILDREN. That was about it, she was thinking, nothing but children, Showand Tell, and show and show and show. Ronnie's arm was like a dead thing,like a two-ton weight, a felled tree crushing her from the neck down. Thebig topless woman danced. Got to keep movin', Junior Sky Dog was singing,movin' on down the line.
"So what do you say?" Ronnie wanted to know. His face was right there,inches from hers, the pale fur of his beard, the dangle of his hair. His eyeswere fractured, little ceramic plates hammered into the sheen there andthen smashed to fragments. She said nothing, so he turned to Merry, andStar watched the new girl's face.
Merry had her own version of the million-kilowatt smile, wide-mouthedand pretty, and she was all legs in a pale yellow miniskirt that looked as if ithadn't been washed in a month. She looked first to Ronnie, then staredright into Star's eyes before letting her gaze drift out across the room as ifshe were too stoned to care, but she did care, she did-Star could see it inthe self-conscious way she ducked her head and tugged at the hem of herdress and the dark indelible line of dirt there where she'd tugged at it athousand times before. "I don't know," she said, her voice nothing but air.And then she shrugged. "I guess."
The two blond kids were dancing now, the vacant-eyed boy of four orfive and his little sister, watching their feet, no sense of rhythm, none at all,the boy's little wadded-up tube of a penis flapping like a metronome to anotherbeat altogether. "Cool," Ronnie said. And then he turned to her, toStar, and said, "What about it, Star, what do you say?"
She said, "I don't think so. Not tonight. I'm feeling-I don't know, weird."
"Weird? What the fuck you talking about?" Ronnie's brow was crawlingand his mouth had dropped down into a little pit of nothing-she knew thelook. Though he hadn't moved a muscle, though for all the world he was thehippest coolest least-uptight flower-child cat in the universe, he was puffinghimself up inside, full of rancor and Ronnie-bile. He got his own way. Healways got his own way, whether it was a matter of who he was going to balland when or what interstate they were going to take or where they were goingto spend the night or even what sort of food they were going to eat. Itdidn't matter if they were passing through Buttwash, Texas, the Dexamilwearing off and eggs over easy the only thing she could think about to thepoint of obsession and maybe even hallucination, he wanted tacos, hewanted salsa and chiles and Tecate, and that's what they got.
"No, come on now, don't be a bummer, Paulette. You know what theKeristan Society says, right there in black and white in the Speeler? Huh?Don't you?"
She did. Because he quoted it to her every time he felt horny.